I remember vividly being introduced to the World Wide Web, on a visit to the US probably in about 1994. At that point I’d been using USENET for some time, but I wasn’t prepared for the experience of connecting to the web which for those of us brought up on Prestel and then CompuServe and other bulletin boards was a bit like trying to drink from a fire hose. This was before even Webcrawler, I think, certainly before AltaVista and Hotbot, and it was difficult to find anything much. Even porn. In fact in those days, amazing as it seems now, porn was impossible to find and if anyone happened to put any up, several hundred 14K4 modems descended en masse and clogged the connection. But I digress.
One of the sites that was quite popular was “Talk to my cat”. You had a dialogue box to type things into, and that was connected to a voice synthesizer, and if the cat happened to be about, the site explained that it would hear what you said. I’ve often recalled that site with affection as I trawl through window after window of click bait and mourned the passing of the cyan home page with magenta flashing text and autoloaded midi tunes. In fact I’ve come close to setting up a similar “Talk to Paddy” page as a homage.
So naturally I came to wonder what the history of Sprout home pages had been. Now the Internet is surprisingly ephemeral, and as Geocities rise and fall, most of these sites have disappeared. But archive.org and a few dead links from surviving sites are your friend, and so we’re able to take a step back in time to see what’s there. Note that for all these links you can step back and forward through time using the toolbar, and sometimes the hyperlinks work and sometimes they don’t, so it’s a bit pot luck.
We start in 1996, with Mark Kolmar’s site, first trawled by the internet archive in December, a few days before the next one in the list. Brace your eyes for magenta, but this is a useful and quite comprehensive discography which manages to include the early Kitchenware cassettes
Then onto “Elfasih’s” site, hosted on xs4all, and a classic example of the homepage it is, all bizarre backdrops, sparse content and strange changes of background colour (the Thomas Dolby story is now burned onto my retinas via the magic of white text on a black background). If you step through forward in time, there is a really nice recollection by “Gavin” of life in Witton Gilbert when the McAloons ran the garage.
Elfasih links to Ola Sjostrand’s site, which is a far more elegant affair from a little later, 1997 or so, if still sparse in content. Ola is still a highly active Sprout fan.
Then “Doc Savage” who had a fairly vanilla site with information on albums and lyrics.
Click on the Langley Picture here, and you’ll find another lyric and discography site, this time with some links to buy albums and print cassette labels.
The owner of the Wendy Smith Web Corner lives close to me and is my principal partner in Sprout crime. Some of the information on this early version of the site is a bit dodgy (the artist Wendy Smith was someone else for example), but information was harder to come by then.
Having passed by way of some of the early home pages, we now come to some of the more significant web presences. Juli Goins-Maclean was responsible for setting up the excellent Yahoo Zorrophonic Sprout Mailing List (still available in Yahoo Groups), and is still active online under a different identity and listening to Prefab Sprout. She was also notable for persuading Paddy to sing Wichita Lineman in Leeds in 2000. Although this site isn’t particularly crammed with information, it’s better designed than most at the time and has some useful information, not least on the typography of the record covers.
Bedford McIntosh’s site was being referenced as authoritative even by the early homepages, and it still is. There’s a slightly later variant here which remains very useful, and in particular the discography was the basis of my own collection, albeit massively expanded now.
And finally we come to the official site, created and managed for a time by Martin McAloon. This is almost impossible to access via Archive.com, just the front page. However it’s possible to get in via the message forum to see some fascinating posts, and by judiciously stepping forwards and backwards in time, quite a lot of content can be discovered. The usual forum mixture of gushing reviews, venomous attacks on individuals, and fascinating insights. And here you can download screensavers (no idea if they work)
Strange how times have changed, and amazing how much more information and material is available now. Perhaps one day some of this site will be linked to by a future sproutologist, or more likely it will just disappear. Like tears in rain.