Babylon

Album: White Ladder (1998)
Charted: 5 57
  • This song is about a guy whose girlfriend has left him. Once he realizes he has allowed fear to block his path to love, he decides he wants her back.

    David Gray, who was 30 years old when the album was released, was married at the time and was writing in character. In a Songfacts interview with Gray, he explained: "There's a feeling in that chorus of 'let go of your heart, let go of your head' that's striving. I'm trying to express something but I don't really know what it is, and as the years have gone by, in a way that's the central theme of the record: this act of surrender. 'Surrender at all costs,' if I may come up with a quote."
  • "Babylon" is a great word to sing and loaded with historical significance. The ancient Babylon was a major city in Mesopotamia located in what is now Iraq - the Hanging Gardens Of Babylon are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But in the context of this song, it refers to London, which in Victorian times was considered the modern-day Babylon.

    "It's a London record, the whole of White Ladder is, and that's a London song," Gray told Songfacts. "So, rather than saying 'London,' I said 'Babylon.' It fitted basically, and often you have to say something because it just fits the song. And I was then panicked: What does Babylon even mean? I started looking it up in dictionaries and I even rang my father-in-law who was a very knowledgeable man, and he said, 'London was called Babylon. Yes Dave, don't worry, that's true.' And I said, 'Right, I'm going to go with this.'

    It was just something I did instinctively because I absorbed that piece of information. I panicked a bit afterward thinking, am I making a fool of myself, talking rubbish. You've got all those dub songs as well that reference Babylon - reggae and dub, it's in there a lot - and for the kind of decadent times we live in, I guess that's what I was saying."
  • The guy in the song goes through a weekend, with each day - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - introducing a new verse. This is what Gray calls a "mathematical" approach to songwriting (Billy Joel did it on "You May Be Right"), but it's done with a great depth of feeling.

    "I've come to reflect on that song and realize there's something that resides in it that has a sort of confessional power, so I'm speaking to myself while addressing the listener," he said in his Songfacts interview. "What other way is there to live but to surrender? Do we really believe in reason? You've got to let go, there's something much bigger. So I've come to appreciate that it has a depth of feeling even though the slightly mathematical songwriting approach I took perhaps belies that.

    The beauty is in the music of words themselves, the balance of sibilance and weight, and the onomatopoeic phrasing, the things that just ring, the words that just feel right in the lines, and 'Babylon' really has that. The lyric dances over the melody, and it has this wonderful feeling of two things intertwining very, very naturally, like the tendrils of a vine creeping up a fence. It had this sense of entanglement and entwining that felt very lovely and very natural when I wrote it. But that song was written in stages - it didn't all deliver itself in one go. I had to unpick the puzzle of the chorus, which took quite some time."
  • The song is built on an acoustic guitar figure, but there's a lot going on around it. Gray's producer, Iestyn Polson, used a sampler to process the clicky beat that plays throughout the song and ran the piano through a vocoder to give it an electronic sound. Keyboards, bass and drum samples were added to round out the track, which hit a sweet spot between organic instrumentation and machine-generated effects. It was all done in Gray's home studio on an 8-track digital recorder.
  • In America, "Babylon" is by far David Gray's best known song, but it didn't catch on there until two years after it first appeared in Ireland. Gray made an impression in his native UK with his 1993 debut album, but in Ireland it had a much bigger impact. Following up proved challenging: His next two albums flopped and he was dropped from his label. When he recorded the White Ladder album in 1998, it was at his own expense and seemed like his last shot. Gray pressed 6000 copies and distributed them in Ireland in November 1998, where it got an enthusiastic reception and eventually became the best-selling album in Irish history. He distributed a single, "Please Forgive Me," in the UK, which made #72 in April 1999, earning him a deal with the British label EastWest to release White Ladder in that territory. "Babylon," released as a single, went to #5 in July 2000.

    In America, the album got the attention of Dave Matthews, who was starting his own label, ATO Records. Matthews signed Gray and made the album the first release on ATO in 2000. Gray, who had been promoting the album for over a year, came to America to introduce it there, starting the cycle all over again. He started off as a support act for Matthews, but quickly built enough of a following to tour on his own headling small venues. At every stop, Gray did promotion, often appearing at radio stations to play "Babylon," which was the single. From city to city, he build an American following. In February 2001, "Babylon" reached its US chart peak of #57 and White Ladder was certified Platinum.

    Years of performing "Babylon" and answering questions about the song took a psychic toll on Gray, who stopped playing it for his own mental health. "There was no feeling left, it was just a husk of a song in my mind," he said.

    After some time away from it, Gray reintroduced the song and reclaimed it. It's one of his favorites, but he doesn't want to play it like a jukebox on repeat.
  • Gray recorded a different version of this song, sometimes referred to as "Babylon 2," for the US single release. This version also got its own music video. The original video, directed by Kieran Evans, takes place around London, with shots of Gray in the Tube. The second video is set in America.

Comments: 23

  • Ed from New Cumberland, PaThis song is one of my all-time favorites. It is poignently sad, and hopeful at the same time. As for interpretation, I agree with Paul, Tony, and Anna. It seems to me to be about a sudden leaving and surprise return interwoven with the metaphor of ancient Babylon. It saddens me that people judge the song on the basis of the biblical record, and slant, on Babylon. Paul and Tony take opposite approaches: Babylon representing the place of exile-like experience of being left by a lover (who later ends the exile by returning vs. the historical record of Babylon the great and prosperous city city that eventually crumbles... yet both of their interpretations work. But, Anna, you nailed it: it's about a girl! Thank you, Mr. Gray.
  • Rob from Maple Grove, MnI was reminded of this song (from the late nineties) while waiting at a Long Island Rail Road station in Jamaica, New York a few years ago. The city "Babylon" was displayed on the board as the train's final destination. While I understand those who believe the song is written with an air of "Babylon" in the biblical sense, for some reason I am always drawn to believe he's in Babylon, Long Island, in early fall. The piano and acoustic guitar are beautiful. I can almost picture David Gray driving, heading towards the city and thinking about his lost love - determined to rekindle the flame.
  • Jason from Upper Darby, PaI suspect David Gray is a fan of Squeeze because they had an album called 'Babylon and On', and I think it is in reference to that pun that he wrote the song.
  • Anna from Hemel Hempstead, United KingdomI love this song! I think that it is about a girl who has left him over the weekend, she leaves him friday(lights green to red) and returns on sunday (turn around to see you smiling there in front of me)great song, a classic!
  • Gentle Fluter from Perth, AustraliaCould be he is saying "Babble on"
  • Jr from Easington, United KingdomThis song has absolutely nothing to do with Israel and the bible at all.
  • Paul from New Orleans, La, LaI have a different theory. David Gray knows a lot about the Bible and the history of Israel. He uses "Babylon" in this song as a symbol of "exile" which is was for ancient Israel, and also for him and his girlfriend. Just as the people of Israel suffered 70 years in a concentration camp in ancient Babylon (500 miles from Jerusalem and then ruled by King Nebuchadrezzar) and longed to go home to their loved ones back in Jerusalem, so Gray feels separated from his loved one and longs to be reunited. And just as the Israelites eventually got to go him (after Nebuchdrezzar died) so Gray gets his girl in the end of the song. Israel had a happy ending after a long separation, and so did Gray. That's my theory, and I'm sticking to it . . . .
  • Kara from Wichita, KsIn the Bible, Babylon was also looked upon and is the representative for everything evil.
  • Kevin from Birmingham - England, United KingdomClassic song by a musical genius !
    Nicky in new haven,no-one ever said it was about "Babylon" the place.As for being 2nd rate,you really must be deaf or stupid or both!
    Go and peddle your 2nd rate thoughts somewhere else!
  • Rob from Wilkes-barre, PaThis and Ventura Highway by America are great summer driving songs.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesNOTHING happened to David Gray - he is still going strong!
  • Lisa from Fort Worth, Txyeah adrian....what DID happen to david gray?
  • Tony from Oshawa, CanadaBabylon (an ancient city that no longer exists)was compared to Utopia. It was wealthy, modern, and ahead of it's time in the ancient world. It was considered to be a powerful and perfect place. Ironically, it fell under it's own weight (greed and power).

    I believe David Gray uses babylon as a metaphor for a strong and seemingly perfect institution (his relationship) which eventually crumbles and falls apart.
  • Julie from Freehold, NjI just love everything about David Gray...from his voice to his lyrics...He's amazing...I think this song is about messing up with his girl friend or a girl and then realizing how foolish he has been and wanting her back...I think maybe he goes into the town of Babylon in one point of the song...like he's walking through the town thinking about it and wishing she was there...Oh I love him!!
  • Chris from Glasgow, Scotlandbabalon is my fav song ever. love it. why try make sense of lyrics and say thats what they mean and thats that. each song has a different meaning to each different person. to me its about going out on the town on a weekend. makes me smile each time i hear it.

    chris m from scotland
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScGood song. We don't much of his music in the States.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesSince my last post, David has scored two more UK hits with "The One I Love" and "Hospital Food". He is now one of the biggest-selling musicians of all-time in the UK having just gone to No.1 for the third time in his career with his eighth album "Life In Slow Motion". As for Nicky, David has continued to remain popular over Europe despite the fact that the media have doone absolutely noything to help his cause. Like him or not, he is a talented songwriter, though as lyricists go he's no Bob Dylan - but then what modern songwriter is?
  • Nicky from New Haven, CtRead the lyrics and you will see that the song has nothing to do with the ancient city of Babylon or anything even related to it. It's about a guy and a girl breaking up and reuniting - nothing more. This is just a cheap attempt to develop a catchy phrasing to peddle his 2nd rate song.

    "Babble-On" is more like it.
  • Elizabeth from New Orleans, LaThis song has one of the best lines ever, the one where he's climbing up the stairs and turns around to see her smiling there in front of him. I love this song.
  • Ted from Pembrokeshire, WalesSolva is actually located Nr St Davids in Pembrokeshire West wales
  • Tamar Elizabeth from Murrieta, CaDavid Gray is a musical genius. I love him. One day we will be wed.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesDavid Gray was born in Manchester, but he lived in Solva, a small village near Cross Keys in South Wales, until he was 25. This was the first of seven big UK hits for David Gray between 2000 and 2003 - the others were "Please Forgive Me" (no relation to the Bryan Adams song of the same name), "This Years Love" (from the popular film", "Sail Away", "Say Hello Wave Goodbye" (a cover of the Soft Cell classic), "The Other Side", and "Dead In The Water". While his fourth album "White Ladder" took nearly two-and-a-half years to make No.1 in the UK, the follow-up (2002's "A New Day At Midnight") hit the top spot after just one week on release!
  • Adrian from Merthyr Tydfil, Alwhat happened to david gray?
see more comments

Billy Joe ShaverSongwriter Interviews

The outlaw country icon talks about the spiritual element of his songwriting and his Bob Dylan mention.

Marc Campbell - "88 Lines About 44 Women"They're Playing My Song

The Nails lead singer Marc Campbell talks about those 44 women he sings about over a stock Casio keyboard track. He's married to one of them now - you might be surprised which.

Brandi CarlileSongwriter Interviews

As a 5-year-old, Brandi was writing lyrics to instrumental versions lullabies. She still puts her heart into her songs, including the one Elton John sings on.

Band NamesFact or Fiction

Was "Pearl" Eddie Vedder's grandmother, and did she really make a hallucinogenic jam? Did Journey have a contest to name the group? And what does KISS stand for anyway?

Wedding Bell BluesSong Writing

When a song describes a wedding, it's rarely something to celebrate - with one big exception.

Boy BandsFact or Fiction

From NKOTB to 1D, how well do you know your boy bands?