The Tor Guides

The Postfab Four – Prefab Sprout

In Classic pop on 27 April, 2011 at 17:40

My love and I
We work well together
But often we’re apart
Absence makes the
heart lose weight, yeah
‘Til love breaks down,
love breaks down

During the heydays of Oasis, I read a somewhat stupid article where a comparison was made between the output of Oasis and Beatles – all with the objective to find out if there was any justification in Oasis cocky behavior. The idea was to establish if Beatles catalogue could be matched by Oasis and be deemed as the world´s best. If I´m not mistaken, the first two Oasis albums passed the test against the first two Beatles albums but then it was all downhill for the Mancunian´s. The comparison feels more silly now than ever, especially since Oasis almost instantly lost – or should have lost – everybody´s attention. Today I believe very few persons would even considering listing an Oasis album as one of the major albums in the history of pop.

It is no doubt hard to get around the fantastic catalogue of Beatles, where no album is worse than very good. There are however some single albums of other artists that would make it onto a worlds best-list, alongside the best of the Fab four – such as the excellent Pet Sounds by Beach Boys, to name a contender. But – a one hit wonder is still just a one hit and one album doesn’t constitute a career.

But, if we adjust the question a bit, it might get more interesting – what band has made the best music in a certain time span? Surely any part of Beatles career would be among the top contenders but I think we would find other bands with great career highs of maybe two or three albums, spanning over a period of 2 -3 years.

Sometime during the 80s I saw a TV special about the upcoming label Kitchenware Records from Newcastle. I instantly fell for two of its artists and immediately visited my local record store (remember them?) the following day. One of the bands was Hurrah, a band that maybe never lived up to my hopes, but the other band is hereby nominated as one of the very best bands ever, judged over a three album period, namely Prefab Sprout – ta-daa!

Prefab Sprout hasn´t really taken the shortest road to success; on the other hand they seem to have made, almost systematically, their journey as complicated and bumpy as was ever possible. Even if there was simple turn, they´d almost always go for the tricky and more difficult turn – which is maybe the reason for my liking them so much! In that sense it´s sensational that the band ever reached the record buying public – but the lord moves in mysterious ways, as the Bible tells…

The band started out as a mere trio, with the brothers Paddy and Martin MacAloon and Paddy´s then girlfriend Wendy Smith. Paddy played the guitar, Martin the bass and Wendy helped Paddy with the vocals. Their first single, Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) was released in the summer of 1982 of their own label Candle. The band then came in contact with Kitchenware Records, who re-released the single the following year, when the follow-up single The Devil Has All the Best Tunes also was released.

The first album Swoon saw the light of day in 1984 and felt like a too detailed job application. The often complicated harmonies, the mixture of odd beats, Martin´s funky bass playing and Paddy´s never ending word-plays, made it a bit difficult to keep up. Nevertheless, the brilliant use and blending of Paddy´s and Wendy´s voices is evident already on that very first album.

Already in 1984 the band´s new single When Love Breaks Down was released. At first it was met with little interest and was eventually released yet three times more – which may be some kind of record in itself! Maybe the band would have followed that same road – less travelled? – had it not been for their encounter with a certain keyboard and studio wizard…

In the end of the 70s Thomas Dolby and Bruce Wolley joined up in Bruce Wolley & the Camera Club. Wolley was up till then one of the members of Buggles, in which legendary producer Trevor Horn also was a member. As his preferred name indicates, Dolby was equally smitten by the endless possibilities of the new computerized recording studio. After a long period of songwriting, Dolby eventually in 1981 went solo and struck lucky with the giant hits She Blinded Me With Science from 1982 and Hyperactive from 1984 – during these years he somehow represented everything about the music that was to be.

Dolby first made a remix of When Love Breaks Down and then came to produce the bands second album, the magnificent Steve McQueen, released in 1985 – then everything fell into place. Steve McQueen is a brilliant collection of well crafted pop songs where all the unnecessary ornamentations from the debut have been left out. At this time, the trio had been completed by ex studio drummer Neil Conti who also brought much good into the simplifying process.

The band then commenced and finalized, without the help of Dolby, the recording of the follow up album, Protest Songs. In the end that records was left unreleased until 1989, when it was made public, more like some kind of historical anecdote. Although that album is a lot better than most other bands can dream about, it´s a fairly mediocre album in Prefab Sprout standards. In my opinion that albums should be seen as that one anecdote and not one of the band´s proper albums.

The band started off from zero, this time again with the help of Dolby, and recorded the excellent From Langley Park to Memphis, released in 1988. The album was preceded by the single Cars and Girls, that was met with some critic – to be ironic over Bruce Springsteen and his views of a world with cars and girls was somehow conceived as kicking opened doors open. I believe that the said criticism has worn off since then and the song rightfully now is considered as one of the albums many classic songs. The album also includes the bands biggest hit, The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll and some of the guest artists on the albums are Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend and gospel choir André Crouch singers.

The bands third “real” record was released in 1990 and is the second evidence of Paddy´s creative dilemma (the Protest Songs being the first). The album, Jordan: The Comeback is an ambitious conceptual album that almost fills every minute of the CD. Once again Dolby produced, though his production tends to be a bit too contemporary, sounding like everything else sounded at that time and nothing before or after. The album is but an explosion of musical and lyrical ideas and although some songs could have been left off, the album as a whole is almost as good as its two predecessors.

These three albums of Prefab Sprout mark the bands and paddy´s creative zenith and they will at any time stand up to any three-album competition, including comparisons with Beatles. Besides the excellent melody management – if that’s the expression to be used – Paddy is an extraordinary wordsmith and that specific combination is the key element of the greatness in these records.

The band has then released some good music, some in parts excellent, but Paddy has had great difficulties in finalizing the many and Gargantuan projects he has been working on, among them a musical based on Michael Jackson. A nice and simple return to form was the re-release of Steve McQueen in 2006, when Paddy re-recorded the songs acoustically rather than include the demos.  Even if that project too almost broke his back, it was a great artistic success.

Paddy is now considered as one of the truly British pop excentrics, with a notable beard and a peculiar appearance. He´s been faithful to northern England and ever since 1982, his records have been released by Kitchenware Records, in collaboration with CBS.

I´m in no way hesitant in nominating the trio Steve McQueen, From Langely Park To Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback as one of the best three album strings – ever!

Below you can see and decide for yourself – one song from each of those albums and always as good as it gets!



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