[sic] Magazine

Prefab Sprout – Steve McQueen (1985)

“you surely are…
… a truly gifted kid…”.

Prefab Sprouts second (and to my mind, greatest) album is, like everything wonderful in life, the product of talent, dedication and blind chance. Talent because Paddy McAloon was ‘probably the best songwriter on the planet’ (His words but you’ll hear no dissent from me). Dedication because the band Paddy formed with his brother Martin amassed a body of 50+ songs over several years, many of which resided in a shoe box in Paddys bedroom.

And the luck? That was falling onto the radar of a certain Thomas Dolby.

Prefab Sprout (clunkily named after a misheard lyric) had garnered airtime on the legendary John Peel evening radio show. ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’, ‘Cruel’ and the wan harmonica of ‘Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ likely formed the backdrop to many a late night, student homework session. This formative material contained pointers toward Steve McQueen but the ambition of McAloon’s early songwriting wasn’t yet matched by its production values.

Enter Mr Thomas Morgan (Dolby) Robertson.

Dolby first heard the band when participating to a Radio 1 jury show called Roundtable. Whilst the rest of the panel roundly mocked Sprout single, ‘Don’t Sing’, Dolby admitted to ‘quite liking’ the fledgling track for its sheer difference. Shortly afterward he was invited to meet the band and produce their second LP. Dolby recalls immediately noting the contrasting vocals of McAloon (arch and waspish) and Wendy Smith (syrup sweet). Theirs wasn’t always the most harmonious blend on debut album Swoon but Thomas knew he could mix the two voices to far greater effect. Thus, in Dolbys hands baffling “Bo Be”s gave way to sensational “Johnny Johnny ooh”s and a shimmering collection of practically perfect pop was born.

Steve McQueen has one of the most flawless Side 1’s in the history of vinyl. As the dusty wagon ride of opening track ‘Faron Young’ segues into ‘Bonny’ (one of my favourite songs of all time) you quickly realise that you’ve stumbled across something magical. Notable pair ‘When Love Breaks Down’ and ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ are both widely known and the sublime ‘Appetite’ bows to no track on this record.

“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”

Few artists can raise a smile and break a heart in the space of a chord change. Yet this is Prefab Sprouts modus operandi. McAloons’ worldly-wise lyrics seem at odds with his youthful age (22 at the time most of Steve McQueen was written) but it isn’t the only sleight of hand here. The music is also pulling a fast one on the listener. This is Steve McQueens’ enduring charm. It’s an album where rock ‘n’ roll not only sits comfortably alongside Broadway but makes sense in doing so. McAloons’ wild creativity, wry sense of humour and penchant for the off-kilter could easily push any output toward parody. (Hot dog, anyone?) Yet with Dolby at the reigns Prefab Sprout were able to subvert genres whilst simultaneously transcending them.

Paddy McAloon reflects upon Steve McQueen as being more of a Thomas Dolby album than Prefab Sprouts. If so, it’s Dolbys best too. For McAloon everything begins and ends with songwriting. He could barely stand touring as he felt it was a distraction from writing. Even the recording of existing/old material was secondary to the creation of new for Paddy. Yet for Dolby it all started with the arrangements.

Theirs may have been the unlikeliest of pairings but it paid off handsomely with each man effectively completing the other. McAloon supplied the lightning. It took Thomas Dolby to trap it in a bottle.

At the time critics tagged them as sophisti pop. To be lumped into a scene with the likes of Style Council and Deacon Blue must have rankled with McAloon who had been critical of the likes of Weller, as well as Costello and Lowe in the past. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Prefab Sprout despite their output providing ample evidence that they far transcended such pigeonholing.

The group would continue to hit plenty of soaring heights after Steve McQueen but never made a record quite as complete. Double album opus Jordan: The Comeback arguably came closest. Look out for the re-release of that one as it is another ‘must have’ in my book.

Steve McQueen was released under the title Two Wheels Good in the USA. A “legacy edition” double CD was released in 2007 with the second disc featuring acoustic versions of the more significant songs. This took longer to record than the original album. Of more recent times Paddy has suffered with hearing and eyesight problem and [sic] Magazine wishes him well with his continued recovery.

i trawl the MEGAHERTZ is out now on Liberty Records.

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Thomas Dolby – The Golden Age Of Wireless – Classic Album Feature.