It’s been a bit of a lazy weekend for Sproutology. There are a couple of things in the pipeline, I’ve been sorting out some duplicates to send to people in the lucky dip, but mostly I’ve been spending time with my kids, sitting around in the dark November gloom looking out the window at the rain, smelling a roast dinner cooking and drawing parallels between the past and the present, and then (a little bit) between my own experiences and those that formed Prefab Sprout.
Paddy has explained that for him, Prefab Sprout were a 1970s band, not 1980s, and I buy that absolutely. I have total recall of the 1970s. It was my decade really, from seven to seventeen, and I loved it. You had the tail end of the Beatles, you had Cilla and Lulu on Saturday TV, you had T Rex morphing into Bowie into the Sweet into Abba, and all points beyond. You had Scooby Doo starting, and Laurel and Hardy, and Tom and Jerry, and the Pink Panther, and Noakes, Purves and Singleton, endless Robinson Crusoe in the school holidays, the Singing Ringing Tree, and people walking on the moon before the Magic Roundabout.
You had Eurovision when it meant something more than an earning opportunity for phone voting and reality show rejects, and you had great football teams slugging it out in the fog of a dark early Saturday evening as they tried to poke heavy leather footballs through the Somme mud of the eternally puddled penalty area. Then Sunday reserved for homework and the smell of roast dinner, gravy and cabbage, the Chart Show on Radio 1, and the Muppets.
It was just the perfect time to come of age. I can walk around the era in my imagination and memory, and I can see exactly how bands like Prefab Sprout were formed, because in my head at least I was forming bands too. Bands that would change music and take it well beyond the barriers of contemporary pop… I even had a meaningless two word band name, for precisely the same reason Paddy did. Because even when going beyond the horizon, there were conventions to respect. Igneous Storm, if you’re curious. Heavy prog magic, and I still have the pencil sketches of how they set up on stage. They never existed for real of course, in reality I made it to a couple of crap groups and got into a Ceilidh band solely because I had a mate who was a really good bassist.
What people forget now is that music was difficult to get hold of, which raised the ante considerably from the start. Radio stations tended not to play things you might want; so you would sit for hours hoping for one play of a band you liked. So you started off with heightened expectations, keener senses. You’d have to hope your local record shop stocked what you wanted, and often they didn’t, which meant a long trip into Liverpool for me to hunt for obscure objects of desire. It was expensive when you got there, but there was an indescribable sensual pleasure in flicking through the bins of records, that synthetically sweet smell of clear PVC vinyl covers, and then discovering something – often not what you were looking for – and agonising over the fateful decision to purchase or not. And then you might just buy the album, and someone would disappear into the labyrinthine corridors of racks of inner sleeves behind the counter and put them into the cover and into a record bag, and the newly acquired album would smell of fresh ink which you could savour on the bus ride home, just by opening the bag and parting the outer sleeve cover a bit. Should you slip out the vinyl for a look at the label? It would risk a scratch, but God, it was irresistible.
As if this olfactory journey wasn’t enough – in my memory it was all about he smell of it – you then had the static crackle of the vinyl itself as you slid it carefully out of the inner sleeve when back at base, and then onto the deck, the dusty, electric tinged smell of the record deck itself. Maybe a perfunctory dab with the velvetine record cleaning cloth, and then with a CLUNK the needle came down and you got to hear what you had bought. You had to like it. There was no way back. No money back guarantee, no try before you buy download. You had spent your cash, you had made your choice, and you had to learn to love what you had. You’d lend it to your friends, you would sing its praises, and you would dream of one day having a record on which you yourself appeared, rich and famous and successful, being true to yourself and your musical vision. As enjoyment became totally fucking committed passion, you’d tape stuff for yourself and your friends, or trade bootlegs, and as I’ve mentioned here previously, the smell of a fresh TDK-D cassette still sets my blood racing. I’ve never lost the excitement of waiting for music in the post either. I will never lose it, and it came from that period. Two tapes, wrapped closely in brown paper, ripped open and taking you into a different world. Sex can’t do that (not that I had a point of comparison). Drugs can’t. Only music can.
Eventually you would get to concerts and understand how unbelievably loud music could be, and how great it was to feel assaulted by it. Concerts in Liverpool, which was where I tended to go, had an incredibly intense atmosphere, patchouli oil mixed with smoke creating a rich dark velvety feeling of total involvement, and then as you couldn’t scream any more and the house lights came up you’d leave, enraptured, deafened and mute from shouting and cheering, pissing your pre gig beer into steaming puddles around the pillars of the Victorian municipal architecture before somehow finding your way back to the train home.
Music and football: matters more important than life and death in the 1970s. I’m certain this was the same world that formed Paddy, Martin and Mick Salmon. They were above all the escape routes: firstly because you could lose yourself in them as a fan, but also because they were the one thing that might take you away from the grey and dismal prospects of drudge work or unemployment.
I can recognize some of the references first hand, I remember reading a Guitar player magazine about B.B. King which referenced why his guitar had been named Lucille: King was playing in a nightclub when a brawl broke out, spilling some kerosene, and on escaping he realized he’d left his guitar inside, nearly killing himself retrieving it. He later discovered the fight was over a girl called Lucille, and subsequently gave that name to all his guitars to remind him never ever to do anything as stupid as that again. Goodbye Lucille! Whether the story came to Paddy from the same magazine or not I don’t know, but it was the same reference and caught his imagination as it caught mine. We were all drinking from the same well.
Of course the difference is the determination to make it real. Most of us emerged into the 1980s with our cheque guarantee cards and UB40s, and had to scrabble for a foothold on normal existence. Coming out of the 1970s was also coming out of a nightmare of declining industry, inflation, strikes, and the loss of old certainties about work, and when Johnny Rotten was singing “No Future”, it wasn’t posturing, it was what we believed. Maybe all generations believe it a bit. So however ruefully I looked at my guitars, I couldn’t really ever believe I had the talent to do anything life changing with them. And eventually they went from front room to cupboard to loft to being given away. A good metaphor for how life develops I suppose.
But Paddy, led I’m pretty sure by Martin who does seem by all accounts to be the driving force behind the band’s progress in the early days, did make it out. He was good enough. And I guess that’s a lot of the reason why I’m so attached to Prefab Sprout. They were the escapers’ postcard from Switzerland, the ones that got away. I can look at them, particularly as they were in the early days and I can see the point at which they weren’t far away from the bands I was playing in. When I look at them, I don’t see the polished, other worldly perfection of a Michael Jackson or a Presley, I see the odd mistake, the odd false step, something that connects them to me more than it distances.
So there we are. All fish from the same puddle. And I look at my teenage boys, and I wonder whether they have a fraction of what I had, with their instant access to anything they want. Really, modern life seems to me to be lacking passion, ephemeral, in comparison. They will never letraset track listings onto cassette boxes, the poor sods… Who needs the internet when you had T Rex?