Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Life Of Surprises Is Born

Back in 1988, I purchased the vinyl 45 single ‘Cars and Girls’, by English outfit Prefab Sprout. At the time I didn’t have an appreciation for the song, beyond its surface appeal of melodic pop-rock, nor did I have an awareness of the career works of Prefab Sprout, beyond my liking of a minor hit from late ‘85 called ‘Appetite’. When I purchased Prefab Sprout’s ‘A Life Of Surprises: The Best Of’, about ten years later, I finally realised what all the fuss was about. Prefab Sprout had harvested a crop of timeless pop-rock classics, infused with rich melodies, jazz inflections, a heart of soul, and the quirky, thought provoking lyrics of wordsmith and front man, Paddy McAloon.

Paddy McAloon, and younger brother Martin, grew up in rural England during the 60s and 70s, fed by a musical diet of British legends like the Beatles, and the Who, along with American popular song standards from the songbooks of such luminaries as Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. McAloon, the elder, formed his first covers band in the mid 70s, called Avalon, and by his college days was beginning to pen his own songs. In the late 70s, whilst attending college in Newcastle, Paddy McAloon decided the time was write to form a new outfit, through which to channel some of the songs he’d been writing. McAloon handled the vocal/guitar duties, whilst younger brother Martin came in on bass, and drummer Mick Salmon rounded out the original line-up. Over the next few years they honed their sound (which was initially a bit rough and ready, in the style of punk) on the pub and college circuits, as Prefab Sprout. The origins of the name Prefab Sprout have seemingly sprouted a mythology all their own. One theory (apparently kickstarted by McAloon himself), was that the name was chosen because he had misheard a line in the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood hit ‘Jackson’. He interpreted the lyric “hotter than a pepper sprout” as “hotter than a prefab sprout”, whilst other sources attribute the choice of name to McAloon’s desire to adopt a silly, meaningless moniker, along the lines of many of the bands he grew up listening to - Moby Grape, Grand Funk Railroad et al - maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. I’m certain an entire field of study could (and should) be devoted to the origins of band names.

In early ‘82, the first single sprung into being for Prefab Sprout. ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ had been turned down by several major labels, so the band financed the pressing of a thousand copies, and released it on their own Candle label. The song title forms an acronym that references the French city of Limoges, where McAloon’s former girlfriend had moved to study (he was apparently pining). The limited release run sold out quickly enough, and also attracted the attention of record store owner Keith Armstrong, who had recently launched his own independent label, Kitchenware. McAloon and co. were naturally concerned about the potential of being marketed as cutlery, but Armstrong convinced them that he could also market their music, and so the Prefab Four, sorry Sprout, signed on the dotted line. During this period, the band had expanded to a quartet, with the addition of an early fan by the name of Wendy Smith. Smith’s breathy, soprano range vocals would add a new dimension to the Prefab Sprout sound, and act as an effective counterpoint to Paddy McAloon’s lead. The template would be followed a few years later by their Glaswegian counterparts, Deacon Blue (see previous posts), a band whose jazz/soul tinged pop roots also harked back to Steely Dan, and whose sound echoed much of what was to come from Prefab Sprout. Their debut single was re-released in May of ‘83 on the Kitchenware label, and was followed up a few months later by ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’, which garnered solid airplay, and flirted with the indie charts. Interest in the band had escalated to the point where Armstrong was able to arrange an eight album distribution deal through C.B.S. affiliate Epic.

In January of ‘84, Prefab Sprout released their first single via Epic, and ‘Don’t Sing’ managed to make inroads into the mainstream British charts (#64). By February, the band’s debut album hit shelves, and after said shelves were repaired, soon had fans, and several pop music critics, swooning in admiration. ‘Swoon’ boasted an exciting mélange of catchy, jazz-infused pop, laced with McAloon’s articulate, and meticulously woven lyrics, and sophisticated arrangements. The ‘Swoon’ set was described in some quarters as being a wee bit inaccessible on the surface, due in part to some of the song’s complexities, with opposing elements at times tripping over one another, but it must have exuded enough surface charm to lure listeners into pushing it to #22 on the British charts. In the liner notes to Prefab’s best of, McAloon refers to the band having laid down the backing tracks for the album in a single afternoon, giving them a further month to refine the sound with producer David Brewis. During the early sessions for the album, original drummer Mick Salmon had left the band to swim upstream, and session player Graham Lant was brought in to complete the job. The task of finding a replacement drummer became problematic, and the band went through a plethora of players over the ensuing months, for live and session work. Some of that live work included touring with Elvis Costello in early ‘84, who like many others, had been impressed by Prefab’s early work. Another to become enamoured with the band, was electro-pop guru Thomas Dolby (see previous post), who would soon strike up a fruitful working partnership with Prefab Sprout.

By mid ‘84, Prefab Sprout had finally found the right man for the drumming job, in Neil Conti, and having enlisted the production services of Thomas Dolby, they began work on material for a second album. In October of ‘84, the lead out single, ‘When Love Breaks Down’, was released for the first of what would be five attempts to break the song over an eighteen month period (though on first release it only managed to crawl to UK#89). After another failed attempt to launch ‘When Love Breaks Down’, the band’s next single, ‘Faron Young’ (UK#74), provided the official appetizer for Prefab Sprout’s follow up main dish. The album ‘Steve McQueen’ was released in Britain during June of ‘85, but due to objections from the estate of the late actor Steve McQueen, its title was changed to ‘Two Wheels Good’ for its eventual release Stateside. Producer Thomas Dolby (who also contributed keyboards) used his innate pop sensibilities to help McAloon and co. focus their energies to arrive at a more cohesive, and more openly accessible collection of songs. The album took less than a month to record, and maybe that helped in yielding a tighter sound.

The cover art for ‘Steve McQueen’ (US#21/OZ#48/US#180) featured the band posing on a motorcycle, very much like the one used by McQueen in the classic film ‘The Great Escape’ (though it’s unclear which Stalag they commandeered it from), and it was an obvious homage to one of McAloon’s cult heroes. It was just one facet of Paddy McAloon’s general fascination with American culture, and his song lyrics often made reference, or paid direct homage, to individual icons and legends of popular culture, and on occasion parodied elements of said popular culture. Several tracks on the album made direct reference/tribute to some of McAloon’s musical heroes, including the country-tinged ‘Faron Young’ (an American country singer), and a tribute to soul legend Marvin Gaye on ‘When The Angels’. The rich melodies that bubbled beneath the surface on ‘Swoon’, burst forth this time around. McAloon’s innate musical quirkiness was still evident, and his mischievous, and at moments oblique wordplay, still permeated the lyrical content. The ‘Steve McQueen’ album went on to be voted #4 in New Musical Express’ annual ‘Album of the Year’ reader’s poll for 1985, and was generally hailed by critics as one of the year’s best. The silky smooth ‘Appetite’ promised to break Prefab Sprout in Australia (#45), whilst ‘When Love Breaks Down’ finally broke down the chart barriers (or jumped them on a motorcycle) to peak at #25 in Britain late in ‘85 (having charted in Australia back in March - #55). One more single, the heartfelt ‘Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)’, hit the British charts (#64) early in ‘86, rounding out a stellar twelve months for Prefab Sprout. Though Thomas Dolby had covered much of the keyboard role in studio, an important auxiliary member of the Prefabs during this period was keyboardist Michael Graves, and guitarist Kevin Armstrong also supplemented the live roster. After the first stage of the support tour, which included a jaunt to Japan, the band had returned to the studio (minus Thomas Dolby) during mid ‘85, with the intention of recording an album, to be released as a limited edition souvenir for the next stage of their tour. But due to the sleeper single ‘When Love Breaks Down’ finally waking up, the band’s label held back release of the material, feeling that the current album still had some sales life left in it. The shelved material gathered dust for a further two years, and in between, Prefab Sprout would score the biggest selling album of their career to date.

1 comment:

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

Here in the States, the Sprouts are undoubtedly one of the most criminally overlooked and underappreciated acts of the past twenty-five years. Nice to see them get some love.