Prefab Sprout – The Devil Has All The Best Tunes: Protest Songs, Crimson/Red and a Prisoner of the Past

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It’s big news around these parts that Prefab Sprout, now reduced to main man Paddy McAloon, have just released their first album of new material since 2001’s ‘The Gunman (and Other Stories)’ ( ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ from 2003 was a McAloon solo record and 2009’s ‘Lets Change the World With Music’ a rejected 1993 demo).  Early records ‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’ remain much loved benchmarks for quality song writing, the sort of  intelligent guitar pop that has largely disappeared from our airwaves in the intervening 25 years or so.  While the Sprouts have had the odd slip in quality control along the way (‘Let’s Change the World with Music’’s misconceived attempt at a Balearic house album was understandably rejected by CBS in 1993) each of the other albums has produced enough to hold the interest of the faithful if not the wider public.

The good news though is that McAloon’s commercial fortunes  should be about to take a turn for the better – ’Crimson/Red’ is a joy,  a simpler, more melodic, work whose songs have been drawn from McAloon’s considerable stockpile of old songs. For instance ‘The Old Magician’ apparently dates back to the late 1990s while ‘List of Impossible Things’ is reportedly 10 years old – and lest we forget this is a trick our Paddy reputedly pulled with 1985’s ‘Steve McQueen’ itself mostly written in the late 70s. As always with the Sprouts the meticulous attention to detail in terms of performance, phrasing and production only reveals itself after multiple listens – give it some time and songs like ‘Billy’, ‘Best Jewel Thief in the World’ and ‘Mysterious’  show a sparkle and charm that will cement them in your sub-conscious.  Indeed four or five of the album’s ten tracks could easily make it onto a Sprout ‘best of’ retrospective – not something many acts 30 years into a recording career can boast. Sample ‘Mysterious’ here:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?=9usNVXfpPyI&feature=youtu.be

This need to let a work grow on you is fine for the committed of course, but has doubtless been a problem in gaining McAloon the wider recognition that his talent merits.  Interviews for ‘Crimson/Red’ suggest he now feels an understandable distance from those early albums, yet equally trapped by fan expectations wanting him to repeat his past.  Talking to Mojo, McAloon reasonably described his dissociation from his early work in terms of representing another, lost, younger self but by talking of the ghosts of his song structures in a way that echoed his own ‘Prisoner of the Past’:  ‘I’m a ghost to you now… someone you don’t really wish to see… a shadow since you turned your back on me…’. Hard to say whether this pressure is perceived or real, but he does have a justifiable gripe regarding the indifferent critical and commercial reception to his main attempt to step outside of the ‘Prefab Sprout sound ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’.  A recent Guardian interview suggested that this still rankles:

“That record was so important to me,” he sighs. “I was disappointed – extremely – that the Guardian never even reviewed it. That stayed with me. I kept waiting week after week: ‘Come on, if you’re thinking they don’t make records like they used to, if you’re looking for personal vision, something unusual – I’m your guy!’ But it never came.”

Full interview at:  http://ow.ly/pLLyk

Which brings us to ‘Crimson/Red’’s most intriguing track, the ‘Devil Came A Calling’, originally slated as the album title when it leaked onto a band message board in early summer.  In the song the ‘articulate’ and ‘urbane’ devil offers McAloon a deal for his ‘immortal soul’: ’For 50 years I’ll spoil you …with power, wealth, a mansion on ‘Fellatio Drive’’. The narrative ends with the devil producing a signed contract that McAloon is ‘sure that I declined’.   The tone is faultless blending the Robert Johnson Crossroads myth, Dennis Potter’s ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ and the camp of the Charlie Daniels Band – wonderful yet slightly troubling if it indicates the writer’s state of mind.

[Hear it on this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oC5J4jf9vS8]

It’s hard to see how McAloon could feel doubt over his engagement with the industry though – there is no conceivable way that Prefab Sprout could be accused of selling out. While it’s true that their records increasingly acquired a more commercial radio-friendly sheen by the time of say ‘Jordan: The Comeback’(1989)  and ‘Andromeda Heights’(1997) – they always appeared too eccentric, too music focussed to ‘compete’ in the mostly unpleasant mainstream pop marketplace.  The late eighties were full of promising bands who would, you’d think, be much higher on Satan’s ‘to do’ list  – the likes of Deacon Blue, for example, gave away so much between the honesty of ‘Raintown’ and the empty fist clenching of ‘When the World Knows Your Name’ that an ‘immortal soul’ would appear but a trifle.  McAloon, by contrast, seemed instinctively to know that credibility is easily lost and near impossible to regain, initially at least seeking  to take his indie fan base with him as the band got used to better studios, producers and quite possibly mansions…

The best example of this was the lead single of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ (2008) – the Springsteen skewering ‘Cars and Girls’. The lyric famously took issue with the then ubiquitous purveyor of stadium rock cliché’s restricted world view, before slightly retreating into the more conciliatory conclusion of ‘maybe life needs its dreamers…’.  As the late John Peel once commented the song certainly broke new lyrical ground, being the only rhyme of ‘cool chick’ with ‘car sick’ in recorded history before or since!  The sleeve was great too – a matchstick Springsteen in full ‘Born in the USA’ regalia on fire.  Arguably Bruce had the last laugh though – ‘Cars and Girls’ was bewilderingly placed by CBS on the 1995 ‘Top Gear 2’ drive time compilation, a mis-hearing as spectacular as calling 10cc’s ‘I’m Not In Love’ a love song!  Remind yourself of it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEJdfDD4dVg

Although released in 1988, ‘Cars and Girls’ was actually doing the rounds in 1985 on a Peel session recorded immediately after the issue of Steve McQueen, that also included the otherwise unreleased ‘Rebel Land’.  Such was their creativity, and backlog of McAloon originals, at this time that they also recorded the enigmatic collection ‘Protest Songs’, originally intended to be a quick lo-fi follow up to Steve McQueen as a thank you to the fans. The project had no producer simply using noted engineer Richard Digby-Smith, and was explained thus by McAloon to Chris Heath of ‘Jamming!’ in late 1985:

“The original tactic was ‘let’s surprise everybody who’ll be expecting us to go for the big producer and deliver the killer punch, to be like Spandau Ballet’. I just thought ‘let’s go and do a bunch of songs’. Some of them are off-the-wall and recorded cheaply…  just me and guitar… banged them down in the spirit of ‘The Basement Tapes’.”

For reasons that are not entirely clear the album wasn’t released as planned, emerging in the summer of 1989 as a 10 track collection with the addition of ‘Life of Surprises’ to the track listing McAloon gave ‘Jamming!’ in 1985. The eventual collection certainly remained stripped down though,  a collection of exquisite, thoughtful, concise  pop songs that come as close to perfection as anything in the band’s catalogue – bettered only perhaps by the acoustic re-recording of ‘Steve McQueen’ for its 2007 ‘Legacy’ edition.  Among the delights are the briefly notorious ‘Diana’ and its rumination on the cult of the late royal celebrity “some calming apparition, you bet she is…  creation of the editor…” and, my personal favourite, ‘Dublin’ where poetic lyrics and a breathy vocal combine to juxtapose  the gentle beauty of phrases like “Who does not adore the sound, of music in the names of towns…” or “Behind the soft and peachy skin, where DNA or God begin…” with the “myths and less exalted forms”  that reinforce the division of Ireland . Other highlights included “’Til the Cows Come Home”’s evocative thoughts on escaping working class roots, or “Pearly Gates”’ near hymnal contemplation of mortality – both wonderful miniatures that rank among their finest work.  If there is a criticism it is only that some of the more up-tempo songs like ‘Tiffanys’ or ‘Wicked Things’ could have been improved by a full band treatment, as indeed they later were in concert. Nowadays the internet makes it relatively easy to remedy this and hear what might have been on a number of good quality bootlegs from the period.  One such example is this BBC ‘In Concert’ recording from Reading University (which appears to have a slightly different track listing to that originally broadcast, compared with my C60).  Particularly splendid are the versions of ‘Cars and Girls’ and debut single ‘Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’.

Find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpLYnFWI6po

So it seems unlikely that Paddy McAloon has much to reproach himself for. Most of his remaining fan base would wish him only the freedom to follow his muse with, perhaps, a slightly more frequent check in with the world outside his studio and, just maybe, putting out some of those unreleased gems too.  I fear that, given his perfectionism and poor health of the last ten years, this is all rather unlikely.  In the meantime though we have the gift of Crimson/Red and for that much at least let’s be grateful.

Phil Barnes

14 October 2013

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