Writing about Prefab Sprout is a bit like trying to grab armfuls of fog once you get beyond the band’s years as alternative pop icons in the mid -1980’s. The Sprouts have continued in some shape or form without regular releases or tours and had probably dropped off most people’s radar by the 1990’s. Yet 2009 saw the release of ‘Let’s change the world with music’, the first album to be released under their imprimatur since 2001’s ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’.
For all that, and despite the fact that bandleader Paddy McAloon has become more eccentric and idiosyncratic with the passing years, Prefab Sprout have a place in many people’s hearts for the wit and intelligence of their songs and their absolute refusal to conform to any trends other than the ones they set themselves. They were – and remain – one of the most easily identifiable bands of their era and, if anything, are hugely underrated in their own homeland.
Of course, for all the solid contributions of Paddy’s brother, Martin, not forgetting Wendy Smith, Neil Conti and long-time collaborator and producer Thomas Dolby, Prefab Sprout really stand or fall by the quality of Paddy McAloon’s songs – and right from the get-go, many of those songs were special.
The Sprouts were part of the early 80’s post-punk explosion where new bands seemed to be coming out the woodwork every week. Aside from all the bands that we all know, there were many other hugely promising bands that never quite made it – Silent Running, The Lucy Show, Personal Column, Blue in Heaven… there were just so many of them competing to get up there with the likes of Simple Minds, U2, The Bunnymen, The Smiths, New Order et al.
The first self-released Prefab Sprout single from 1982 was called ‘Lions in my own garden, exit someone’, which struck me as being an insanely clumsy title until it was explained to me by someone who claimed to be ‘in the know’ that Paddy’s girlfriend had left him to go and live in the French city of Limoges….well, you can figure the rest of it out, I’m sure. After that, the Sprouts signed to the new Newcastle-based Kitchenware Records, who were swallowed up by Columbia (neé CBS) Records in fairly short order. The North-East was hip for the first time in a dog’s age and the Sprouts and the Kane Gang were flying the flag for the area. The band’s first major break came when they were filmed for Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’ in a gale on a clifftop, as I recall, miming to ‘Don’t sing’ , one of the songs from their inaugural LP, ‘Swoon’, released to considerable acclaim in 1984. It was a pretty short album, but there was enough there to suggest that here was a band with something special, something different.
Early Sprouts in Hamburg
I was living in Newcastle at the time, and Prefab Sprout were adopted as local heroes by many. A dead giveaway was that a lot of girls liked the Sprouts. Musically, there was none of that male rage or fret-bending nonsense, but instead a series of romantic songs framed in semi-acoustic settings that showed off Paddy’s lyrics to their best advantage. I didn’t love the album unequivocally; there were some misfires, but equally, the best songs – ‘Don’t sing’, ‘Cruel’ and (in particular) the marvellous ‘Elegance’ were like nothing else around, despite the attempts of the press to bracket Prefab Sprout with the likes of Glasgow’s Orange Juice and the other Postcard bands, not to mention Lloyd Cole. I could see the connection, but McAloon ‘s songwriting alone took Prefab Sprout to a whole new level; the voguish ‘sensitive’ stance adopted by some of these new troubadours seemed like a flag of convenience for many, but not for the Sprouts; they meant it, maaaan.
‘Cruel’ was probably the song that made so many of us sit up and take notice, quite simply because the lyrics completely bypassed the conventions of traditional romantic songwriting in favour of an approach that reflected the new post-modern, post-feminist world we were all growing up in….and struggling with.
“Should a love be tender, and bleed out loud?
Or be tougher than tough, and prouder than proud.
If I’m troubled by every folding of your skirt,
Am I guilty of every male inflicted hurt?
But I don’t know how to describe the modern rose,
When I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes.
With the fever of purple prose.”
(‘Cruel’ © EMI BLACKWOOD MUSIC INC.)
Musically, ‘Cruel’ tapped into older traditions. There was just a hint of bossa nova in there, evidence that the band and Paddy Mc. in particular were drawing their inspiration from further afield than most. Wendy Smith’s high soprano descants only fuelled the air of vulnerability and romance in the songs.
‘Swoon’ was a promising start, but also in some ways a difficult album to get to grips with in terms of the internal dynamics of the songs. There were traces of pure gold, but overall, it was a patchy album. Even at this stage, there was a feeling that maybe Prefab Sprout needed someone who could embellish and tweak the band’s sound to provide the best framework for McAloon’s lyrics.
It was at this point that Thomas Dolby enters the picture. He had already had some chart success on his own and was perceived and promoted as a kind of techno-geek who was more comfortable with machinery than with human beings. When Kitchenware put out ‘Don’t sing’ as a single, Dolby was on a panel of ‘critics’ on a BBC radio show where guests were invited to pass comment on the new single releases from that particular week. As Dolby tells it, he hated everything he heard until -about two-thirds of the way through the show- the DJ played ‘Don’t sing’. For Dolby, it was love at first listen and he enthused wildly about the song on air. Unbeknownst to him, assorted Sprouts were tuned into the show and it wasn’t long afterwards that he got a call from the band’s management asking him if he was interested in producing them.
A trip up to the McAloon retreat in rural County Durham soon followed, where Paddy allegedly sat on a bed with a guitar and played Dolby song after song that he was pulling out of a huge pile stashed under his bed. Paddy has since described ‘Steve McQueen’ as ‘Thomas’ album’ because Dolby effectively chose the tracks that he liked, which McAloon duly demo-ed with an acoustic guitar, this becoming the ‘pot’ of songs from which the final tracklist for ‘Steve McQueen’ was selected.
This was a marriage made in musical heaven. ‘Steve McQueen’ is the Sprouts’ finest hour and right up there as one of the best albums released in the 1980’s. Dolby’s understanding of how best to frame McAloon’s tales of thwarted romance immediately gives the album a kind of continuity and overall feel which ‘Swoon’ lacked. The (sometimes) lush arrangements also help to make clear for the first time McAloon’s true antecedents – forget about Lloyd Cole and Edwyn Collins – Paddy’s real inspirations came from a far older school – Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson, George Gershwin.
A few years back, Dolby was invited to remix/remaster the album for a Columbia Legacy edition and the label threw in a second disc of recently re-recorded solo versions of the ‘Steve McQueen’ songs featuring just McAloon with his acoustic guitar, so we can hear what Dolby heard back in 1984, albeit filtered through Paddy’s years of subsequent experience. 1980’s productions tend to have a pretty bad rep these days and whilst it’s true that the cavernous drum sound popularised by Phil Collins destroyed many a promising recording, that really isn’t an issue here; the production is perfect for the songs and whilst there are many who shudder at the thought of Fairlights and synthesisers, the arrangements are never allowed to dominate the performances or obscure the lyrical intent. If the re-recorded versions are McAloon’s way of apologising for Dolby’s 80’s production, then he is doing both Dolby and himself an injustice because the original version of ‘Steve McQueen’ still sounds fine to this day.
Kitchenware/CBS obviously thought so as well because they made massive attempts to turn the first single from the album – ‘When love breaks down’ – into a hit. This tale of lovelorn angst, with Wendy Smith’s wordless vocal evoking 10cc’s ‘I’m not in love’, went through multiple releases and re-releases in 12″, double 7″ , cassette and heaven knows what other formats before it finally limped into the lower end of the singles charts in 1985.
There were more singles as well and a UK tour, with the Reading University gig being preserved for posterity and bootleggers by the BBC. In the USA, the estate of the late Steve McQueen took a dim view of the Sprouts use of the man’s name, so over there it became ‘Two wheels good’, a reference to the cover shot of McAloon and Smith astride an old Triumph or BSA (sorry, not a bike aficionado).
The ‘Steve McQueen’ cover shot
The belated success of ‘When love breaks down’ had one unexpected side-effect, inasmuch as it deprived us of a new Prefab Sprout album. The album – called ‘Protest Songs’ – was slated for a 1986 release, but with the band finally hitting the singles charts, Kitchenware decided that it made more sense to re-promote ‘Steve McQueen’ as the album featuring the hit single.
This established what has by 2010 become a well-established McAloon tradition – the unreleased album. ‘Protest Songs’ did finally get released in 1989, but it was issued without any real fanfare, no singles and a slightly apologetic tone that did it no favours in a cut-throat marketplace. Since then, the unreleased Sprout projects have been stacking up; 2009’s ‘Let’s change the world with music’ was actually recorded in the early 90’s and the McAloon archives allegedly contain complete unreleased albums based on the ‘Zorro’ stories originated by Johnstone McCulley and another album based on the life and times of Michael Jackson. There are probably more that we don’t know about. Go figure.
Anyway, after ‘Protest Songs’ was shelved, the next Sprout album to emerge was ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ in 1988. This was the album which saw the band at their commercial zenith, with the Thomas Dolby-produced ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ reaching #7 in the UK singles charts. Langley Park was actually a village (close to the McAloon home in northwest Durham) whose other claim to fame is that it was the childhood home of the late Sir Bobby Robson.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can probably see that ‘The King of Rock & Roll’ did the band no favours, though its success probably kept the CBS accountants happy for a while. The remainder of ‘Langley Park’ was notable for ‘Cars & Girls’ , a witty song about Bruce Springsteen’s obsessions and the gorgeous ‘Nightingales’, which featured lush orchestration and a beautiful harmonica cameo from Stevie Wonder. Generally, the album saw the growing expansion of the widescreen McAloon vision and style of writing and arranging that revealed an older school of writers as his inspiration. What it lacked was the homogeneity that had made ‘Steve McQueen’ so effective. Dolby was retained for only a handful of tracks, McAloon produced or co-produced much of the rest of the album and the overall effect was of a solid, but not stellar effort.
After ‘Protest Songs’, we didn’t have to wait long for the next Sprout album. 1990 saw the release of the Dolby-produced ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. Again, this brought the band a lot of success, though there were no real hit singles. A lot of people were bemused by the album’s content – was it religious? Was it about Elvis? Or Jesse James? The answers would seem to be fairly equivocal – yes, God, Elvis & Jesse are all in there, but it’s about much more than that as well. The problem was that it was probably too ambitious for anyone new to the band and was a challenge, even for confirmed Sprouties. The problem for me (and I appreciate that many will disagree) is that among this 19-track, 62-minute selection, there is nothing that has the spark of the songs on ‘Steve McQueen’ or even the stronger cuts on ‘Langley Park’. ‘Jordan’s’ songs were erudite; yes, witty; possibly, but memorable? Not really. Believe me, I have tried intermittently over the years to see ‘Jordan’ as others see it, but for me it remains a too-clever-by-half collection where the individual songs are often bogged down and devalued by conceptual issues. Certainly, it lacks the simple effectiveness of so much of the band’s earlier output – like a meal that’s too rich, it just leaves you with indigestion.
After a 1992 collection ‘A Life of Surprises’, it was to be another 5 years before ‘Andromeda Heights’ appeared. This was to be Prefab Sprout’s last album of original material for Columbia/CBS and it established a pattern that has persisted ever since; a few standout songs with the rest a little underwhelming. The most effective songs on ‘Andromeda Heights’ are the title track and ‘Prisoner of the Past’. Best of all, however, is the hugely witty ‘Electric Guitars’, which sees McAloon back to his best – it’s a wonderful song. Another noticeable aspect of ‘Andromeda Heights’ was that it was made without long-time drummer Neil Conti and Wendy Smith left to start a family not long after its release.
To all intents and purposes, Prefab Sprout was now the McAloon brothers, but they kept the Prefab Sprout name alive by touring in 2000 (with Neil Conti) and producing a new album for the revived EMI offshoot, Liberty Records. ‘ The Gunman and other stories’ came out to muted sales and critical reviews in 2001. It was essentially a collection of songs that McAloon had written for others, notably Jimmy Nail and Cher. Produced by Tony Visconti, it was not a commercial success, but nonetheless features some strong material – ‘Cowboy Dreams’, and the sentimental but effective ballad ‘Love will find someone for you’, as well as the country-tinged ‘Blue Roses’ are all better than much of McAloon’s output since ‘Langley Park’ .
However, Paddy’s career was now interrupted by serious bouts of ill-health that have afflicted him on and off ever since and have certainly made touring an impossibility. First, he began to lose his vision due to a degenerative eye condition which causes the retina in the eye to detach spontaneously, leading to blindness unless the retinas can be secured to the rest of the eye with a kind of silicon buckle – an operation that has been carried out effectively with McAloon. During this era, he produced an album inspired by the hours he spent listening to the radio (as visually impaired people often do). ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ is a spoken word /orchestral album featuring only one track where McAloon sings and was released in 2003.
Modern Day Paddy McAloon – the Z Z Top influences are showing!
As if this wasn’t enough, he then developed a severe case of tinnitus, which leaves him unable to hear bass frequencies and – just for good luck – he also suffers from eczema.
The 2009 release of ‘Let’s change the world with music’ saw a return to Sony (neé CBS, neé Columbia) and an encouraging critical response. In truth, it’s an album of rather sentimental songs which hint at religious issues just below the surface , but the best of it – ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ and ‘Ride’ – is very listenable without being Grade ‘A’ Sprout.
Whilst age, infirmity and domestic necessities (wife & 3 kids) will probably preclude a return to the rock and roll barricades for the increasingly hirsute Paddy McAloon, he continues to sit on piles of unreleased projects which may appear in the coming years – and that’s encouraging. One of them – ‘Knights in Armour’ – already circulates in bootleg format, as does ‘Chrysalis Cognosci’ (apparently considered as name for the band in their formative stages) which is a collection of other people’s versions of McAloon songs. It also features Paddy’s solo version of Jimmy Webb’s classic ‘Wichita Lineman’ as well as a duet with Webb on another of his classics, ‘The Highwayman’. I suspect that Paddy McAloon never thought he’d get to work with Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Webb when Prefab Sprout were a scruffy post-punk outfit from the wilds of north-west Durham – a ‘Life of Surprises’ indeed.