Although Prefab Sprout may not quite possess the most ridiculous band name in pop music, at least not when we still have the likes of Half Man Half Biscuit around to entertain us, it is still ironic that a songwriter as gifted as Paddy McAloon decided to burden them with such a clumsy handle. Apparently McAloon came up with the name in homage to the equally foolish band names from his youth. Who cares anyway – what’s in a name? It shouldn’t be important, but I cannot help wondering if the band’s silly name was one of the reasons why they never enjoyed the commercial success that they so richly deserved.
Despite critical acclaim, the band’s creative seedlings never quite sprouted into mainstream hits. Prefab Sprout never bowed to commercialism and although they were relatively successful, they really should have been huge, considering the raft of classic songs released during the 80s and 90s. However, McAloon is clearly a man who has never been concerned with fashion, beyond how to fashion innovative ideas, convoluted melodies and ironic lyrics into the traditional pop formula. Although Prefab Sprout always seemed to stand just outside the times, McAloon showcased an effortless ability to encapsulate feelings into superior tunes.
McAloon once claimed that he was “probably the best writer on the planet” and although his suggestion was tongue-in-cheek, he was not that far off the mark. As an inventive and insightful writer, McAloon’s elegant songcraft has few rivals among his peers and stands comparison with Elvis Costello and Morrissey/Marr (yes, he’s that good). The soulful Geordie is regularly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, but his career has been characterised by a determined retreat from the pressures of fame and expectation. In recent years, this has been compounded by serious health problems, including temporary hearing loss and a degenerative eye condition.
"Clothes as obsolete as warships in the Baltic"
He has always come across as an artist with a fear not of failure, but of success – one of the songs on the debut album was even called, “Couldn’t Bear To Be Special”. This self-effacing, near reclusive genius is far removed from today’s publicity-hungry “celebrities”, preferring to let his witty, literate music speak for itself, which is completely understandable when you have authored such a rich songbook.
McAloon was also Prefab Sprout’s lead vocalist with a beautiful voice that could rise from a whisper to a scream. Ethereal backing vocals were provided by Wendy Smith, whose breathy, bittersweet style combined with McAloon’s rougher tone to deliver magical, haunting harmonies. Paddy’s younger brother, Martin McAloon, was responsible for the melodic bass lines, while Neil Conti added the crisp, tasteful drum sound.
"Nancy, let your hair down for me"
Although the music could be contemplative and even dreamlike, it was never as delicate as, say, The Cocteau Twins. No, this was unashamedly slick pop music, though many of the inspirations were steeped in the classics of the 60s like Lennon & McCartney, The Beach Boys and even Burt Bacharach. Indeed, after listening to the rich emotion and intelligence of “Steve McQueen”, one critic was moved to call it the “Pet Sounds” of the 80s and this album is certainly a classic of its generation.
The eclectic nature of the music was one of the attractions. Even if there is a clearly defined 80s sound, notably from the use of synths, the songs exhibit little of the bombast of the time. Sinewy, mannered and knowing, the music is just about as sublime as pop can be, but it’s a broad church also taking in country & western, atmospheric jazz and gospel (among other things). Contemporary comparisons are particularly difficult, but the music is reminiscent of Aztec Camera and Scritti Politti with maybe just a touch of The Style Council thrown in for good measure.
"I'm not looking down on you"
On first listen, Prefab Sprout’s songs are straightforward romantic rock, but they’re multi-layered, sneaking up on you quietly before striking at the most unsuspecting moments. Even McAloon’s ostensibly cheery compositions often have a dark underside, such as “Desire As” where regret is bitterly described, “And all I ever want to be/Is far from the eyes that ask me/In whose bed you're gonna be”. Though the songs don’t hide their cleverness, McAloon never allows his intelligence to dominate his passions and he has this lovely knack of injecting his pop songs with emotion and intellect, so a catchy song like “Appetite” contains smart lines such as: “Here she is with two small problems/And the best part of the blame/Wishing she could call him heartache/But it's not a boy's name”.
These were songs of regret, longing, nostalgia, sexual tension and other emotionally depth-charged insights, but they were also expertly fine-tuned with McAloon singing both from the heart and the head. His records were filled to the brim with wonderful ideas, the sharp emotion counter-balanced with maverick melodies flung about in a surprising, almost offhand manner that never allows a song to be too predictable. This effervescent invention, playfulness and quirkiness created high calibre, complicated songs that built the band’s reputation, but at the same time also limited their success.
"Never trust a spell"
The lyrics primarily deal with the human conditions of loss, regret and redemption with many incredibly romantic lines like, “Life's not complete till your heart's missed a beat” in “Goodbye Lucille #1”, but McAloon’s skill lies in his honesty and humour, which is sometimes oblique, but never difficult to understand: “I swear at you 'cos I believe that sweet talk like candy rots teeth” (“Hallelujah”). Many of the lyrics feel like personal jokes, “I hear you've got a new girlfriend/How's the wife taking it?” (“Moving The River”). There are numerous bewildering and brilliant lyrical turns as McAloon looks at the ups and downs of love in both a literate and emotional way, “I was the fool who always presumed that/I'd wear the shoes and you'd be the doormat” (“Horsin’ Around”). This lyrical dexterity had already been highlighted with Prefab Sprout’s first single, the awe-inspiring “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)”, which formed an acronym spelling out Limoges, the French town where McAloon’s girlfriend was staying at the time.
In 1985 Prefab Sprout released “Steve McQueen” and it remains McAloon’s masterpiece, teeming with great lines. It is a lush, dreamy, yet piercingly sincere album of songs dealing with love and heartbreak and is possibly the most succinct expression of McAloon’s skills. One of the defining qualities of the record is its ambition, its willingness to engage with 80s, while resolutely plowing its own musical furrow of gentle, tonal colours.
"Fade to grey"
This album was the Sprouts’ second and it confirmed the immense promise of the previous album “Swoon”. The rich melodies that bubbled beneath the surface of the debut burst forth this time around, but the lyrics were not so impenetrable and the songs did not take so many unexpected twists. McAloon’s innate musical quirkiness was still evident, as was his mischievous wordplay, but this was a more cohesive and accessible set of songs. The album took less than a month to record, which maybe helped in yielding a tighter sound, but much of the credit for the sumptuous production has to go to Thomas Dolby (who also contributed keyboard flourishes). There is a decidedly 80s sheen to Dolby’s deceptively polished production, but the soft synths and drums never get in the way of the rawness of the emotion. Interestingly, the 2006 re-release of the album includes remarkable acoustic interpretations of most of the songs, which are just as strong with only a six-string and McAloon’s more mature voice.
The record flagged McAloon’s fascination with all things American, which was made even more obvious on their next album, “From Langley Park To Memphis”, that included the hit single “Cars And Girls”. He was captivated by American culture and his lyrics often made reference, directly or indirectly, to icons and legends from across the pond. The cover art for Steve McQueen features the band astride a motorcycle very similar to the one commandeered by McQueen in the classic movie, “The Great Escape”. It sounds very much like a homage, but McAloon himself claimed, “I just like the sound of his name. I like playing around with the idea of how people see us … and the LP cover with us on a motorbike is something you’d never associate with Prefab Sprout”. Confusingly, the album was re-titled “Two Wheels Good” in the States after McQueen’s representatives threatened legal action.
At the core of this record is a feeling of romance, but with an articulate, intelligent sense of longing. Yes, there’s a swagger to the lyrics, but there are also moments of deep emotional intensity, even though there’s enough humour and cynicism to stop it being at all schmaltzy: sweet postcards from the fringes of romance, if you will. McAloon’s gift is expressing every emotion like it’s his own, but he’s particularly good at charting the male experience, looking back on stereotypical failings from an older, wiser perspective with painfully accurate observations, like the prodigal son in “Moving The River” trying in vain to please his father, “You must know me, Father it's your son/And I know that you are proud of everything I've done”.
"Field of Dreams"
The full gamut of male emotions is explored in these songs. Initially, “Appetite” focuses on his love life and uncontrollable lust, though even here there’s an awareness that libido has a price, “She will always pay the bills/For the having big fun”, so he does try to live the right way, “If you take, then put back good/If you steal, be Robin Hood”. A logical next stage is infidelity which is discussed in the deceptively cheeky “Horsin’ Around”, as scathing an analysis of the consequences of such thoughtless romanticism as you will find, “The thrill of it - can I call it that? - was cheap/And feeling cheap's the only thing you keep”. You can almost feel the shame, “Lord just blind me/Don't let her innocent eyes remind me”.
Regrets … I’ve had a few. In “Bonny”, McAloon spares little in his post break-up self-flagellation, “I count the hours since you slipped away/I count the hours that I lie awake/I count the minutes and the seconds too/All I stole and I took from you”. The rueful regrets are palpable, but by “Desire As” he’s resigned and embittered, “I've got six things on my mind/You're no longer one of them”. His real sense of mind (and loss) is reflected in the astonishing “When Love Breaks Down” with the heartbreakingly honest admission: “The things you do/To stop the truth from hurting you/The lies we tell/They only serve to fool ourselves”.
As well as wearing his heart on his sleeve, McAloon is not afraid to cite a number of his influences. The upbeat country-style opener “Faron Young” is dedicated to the American C&W artist of the same name, though it’s also a dig at the second-hand versions of this music being played by people in his native north-east England, “You offer infrared instead of sun/You offer paper spoons and bubble gum”. “When The Angels Sing” is apparently a tribute to soul legend Marvin Gaye, while “Hallelujah” references the “songs of Georgie Gershwin”.
"Genius of Love"
“Steve McQueen” is probably the band’s most popular release, but it is only one album in a body of superlative work. I would champion the under-rated, highly idiosyncratic “Swoon” – there’s really nothing quite like it, but it’s the work of a mastermind. Later efforts included the amazing “Jordan: The Comeback”, featuring not one, but two, songs about Jesse James! Or the even more obscure “Andromeda Heights” is a magnificently theatrical album. What really vexes Prefab Sprout fans are the many boxes of unreleased material that is said to be languishing chez McAloon, including concept albums about the life of Michael Jackson (Behind The Veil), the history of the world (Earth: The Story So Far) and a fictional superhero (Zorro The Fox). Next week “Let’s Change The World With Music” will be released from this treasure trove, though it was originally recorded back in 1992. Although that’s great news, you can’t help but mourn the concealment of such a talent.
Paddy McAloon is an uncrowned king of pop, responsible for some of the most beautiful, enduring music ever made. Spine chillingly beautiful, “Steve McQueen” is a perfect example of how the vacuous pop world can occasionally be subverted by a truly gifted songwriter. One of Prefab Sprout’s early singles was called “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes”, but it’s obvious that McAloon kept a few for himself.