21st October 1985
Edinburgh Queens Hall
The Eighties were a great time for band names. Perhaps in response to the handles chosen by such self-important Seventies punks as The Exploited, The Clash, The Fall, The Outcasts and the like, we saw all manner of surreal names popping up in the music press: Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Half-Man Half-Biscuit, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Grab Grab The Haddock….plus County Durham’s finest: Prefab Sprout.
The crucial difference was that whilst for many of these outfits, the silliness of their name was perhaps their biggest (occasionally only) asset, Prefab Sprout was built around the genius that was (and remains) Paddy McAloon.
I first encountered the band with their debut album Swoon, which introduced the world to McAloon’s unique musical vision; where jazz, pop, rock and folk could be melded together to provide an at times disorientating vehicle to carry his witty, thought provoking lyrics.
On the album there was a trio of short tracks: Ghost Town Blues/Elegance/Technique where McAloon had just appeared to have thrown out any preconceived notions he may have had regarding song structure. The resultant compositions, almost a suite, are a giddying melange of weird time signatures, unexpected tempo shifts and lyrical labyrinths. Even today, thirty years on, they still sound years ahead of their time, as indeed does most of the album. Only the lumpen I Couldn’t Bear to be Special has failed to travel well. The collection’s stand out track is Cruel: an at times painfully perceptive discourse on sexual politics.
The second album titled Steve McQueen, released in 1985, saw the band come under the wing of producer Thomas Dolby and was an altogether more conventional affair. Faron Young (a dig not at the singer, but at anodyne radio), with its riff borrowed from Dr Feelgood’s Roxette got the thing off to a flier, and Goodbye Lucille#1, Bonny and Horsing Around were all rather special, but there were perhaps a few too many insipid pieces on the album for the collection to be a true classic.
This gig, part of the tour to promote this second album had initially been pencilled in for Edinburgh’s Coasters, but was moved at the last minute to the larger Queens Hall, in response to ticket demand. I recall the band were quite late to come on, and did so without vocalist Wendy Smith – a cold, was the reason given, but we never got to see the sick-note and there were rumours just after the gig of a huge fall-out between she and McAloon.
Whether this was true or not, we never knew, but as the pair were an item at this point, I am guessing like most partners who worked together, occasional Cold Wars were inevitable.
During the wait for the band to pitch up (whilst McAloon was pleading with a huffy Smith one imagines), over the PA came the unmistakeable harmonica intro to Don’t Sing, the opener on the band’s Swoon album. The whole of the rest of the album followed, and it struck me as such an odd thing to do: for a band to play a recording of their own music prior to a gig.
The reasons for this behaviour only became apparent as the set progressed as, crushingly from my standpoint, the Swoon album was more or less ignored during the evening. Quite a brave thing to do it could be argued, given the band only had two albums released at this point in the career. The bulk of the set (8 of the 15 tunes played) came from, perhaps not surprisingly, the Steve McQueen set, but there were also a clutch of new ‘uns.
Had we but known it the band had already recorded a third album – Protest Songs, but which would remain locked away for another four years for reasons I won’t bore you with. And the set featured three songs from this collection. Additionally, there was what must have been an early run through of a tune which would go on to become one of the band’s biggest hits: Cars and Girls.
Cars and Girls would eventually turn up on their next released album, the even more polished From Langley Park to Memphis, this collection being just a touch too smooth for my tastes. I persevered when the epic Jordan: The Comeback set was released in 1990, but although I could acknowledge that McAloon still had an ear for a catchy melody and could still pen witty intelligent lines, that quirky magic of Swoon was long gone. Only the Elvis elegy Moon Dog hinted at past glories.
The final straw came a couple of years later, when I heard a pitiable train-smash entitled The Sound of Crying, with its cringeworthy lyric:
“Once more the sound of crying, is Number One across the Earth.”
The sorry affair sounded like nothing so much as a Pet Shop Boys album filler. I could have wept.
It was, perhaps rather shamefully on my part, only when McAloon’s health issues became news that I rekindled any interest in the man’s output. And I was certainly glad I did, for it was around this time I stumbled upon his really rather remarkable 2003 solo album I Trawl The Megahertz.
Musically, it is as far from any Prefab Sprout album as one could imagine, combining elements of ambient, jazz and classical music, over which is lain McAloon’s disarmingly honest poetry, spoken by Actress Yvonne Connors. Imagine if you can, a collaboration between Sketches of Spain era Miles Davis, Brian Eno and perhaps Vaughn Williams and you may just manage to achieve a glimpse of what is going on.
Alternatively, of course, you can just go here:
(This list appears on more than one internet site – but I could have sworn the Edinburgh gig opened with Faron Young).