I have always collected things, absolutely as long as I can remember. Bits of wood I felt to be part of old boats, which I displayed proudly in my “boat museum” as a six year old. Victorian bottles. Keyrings. And so on. Every four or five years a new collection, every four or five years new obscure objects of desire would replace old ones, and the old much sought after items were despatched into some place of storage or, if sufficiently decorative (a collection of rareish family related books and pictures mostly, and my bottle collection) were put on display. If anyone needs a keyring I’ve got hundreds, but I have a horrible feeling my Dad burned the boat museum.
It’s clearly obsessive. Compulsively obsessive. But as to being a disorder, I would hesitate to agree: if anything its immaculately ordered. I don’t know what it touches in my soul, but there’s something in the act of searching, in finding things, in cataloguing and understanding and becoming expert, that can scatter and dismiss the black winds that would otherwise force me to my knees, howling. Or so I present it to myself. It’s always good to be a bit dark and mysterious when you present things to yourself.
There are a few rules. What I collect is usually fairly inexpensive. There should be a few, but not too many, fellow collectors: enough to get to know without being excessive competition. It’s best if there is limited guidance so I can find a path for myself. Things should be difficult, but not impossible to find, and so on. Every time I start this I know I’m in for a few years and I’m going deep, and it needs a lot of commitment and a little structure.
So let’s explain about Prefab Sprout, and why. It was late 2009. I was just coming off the back of collecting bookmaker promotional playing cards, which was off the back of a period spent as a professional gambler, and I was playing Top Trumps online to gain loyalty points (bear with me). I’d discovered a glitch in an online game allowing me to build up almost infinite quantities of gaming loyalty points for no outlay, initially to exchange for playing cards at the bookmaker – the original objective – but I then realized they could be exchanged for other things, PS2, cash, clothing, footballs, poker sets, etc. Which I did enthusiastically for 3 months solid until the site realized what I was doing and shut the loophole down.
Of course it was blind tedious. You’re sitting there for hours on end doing it, and so naturally you turn Spotify on and hunt around for music to listen too. I somehow heard that a band I’d liked in the 1980s, Prefab Sprout, had a new album out: “Let’s Change the World with Music”. So I put that on out of curiosity. Kind of liked it. I wondered what the other older albums sounded like. Hmmm, pretty good. The opening section for “Avenue of Stars” was even good enough to distract me sufficiently to lose concentration on Top Trumps and accidentally lose a large chunk of cash. Whoops.
Now for me, Prefab Sprout had just missed being a complete obsession way back when, and had been more of a passionate fling. I’d love to be able to say I’d followed them round clubs as they built their following and was on nodding terms with Paddy McAloon, but the truth is it was all about Wendy Smith when it started. More specifically, it was the way she looked up from beneath her sunglasses one fateful Saturday morning as the Chart Show played the King of Rock ‘N Roll Video. Now I will defend the lyrical subtlety of that wonderful but misunderstood song until I lose interest and start collecting something else, but at the time I knew nothing of that, all I saw was someone who looked fascinating and interesting, a little playful, intelligent, mocking, and just fascinating to the 24 year old me.
As it happens, I met her in 2014, long story but one I will probably get to on this blog, and I have to say that in the flesh she’s all that and more.
Anyway I was smitten. HMV was just down the hill from the flat, so off I went, and back I came with “From Langley Park to Memphis”. Put it on the record player. Wasn’t sure. Put it on loop and went to do something in the kitchen (I had just come off a period of collecting microcomputers which had led to an interest in electronics and then televisions and I was adapting a TV to receive French transmissions which took me a while because one of the chips kept blowing up), and round and round it went on Side 1. Something in “Nightingales” caught my attention. I started loving the album for the music. Switched sides – this time it was “Venus of the Soup Kitchen”. There’s something unique about that song – even now I couldn’t put my finger on what, but it’s something to do with the way the choral section comes out of nowhere.
So the next weekend, down I went again to HMV and came back with “Swoon”. That was a real WTF moment, because it’s nothing at all like Langley, but anyway on loop it went, and the first one to catch fire as I soldered away was “Elegance”, and then the rest of the songs sort of came into focus. I listened to it a lot reading the Gormenghast trilogy, and Swoon and Mervyn Peake are still for me inextricably linked. Steerpike versus Green Isaac, his plane plane touching the ground as the library burns.
And so it continued. Steve McQueen was probably next, and eventually Protest Songs which I remember gleefully finding in a new display when it was released. Each one fascinating and different, and I remember wondering how such complex and unusual song structures could be expressed to a band to be rehearsed and played, where on earth they came from. I had a vague notion that Paddy was the leader but didn’t read interviews, didn’t know anything about the myth. I just wore the grooves off the records. And so it came to the period just before “Jordan”, and I bought the 12″ of “Looking for Atlantis”, very excitedly. They could easily have become a full-on obsession just then, but fate intervened. I moved house, packed the record player away, never quite unpacked it, had no easy access to HMV, and packed my LPs into the loft and started to buy CDs by other bands. I even missed the opportunity to see them play in Portsmouth when a friend asked me and I couldn’t be bothered. Long years passed. Nearly 20 of them in fact.
We can now return to the older me, slightly mid-life crisis-ish, playing Top Trumps and between times finding ways of reliving my youth. And deciding to investigate the band I’d liked so much way back in the past. It was a scary moment, because I’d invested quite a lot of myself in listening to Prefab Sprout in the 1980s, and felt that if they turned out merely to be crap 1980s music my entire taste would be under the sort of scrutiny my nightmares of being naked at work lead me to believe is a deep rooted psychological fear… The big irony was that as part of my mid-life crisis I’d divorced and remarried, and in part of the upheaval a few months previously I’d made a decision to ditch much of my baggage, so had delivered my entire vinyl collection to the British Heart Foundation, including my four albums and one 12″ single.
Wasn’t sure to begin with. But on loop, the old magic sparked up again, and BANG. It clicked. I think it was on the ninth play of Appetite that my new wife (of relatively short acquaintance at that time) lost patience a little and suggested that might be enough now. So I grumpily stopped listening and went off online to see what I could find out about Prefab Sprout.
And the result of that was fascinating. Not only lots of information I didn’t know about mysterious lost albums, but videos. B Sides. And a marvelous blog – Tin Can Pot – stuffed with live recordings (I had had a bootleg collecting phase in the 1970s, the thrill of the illicit never quite leaves you). The collecting trigger flicked off the “safety” setting and I was away downloading everything I could find. And the full-on obsession started to gather pace. First it was to find so-called “lossless” versions of the live material. Then video material. Then the B-Sides not on albums. Then, eventually, total and utter completism: finding every release in every possible format from every possible country. Vinyl. Minidisc. Cassette. CD. Everything. At the time I started, the most wonderful things could be found for pennies on Ebay: I had a signed copy of “I Trawl the Megahertz” for a quid, and declined to bid on a second copy (I curse myself for my stupidity, but not as much as I curse myself for not bidding on a genuine Gold record for “A Life of Surprises” which was just before I started seriously buying things).
So after 4 years and more, I’m still doing it. Every time I think I’ll stop and move on, something happens to keep me on track. I’ve learned audio restoration to fix up poorly recorded tapes. Video editing to piece together video from fragments of poor VHS. I have methods of locating and extracting material from the deepest darkest hiding places. I have researched and hunted and dug and cajoled, and I’ve found things you humans would never dream of…
Sproutology I call it. And this blog is where I’ll tell my tales.