Recollections of Prefab Sprout at the Brewers Arms, 1980 by Ian Hampson.

brewersI’m terrible for forgetting things. Way back in 2012 I contacted someone who had been a regular at the Brewer’s Arms in Durham and got a great piece back, which I did nothing with. I just found it while looking for some other things, and thought it well worth a post. It’s beautifully written, by Ian Hampson. Who I was unable to remake contact with, should you read this Ian, thanks and please take a bow in the comments section!

I first heard Prefab Sprout in the summer of 1980. The venue was the ‘Domefest‘ a free rock festival at Durham Racecourse. The sound was appalling and it was hard to make out anything amongst the echoes, one song sounded like ‘Donald Duck’ [Faron Young?]. I did however hear at the end of the set the invitation to attend the next gig on Tuesday at The Brewers Arms, Gilesgate Durham City. Being an adolescent iconoclast I went with a friend as much to deride as anything else.

The band played in the back room of the Brewers Arms, it was small with Sprout at one end and the audience seated at tables at the other. There was also a small admission charge of around 50p. From the moment they started playing ‘Victorian Settlement’ [1] I was enraptured. The sound was incredibly well integrated and mixed [2] there was a remarkable bass guitar/drum strength driving this mid tempo number and layering with Paddy’s guitar and vocals. In the course of one song I went from heckler to appreciation. I expected the next song to be a let down as in my previous experience Durham Pub Bands usually had 2-3 decent songs which they spread throughout their sets. This was not the case, the next up had a different pace and feel but was equally fine. And on it went with stunning music of rhythm, texture, lyric, sound quality and melody. There was a break in the set of around twenty minutes. They played past 10.30 closing time from 8.00 start. Time has blurred and eroded many of the details but I do remember Faron Young, Tin Can Pot, Bizarre [which I think was a new song at the time] and Donna Summer.

The next gig was in a fortnight’s time at the same venue. I approached friends and acquaintances with apostolic zeal. At the next gig one commented “Bloody Hell £10 to see a ‘name band’ in Newcastle, 50p to see Sprout in Durham. There is something wrong with the world”. Paddy’s songwriting was a thing of wonder – we marvelled at how a young man could write such world weary lyrics as ‘Dandy of the Danube’ .

I plucked up courage and began to talk to the band – I discussed classification I felt it hard to identify a likeness but the closest I felt was ‘The Velvet Underground 1969 live’- Paddy wittily opined “Well Sam [Mick Salmon] looks like Nico” and added that others had also compared them to Kiss. I began to follow Sprout to any and every gig I could find corralling friends to accompany, one of whom dryly commented that he hoped the band did not find this off putting.

I attended the regular gigs at the Brewers throughout the Autumn of 1980. More songs appeared in the set – some were introduced as being ‘old songs’ including one of my favourites ‘Nero the Zero’ [3] The most obscure venue was Langley Park Community Centre [4]. I was there at the Shakespeare Hall Durham where we danced with the lovely Katie to the very first rendition of Lions in My Own Garden [5]. I sometimes met Martin in Durham and had a coffee with him. He agreed that ‘Lions’ is Beatles influenced. He was interested by Aztec Camera’s first single ‘Just Like Gold’ which he agreed displayed a resemblance to Sprout’s Igor Stravinsky [ a song with the intentionally faux naive ‘She says you forget your not Igor Stravinsky – oh your not who you thinkski’]

Paddy inserted more new songs into the set. The amount of current and ‘old’ material was remarkable. Some new songs didn’t make the grade such as ‘Damned Folk heroes fake cowboys?’ some did such as ‘Don’t sing and ‘Here on the Eyrie’. There was also the occasional rework of a song such as a radical disco version of, I think ‘Dandy of the Danube’. I learned the band had been together with Mick since school days and rehearsed twice a week. They were as tight as Benny Goodman’s big band. Paddy was highly self critical and often commented on flaws in his songs that others did not perceive. Martin progressed to make stunning use a fretless Bass, to great effect especially on ‘Strange Silhouettes’ on which the band also experimented with the use of tape delay so as to repeat parts of the guitar solo whilst Paddy was still playing. Guitar solos were a contentious issue amongst new wavers like myself however I would say that Paddy’s solos such as that on ‘Radio Love’ in my opinion added to the musical narrative rather than distracting in the way of say the abomination that is Van Halen.

Another innovation was that Wendy and Fiona were added to do backing vocals which had previously been Martin’s domain e.g. on Cherry Tree.

Sprout Posters were also most amusing, they featured the catchline’ Sprout have Biff’ accompanied by the use of the antinuclear ‘sun’ logo with Sprout ‘Ja Takke’.

The band began to be recognised further afield and played Balmbras’ in Newcastle with Reptile House who were to become the Kane Gang. They also played the superb Lonsdale in Jesmond we helped carry the amps down to the van and got a lift back to Belmont where we lived. I once took money on the door at the Brewers and was rewarded with a dedication of Nero The Zero .

The music was transcendent in that it was capable of taking me to another place- I have not often encountered this though on occasion Count Basie still does it for me. Sprout have not since The Soul Kitchen [6] – see later.

All good things come to an end The Brewers Arms was taken over by a Sunderland Business Group [ think of Monty Python’s Piranha brothers] who discouraged the band by putting a pool table in their way – the last gig there culminated in playing behind said table Mart broke a Bass String. That was it.

The band recorded Lions at Durham’s only studio and it was released on Candle Records with the B Side ‘Radio Love’ It was on a limited pressing and was played by Peel but with little follow up interest .

With the end of the Brewers period I was unable to get to see Sprout on a regular basis. The mainly gigged in Newcastle at The Soul Kitchens. Paddy switched from the Marshall to a transistor Carlsboro which in my view lost of lot of the Marshall’s warmth. In this period Mick Salmon left. I think the band used a drum machine on ‘The Devil has all the finest tunes’. I lost touch with Sprout but bought the albums. I feel Swoon is the closest to the original spirit but Andromeda Heights is musically the high point of Paddy’s new direction. It has to me a Rodgers and Hammerstein feel.

A list of all the song titles I remember from this period not cited above

Tiffany’s, Vendetta for the Countess [was introduced with the line “Robert Gordon where are you when we need you” to this day I regret not answering “He missed the Link Wray”, The Mortimer Family, Diana [very late maybe Soul Kitchen gigs?], Goodbye Lucille #1,[#2,#3 are lost I think. 2 featured the great lines ‘what a girl but what a car, I said I’d sing you something sweet you said sing it to your car, goodbye Lucille just like a film where she won’t come back and he must die of a heart attack’ and 3 was a flat out rocker featuring the lines ‘used to start as romance’ and ‘between the tambourines and those Yellow Submarines’], Cherry Tree, God Save America??? [Very old indeed only played once ], I don’t play basketball and Golden Calf[introduced as old songs]

Footnotes

1] Victorian Settlement – a ‘lost song’ opens with a line “I cannot stand your reflection [repeat] because I see it in other men’s eyes”.

2] Sprout musical line up was as follows Mixing desk !!!! most unusual for a pub band 2 PA speakers Martin on Bass generic Bass guitar, Bass Speaker & Bass Top [White and Burman respectively?] .Mick Salmon on small drum kit miked up so as to feed into the mix. Paddy on cheap generic Gibson copy guitar but with Marshall valve amp top and large good quality speaker.

3] a great song but the production on the B Side recorded version borders on blasphemy sounding to me like an AOR American mix & loses depth from the song. I feel the same about other recorded versions especially the production massacre of Tin Can Pot – contrast with the live versions which are out there somewhere.

4] At that time a significantly deprived part of Durham a bleak former colliery village

5] The band were scouted at this gig by some unspeakable plastic prick from Tyne Tees TV [show Raz raz raz razz Razamatazz – in this case I feel, say ‘razz’ as in the Viz comic usage ‘to vomit’ is appropriate]. As I have so often found he did not like music but saw it as a job – he declined further interest in Sprout as “his girlfriend liked Dexy’s” I too like Dexy’s who are a band with soul and feeling – in a perfect world he would have met Kevin Rowland in a dark alley and been shown the error of his ways. Had Sprout been signed then we might still have some of the original sound on vinyl etc. plus Paddy might have been encouraged not to divert away from it.

6] Sprout joined the Newcastle Music ‘Scene’ at ‘The Soul Kitchen’ ‘Soul’ was in, all hail Dexy’s and unthinkingly conflate with the new romantics we are the best this ‘region’ has to offer in the way of hip. perhaps it was the only way to be noticed – I was told at this time that you ‘had to move to London’ to make it Newcastle was at least showing Manchester and later Edinburgh in trying to develop a regional antidote.

3 thoughts

    1. I wish I did. Most of what people told me was posted on the Sproutnet message board or the old gigography. Only a very few things got forgotten, usually because I was looking to do some follow up or it arrived when I was travelling.

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