Formed around the songwriting talents of Durham’s Paddy McAloon, Prefab Sprout enjoyed some commercial success in the 1980s and early 1990s, but have been relegated to the status of cult band ever since. It’s a shame, as McAloon is a very talented songwriter; he’s able to integrate complex chord structures into catchy pop songs, and his lyrics are often filled with clever wordplay and his preoccupations with mortality, religion, and stardom.
Paddy McAloon is clearly the central figure of the group, to the point where Prefab Sprout’s latest two albums were recorded by him alone, however during the group’s heyday he was supported by three other core members. Drummer Neil Conti was low key and meshed well with the group’s sound, and out of all the group’s supporting members he’s had the most high profile career outside the band, running a recording studio and playing in Bowie’s band. The most distinctive member was backing singer Wendy Smith, whose treated “oohs” were woven into the band’s textures by producer Thomas Dolby. The longest serving supporting member was Paddy’s brother Martin, who played bass.
The group broke through to mainstream attention with their second album, Steve McQueen, where Thomas Dolby’s production and editing helped tone down the precociousness of McAloon into a strong pop album. Steve McQueen is probably the best place to start with Prefab Sprout, although I think 1990’s sprawling Jordan: The Comeback is their masterpiece. The group lost momentum after Jordan, as record company miscommunication sabotaged the followup album, but McAloon has released some strong material in the 21st century, particularly his 2003 solo album I Trawl The Megahertz and 2013’s Crimson/Red.
The band started their career as a 1980s guitar band, albeit one with ambitious chord changes and arrangements. As their career progressed they have shown an inclination towards adult contemporary; while McAloon’s warm voice and complex chord progressions fit the genre well, it can still be off-putting. But generally, McAloon’s inventive song-craft and likeable personality make the group compelling for me, even when I find albums like the orchestrated ballads of Andromeda Heights or the country flavours of The Gunman and Other Stories stylistically unappealing.
Prefab Sprout also have plenty of interesting non-album material which has never been collected onto CD – early singles like ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ are well worth tracking down, and my favourite Prefab Sprout song is 1997’s b-side ‘The End of the Affair’, originally written for Cher. Rumour has it that McAloon has albums full of unreleased material, including a concept record about Michael Jackson and an album full of songs titled ‘Goodbye Lucille’.
Prefab Sprout Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Jordan: The Comeback
Overlooked Gem: Crimson/Red
Paddy McAloon, looking back on his band’s debut in 2013, stated “We thought that for all the intricate twists and turns of the music, even a record like Swoon would be as big as Thriller.” Swoon is the album equivalent of an over eager puppy – its songs are stuffed with complex chord changes and time signatures, and precocious lyrics. At the same time, the production is far less elaborate than later albums, and it’s more of an indie guitar album than their later work.
Some fans swear by Swoon as one of Prefab Sprout’s best albums, but it took me a long time to warm to it, as there’s so much happening. ‘Cue Fanfare’ is a good example of the album’s dense and skewed nature, with its references to “Playing for blood as grandmasters should,” and McAloon’s yelped falsetto and synthesizer stabs. ‘Don’t Sing’ was the single, and it’s probably the most accessible song, while under the busy arrangement, ‘Cruel’ has a torch song vibe.
Swoon is a polarising album since it’s so unique, and I wouldn’t recommend starting here, since it’s so dizzying and overwhelming at first.
Steve McQueen was re-titled Two Wheels Good for the US market after legal difficulties with McQueen’s estate; it established their career in the UK after ‘When Love Breaks Down’ became a successful single on its third release. The major change for Prefab Sprout’s sophomore effort was Thomas Dolby collaborating as their producer; Dolby had spoken favourably of ‘Don’t Sing’ from Swoon, and the band contacted him to produce their second album. Dolby chose his favourite songs out of 40-50 that McAloon had written, and provided a lush production job that complements the literate lyrics – Wendy Smith’s vocals are processed in ways that sometimes make her sound like a synthesiser. The precociousness and frenzy of Swoon is toned back, and while there are still complex chord changes and lyrics on Steve McQueen, it’s a lot more accessible.
Steve McQueen has two clear halves; the first side is built around accessible and upbeat pop songs, while the second side is more esoteric. The hits on the first side include the rockabilly of ‘Faron Young’, and the perfect pop of ‘Appetite’, while the title ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’ apparently refers to the fact that McAloon had written a full album of songs with named Goodbye Lucille. There’s more clever pop like ‘Movin’ The River’ and ‘Hallelujah’ on the second side, but there’s also slowed down material like ‘Blueberry Pies’ and ‘When The Angels’.
Steve McQueen is a timeless and near perfect collection of intelligent pop songs.
Steve McQueen was re-released in 2007 with a bonus disc of eight newly recorded acoustic versions by McAloon. They’re gorgeous, and underline how strong the material on the album is.
From Langley Park to Memphis
Even though Steve McQueen had some production sheen, it was essentially still an indie guitar album. From Langley Park to Memphistakes Prefab Sprout in a more adult contemporary direction – McAloon has stated that he was writing show tunes during this period. There’s an Americana theme, with songs like ‘Hey Manhattan’, lyrics like ‘Hot Dog! Jumping Frog! Albuquerque’, and the Springsteen pastiche of ‘Cars and Girls’. Following on the success of Steve McQueen, it’s also a more high profile release, with cameos from Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder.
There’s some strong material here, but From Langley Park to Memphis is less than the sum of its parts – the sequencing where the first side is clearly stronger than the second, the adult contemporary sheen from a variety of producers, and the novelty hit ‘King of Rock and Roll’ all detract from the album. There are at least a couple of top tier Prefab songs here – ‘I Remember That’ is a beautiful piece of gospel infused pop. While it’s hard to know if ‘Cars And Girls’ is an affectionate tribute or a gentle take-down of Springsteen, but either way it’s a strong song in its own right. There are pretty melodies like ‘Nightingales’ and ‘Nancy Let Down Your Hair For Me’, but the awkward rock of ‘Golden Calf’ hurts the momentum of the second side.
Released in the middle of their 1980s’ peak, Langley Park is a key Prefab album, but it’s not quite the towering achievement that it could have been.
Protest Songs was recorded in 1985, shortly after Steve McQueen, but not released until 1989, when it slipped into stores quietly with no singles released. It’s low key, and less polished than anything else Prefab Sprout have released; the extreme example is ‘Dublin’, which feels like a demo with McAloon accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
Protest Songs does open with some upbeat, accessible songs; the opener ‘The World Awake’ is one of my favourite Prefab Sprout songs with its bizarre backing vocals and insistent hook, while the affectionate advice of ‘Life of Surprises’ is hooky and energetic. There’s more pointed current event commentary than usual – ‘Diana’ discusses the Princess of Wales, while ‘Dublin’ concerns Irish politics – while McAloon returns to his common themes of mortality with the low key conclusion of ”Til The Cows Come Home’ and ‘Pearly Gates’.
With its low key nature, Protest Songs has aged gracefully, and it’s a strong entry in the Prefab Sprout catalogue.
Jordan: The Comeback
A couple of albums after Steve McQueen, Prefab Sprout reunited with Thomas Dolby for a sprawling 19 track masterpiece. Thematically Jordan focuses on McAloon’s preoccupations of mortality, celebrity, and God. Musically, Jordan is more expansive than anything the group have done; it’s an album of its 1990, pre-Nirvana era, with lush synthesiser textures, but it covers lots of stylistic ground from the almost a capella ‘Mercy’ to the dance-able ‘Machine Gun Ibiza’.
A double LP, it’s divided into sides – the most thematically striking is the second, a suite of songs dedicated to Elvis Presley. While a few songs are a little anonymous, there’s a ton of amazing songs here. Highlights include the succinct, multi-part opus of ‘The Ice Maiden’, the title track where McAloon plays Elvis looking back on his life, ‘One Of The Broken’ where McAloon plays God, and ‘Scarlet Nights’, a graceful rock song about death.
As a lyricist, McAloon has a lot of room to stretch his legs on the nineteen tracks of Jordan, and matched by his most diverse collection of music it’s a towering achievement.
If you thought that Prefab Sprout’s 1980s albums were a little sentimental, you might want to avoid 1997’s Andromeda Heightsaltogether. Andromeda Heights is a concept album about stars, but there are plenty of love-struck lyrics as well. Drummer Neil Conti had left the band by this point, and there’s not much of a band feel to most of the tracks. Often the orchestral instruments that augment the band are more pronounced, although the orchestrations aren’t as interestingly as on McAloon’s 2003 solo album, and they’re more about adding warmth and lushness. The sentimentality that was often present on Prefab Sprout’s earlier albums is much more pronounced on Andromeda Heights.
Half the songs here are enjoyable, provided that you can stomach the treacly arrangements and some of McAloon’s most heart-on-sleeve lyrics like “What you see in me I will never know. That’s the mystery of love” and “Say, what you doing’ sleeping? Hey half the day is gone / Get a move on / Life’s a miracle, let me tell you why.” The opening two tracks, ‘Electric Guitars’ and ‘Prisoner of the Past’ feature more conventional full band arrangements and are among the album’s strong pieces, while the elegant closing title track is probably my favourite song here.
As you’d expect from McAloon, there’s some good songwriting on Andromeda Heights, but it’s inconsistent and it’s difficult to get past the mushy sound. Even though Andromeda Heights is one of Prefab’s weaker efforts, the b-side ‘The End of the Affair’ is my all time favourite Prefab song.
The Gunman and Other Stories
Wendy Smith left the band before The Gunman was recorded, leaving Prefab Sprout as the two McAloon brothers. They’re produced here by 1970s’ veteran Tony Visconti, and supported by studio musicians including Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar and Dream Theater’s Jordan Ruddess. The Gunman largely collates songs that McAloon had written for other artists – Cher had previously released ‘The Gunman’, while Jimmy Nail had recorded four of these songs previously.
There’s a western theme in some of the songs, like the opening ‘Cowboy Dreams’ and the traditional ‘Streets of Laredo’, other songs like ‘I’m A Troubled Man’ and ‘When You Get To Know Me Better’ follow the adult contemporary template of Andromeda Heights, while there’s also the bizarrely twee closer of ‘Farmyard Cat’. Despite the patchwork nature – McAloon was happy for The Gunman to be a clearing house of accumulated material – it’s a more satisfying listen than Andromeda Heights. Most of the material is fine, and there are a couple of standout tracks; ‘Cornfield Ablaze’ is a literate rock song (“You were the love child of two gods/I was the farmers awkward son”), while ‘Blue Roses’ is pretty and heartfelt.
The Gunman and Other Stories is not vintage Prefab Sprout, but it’s well worth hearing the highlights.
I Trawl The Megahertz – Paddy McAloon
2003, not yet rated
I like McAloon’s only solo album, but I’m not familiar enough with it yet to rate it.
Let’s Change the World With Music
Paddy McAloon made demos in 1993 for Prefab Sprout’s followup to Jordan: The Comeback, but the record company’s reaction was confusing, and the project was shelved. The demos were eventually released as Let’s Change the World With Music in 2009. Despite the dated drum programming and textures, it’s detailed enough that it feels like a full album. Along with the theme of redemptive power of music, that titles like ‘I Love Music’ and ‘Meet the New Mozart’ indicate, there are McAloon’s most explicit explorations of Christianity with songs like ‘God Watch Over You’ and ‘Earth: The Story So Far’. The album’s two major themes converge on ‘Let There Be Music’ and ‘Sweet Gospel Music’.
After a couple of disappointingly straightforward releases, Let’s Change the World With Music is a much more interesting and ambitious project; the album begins with a dramatic monologue (“in the beginning was a mighty bang.”), while the overarching themes also give it a sense of weight. It is difficult to get past the cheap, dated sound, and there are a few too many anonymous mid-tempo tracks, but Let’s Change the World With Music has the foundations of a strong Prefab Sprout album and it’s worth hearing.
Prefab Sprout hadn’t released an album of new material since The Gunman and Other Stories in 2001, so 2013’s Crimson/Red is essentially a collection of the best songs McAloon had written in the previous twelve years. It’s recorded solo by Paddy McAloon in his home studio, but it’s much more professional sounding than the demos of Let’s Change The World With Music, and it’s easily Prefab Sprout’s strongest release since 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback.
The opener ‘The Best Jewel Thief in the World’ is an immediate winner, a hook-laden and energetic piece of pop, while the disarmingly simple ‘Billy’ is warm and immediate. There are shout-outs to fellow songwriters, with ‘The Songs of Danny Galway’ covering Jimmy Webb and ‘Mysterious’ about Bob Dylan, while ‘The Dreamer’ is straight-out beautiful. There are also some memorable lyrics like “Adolescence – what’s it like? / It’s a psychedelic motorbike / You smash it up ten times a day / Then you walk away.”
If we’re being picky, there are a few too many slow songs, but Crimson/Red is an amazing comeback from Prefab Sprout – it’s clearly their best album in more than two decades.
Ten Favourite Prefab Sprout Songs
The End of the Affair
The Ice Maiden
The Best Jewel Thief in the World
The World Awake
I Remember That