“Steve McQueen” isn’t my favourite Sprout album. For me, “Langley” beats it into a dapper and elegantly cocked straw panama hat for invention and flawless gloss, and “Jordan” runs a close second for the sheer conceit and brilliant execution of some ridiculous concepts. And I guess there’s also the problem that having listened to so many live tapes for which the central core came from the album, I’m desperately overfamiliar with the classic tracks. When I do play it, it’s usually the less celebrated material on side two that catches my attention. “Blueberry Pies”. “Horsin’ Around”. “Desire As”. While the rest of it rather passes me by. Actually I really love “Blueberry Pies”, and always have.
But that’s not to say I don’t recognize “Steve McQueen” for the seriously great album it is. After all, it regularly takes its place in lists of the greatest albums ever, compiled by people who listen to a lot of other great albums and who, I think, can be trusted on such matters. I do also remember not all that long ago, at the start of my second Sprout period in 2009, marvelling at the lyrics of “Appetite”. I can still see why it’s wonderful, even if the magic has faded a little.
And if you take yourself back thirty years, back to the period just before “Live Aid”, a hot June as I recall, when I was blissfully unemployed after dropping out of university and living in a £16 a week bedsit in Hove, and (incidentally) would remain unaware of Prefab Sprout for a further three years, thereby missing the opportunity to see them at the Brighton Top Rank and shamefully failing to buy the bootleg cassette that was almost certainly on sale in the street market the following week but has not been seen since; thirty years ago, yes, Steve McQueen was a revelation.
You can get an idea of why by listening back to the Leeds Polytechnic concert from the end of the “Swoon” tour. Prefab Sprout were at that time a ramshackle, slightly scuzzy, indie outfit, meandering this way and that. Interesting and endearing, stickleback edged, and touring an album that could never have seduced the duffle-coated masses in the way Morrissey was able to. You loved them (those of you who had discovered them), because something had just clicked when you heard “Green Isaac” or “Elegance” or “Cruel”. A hint of something beautiful and fugitive you couldn’t quite describe, which made you put the needle back to the start of a track rather than letting it run on and lift away. But it wasn’t something you could really admit to. Your cool Smiths loving friends would have laughed at you.
Then there was the October 1984 release and subsequent chart inconsequence of “When Love Breaks Down”. Slicker and breathier than Swoon. The winds of change gently whispering through the autumnal trees. No further clues on the B Sides though: “The Yearning Loins”. “Donna Summer”. “Diana”. “He’ll Have To Go”. All very definitely Prefab Sprout V1.0.
There would be a full eight months for the Sprout fan to wait for the album itself after that. We forget that now we have the collected works; fans had to wait for albums just as we do now. You’d scour the music papers for the first hints of a release, and sometimes do a tour of HMV just on the off chance it had slipped out unannounced. But there was a lot of waiting around, and no chat forums to speculate into.
So anyway it eventually got released, and off you went to the record shop to pick up a copy from a rack of shrink wrapped pristine first pressings. And that would have been the first time you saw that sleeve: the motorbike, Wendy snuggling into Paddy’s back in a great big sweater, tousled hair piled onto his neck, Martin standing self consciously behind, and Neil, very cool and dapper, with a disconcertingly grey knee. Wrinkly shrink wrapped with a round price sticker, and a long way from the abstract swirls of “Swoon”.
You may have slipped your thumbnail down the edge of the album to release the inner sleeve from the packaging too – it was impossible not to really. Perhaps on the bus home – for me this was always on the bus home. Now there is something about the smell of fresh ink, shrink wrap, cardboard sleeve and vinyl that you just don’t get from CDs. I’m no nostalgic vinyl fetishist from an audio perspective – I spent most of the 1970s worrying about scratches and clicks and needle wear on my treasured records – but undeniably there is something about the way new vinyl smells that quickens the blood. And there inside was the inner sleeve. Four nice photos of the band. Maybe the first time you really knew what the band members were called, because they weren’t identified on “Swoon”. And then on the other side, Paddy as George Michael. Bearded and in aviator shades. About as far from Morrissey as it was possible to get. Something had changed.
I think we all would have sneaked a look at the vinyl at that point, not that there was any obvious reason for doing that. There was always a sort of buzzing static attraction between the sleeve and the record. And then there was nothing further to do until you were at home and could get the record on the turntable for a spin.
So as I said, from the beginning, this was obviously a much more polished affair than “Swoon”. Deep textures and country twang in “Faron Young”, which both sets the tone and wrongfoots you, because there’s nothing else remotely like it on the album, yet the Dolby layered production runs all the way through. Into “Bonny”, which first time through would have left little impression. “Appetite”, showcasing the Dolby Synth sound in the intro. A familiar one: “When Love Breaks Down”. “Goodbye Lucille #1”. And then “Halleujah” which you might have recalled from a 1984 live show.
I challenge anyone to fully like or connect with a Prefab Sprout album on the first listen. You’d put it on and nothing would quite touch the sides. But it was almost an act of faith as a record purchaser to try again with anything you’d spent your money on. Then one more time for luck and something would come into focus. For me, it was very definitely “Blueberry Pies”. From there everything came together, and you were into a new sonic world, out of which the most wonderful lyrics emerged: “Life’s not complete ’til your heart’s skipped a … beat”.
And the funny thing is, it connected with a lot of people, whether because Prefab Sprout had built up cool credits and were given a reasonably fair listen by the duffle-coats, until word of mouth took over, or because people were noticing the lyricism and charm of Paddy’s music. It was a bedsit hit, although surprisingly only beat Swoon by one chart place, 21 to Swoon’s top position of 22. But I wasn’t in this bit at all. At the time I think I was listening to “Mummer” by XTC, “Unforgettable Fire” by U2, and a lot of John Martyn and Ella Fitzgerald and the first Dire Straits album. And training myself in COBOL programming and eventually finding a job, which had nothing to do with COBOL. Life was about to start properly, and I was ready for it.
Three years later, Wendy would lift her glasses and look up with hooded eyes on the Chart Show, and I was in the game, now the proud leaseholder of a one bedroom flat in Seven Dials with a sea view, a well paid job and brand new stereo. I probably bought “Steve McQueen” third of the three that were available, I was a little put off by the cover as I recall, but I’d almost worn the grooves off “Swoon” at that point and I needed something new. But having come via “Langley”, it wasn’t such a surprise as it would have been in June 1985. You could understand the progression better in retrospect, and the idea of reinvention from album to album was less disconcerting when you’d started from where that had ended up.
But I guess we all had our path towards this album, and it ran alongside our lives for different reasons and different periods. For some it will have defined a period and framed memories. Music used to do that. That’s why we hold fast to it, like the pretty girl who will always and forever be clinging to the cool guy on a motorbike.
So Happy Birthday, Steve McQueen. You’ve lived with us into your thirties, and you’re still being discovered and loved, and making people feel a little cool and edgy for being in on it. You’ve lasted from the Prestel age to the Internet, from analogue to digital, and you’ll probably outlive all of us.