I can position it best in my memory by reference to one of the two most memorable moments in my life: the birth of my second child, who, had I been aware of the 2000 Prefab Sprout tour, would have scuppered my plans to go to a gig by being born bang in the middle of the dates. There would have been residual Brit Pop in the air, and I remember trying out MP3 downloads on Napster, probably just about on broadband Internet but may even have been a 56k modem.
And through this murk of recollection, somehow I recall “Cowboy Dreams” coming into focus.
It would have been via a TV music channel, I used to watch a lot of those. That was the time when MTV played music, and I was also going through an extended country phase on CMT. That probably prepared the ground, but it would have been VH1 on which “Cowboy Dreams” appeared unexpectedly.
Certainly it was a surprise: Prefab Sprout were well in the past at that time as far as I was concerned. I was vaguely aware of “Crocodile Shoes” on TV but I had no idea it was anything to do with Paddy & Co. Had I known of his involvement with “Where the Heart is”, chances are I’d have I’ve marked him down as a has-been sell out and gone off to listen to Junior Brown playing “Guit Steel Blues” (and yes, that is a hint to go and find that, it’s wonderful).
But I just loved the song. It had me from the first ricochet, not least because at that point the cracks were beginning to widen in my marriage, and all I really wanted was something pure and shiny to blow my world apart. That would indeed happen, but not for a while, and so I mostly just waited for the song to cycle round the videos for a few weeks until it disappeared.
But it had made enough of a mark on me that when I was trying out the newly legalised Napster service on a free trial some time later, I went back and listened again. I didn’t continue the subscription but for my next step into the digital future of music, an iPod, it was one of the very few songs I bought and downloaded instead of ripping from a CD. It didn’t occur to me to listen to the album, but I still loved that song, so when a bullet of the very purest silver caught me bang between the shoulderblades a couple of years later it was part of the core soundtrack as I buried my former life in a shroud of white linen.
Now there’s a sort of orthodoxy about fans and Prefab Sprout are no exception. In this, Steve McQueen is the altar at which all other work kneels, even if Jordan is a sort of second coming and sits at the right hand. Indeed the ultra orthodox would claim that there’s very little point in going beyond the first few songs on Steve McQueen. I heard an interview with a French journalist who said exactly that to Paddy in an interview: you do wonder what effect these sorts of statements are intended to have beyond pissing the songwriter off to the point of ultraviolence, but Paddy remained polite and diplomatic.
I’m a heretic though, and I prefer side 2: probably too much listening to concert tapes has removed my capacity to wonder at “Bonny” and “Goodbye Lucille#1”, yet “Desire As”, “Horsin’ Around” and even “Blueberry Pies” never fail to move me.
Anyway if you consider the orthodox Sprout canon as celestial objects in some lost James Burke pop science show, and Steve McQueen as a basketball representing the sun, and Jordan as Mercury taking the form of an orange, well, somewhere out in the outer galactic dustclouds would be a pea sized speck with a picture of horses and a cowboy on. “The Gunman”, the embarrassing relative. The runt of the litter. The “country” album.
I was oblivious to its release at the time, but following my rediscovery of Prefab Sprout in 2009 I went back to look at how it had been received on release. This was the period where Usenet was about and Yahoo mailing lists were popular, and in particular the Zorrophonic list was widely used, neatly spanning the period just before the 2000 tour and just afterwards, and so forming a sort of time capsule for Sproutologists from the future to examine.
There was the usual excitement at a forthcoming release – which I’m now familiar with from Crimson/Red – building to a crescendo of looking for prerelease copies and radio plays of songs. And then… There it was! And following a short “woohoo”‘phase, the doubts started to creep in like rust under a wheel arch and a general disillusionment descended. Fans drifted away. And I guess “I Trawl the Megahertz”, in retrospect an inspired leap into new and quite difficult territory, hardly helped cement the affections of those looking for “Bonny 2”.
But, ever the dull contrarian, I want to rehabilitate the album and drag it back into the inner solar system. Possibly not as the greatest piece of Paddy’s work, but as something worthwhile and interesting.
There are some points of context I think. One that interests me is that I don’t think Paddy can bear to only have cover versions representing one of his songs. I think they are too far from his own vision and he needs to claim them for his own. So to be absolutely honest, the songs given to Jimmy Nail and Cher are on the album mostly to be doused in a squirt of metaphorical urine marking his territory. “The Gunman” track in particular is a full fat Baroque slice of high drama camp which makes absolute sense if you imagine Cher power-ballading her way theatrically through the video, and no sense whatsoever in any other context. You can almost hear Paddy chuckling as he lines the cliches up one after another. I love it because it makes me laugh. Probably Cher disliked it because she thought he was taking the piss.
Another contextual marker is the ongoing march towards mainstream form, where Paddy becomes more conventional and formulaic, which you can trace through in a different manifestation to some of the Bacharachian schmaltz of Andromeda Heights. So when he uses the line “Lord you gave me nothing and took it all away” in “Megahertz” to illustrate the narrator’s raw emotional state, as if she were a character in a “bad country song”, you can see a delight in how country songs very directly get to the point and stay there unwaveringly. In my analysis this is about exploring directness and emotional honesty in musical storytelling, and is probably most clearly expressed in “A Troubled Man”. I’d love to hear Johnny Cash singing that. There’s also “Wild Card” in the same vein, though for me that’s a little forced around the word play and imagery. The key to doing country is not to be too clever. A laconically drawled one liner is fine, an extended analogy about poker with elegant wordplay throughout is likely to get you thrown through a plate glass window out of the saloon. But it’s all an astonishing transition for the guy who hated Faron Young so much.
“When You Know me Better” is beautifully dark. “Love Will Find” is a filler, as is “Blue Roses”, at least for me, however pretty, and exercises in not letting Jimmy Nail get the last word on the interpretation.
“Streets of Laredo” I love. It nods back to “Cue Fanfare” and takes a traditional folk song and adds a little to the narrative. I could quite happily live with this song in a section with “Jesse James” as some sort of Far West high concept. It’s not often Paddy does covers after all, he chooses what he does quite carefully I think.
I have to be honest, I’m not a great fan of “Cornfield Ablaze”. XTC do that sort of feverish bucolic sexual tension better, and the somewhat obvious innuendo and word games can’t really sustain an entire song. Oddly enough this is usually the song people pick from the album as a good one though.
The choice of producer and indeed musicians was careful and ambitious, certainly not a low rent affair. Indeed it’s one of the surprises about the album that something that might be regarded as a bit of a throwaway exercise had such a lavish investment in people. With Visconti, the nod was to Bowie and Bolan obviously, and Paddy has explained that he felt Visconti could create an illusion of a country concept into what was in reality a pop album. Carlos Alomar was another surprising high profile choice, again with a Bowie influence. And there were others, Jeff Pevar most notably. This wasn’t done half heartedly at all. In retrospect I think we maybe discount it as a sort of quick and dirty job, but it really wasn’t like that at all. It was taken as seriously as any project up to that point.
So there’s just one more thing to discuss. One more song. The song that everyone seems to hate implacably. Probably the one song that turned a favourable reception into… well… catcalling.
I am of course discussing “Farmyard Cat”. Sprout fans hate this song in the way non cogscienti hate “King of Rock & Roll”. But I don’t think they’re listening.
Yes, the lyric is trivial. It’s not going to stir the blood with adolescent passion. Perhaps it was written for Paddy’s children? But there’s really nothing wrong with the music. If you take, for example the instrumental section and isolate it, it’s complex and dynamic:
You could describe it as “Coplandesque”, and that was probably completely deliberate via the instrumentation used and the slightly “square dance” construction. But if anything at all, it points not back at some of the more trivial elements of “The Gunman”, but forwards towards “Megahertz”, especially the second side of short, jaunty, instrumentals.
I’m never going to claim that this is an essential album in the collection. But I do think it’s unfairly ignored and worthy of a bit of effort and appreciation. Anything Paddy does is interesting, and even if in “The Gunman” the form is a little uncomfortable for people who didn’t spend much of the late 1990s watching CMT, you can see what he was trying to do, and in some cases pulled off.