Prefab Sprout, "Crimson/Red"
Posted by Bo Ellegaard on May 22, 2014 0 Comments
With the advent of the recent album "Crimson/Red" from Prefab Sprout, last October, County Durham´s proudest have returned to form.
This time around decimated to only one member: singer, songwriter, guitarist etc. Paddy McAloon! Yet the sound and feel of the record is unmistakenly "Prefab Sprout" and their take on trying to create the perfect pop album...yet again!
All along Paddy McAloon has been striving for perfection and more than once he and his band have come close.
This time after having to fight both an eye disease as well as Tinnitus he has singlehandedly executed playing almost all instruments and all the singing except for a little help from brother Martin, a nephew and a drum machine. The result is classic "Prefab Sprout" and wheather you like the drum machine or not "Crimson/Red" easily adds to the long line of fine crafted albums!
On such an occasion it is always interesting to take stock and look to a band´s back catalogue especially for the newcomer.
In this case an unfashionable and almost forgotten band from Northern England called Prefab Sprout formed back in 1978!
And what kind of name is that?
If you have seen The Rutles-movie called "All You Need Is Cash", the mockumentary film on The Beatles, in which the four members of The Rutles are referred to as "The Prefab Four" (-meaning their claim to "fab.-dom" dates even before "The (real) Fab Four" (nickname of The Beatles early on). Trying to find a name for your band instead of "Four" I have always thought that Paddy McAloon just found a name at random and why not "sprout"?
This made perfect sense to me all these years and it wasn´t until surfing around the internet (Thank God for Google!!) that I saw it was suggested that Paddy McAloon when listening to the song "Jackson" by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood singing: "We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout" thought he heard them singing "..hotter than a prefab sprout" and simply lifted this expression as a fitting name for his band. Other sources claim that it was just a young Paddy McAloon finding this silly name on a whim.
Formed in the late 1970´s Prefab Sprout were two brothers Paddy McAloon and his little brother Martin who played bass and Michael Salmon drums.
In the beginning they just wanted to be accepted as a band in their own right and if possible make a record.
They picked two songs to be suited for the debut: a self-financed 7" single "Lions In My Own Garden:Exit Someone" b/w "Radio Love", issued on the Candle indie label. (The story goes that Paddy McAloon´s former girlfriend had moved to France of all places and what do you do being a literature graduate with a broken heart: you make up a song title from the L, the i, the m and the rest of the letters in (French town) Limoges and naturally (!) end up with the title of the above debut single.
But it was Newcastle-based Kitchenware Records that made it possible for Prefab Sprout to get a career started releasing their debut album "Swoon" in 1984. With this album they entered a long line of melodic guitar-oriented bands right from The Beatles early on via The Buzzcocks´ pop-punk of 1978 arriving together with other contenders from all over England for the next big movement of the new decade like Monochrome Set, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice (in no particular order!)...
As indicated in the title of the debut 7"´s a-side and again in several of the songs´ titles off "Swoon" it seemed that the songwriter Paddy McAloon was almost too clever and literary when it came to the craft of making, well...just pop music.
All these beautiful songs, (I agree today ......) with lyrics about: being "crueler than cruel", wheather you should or should not play basketball, a song about (chess wiz kid) Bobby Fischer, to be "out on the Erie" (?) or pay contributions to urban blues(??), or even a song about working at the Jordrell Bank (Observatory) (???)... but (whatever you do): "don´t blame Mexico!" !!
This combined with tunes containing odd time signature, strange chord changes and breaks- something normally connected with jazz. Could this really be pop music?
I must add here that the voice of Paddy McAloon is an instrument in itself, able to express all kinds of emotions from a deep singing voice to a high pitched one, which also covers a falsetto!
It certainly took a lot of playing to get into but "Swoon" has mellowed over the years and I find today that it has aged very well.
With the benefit of hindsight it is interesting to find that right from the start Paddy McAloon´s lyrics show a fascination with "The Sky". Here in the broadest meaning of the word both regarding astrology themes as well as the obvious religious ones:
Singing to a "Stella Mater" in "Green Isaac", in "Ghost Town Blues" he sings: "But God made the stars while He fashioned the sky" and about the very smart people who must have "four distinguished A-level-passes" to be able to look at the stars at the Jordrell Bank Observatory.
These themes go on for years to come as we will see.
The next year their second album was more straightforward songwise- apart from the title: "Steve McQueen". This caused Prefab Sprout to change its title to "Two Wheels Good" in the US due to the late actor´s estate´s wishes.
This time more instruments were added to the delicately delivered songs- one about a relatively unknown country singer "Faron Young", "Appetite" and "Goodbye Lucille No.1" plus a beautiful lost-love song "When Love Breaks Down"- all four also issued on 7 and 12" singles. A very promising follow up to the somewhat brainy guitar jangling debut.
These two albums were relatively successfull and charted at no. 22 and 21 respectively in the UK.
Something had to be done to keep the momentum but what? Prefab Sprout then recorded an album´s worth of songs to be known as "Protest Songs" a collection of beautiful almost acoustic songs they suddenly decided to postpone. Perhaps because they were too close in style to "Steve McQueen", "Protest Songs" was shelved.
What now? Well Paddy had a plan: Just write some new songs to record -preferably good ones. And they better contain that all important hit single!
The producer from "Steve McQueen", Thomas Dolby was commissioned this time to polish their sound even more adding some beautiful harmonica from Stevie Wonder and nice guitar strumming courtesy of The Who´s Pete Townsend. "From Langley Park To Memphis" was released in 1988 and was an instant success charting at no. 5 and the single "The King Of Rock ´n´ Roll" charted for 10 weeks peaking at no. 7.
Some will even remember its rediculous video with a frog as bartender and dancing hot dogs around a swimming pool in eighties-colours style.
This was as close to the perfect pop record possible for any band to create. With a sound so "big" and frictionless that it was almost too smooth for its own sake.
I find that listening to it today it still contains beautiful songs but with the typical eighties digital studio sound the songs are killed by the production and its awash of synths.
Prefab Sprout have certainly come a long way since "Swoon" but were they on the right path, you could ask?
The answer was given by the Prefabs themselves. A year later the abandoned "Protest Songs" was released without any singles or fuss. Just.....a collection of the songs themselves!
One tune "Pearly Gates" again draws on the "Sky-songs" theme. This time with its religious theme.
The album has a nice soft touch overall compared to "Memphis" with Paddy McAloon´s singing simply stunning and Wendy Smith´s gossamer voice added to great effect. Wendy Smith had joined the band in 1983.
The synths are now underlining the songs rather than overwhelming them and listening to "Protest Songs" these days is a joy and I think some of the softer songs even fits nicely with all the acoustic nu-folk bands around.
The most spectacular about Prefab Sprout in the late 80´s is that the best was yet to come!!
At least if you by "the best" mean the most well prepared and -executed album with its various themes visited over and over in small segments throughout the album. I hesitate to call this a "concept album" because there are too many things going on here to use this limited term.
The album in question is "Jordan: The Comeback" in 1990.
64 minutes of songs concerning themes as diverse as Elvis waiting for the right song for his comeback; about the blonde singer in Abba and the search for Plato´s sunken continent no less. Oh and did I forget to mention (the voice of) "God"? Even "Carneval 2000"´s latin-feel celebration of the next mellenium.
I see "Jordan: The Comeback" as a whole pop symphony where the different movements of the symphony contain the different themes mentioned above. In the hands of lesser talents this would be an impossible task to orchestrate but for Paddy McAloon and the band nothing could hold them back then from producing an album that still sends shivers down your spine when heard today. It does down mine, anyway!
It deservedly scored them both fortune and fame via fantastic reviews and decent sales. Perhaps they would have liked it the other way around?
For the Prefab Sprout novice of today my advice will be to attack this album with patience and simply listen responsibly to coin a phrase. You must not let the light breezy sound of various instruments including all the synthesizers you could ask for plus all the singing voices of Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith set in rhythms of straight 4/4 or even calypso or 6/4 fool you to think that this is mere pop. Well, it is pop indeed, but the sort of pop that requires your full attention as well as several listenings to be fair to "Jordan: The Comeback".
Then a period of 19 years spawning only three Prefab Sprout albums including "Andromeda Hights" where the sky-theme again is the centerpiece of this album.
"The Gunman And Other Stories" is Prefab Sprout´s western movie set to music! Containing songs Paddy McAloon wrote for Jimmy Nail and Cher now "covered" by the composer and his band.
Duelling banjos,.....oh, sorry wrong movie- but inspired by western movies Paddy McAloon sings about cowboys while strumming his banjo ´till the cows come home.
An album around a Zorro-theme has often been mentioned by Paddy McAloon as his labour of love but it has to this day never materialised.
2009´s "Let´s Change The World With Music" is simply an ode to the love of ......music!
I have skipped the 2003 solo-CD "I Trawl The MegaHertz" by Paddy McAloon here because it is quite different to Prefab Sprout´s output and almost instrumental.
The above mentioned releases from "Andromeda Hights" to "Let´s Change...." are only released on CD. An appropriate task for the proprietor of 1st Time Records could be that perhaps this time he would set the record straight(!) and transfer these to glorious vinyl!!!
And then again we land with the latest album, 2013´s "Crimson/Red" which inspired me to write this blog. This would also be a nice place to start should you want to explore the wonderful world of Prefab Sprout, but be warned... don´t let Paddy McAloon´s Old Testament-looks fool you!!!