Following the breakthrough success of the ‘Steve McQueen’ album, Prefab Sprout had been lauded for their lush post-modern brand of pop, and McAloon was hailed as a wordsmith of like stature to contemporaries Elvis Costello, and Chris Difford (of Squeeze).
It was over two years before Prefab Sprout resurfaced with their third album, ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’. The title referred to Langley Park in the McAloon’s home district of County Durham, and Memphis, Tennessee, and presumably represented a symbolic bridge between Paddy McAloon and one of his idols, Elvis Presley, or in a broader representation, his iconoclastic take on American popular culture. The lead out single, ‘Cars And Girls’, geared up for action in February of ‘88, and drove onto the British charts soon after (#44/OZ#41). The sunny and alluring pop-rock number shimmered with splendour, but lyrically Paddy McAloon was actually taking a genial swipe at Bruce Springsteen’s allegedly narrow lyrical predisposition to cars and girls. The track also became an underground favourite on U.S. college radio, though mainstream success Stateside continued (and would continue) to elude Prefab Sprout. Thomas Dolby was on hand to produce a handful of tracks on the ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ set, with Jon Kelly and the band handling the balance. It was arguably the band’s most ambitious effort to date, with McAloon’s writing and musical arrangements pushing back boundaries, though its lushness of production alienated some core fans. Prefab Sprout reached the upper echelons of pop extravagance on tracks such as ‘Hey Manhattan!’ (UK#72), drenched in sweeping orchestrations, and ‘Venus In The Soup Kitchen’, the latter a homage to gospel music, featuring backing from gospel act The Andrae Crouch Singers. Such was the burgeoning reputation of McAloon and Co., that the legendary Stevie Wonder dropped by to deliver his virtuoso harmonica playing on the track ‘Nightingales’, whilst the Who’s Pete Townshend was on hand to wield his trademark axe (‘Hey Manhattan!’).
But the surge of ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ to #5 on the U.K. album charts (OZ#58), owed much to the runaway success of the single, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, released in April of ‘88. Rightly or wrongly, the quirky, synth-laced track, produced by Dolby, would become Prefab Sprout’s best known song, to the public at large. The accompanying promo video (featuring dancing hotdogs), and the simplistic, if irresistible hooks, led some to think of the song as being a children’s tune, but lyrically ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ had a more meaningful undercurrent. McAloon alludes to the sorry tale of a washed up 50’s rock star, and one hit wonder, consigned to living out his performance shelf life churning out the same hit over and over on the nostalgia circuit. Whilst Prefab Sprout were far from being one hit wonders, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ became far and away their biggest hit single in Britain (#7). Not bad for a song written inside of twenty minutes, and regarded by McAloon himself, as being a bit of an embarrassment (in terms of his status as a serious musician).
On the tale end of activity associated with ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’, the long shelved album sessions from mid ‘85 were dusted off, and released in June of ‘89, under the title of ‘Protest Songs’ (UK#18). The thematic ‘protest’ behind the songs was apparently against life in general, or the drudgery of daily existence, as opposed to espousing any specific political or social manifesto. It was generally a low key affair, and was regarded by many as being a ‘filler’ album, while Prefab Sprout began preparations for their next ‘album proper’. But to give ‘Protest Songs’ its due, the album featured much of the same shimmering pop charisma, and intriguing lyrics, as had defined its chronological predecessor ‘Steve McQueen’.
It wasn’t such a prolonged wait for the much anticipated arrival of Prefab Sprout’s next album of fresh material. With a reputed production budget of half a million, the suits at Epic/CBS were no doubt sweating on the release of ‘Jordan: The Comeback’, earning its keep. The lead out single, ‘Looking For Atlantis’ (UK#51), hit the charts in August of ‘90, and was the opening salvo on a mammoth nineteen track album. The quasi-concept album encompassed a myriad of musical influences, from airy synth-pop, to samba, doo wop and most points in between, all encased within an ornately arranged structure. As far as concepts go, McAloon tackled some of the big picture existential and spiritual notions, tied to his fascination with some of the iconic figures of American popular culture, notably Fred Astaire, Howard Hughes, Jesse James and Elvis Presley, the latter being the subject of a four song suite, that comprised the cornerstone of the album. The U.S. wasn’t ready to digest such a lengthy and comprehensive pop opus, but the album chalked up Prefab Sprout’s second top ten effort in Britain (#7), and was nominated for ‘Best Album’ at the Brit Awards. In spite of its sheer scale, producer Thomas Dolby and McAloon managed to retain a strong sense of unique melodic identity in each individual track, whilst melding the pieces together seamlessly to form a cohesive and sweeping canvass of aural textures that evoked a strong sense of the visual (it seemed like a rock opera in waiting). The follow up single, the beguiling ‘We Let The Stars Go’ (UK#50), was bathed in pure, crystalline harmonies, whilst the samba inflected ‘Carnival 2000’ was a stand out track on the associated four track EP release, that climbed to UK#35 in early ’91.
Paddy McAloon’s appetite for the concept album had been well and truly wetted by ‘Jordan’, and he began work almost immediately on a follow up album, with a working title of ‘Earth: The Story So Far’ - can’t get more grandiose in thematic scale than that. Dolby stayed on to work with the Prefab’s on piecing the album together, but Epic/CBS read the lay of the popular music land, and judged that the people of Earth were not yet ready for another album of such epic scope and scale, and thus it never saw the light of day. Instead, the suits proposed that McAloon consider writing material for a more traditional pop album style outing for Prefab Sprout. McAloon went away to ponder the proposal for a period, during which he penned some songs for the BBC-TV mini-series ‘Crocodile Shoes’, starring Jimmy Nail (see earlier post) as an aspiring country and western singer.
July ‘92 saw the release of the ‘best of’ album, ‘A Life Of Surprises’, which included the usual suspects for a Prefab Sprout highlights package, along with two newly recorded tracks. One of those tracks, the smooth and seductive ‘The Sound Of Crying’ (UK#23 - produced by Steve Lipson), was the lead out single, and proved an enticing appetizer for a sumptuous dish of Prefab Sprout that followed. It was no surprise when ‘A Life Of Surprises’ ascended to a peak of #3 on the British charts, but aside from the next associated single, ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, scoring the band a surprise #3 hit on the U.S. dance charts (UK#33), the Prefab’s commercial success remained largely confined to home territory. Aside from their inclination toward high concept style albums, another reason may have been a recent lack of touring, which McAloon himself made reference to in the liner notes for ‘A Life Of Surprises’. The package spawned two more singles, both of which were resurrected from earlier career work. The dreamy ‘All The World Loves Lovers’ (UK#61), had originally featured on the ‘Jordan’ set, and ‘Life Of Surprises’ (UK#24), retrieved from the ‘Protest Songs’ sessions of ‘85, hinted at the depth in quality of material that Paddy McAloon had penned over the previous decade.
With the resounding vote in confidence offered Prefab Sprout by the platinum sales of their ‘best of’ set, it seems a little odd in hindsight, that McAloon and the band virtually dropped off the map for the next five years (though McAloon kept himself busy with various and sundry ideas for more concept albums). Sometime between 1992 and 1997, drummer Neil Conti left the band or was let go, and Prefab Sprout returned in 1997 as the trio of Paddy McAloon, Martin McAloon, and Wendy Smith. The album, ‘Andromeda Heights’, hit stores in May of ‘97, and almost immediately hit the British charts, a Sprout-hungry public pushing it to a peak at #7 (though it only spent one week inside the top ten). The album was imbued with a more laid back and inviting feel, and once more featured lush orchestral sequences, this time performed by the ‘Andromeda Heights Orchestra’, which was essentially the three remaining members of Prefab Sprout using a lot of cutting edge recording technology and overdubs. As had been the case for some time, Paddy McAloon was the chief driving force behind the album’s overarching sound and theme (assuming production duties), and his strong sense of melody and wordplay remained consistent. The lead out single ‘A Prisoner Of The Past’ was premiered in Britain via a performance on the National Lottery television programme - can’t quite see the connection, other than it presumably rates highly. At any rate, the song delivered Prefab Sprout their most recent foray into the top 50 (UK#30). The gently soothing feel of the follow up single, ‘Electric Guitars’ (UK#53), belied its title, though did boast some crystalline guitar work.
To mark the end of Prefab Sprout’s tenure at Epic/CBS, the label released the double CD anthology, ‘The 38 Carat Collection’, in 1999. The following year, Prefab Sprout hit the road for the first time in a decade, though minus Wendy Smith, who had just had a baby. Neil Conti rejoined on drums, and Jess Bailey was brought in on keyboards and vocals. Soon after the tours conclusion, Prefab Sprout, now reduced to the in-studio duo of the McAloon brothers, commenced work on their first album for new label EMI. 2001’s ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ (UK#60) marked a return to the concept album for Prefab Sprout, and as the title suggested, ran with the American ‘wild west’ theme throughout. Veteran producer Tony Visconti took some of the pressure off Paddy McAloon, by handling the balance between orchestral parts, and more traditional rock music elements. Highlights included the nine minute ‘mini-operetta’ title track, and the albums opening salvo, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, had originally charted in 1995, though for his old mate Jimmy Nail. In 2003, Paddy McAloon released his first ‘official’ solo album, titled ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’. Over the period of the early 00’s, McAloon had experienced some ongoing health issues, related to both his sight and hearing, which placed a question mark on his future career. After a long delay, 2007 saw the release of a remastered version of the ‘Steve McQueen’ album, featuring a bonus disc comprising McAloon performing eight of the songs (radically rearranged) on acoustic guitar. As at time of writing, word is out that a new Prefab Sprout album is due for release during the first half of ‘09, under the working title of ‘Let’s Change The World With Music - The Blueprint’, though details of who is involved are yet to be confirmed.
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