English sophisti-pop band Prefab Sprout date back to 1970s art-rock; leader Paddy McAloon was sent a rejection letter by Brian Eno’s record label in 1976. They didn’t release their debut album Swoon until 1984, by which time the lineup had solidified. Paddy McAloon was joined by his brother Martin on bass, Neil Conti on drums, and Wendy Smith on backing vocals.
There are differing theories on where Prefab Sprout got their name. My favourite is a misheard lyric from Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood’s 1967 hit ‘Jackson’ (“We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout”).
Paddy McAloon expected debut Swoon to be bigger than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but it’s a demanding listen; songs like ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ are packed with crazy chord sequences, delivered with a touch of post-punk rawness. Prefab Sprout streamlined their sound for 1985’s Steve McQueen, and prospered over the next five years. Their biggest hit was the 1988 novelty ‘The King of Rock’n’Roll’ – McAloon later told the Express that “it’s a bit like being known for Yellow Submarine rather than Hey Jude”.
Prefab Sprout’s output slowed after 1990’s ambitious double album Jordan: The Comeback, but there have been gems among the later releases. McAloon’s solo release I Trawl The Megahertz was as close to classical as to pop. The highlights of 2013’s Crimson/Red recall the energy and tunefulness of Steve McQueen.
Paddy McAloon is a great pop writer, and Prefab Sprout have released a lot of great material. You could easily make a very strong list with ten entirely different songs. I’ve made a list with choices spread throughout their career, but another fan’s list could easily include the entire first side of 1985’s Steve McQueen or highlights from Jordan: The Comeback.
Ten Best Prefab Sprout Songs
#10 – Billy
from Crimson/Red, 2013
By 2013, Prefab Sprout was effectively a name for Paddy McAloon’s solo endeavours; he played all the instruments and provided all the vocals for ‘Billy’. There’s a great bass-line and his vocals have barely aged. McAloon typically uses complex chord structures, but ‘Billy’ cycles through the same five chords for its entirety. Its breezy and fun, with McAloon charmingly cycling the subject’s name between “Bill”, “William”, and “Billy”.
#9 – Scarlet Nights
from Jordan: The Comeback, 1990
The double album Jordan: The Comeback allows McAloon space to explore some of his lyrical obsessions; over its running time, he examines Elvis Presley, death, and God. ‘Scarlet Nights’ is arguably the most uplifting song about dying ever recorded; “This is where you’ll wake/To find the river, Jordan, flows.”
#8 – Faron Young
from Steve McQueen/Two Wheels Good, 1985
Prefab Sprout’s best-known album opens with a rockabilly-tinged song named for country star Faron Young. The song opens with the word “antiques” – apparently McAloon had written the music but was struggling for the lyrics, and asked then-drummer Michael Salmon for a random word to spark his lyric-writing process. “Antiques” leads into one of my favourite Sprout lyrics; “As obsolete as warships in the Baltic”.
#7 – Cornfield Ablaze
from The Gunman and Other Stories, 2001
The Gunman and Other Stories is one of McAloon’s weaker records, a clearing house of songs written for other artists like Jimmy Nail. The pop/rock of ‘Cornfield Ablaze’ is the clear highlight, combining metaphors for farming and Roman gods into a tale of helpless lust – “You were the love child of two gods/I was the farmers awkward son.”
#6 – I Remember That
from From Langley Park to Memphis, 1988
Paddy McAloon’s always had a sentimental streak, but it’s rendered palatable by his musical and lyrical sophistication. The music video for ‘I Remember That’ situates the band in an early 20th century jazz club. The lyrics are sharp enough not to wallow in romantic nostalgia; “there’s nothing pathetic listing clothes she’d wear/If it proves that I had you, if it proves I was there.” I only had room for one pick from 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis, but I would have liked to include McAloon’s affectionate ribbing of Bruce Springsteen on ‘Cars and Girls’.
#5 – The World Awake
from Protest Songs, 1989
Protest Songs was originally scheduled as a followup to Steve McQueen – it was announced for December 1985, but wasn’t in stores until 1989. It’s low-key, with an indie guitar-pop sound, but it’s a substantial entry into Prefab Sprout’s catalogue. I particularly enjoy the opening track, ‘The World Awake’, which presents a typically complex McAloon song in a low-key arrangement.
#4 – The Best Jewel Thief in the World
from Crimson/Red, 2013
Paddy McAloon has grown a long white beard, but he still sounds youthful – he even makes the word “assholes” sound exquisite. 2013’s ‘The Best Jewel Thief in the World’ is impressively energetic and melodic. It’s McAloon’s best song of the 21st century, even though it’s hamstrung by a poor music video; the fan-made version (presented below) is much better.
#3 – Appetite
from Steve McQueen, 1985
A key figure behind Prefab Sprout between 1985 and 1990 was producer Thomas Dolby. The tech genius added a sophisticated synth sheen to McAloon’s compositions, and treated Wendy Smith’s voice to sound like another instrument. ‘Appetite’ is my favourite from the album’s first side, the primal urge of lust presented with sophistication.
#2 – The Ice Maiden
from Jordan: The Comeback, 1990
‘The Ice Maiden’ was inspired from youthful memories of watching ABBA on TV, but it quickly escalates an examination into mortality. “Death is a small price for heaven” is the most memorable line. Driven by an electronic pulse, it packs a lot into a little over three minutes; Wendy Smith’s prominent vocals, a dramatic key change, and Paddy McAloon’s chunky guitar riffing. It culminates in screams before abruptly segueing to the whimsical ‘Paris Smith’.
The End of the Affair
1997’s Andromeda Heights is one of Prefab Sprout’s weaker records, but my favourite Prefab Sprout is outtake ‘The End of the Affair’. It’s more sentimental and string-laden than most of Prefab Sprout’s work, but it’s a beautiful tune. Prefab Sprout have some other great b-sides too; other notable efforts include 1985’s ‘Donna Summer’ and the rocking ‘Nero the Zero’.
Here’s a playlist – Spotify didn’t have some of the above songs, so I subbed in the entire first side of Steve McQueen, as well as ‘Cars and Girls’.
Are you a fan of Prefab Sprout? What are your favourite songs from the band?