My Lazy Teenage Boasts: How I Discovered Prefab Sprout

 

Who: Prefab Sprout

When: Summer 1988

How: On an in-flight radio station

Song/Album That Did It: The King Of Rock & Roll

I had an idea for a new series of posts where I discussed the artists that mean so much to me from the point of view of how that came to be, as in how I discovered them. This was partly for my own benefit, basking in a lovelorn nostalgia, and partly for my kids, to give them a glimpse of who I am and what I’m drawn to musically. I could say everything – at least anything with a melody – but as I compiled a shortlist, it seemed that what I’m drawn can’t be defined without how or when.

I wanted to start with Prefab Sprout, one of my all-time favorite bands. But I realized there may never be a way for me to effectively describe or elegantly capture the physical and emotional transformation that music has on me. Then I remembered this passage from their track Couldn’t Bear To Be Special from their 1984 album, Swoon:

Words are trains for moving past what really has no name.

Well, I guess I’m off the hook. Let’s give it a crack anyway.

The first time I had heard of Prefab Sprout was in a spotlighted album review in Newsday for From Langley Park to Memphis during the Spring of 1988. It was odd that a mainstream New York newspaper would give this unknown band any news space. Even stranger still, I didn’t know about an English band that was now three albums deep. I had this in my head when I flew to Germany that Summer to visit relatives, and one of their songs was featured on an inflight Pop channel.

Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque. What, what did he just sing? Yes, that is the chorus to The King Of Rock And Roll, a straight-up pop tune about a washed-up rock star with American image non-sequiturs for the hook. But I was entranced by Wendy Smith’s ethereal backing vocals and synth washes.  I loved how drummer Neil Conti intentionally switched up the groove, waking up any complacent listeners. And what a fun oddball video.

It flew into the Top 10 in the UK, but it didn’t make a dent into the Taylor Dayne & Def Leppard-obsessed playlist of the US at the time. I needed to hear it again, but the only possible way was to wait another hour and change for the song to be replayed on the channel.

I looked for the album on cassette in Germany, but I couldn’t find a record store that carried it. So I had to wait until I returned to the States, and guess what? I had the same bad luck in trying to relocate a copy. Eventually, I did, playing the first track [TKORAR], rewinding the tape, and playing it again repeatedly. I decided to play the album through to see if there was another song like The King…, and there wasn’t. In fact, there’s nothing like this song in their entire catalog.

And that’s how I fell in love with them because each song had its own unique feel and personality. If it’s a cliche to say that their music gets richer with each listen, then this is where that sentiment was born. Because it does and continues to.

Leader and songwriter Paddy McAloon sought to be his generation’s, Cole Porter. Still, they performed with a DIY aesthetic and a limited budget at a time when the talents of songwriting were being traded for a marketable visual identity. We should be lucky he had a chance at all. His unique language in expressing universal thoughts coupled with a distinct vocal phrasing style made even the most straightforward throwaway lyrics have significant meaning. I have been ruminating over his lyrics and what they meant for decades.

And hats off to producer Thomas Dolby, who took Paddy’s non-linear ideas and fleshed them out into 1985’s Steve McQueen (released as Two Wheels Good in the US), 1988’s From Langley Park… and their magnum opus, 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback.

Personally, I tried to find their back catalog, but it was tricky even in New York in the 80s. A year after this release, they put out Protest Songs, the aborted album recorded between their second and third releases. I knew about it but could never find it. It wasn’t until 1990 and their fourth album [Jordan] that a local record store in Asheville decided to stock all of their albums on CD, which I purchased in short order. Thank god for Record Survival!

Although I consider Jordan: The Comeback their best front-to-back long play, some of my favorite songs are on their first two LPs:  Swoon [Green Isaac, Cruel, I Never Play Basketball Now] and Steve McQueen [Moving The River, Hallelujah]. They would release a compilation in 1992 that featured If You Don’t Love Me, the closest thing to an American hit that they would have, as it somehow reached #3 on the Hot Dance Club charts.

Their next album, Andromeda Heights, didn’t come out until 1997 and wasn’t released in the States, so I waited until a friend went to Europe and asked him to buy the CD for me. Going forward, their album release span elongated, but I celebrated each one, including their entire remastered catalog a few years back.

Paddy has since developed tinnitus, and the band is now essentially him if and when he wants to put something out. But even though he may be an understandable recluse, Paddy still makes the occasional appearance with a new fan.

A life of surprises, indeed!

 

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