CALL ME STAR-STRUCK, UNCLE SAM

new-york

I’ve always been fascinated by New York City.

As a young kid I thought it was the most famous place in the world thanks to it being the backdrop to so many films and TV shows. Hell, it even was the setting for one of my favourite cartoons – Top Cat – while there was no mistaking that my favourite comic book hero’s home of Gotham City was the just a different name for NYC.

It was, in my young eyes, everything that America stood for where everything was bigger and better than you could wish for while growing up amidst the monochrome or at best faded-beige UK of the mid 70s. If someone had asked me, as an 11 or 12 year old why I wanted to see New York they would have got the 11 or 12 year old’s classic answer…….just because!

If pushed I would say it was all to do with the fact it seemed to be the best place for sport with the best known names such as the Jets, the Yankees and the Harlem Globetrotters (little did I realise the last of these was showbiz and not sport!). In ‘soccer’ you had the phenomenon of the New York Cosmos and I was desperate to be given the chance of seeing Pele and Franz Beckenbauer take to the field amidst pomp, pageantry and cheerleaders.

Boxing was another sport I watched – particularly the exploits of Muhammad Ali – and it seemed that every other month there was a world championship fight taking place in NYC at Madison Square Gardens. I wanted to be part of such a loud and raucous crowd (albeit years later my first experience of a live boxing match put me off for life)

Oh and then there was the fact that I was fascinated by the idea of hot dogs, hamburgers and milk shakes, none of which you could get in Glasgow at the time (well you could, but you knew that they were all fifth-rate and not a patch on the real things).

Then I got slightly older and began to fall in love with pop music. NYC began to loom even larger as all the best bands in the world constantly talked about how it was the greatest city to play in and how the energy and vitality of the place brought so much to the performances. It also appeared to be where some of the best new music was coming from. And it seemed as if all the women were as gorgeous as Debbie Harry.

But the sheer cost involved meant that visiting NYC in my truly formative years was always going to be an unfulfilled dream. It was difficult enough finding the money to go and visit London far less get on a plane and cross the Atlantic. I didn’t even know how to go about obtaining a passport……

The idea of visiting in later years did come up – myself and Mrs Villain talked about going there for my 30th in 1993 but in the end we went for a beach holiday in the Caribbean. Her 40th in 1998 was another possibility but again the lure of the sand and the sun proved too much.

By now I was in a job that had me seeing a fair bit of the world as I was a senior aide to the equivalent of the Mayor of Glasgow and accompanied him on a number of occasions, especially when he was to deliver a keynote speech at a conference or event.

I had always hoped the opportunity to do so in NYC would occur and so when he received and accepted an invitation to be part of a conference on Waterfront Regeneration, taking place at the Brooklyn Marriott, the dream of so many years was set to some true.

I began to plan everything in terms of how I would spend my free time at the conference and before long I had arranged to stay on for a few extra days at my own expense. Greenwich Village, Central Park, Times Square, Madison Square Gardens, Yankee Stadium, the Chelsea Hotel, Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, the Guggenheim and the Statue of Liberty were all on the list as was a ride in a yellow cab. I’d find small and bohemian record and book stores and have the time of my life. I was counting down the days to the conference which was taking place from September 20-22 2001.

It’ll soon be 15 years to the day that the Twin Towers came down and changed everything we thought about the world in the proverbial blink of an eye. It’ll soon be 15 years to the day that I made my first ever visit to NYC as incredibly enough, the conference wasn’t postponed.

It’s true that more than half of the delegates cancelled, including I would reckon 90% of those scheduled to come from Europe as travel plans were predictably chaotic and uncertain.

As it turned out, I was a passenger on the first Glasgow-Newark flight after 9/11. What I experienced during my stay will stay with me for ever. There’s an entire book can be written about my experiences over the following seven days – understandably it wasn’t what I ever imagined NYC to be in my long-held dreams. But if anything, I fell in love deeper and harder than I thought possible.

I’ve returned a couple of times since and seen more of the ‘real’ New York and thoroughly enjoyed myself. But everywhere I look there seems to be a haunting and chilling memory of my first time…..

I was hopeful of returning to NYC this year, on my 53rd birthday no less, to fulfil the ambition of attending a gig at Madison Square Gardens as The Twilight Sad were supporting The Cure that day. But some months out I knew that events close to home would mean I had to be in Scotland for something important the day after my birthday and so the plan was shelved.

I almost set myself up to head over this past weekend with today being Labor Day at the end of a long holiday weekend in the USA with my beloved Toronto Blue Jays playing at Yankee Stadium. But I chose instead to head to Toronto later this month and enjoy an extended break of a week rather than a few days.

Maybe NYC will be on the agenda for next year. Or maybe I’ll wait a while longer and go over when I have as much time on my hands as possible and do things properly and not in a rushed way, hopefully with Mrs V in tow.

There’s a reason for these particular paragraphs appearing today which will reveal itself in 24 hours’ time. For now, here’s some music from UK and Irish bands just as equally fascinated with the city, including the song from which I stole the title of todays’ posting:-

mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Hey Manhattan!
mp3 : The Clash – Broadway
mp3 : The Frank & Walters – Fashion Crisis Hits New York

Enjoy.

BONUS POSTING : AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #062 : PREFAB SPROUT

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Some three months ago, I put together an ICA for Prefab Sprout. It was a bit of a cop-out in that I went for one side of Steve McQueen and then chose another six songs for the other side.

I spotted this morning that someone had left a detailed comment behind which in effect was his own stab at an ICA for the band. I thought it was too good to leave well hidden and so have lifted it out and turned it into a bonus post.

It’s from Gil Gillespie….and as far as I know this is the first ever comment he has ever left behind…..and it’s a big thank you for this…especially for reminding me again of just how great your opening track is:-

SIDE A

1. 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.

SIDE TWO

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 As (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 Plastic)

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. The 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 impression.

mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Green Isaac
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Appetite
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Bonny
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Enchanted
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Looking For Atlantis
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Cars and Girls
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Wild Horses
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Desire As
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Real Life (Just Around The Corner)
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – The Golden Calf

Enjoy

AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #51 : PREFAB SPROUT

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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:

SIDE A

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

SIDE B

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)

Enjoy

 

SEPARATED AT BIRTH?

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The first time I heard this song:-

mp3 : It’s Immaterial – Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune)

 

 

 

I was instantly reminded of this tune:-

mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Faron Young

The former was a top 20 hit in 1986 for a Liverpool band who had been kicking around without any commercial success since 1980 although they were firm favourites of John Peel for whom they had recorded four sessions by the time they hit the charts….all before a debut album which came out in late 1986.

The latter had been a 1985 single for the better-known Newcastle band but it had stalled at #74. It was also the opening track of the sublime LP Steve McQueen.

Here’s the b-sides of the 7″ singles:-

mp3 : It’s Immaterial – Trains, Boats, Planes
mp3 : Prefab Sprout – Silhouettes

I also have a 12″ copy of Driving Away From Home in the collection. It annoys me as it just goes on a bit too long and the song loses something in the process:-

mp3 : It’s Immaterial – Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune) (12 inch version)

The 12″ also had an additional song on the b-side:-

mp3 : It’s Immaterial – A Crooked Tune

Enjoy