Thirty years ago, Prefab Sprout’s masterwork, Steve McQueen, was released. I recently wrote a piece for The Rocking Vicar magazine about this superlative album, as I was a student at the time it came out and had the misfortune to have missed both its release and the band playing live. I then successfully managed to lose far too much time before rediscovering it. The years fly by, yet the tracks still sound so fresh and vital. It’s almost impossible to believe they were committed to tape that long ago.
As part of my research, instead of the original 1985 recording I used the some of the tracks on the 1999 38 Carat Collection compilation and 2007 remastered Legacy Edition which, as all you dedicated Sproutologists will know, comes with a bonus CD of acoustic covers by Paddy McAloon.
Going back to basics is a familiar trajectory for seasoned recording artists. After all the commercial input of record labels and sophisticated production values, it’s a mark of evolution that a songwriter might want to revisit both the purity of their early work and their musicianship. It’s also a mark of creative maturity to recognise that good work doesn’t always need bells and whistles.
Perhaps it’s even a wistful hankering to take things full circle: many of the grandees we love today – Paddy included – started out as teenagers in their bedrooms with a modest six-string and a tape deck. Musically, there’s nothing more direct or powerful than one man and a microphone.
Notably, Eric Clapton did it back in 1992 with Unplugged (albeit with a full backing band and, predictably, for MTV during the Armani years). Pat Metheny did it with One Quiet Night. Jimmy Webb did it on Ten Easy Pieces. Paul McCartney even did it with Let It Be… Naked. One of the things McCartney especially wanted to rectify was, in his view, Phil Spector’s overblown and unauthorised remix of ‘The Long and Winding Road’, which made it to the album’s final cut in 1970. It had been a longstanding artist–producer spat, but McCartney and the remaining Beatles finally won out in 2003. As it is, McCartney never needed to fear any reprisals from the famously volatile Spector, since Spector charactistically declared, “he’s got me mixed up with someone who gives a s**t.” (Currently, Spector is detained at the US State’s pleasure for murder one.)
Setting aside Steve McQueen as an acclaimed landmark album for the Prefabs, revisiting Paddy’s unplugged reinterpretation of his songs thirty years later raises a couple of questions.
Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but I do wonder whether the bonus disc shouldn’t have been released as a standalone 25th anniversary edition. I also wonder why Kitchenware Records chose to include it as an extra in the Legacy Edition. In the words of Thomas Dolby at the time, ‘it’s insanely good’ – and if anyone can recognise quality when they hear it, it’s the Prefabs’ own producer.
In my opinion, the bonus disc deserves to stand in its own right. Some of the acoustic versions even dare to improve on the originals: ‘When the Angels’ being a prime example.
Eitherway, there is no disguising the brilliance of the covers. Treated to lush acoustic arrangement and stripped of their pop patina, the songs come into sharp, beautiful relief, revealing plaintive, lyrical tales of desire, love and loss. It’s a collection of tremendous energy yet sublime intimacy.
Just when you think Paddy has retreated into his now-legendary unpublished boxes of songs, he straps on his guitar, goes into his studio and plays an absolute blinder. The Legacy Edition is a triumph, and one for which he should own the title ‘probably the best writer on the planet’ – even if he did say that himself.
And who am I to disagree? After revisiting the Legacy Edition, quite frankly I can’t think of anyone more deserving.
Lisa Cordaro is a writer and editor. She writes on music and media for The Rocking Vicar magazine, and publishes weekly articles on the creative arts at The Serialist.