By Eleni P. Austin
Prefab Sprout is one of those bands where, either you get it, or you don’t. Musically, the band occupy a very specific niche. The brainchild of Paddy McAloon, it’s original incarnation, which included his brother, Martin, formed in 1978, as Dick Diver, in their hometown parish of Witton Gilbert, County Durham in Northeast England.
The Witton Gilbert wunderkind had been stockpiling song ideas in his bedroom throughout his adolescence, as well as oblique band names, finally settling on Prefab Sprout. The apocryphal explanation was a mis-interpretation of lyrics “we got married in a fever, hotter than a prefab sprout,” from the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra hit, “Jackson.” In reality, he devised the meaningless name as a mocking homages to Psychedelic bands like The Electric Prunes or Strawberry Alarm Clock. Clearly, Paddy’s inspirations were less Sid Vicious and more Syd Barrett. Even then, they were ahead of the curve. In 1982, they self-released their first single, “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone),” via their own Candle Records imprint (the label’s sly slogan; “The wax that won’t get on your wick”). Painterly and pastoral, the song was a clever and heartfelt ode to the girl who’d gotten away (to Limoges, France, turning the song title into an acronym).
Rather quickly, Paddy and Martin were signed to Kitchenware Records and in the studio, recording their first long-player, they were joined by fan, turned bandmate, Wendy Smith on vocals. The result was 1984’s Swoon (another acronym, Songs Written Out Of Necessity), a dense, yet delightful slice of sophisticated songcraft. Heady and wordy, this 11 song collection obsessed over chess champ Bobby Fisher, catalogued the romantic associations connected to basketball, dissected heartbreak and all manner of teenage ephemera with a crystalline scalpel. It garnered rave reviews in Great Britain. Paddy was favorably compared to Paul McCartney, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Difford & Tilbrook (the wily blokes from Squeeze) and Elvis Costello. Not only were critics comparing them to Elvis Costello, but Elvis himself was singing their praises. That was enough for me! Not long after that, I found a used LP in an L.A. record store and felt as though I hit the jackpot. Less than 15 months later, Prefab returned, upping the ante considerably with their sophomore effort Steve McQueen (released in the U.S. as Two Wheels Good, where the late actor’s estate claimed copyright infringement). This time production chores were handled by musical mad scientist/technical whiz kid, Thomas Dolby. Fresh off his own big hits like “Europa And The Pirate Twins,” “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive,” A fan of their music, he offered his services. Turns out, it was a perfect fit. The band also added a fourth member, drummer Neil Conti.
Critical acclaim for Steve McQueen was unanimous. They also expanded their fanbase in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.K., the first single, “When Love Breaks Down” almost squeaked into the Top 40. By their third album, From Langley Park To Memphis, the band seemed ready to conquer the world. At this point, they were fairly obsessed with America. Tracks like “The King Of Rock N’ Roll” and “Cars & Girls” paid something of a sideways homage to Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen, respectively. Meanwhile, “Hey Manhattan!” was a swoony Valentine to Paddy’s sudden New York state of mind.
Although Prefab won over a devoted legion of fans in the U.K. and here, in U.S., they never achieved the popularity of like-minded acts like Style Council, Aztec Camera or Everything But The Girl. They certainly never hit the dizzying heights achieved by peers like The Smiths, Depeche Mode and The Cure. 1990 saw the release of a fourth album, Jordan: The Comeback (an intricate treatise on the intersection of religion and celebrity) and then, the band just sort of seemed to drift away.
Well, not really. But Prefab Sprout ceased touring. Paddy dealt with some serious health issues, a detached retina, cataracts and later, tinnitus. Album releases were sporadic at best. Andromeda Heights arrived in 1997, The Gunman And Other Stories, an ambitious Wild West-themed song cycle followed in 2001. Eight years later, “Let’s Change The World With Music” (essentially, a collection of solo demos Paddy recorded in the ‘90s) appeared. Operating under the Prefab Sprout moniker, Paddy released the supremely satisfying Crimson/Red, in late 2013. A patented mix of quicksilver melodies, witty lyrics and gossamer instrumentation.
For Record Store Day, Prefab Sprout have released Steve McQueen Acoustic, an eight-song set that cherry-picks songs from this beloved watershed record. Originally issued as a bonus disc on a 2006 reissue CD, it’s now available on vinyl for the first time. Typically, acoustic versions of well-known songs come across in demo form, skeleton versions of well-known songs. This isn’t that kind of record.
Scrambling the track-list is the first indication that this isn’t some throwaway addendum to a well-known album. It kicks into gear with “Appetite.” Sunshiny guitar arpeggios dart across a bucolic melody. Oblique lyrics find a feckless woman assessing an unwanted pregnancy; “Here she is with two small problems, and the best part of the blame, wishes she could call him heartache, but it’s not a boy’s name…so if you take-then put back good, if you steal-be Robin Hood, if your eyes are wanting all they see, then I think I’ll name you after me, I think I’ll call you appetite.” Guitars braid on the break and harmonies stack on the chorus flying on an astral plane far above the original version.
There are at least four tracks here that Paddy strips for parts, rebuilding the engine, gears and chassis from scratch. The most ambitious transformation occurs with “Desire As.” Originally, a bit of a sourpuss lament, cloaked, of course, in a majestic coat of many colors, this one deftly cuts to the chase. A new instrumental intro is powered by crystalline guitar notes that cascade for nearly two minutes, each lick and refrain more baroque and bespoke than the last. (Somewhere, Mark Kozelek, the musical polymath who records under the moniker Sun Kil Moon, is turning green with envy). Rather than begin with the curtly dismissive “I’ve got six things on my mind, you’re no longer one of them,” he jumps to the Dickensian pre-chorus; “They were the best of times, the harvest years, with jam to lace the bread,” as he attempts to parse the intricacies of a bitter break-up. Sequenced, synthesized guitar samples are salted in the mix, added iridescent, shimmering hues. But nothing can soothe the bruised feelings in the final j’accuse; “It’s perfect as it stands, so why then crush it in your perfect hands?” The answer; “Desire is a sylph-figured creature who changes her mind.” By the time the song veers toward a close the listener is spent and verkempt.
“When Love Breaks Down” was Prefab’s first real calling-card here in the states. An airy Synth-Pop/Jazz-tinged confection featuring some of Paddy’s most straight-forward lyrics. It almost hit the Top 40, peaking at #42 in the U.S. Filigreed acoustic fretwork and heavenly “la-la-la’s” tease out the vocal throughline. His tender tenor is suffused in romantic regret as his voice continues to catch. The pieces of the puzzle are all there, but they no longer fit; “My love and I, we are boxing clever- she’ll never crowd me out… when love breaks down, the things you do, to stop the truth from hurting you, when love breaks down, the lies we tell, they only serve to fool ourselves.” Feather-light guitar chords quietly unfurl, cocooning his heartsick croon, quietly tugging at heart-strings.
Meanwhile, “Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny, Johnny)” executes a stylistic 180, shapeshifting from an effervescent, albeit callow teenage complaint to an anguished torch song. The arrangement and instrumentation remain tentative and diffident, finger-picked licks wash over a sparkly melody. It’s Paddy’s tortured croon that elicits the heartbreak. The conciliatory lyrics contain this trenchant epiphany that still feels wise beyond it’s years; “Life’s not complete, still your heart skips a beat, and you’ll never make it up, or turn back the clock, no you won’t, no you won’t.”
Finally, on “Bonny,” flickering guitar riffs partner with smoky harmonica notes. The inherent buoyancy of the original arrangement, which managed to camouflage vague lyrics that dealt with a broken romance and the loss of a parent, is jettisoned. In it’s place a poignant cri de Coeur that yearns for something more; “I’m lost to heaven and I’m lost to earth.”
Nearly all of these songs were written when Paddy was under the spell of David Bowie’s Teutonic triptych, Low, Heroes and Lodger, written and recorded in Berlin between 1977 and 1979. But the Thin White Duke’s influence seems elusive. Take “Moving Up River,” which mirrors densely strumming guitars with Paddy’s sardonic vocals. As lyrics simultaneously offer encouragement and take the piss; “You surely are a truly gifted kid, but you’re only as good as the last great thing you did, and where have you been since then, did the schedule get you down, I hear you have a a new girlfriend, how’s the wife taking it?” Knowing Bowie served as inspiration, it’s tempting to imagine the melody’s jangly arrangement almost recalls his iconic Low cut, “Sound And Vision.”
Conversely, the boisterous “Faron Young,” named for the handsome, “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” Country singer known as The Hillbilly Heartthrob echoes wildly disparate influences. The fractious and slightly pugnacious original has been recast as a sylvan roundelay that jumps straight to the chorus. Just as quickly, time-signatures shift and driving guitars toggle between a Johnny Cash-tastic, boom-chicka-boom rhythm and Segovia-flavored Flamenco flourishes. Cryptic lyrics mildly chastise a withholding partner; “Antiques! Every other sentiment’s an antique, as obsolete as warships in the Baltic, I’m driving on a straight road it never alters and the radio serenades but never falters,” and the chorus subtly shouts-out Faron’s deep cut, It’s Four In The Morning.” Somehow, County Durham meets Shreveport, Louisiana on this baroque hoedown.
The record winds down with “When The Angels.” A fiery pas de deux sparks between rippling guitar and lonesome harmonica. Opaque lyrics split the difference between mocking the angels up above, “Hard-faced bastards” who “must get so blasé, knowing you’ll never die, lounging on a cloud, polishing the sky,” and a heartfelt tribute to the late Marvin Gaye; “The memories are blue, but borrowed for the day, they sit around ignored, till someone goes away.” At the tail-end of the track, lithe, harp-like guitar and breathless harmonica rush headlong into the breach. Bringing this ethereal eight-song set to a satisfying close.
The inherent power and majesty of music, is that it can make you feel things more keenly. It’s the Beauty and the Sadness, to sideways quote The Smithereens. The reimagining of this old Prefab favorite, makes my heart sing, as much as this music makes my chest tighten as I hold back the tears. It’s a good ache, a happy-sad sensation. And maybe that ache was already there because life has been so upside-down lately. But it was this record that opened the floodgates, allowing me the luxury to really feel it all. That’s a good thing, right?