I had intended to write a set of pieces on the 30th Anniversary of “From Langley Park to Memphis” in the Spring, but life got the better of me and I didn’t quite get round to it. Better late than never, I suppose.
I’m going to start by stating something that borders on the heretical. Were you to rank this album amongst fans, it might scrape third behind “Steve McQueen” and “Jordan”. Possibly “Swoon” would nick it. But that’s not how I see it. For me, “Langley Park to Memphis” is the crowning achievement.
I used to scoff a little (inwardly) at my parents’ record collection. In between the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical soundtracks, the Flamenco albums, Stravinsky, “West Side Story”, “Side by Side by Sondheim (Original cast recording)”, “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers”, and “Ella Fitzgerald sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook Vol II”, were two Beatles albums: “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul”. And as any fool knows – and as I was certain of in the mid 1970s – “Sgt Pepper” was the masterpiece, the “best album of all time”.
I was wrong about that, as I was wrong about much else in my parents’ collection. Incidentally the Ella album is one of the most magical forty minutes ever committed to vinyl, and if you don’t know it, give your ears a treat and find a copy. But looking back as I do now, “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul” were when the Beatles hit the sweet spot between what they had been – a rough and ready beat group – and what they would become; somewhat self indulgent proto prog. Polished, concise, and completely sure footed, they are wonderful albums. The strength of youth and enough learned to do it right.
And that’s very much how I see “Langley” now. Taking a purely personal view, it was the first encounter I had with Prefab Sprout – on one of the very first posts on this site I explained how the way Wendy unveiled her eyes in the video for “King of Rock N Roll” was what dragged me in. But with the wider context time affords, I can see it as a masterpiece. It stands in its own right without needing to cast negatives on the other albums, but I look at it this way: “Swoon” was a great debut, but the production is awkward and stiff, and the songs are a little self-consciously wordy. “Steve McQueen” was a collection of Sprout oldies, with magic fairy dust sprinkled on by Thomas Dolby, and I suppose is sufficiently edgy not to be embarrassing to admit listening to in conversations with The Smith’s fans (mind you the boot is on the other foot these days, what with Morrissey turning out to be a bit of a prat, which I’m pleased to report was what I thought him to be at time). But “Langley” is the album where Paddy hit his own sweet spot. Prefab Sprout had been wordy, jangly, alt-pop. They were to become somewhat self indulgent neo prog. But this was the crossover point, and it’s wonderful.
The thing is that the words are every bit as deft and clever as, say, Swoon. But they swim over you in the most delicious music, as glassy surfaced and glossy as the cover art, designed to distance you from anything grungy. This is Paddy celebrating the purest pop, but with an elegance of expression that makes you catch your breath from the instant you pierce the surface and understand what he is doing.
Let me try to explain in another way. I scan Twitter for snippets most days. One aspect of that is the recurrent theme of supposed music fans posting about Prefab Sprout as a novelty band based on only having heard “King of Rock N Roll”. And thereby neatly demonstrating they know nothing about music. Most Sprout fans dismiss it as an aberration “Sad, so sad, to be known for something that so misrepresents what you are!” Even McCartney called it “your dingaling”.
But no, “King of Roll N Roll” is a great song. It was written, quickly, at a period where Paddy has explicitly stated he wanted to get away from the “clever clever student bedsit” image. He went on record (as a joke) as saying that Prefab Sprout would never write songs called “King of Rock N Roll” or “Rebel Land”. While in fact he had written both. And they’re essentially both the same subject: songs about the broken promises youth hands to you in middle age. Rebel Land: “I saw her young face on that picture/ She really had the horniest eyes/ Now they are blunted/ Blunted with living/ Living with compromise”. King of Rock ‘N’ Roll: “When she looks at me and laughs/ I remind her of the facts/ I’m the king of rock ‘n’ roll/ completely”.
Same him. Same her. Same eyes laughing at him. A mixture of pity and contempt.
And the music and chorus is as jaunty as a pre-teen dance craze, but the sentiments are in a minor key. All you remember – all the tweeters remember – is the cheesy synths. The façade masks the depth of feeling. I mean, what novelty hit starts with a vision as sweeping as “All my lazy teenage boasts/ are now high precision ghosts”? The whole song, Abba reference included, drips regret: “I am not what I was. I was never who you thought I was. This is not what I wanted to be. I am some old hippy playing music I can’t even dance to.”
That’s what “Cars and Girls” is about too, if you forget Brucie and listen to the words: “What we once thought was important, really isn’t. Everything gets complicated, the vividness diminishes, the colours fade.”. And if the point hadn’t quite got through by that point, “I Remember That” just says it out loud, unvarnished: “Cos that’s all we can have, yes it’s all we can trust. It’s a hell of a ride, but a journey to dust.” I’d be willing to bet most people just let these songs wash over them. It’s the glassy surface. It doesn’t let you in unless you scratch it.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the production duties are shared. Paddy has suggested he thinks “Steve McQueen” became Dolby’s album, however great the songs were, he’d moved past them himself. But he’d watched and learned and wanted to do a little of the next one himself, to remove himself from the shadow of the master, to not let it become some else’s piece. Who knows? But anyway”Enchanted” is for me like one of those apprentice made model locomotives you sometimes find in engineering museums: elaborately and joyously wrought, an expression of the delight of mastering a new skill. Try and fathom the baseline if you can (the bass note, deliciously, is sampled from the bass intro to “Wichita Lineman”. The key change in the middle of “Here’s something to dwell upon/Now we’re living next we’re gone/If you’ve loved please pass it on”. That theme again, and a gloss finish to rival Scritti Politti. Ain’t no Purple Rain quite like it. The past passing into the future, the changes that brings.
Side One ends with “Nightingales”. When I first had the album, that was the song that made me go back and play the side again, endlessly. Because at that point I’d discovered how great my parents’ record collection was, and I was listening to a lot of standards. “Nightingales” sounds like a standard. When sung by a really great singer, it essentially is a great standard. What I would say now is that the last verse “we are cartoon cats” sits ill with the rest of it. It sounds like it was an afterthought, and Paddy dropped the verse in some performances later. But anyway, the song is a somewhat optimistic close to the side. What keeps us busy day to day distracts us from our true nature, we are what we love, what is true to us, whatever happens, and we must never forget that, we must remind each other of it: “Tell me: ‘Do something true, true of you and me…'”. Thinking of it simply as a sweet song that evokes a standard masks the poignancy of the sentiment. Living is our song.
(And writing this, of all the songs on the album, it was this one that brought a tear to the eye, rapidly followed, as my voice cracked with emotion when requesting of Alexa to repeat it, being told that she didn’t have “Naughty Girls” by Prefab Sprout. How different things might have been. We’re never more than one slip of the tongue from the ridiculous).
So now if we can bear not to place the stylus back to the start, but rather to flip the disk, we have Side Two, and squarely back to the conflict between youthful hope and the jaded hopes of experience, but in a jaunty Panama hat and linen suit. “Hey Manhattan!”. Into “Knock on Wood”, which was beloved of Thomas Dolby to the point he worked nights on the arrangement, but seems to pass everyone else by completely, myself included. It is a nice, Scritti style production. But even a Revolver has a “Yellow Submarine” I guess.
And then we’re rocking. Back to the Reeperbahn, and a song written in the 1970s. The story goes it was a song done in the studio for a laugh, complete with additional verse where Paddy explains he can’t connect with his past self, he can’t figure out what he was talking about then. In “Rebel Land”, he complains that the person looking at him from the picture wouldn’t recognize him now. In “Golden Calf” he is acknowledging that his older self is equally disconnected from what was.
At this point in Paddy’s career, he was becoming disillusioned by the demands of being a professional pop star. Touring, promoting, doing anything that wasn’t his compulsive desire to write songs. In including an old song, from the days when it was still fun, he’s perhaps making a statement. The fact it’s different from “When Love Breaks Down”, that it challenges preconceptions that Prefab Sprout is soft and boring, all of this is seems to me to be significant. “You don’t know me. I don’t know if I know myself any more either.”
The story is that it found its way onto the album because the execs thought it would be a good single. Maybe that’s true. I have my doubts.
“Nancy” is a song about working with your significant other. And moreover about wanting to escape the constraints of what is imposed in the working day and rediscover the softness of her hair as you nestle into it and the way her voice sounds when she whispers to you in the dark. I’m just going to leave that there as something to consider in the context of the band dynamic. It’s also, from the opening cascade of notes, to the whispered, anguished, vocals and sighing background singing, one of the most beautiful pieces of music Prefab Sprout ever recorded.
So there we have it. The most wonderful album. Personal and revealing, but only if you make it through the glassy surface of a great pop record. Songs of love and loss, of regret, perfect arrangements. Neither too short nor too long.
And we’ve not even finished yet.
“The Venus of the Soup Kitchen” is Paddy’s all-time masterpiece. Honestly it is. “Bonny”? Great song. “When Love Breaks Down”? Yes, the soundtrack to a thousand seasonal breakups. I’m not denigrating any of the rest of Paddy’s work. But you don’t get better than “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen” anywhere. I mean anywhere. It’s utterly unique. This is a song about vulnerability and fear. “You camouflage your fear with a vacant DJ stare, and maybe some boogie dancing”. Or maybe singing an old, nonsensical chorus about Albuquerque?
Where the rest of the album deals with the disconnect between what we were and what we have become, “Venus” looks forward, in fear. “I have all this… what will become of me?”. The Venus looks down at the suffering, offers comfort and warmth, and despairs that there will never be an end to those hungry for food and reassurance. Like Jesus to a child.
And then there’s the choral sequence, which is at once infinitely despairing, yet offers comfort and warmth. Sublime is an overused word. This is sublime, and it comes out of nowhere.
From Langley Park to Memphis, there is no song on any album anywhere remotely like this one. I never tire of it.
The best Prefab Sprout album. I promise you. You just have to scratch the surface.