I’ve given this a fair bit of thought, but in the end come to the conclusion that Side A of my Prefab Sprout Imaginary Compilation album has to be identical to Side A of the band’s sophomore album released in June 1985. In the UK and most other places the album was called Steve McQueen but in the USA it went by the name of Two Wheels Good thanks to a dispute with the estate of the late American Actor.
If pushed, I’d probably say that Side A of that album is my favourite half-record of all time. That may sound like a strange thing to say – and it’s not that the songs on the b-side don’t do anything for me – but I just feel that we were provided with six timeless works of art, sequenced in the perfect running order, and which are among the best bits of music that the band, and/or Paddy McAloon in his solo guise, ever released.
What this does of course is turn this particular Imaginary LP into a 12-track effort as its B-side has to offer a proper balance. But what to go for? After all there are other songs on the flip side of Steve McQueen that are more than worthy; likewise just about everything on debut album Swoon 1983 and there’s quite a few tremendous songs on each of the four albums released between 1988 and 1997 – I haven’t bought any of the releases since then so can’t offer any observations about them, although just about everyone else I know who are fans of the band have raved about 2013 LP Crimson/Red, But for what it’s worth:
Faron Young, Bonny, Appetite, When Love Beaks Down, Goodbye Lucille #1, Hallelujah
The early 80s was a great time to be a follower of new music in the north-east of England. Indeed with bands such as Hurrah, The Kane Gang, Prefab Sprout and Martin Stephenson & The Daintees all on the Newcastle-based Kitchenware Records, there was a scene that wasn’t that far removed from Glasgow and Postcard Records of just a few years previous.
It was Prefab Sprout who turned out to the most commercially successful of the acts, thanks in the main to the songwriting and tunesmith talents of Paddy McAloon, but also to the marketing men who pushed hard until the elusive breakthrough hit emerged.
The band came to prominence in 1982 with a couple of singles that were hits on the indie-chart, as well as a 1984 LP Swoon (short for ‘Songs Written Out Of Necessity’) that was well received by the critics.
By now, although the records were still coming out on the Kitchenware label, Prefab Sprout had the might of CBS Records behind them, and the band was pushed into the studio with a big-name producer for an album that was intended to be released in 1985.
There were many who predicted a disaster. McAloon was a fairly shy laid-back individual who was seemingly being put under immense pressure to deliver something that justified the large contract signed with the major label. There was also the fact that despite Prefab Sprout being a band known for melodic, acoustic-based songs, the producer was the electronic pioneer and chart-act Thomas Dolby, and no-one could imagine any chemistry between the two.
Against all the odds, a masterpiece emerged.
The first hint we all got was the release of a single – When Love Breaks Down – which kept all the majesty and magnificence of a McAloon tune but had some beautiful bits added courtesy of keyboards that were clearly the work of Dolby. Despite this, the radio stations didn’t really pick up on it, and the single failed to trouble the charts.
The album came out soon after. It had the strange title of Steve McQueen.
I thought at the time it was bloody marvelous. And I still do and I will argue long into the night and right through the next day after the sun has come up that Side 1 is perfect; the CBS record bosses obviously thought so too, choosing to release four of the six songs as singles.
With the exception of the opening track, which is a tribute to a long-forgotten country & western singer and chugs along like an express train being driven by Casey Jones, it is not an album to get up and dance to. Instead, it is one to wake up with on a Saturday or Sunday morning if you’ve had a memorable time the night before and take great joy in life itself.
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Faron Young
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Bonny
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Appetite
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – When Love Breaks Down
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Goodbye Lucille #1
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Hallelujah
Don’t Sing (from Swoon, 1984)
I have no idea why this very jaunty opening track on the debut album has the title of Don’t Sing as those two words don’t appear anywhere in the lyrics. Instead it seems to follow some sort of bizarre and crazy Spaghetti Western script with outlaws and whisky priests getting into all sorts of trouble….but whatever is taking place on no account have they to put any blame on Mexico. Wonderfully catchy and surreal with a fabulous harmonica solo thrown in for good measure
Cars and Girls (from From Langley Park to Memphis, 1988)
The second half of the 80s were strange times for Prefab Sprout. There was near universal praise for Steve McQueen in 1985 but the intended follow-up for the next year was shelved, only appearing in 1989….by which time they had unexpectedly enjoyed a Top 10 hit thanks to a very catchy but ultimately annoying chorus about hot dogs, jumping frogs and Albuquerque – anyone who bought parent LP From Langley Park to Memphis in the hope of finding a few more like The King of Rock’n’Roll in there would have been in for a shock. The nearest would have been the earlier lead-off single which had reached #44 – I love Cars and Girls as much for the fact that having been subjected to intense record label pressure to come up with a catchy hit, McAloon delivered a blasting critique of the label’s biggest selling star without the bosses seemingly catching on……
Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) (single, 1983)
This had first come to prominence as a self-financed release on Candle Records in 1983. In an era of a number of very clever wordsmiths fronting gentle-sounding guitar bands, McAloon clinched the crown as the cleverest of them all thanks to a catchy sing-along number that seems to make no sense whatsoever until someone whispers in your ear that the first letter of each of the words in the title spell Limoges, the city in France where the writer’s girlfriend had moved to live, breaking his heart in the process. All over a tune that was as Postcard-era Aztec Camera as any fan could have wished. The Peel Session is included here for novelty value as much as anything (and because it lets me use more brackets – and I like brackets!!)
We Let The Stars Go Free (from Jordan : The Comeback, 1990)
Prefab Sprout hadn’t toured in five years but took the decision to go out on the road in support of their 1990 opus which had more than enough songs to have been a double album. It was a brave move that backfired somewhat as the songs on Jordan : The Comeback being rich in arrangement across a range of genres and relying heavily on the tricks of the studio didn’t fare all that well in the live setting, even at a venue as sympathetic as Glasgow Barrowlands. The experience put me off the album somewhat and I didn’t listen to for a long time after, but there’s no denying that this, which was also released as a single, is as dreamy and ethereal as pop music gets (apart from perhaps Desire As from Steve McQueen which almost made it on at this point)
Life Of Surprises (from Protest Songs, 1989)
This was the album originally recorded and intended for release in 1986. It’s still not clear whether the band themselves abandoned the project – some of the songs have more of a demo than fully produced feel about them – or whether the label just felt it had no commercial viability and was likely to lose many fans along the way. The fact that it took another two years for the next album to appear – which as mentioned had a ridiculously catchy and unrepresentative pop single on it – makes me lean towards the latter. As it turns out, Protest Songs does have a number of well-merited moments, not least this song which would eventually be issued as a single in 1993 to promote the label issuing an inevitable ‘best of’ LP when it became clear that a new full studio album was a long way off.
Real Life (Just Around The Corner) (from NME EP Drastic Plastic, 1985)
Part of a four-track EP given away with the NME in September 1985. This was the only studio recording on the EP as the others were live tracks from The Style Council, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions and The Robert Cray Band. For a very long time, I was under the impression that the NME EP had been the place where the song had first aired but the rise of Discogs, with its encyclopaedic approach to the various releases reveals that it was in fact on one of the 12″ versions of one of the three separate releases handed to When Love Breaks Down. The fact that I have two versions of the single but not the one containing Real Life will hopefully be an acceptable explanation for my mistake.
Anyways, Real Life (with its introductory nod to The Battle Hymn of The Republic) might not be all that much of a stand-out song in the Prefab Sprout canon, but it was one with which I had a habit for a long time of finishing off compilation tapes for all sorts of friends on the basis that I was signing off with what I thought was an impossibly difficult to find track. I just feel that now I’m dreaming up an imaginary compilation album there can only be one candidate to close off Side B…..but it is one that I think is more than good enough to have you want to immediately go back and listen to Side A which, after all, has the pick of the tracks from that very golden era in the band’s history.
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Don’t Sing
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Cars and Girls
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) (Peel Session)
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – We Let The Stars Go Free
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Life Of Surprises
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Real Life (Just Around The Corner)
6 thoughts on “AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #51 : PREFAB SPROUT”
Taking on Prefab Sprout is like scaling Mont Blanc – dangerous, steep and a really high peak to scale.
I can’t fault you logic on your A Side decision JC. I’ll join in you day into night into day debate on it and likely side with you somewhere around 2am – There’s a Jam, Clash and Bunnymen album which I would bring to the argument.
You hit quite a lot of sweet spots on the B Side as well. I would swap out We Let The Stars Go Free with Carnival 2000 and I would somehow need to find space for Cornfield Ablaze from The Gunman and Other Stories and Crimson|Red’s The Best Jewel Thief In The World.
But who am I kidding, 12 tracks is no where near enough to make a satisfying Prefab Sprout Imaginary Compilation.
You mentioned Thomas Dolby role with the band and I think it could go further than his production having an effect. I think that McAloon must have heard “Screen Kiss” and saw a way out, creatively. Whose idea was it to pair Dolby with the band? Can anyone say? I suspect they sought him out.
After finally listening to “Screen Kiss” from the “Flat Earth” album of Dolby’s from 1984 for the first time three years ago, I was floored by the comparisons in sound, production, and composition to Prefab Sprout. In all candor, “Screen Kiss” sounded like a template that Paddy McAloon latched onto for dear life and rode hard… for the rest of his career!
I’d always wondered at the metamorphosis that Prefab Sprout underwent in moving from their darkly quirky, but awkward debut album, “Swoon,” to their second, dramatically better, album. I think that they pilfered all they could from Dolby’s template as shown on “Screen Kiss,” and that song was ground zero for the band’s rebirth. McAloon’s mature lyrical turns of phrase and even his vocal phrasing echo what Dolby achieved on that song, a year earlier. Lesley Fairbairn’s breathy backing vocals on the Dolby track mapped out exactly the territory that Wendy Smith would explore for the rest of her time in Sprout. And naturally, the synth patches on the Dolby song were re-used on “Steve McQueen” without much tweaking at all. Uncanny!
Great choices… but to be honest i would find it difficult to fault any choices of 12 Prefab’s tracks… you just can’t go wrong can you?
Having said that I’m not sure I could’ve settled on a similarly small selection – maybe it would’ve just been “Volume 1” (of a series of 3?)
After considerable thought, here is my list.
1. Little Green Issac (from Swoon)
Perfect opening announcement, building slowly to a typical Prefab Sprout
crescendo. Contains the immaculate line: “But to shine
like Joan of Arc, you must be prepared to burn.”
2. Appetite (from Steve McQueen)
What a beautiful song, such poise, such heartbreak, such elegance. Has
anyone ever understood melody as subtlety as Paddy McAloon?
3. Bonny (from Steve McQueen)
If you have just split up from your girlfriend and you
haven’t slept for 4 days and are in the back of a car going
to Cambridge with Patrick Duff from Strangelove who hasn’t
slept for about 3 months, this song will make both of you cry.
4.Enchanted (from Langley Park To Memphis)
I reckon this is the band’s most under-rated song. It is
also, quite possibly, the happiest song ever recorded. It
bounces along with self-assurance, McAloon tumbling lyrics
over themselves as he refers to Romeo & Juliet’s warring
factions as a crew. Why wasn’t it released as a single?
5. Looking For Atlantis (from Jordan: The Comeback)
I’ve just checked to see where this single got to in the
charts when it was released in 1990. Number 51 on the UK
Chart. Number 51? That is almost beyond belief. It is an
irresistible song with production so lush it takes your
breath away. Surely, CBS are at fault for the band’s
shockingly poor chart history.
1. Cars and Girls (from From Langley Park to Memphis)
A glistening hub cap of a single, the Springsteen-bating ode
to a more sophisticated mindset somehow only reached number
44 in the charts. It really should have sold millions.
2. Wild Horses (from Jordan: The Comeback)
For the pin drop perfection of Thomas Dolby’s production
alone, this deserves its place.
3. Desire(from Steve McQueen)
Heartbreaking, just heartbreaking. Someone on You Tube put it
best: ‘Amazing how songs can perfectly express a moment in
time, its memories, the exact colours and feelings.
Thank you forever, Paddy McAloon. You´re genius.’
4. Real Life (Just Around The Corner) (from NME EP Drastic
A strange but typically life-affirming oddity that hints at
just how far into the left field they could go if they wanted
to. Not too far away from Parisian sophisticates, Phoenix
5. Golden Calf (from From Langley Park to Memphis)
This is their Crazy Horses, a driving, faux metal guitar
anthem complete with McAloon almost doing a Metallica
Regarding PPM’s comments about who sought out whom in the Prefab Dolby foxtrot, I read a blurb from Thomas Dolby that his book, out in a few weeks, will have a large section about his work with Prefab Sprout. Methinks that the answer will be told there. I was sitting on the fence regarding buying the book until that item of self-promotion appeared.