Steve McQueen has been released again. Daryl Easlea bites the Bullitt
Prefab Sprout’s shimmering masterpiece, Steve McQueen, began life in 1984 with the working title of June Parade. Led by writer, vocalist and guitarist Paddy McAloon, with his brother Martin and vocalist/ keyboard player Wendy Smith, the group had already created an intriguing presence on the music scene, operating outside of not just pop triﬂes, but also of most of the alternative bands out there. Their maturity was also marked out by the sleevenotes of their debut album, Swoon, which were written by friend of the group Emma Welles: “Anyway, it’s now very late and I’m listening to this record for the umpteenth time. My husband went to bed an hour ago – not that he has anything against the Sprouts, but he must get up early tomorrow. I won’t be joining him for at least another 40 minutes. That’s Swoon.” This was a world of married grown-ups, listening to adult music. The initial Prefab Sprout sound was angular and strange. In leader Paddy McAloon, they had a witty, erudite spokesman. He was amused at the music press’ desire to pin them down. “I guess we’re somewhere between Rickie Lee Jones and Einstiirzende Whatsathingy,” he quipped to NME in 1984.
“When people talk about 80s bands,” says brother Martin from his Newcastle home in 2007, “younger people now lump you all together. We get put in with Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and The Smiths. The only similarities really were the guitars and the check shirts. The guitars were similar because we had no money.” The McAloon brothers saw their competitors not as these jingle-jangle merchants, but major players Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. The move to their second album, Steve McQueen, saw some of their dreams realised.
Formed by Martin and Paddy in the mid-70s, the Prefab Sprout story starts on vinyl with their debut single, Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone), the title an acronym of the French town Limoges, where Paddy’s girlfriend had gone on holiday. Released on their own Candle Records in 1982, it was picked up by local heroes Kitchenware Records. The story of Prefab Sprout and Steve McQueen is inextricably linked with the story of Kitchenware, founded by Newcastle maverick Keith Armstrong.
“I was running the HMV in Newcastle at the time, and running Kitchenware out of the basement,” Armstrong recalls. “I used to listen to every independent record that came in. When the Candle version of Lions came in, I just couldn’t believe how good it was. I tracked them down. They’d saved up the money themselves to put it out; Martin was driving around in a van distributing it. I wanted to put it out properly and give it a national release.”
Armstrong asked the band to play him some new material “They played for three-and-a-half hours without repeating the same song. I was expecting half a dozen.” The acts on Kitchenware all had some deep connection with Armstrong’s musical taste. “I signed bands that reminded me of my favourite groups. So, to me Prefab Sprout were Steely Dan, Martin Stephenson was Ry Cooder, the Kane Gang were Gil Scott-Heron and Hurrah! were The Velvet Underground. The only theme Kitchenware had was that we were very heavily song-driven, as I personally love lyrics. There is a sprit about the people we work with, regardless of genre. Nobody encapsulated that more than Paddy and Prefab Sprout. They were so original. I remember Paddy telling me that when he started, he thought it was a fraud to use other people’s guitar chords, so he used to make up his own!”
Armstrong took their demos to CBS, where Muff Winwood, delighted by what he heard, signed them for an eight-album deal. “We always realised we needed that sort of help when we got to a certain level,” Armstrong says. “We’ll do all the early development of acts, and they’ll come in and help us when we need it. In fact, Kitchenware was probably the first dependent record label.”
Swoon was released in March 1984. It remains an affecting, resolutely odd album of twilight vignettes. There is no other record in the world that sounds like it. It is strange and singular, as if Chic had come from Consett with little money and had Jake Thackray singing with them. “Swoon is a very innovative record,” Armstrong says. “It was innovative despite itself. The innovations were born from the lack of budget. Needs must, I suppose.”
“We didn’t know better — we did it in 18 days,” Martin adds. “We played it as well as we could at the time given the set of circumstances, given the financial aspect of it all. Every production decision is based on your circumstances at the time. For me, we did it and moved on. We did all the backing tracks in one afternoon. We laid up keyboards and guitars and then the vocals. We’d leave them to the end so we’d have one track to do them — that’s the wrong way of going about things.” One night, Martin drunkenly suggested to someone from CBS that if their labelmate Michael Jackson could sell bucketloads, surely they could as well. “I said that if 20 million people were listening to Thriller, that meant that 20 million people are listening to music, then why weren’t they listening to Swoon? I now know why!”
Disenchanted with the sound of Swoon, the group went in search of a producer. Miles away from their Consett HQ, in London, Thomas Dolby was a guest on Radio One’s single review show, Roundtable. “I was on there with Tony Blackburn and Mari Wilson,” he recalls. “One by one these dreadful records came up that they loved, and I was feeling like a curmudgeon, going last and putting the dampeners on everything. Then came on this song called Don’t Sing by Prefab Sprout, with interesting lyrics and wild harmonica, and I was absolutely transfixed. I said it was absolutely great. It so happened that the Sprouts and their manager were listening in and called me afterwards and thanked me for giving them a good plug.”
By coincidence, some months later, Muff Winwood suggested Dolby to Armstrong as a producer. The idea was not greeted with open arms: “Paddy and I didn’t get it at all initially. It wouldn’t have occurred to us. We thought Muff had gone mad. All we could think of was She Blinded Me With Science and all that.” The marriage of Sprout and Dolby was ostensibly odd. While Sprout screamed authenticity, Dolby, on the other hand, was seen as encapsulating all that was synthetic. Yet a listen beyond his funk-synth workouts and easily exportable comic book persona revealed a sensitive songwriter — just listen to the first side of his 1984 album, The Flat Earth. He’d also worked extensively with producer Mutt Lange on records by Foreigner, Joni Mitchell and Def Leppard.
“Stylistically, our stuff was very different, but we had a lot in common,” Dolby states. “Both the Sprouts and I had made music that avoided the pop clichés of the time and was a little bit more challenging, intellectually and emotionally. I felt that what they needed was somebody who filtered the abundance of ideas they had and made it a little bit more palatable without losing the depth of it.” Dolby went north to listen to the material that Paddy had accumulated: “I sat with him in his bedroom that was not much bigger than the size of his bed, which was built on stacks of his lyrics. He told me he’d got hundreds of songs and he played them to me. We spent a day doing that – I made notes of the ones I liked best, and made tape recordings of them. I took them home, picked out a dozen of my favourites and that’s what we recorded.”
Before the album got underway, the first new material came in October 1984 in the shape of the single When Love Breaks Down, produced by Cure bassist Phil Thornalley. It finally became a hit when it was released for the third time the following year, but even then it only scraped inside the Top 40. “When Love Breaks Down seems to have been a much bigger hit in people’s consciousness,” says Armstrong. “At that time, the charts actually meant something. We sold 250,000 copies of the Kane Gang single and that only got to No 11.”
“I never cared much for the production of it,” laughs Martin. “Thomas redid the vocals to make it fit in more with Steve McQueen.” The shift in sound marked out the new direction that the group would be taking: losing the awkwardness, and gaining smoother edges. This was further aided by the arrival of a permanent drummer, session man Neil Conti, whose technical expertise brought the group to another level. “Neil was a fabulous musician, who could play anything,” Martin continues. “He’d play bass, guitar, or keyboards and he’s great. We felt somewhat inferior around his ability and his conﬁdence. He was very good”.
Recording for the album got underway in late 1984. From the off, it seemed a rewarding experience, even though the material was so old. “We were trying to make a record like Thriller with Thomas Dolby in England,” says Keith Armstrong. “In your mind, you’re in LA with Quincy Jones. That’s how naive and excited we were. It was exciting — we didn’t care what anybody else was doing.”
“Thomas had a way of making you feel adequate in your own skin,” recalls Martin. “He’d say the right things to get the best performance from you.
“Thomas came to all those songs with fresh ears. We’d been playing some since 1976, we wouldn’t have chosen them. I remember thinking at the time that we were going over old ground — but he made them breathe and added space to them. He’d focus attention on the actual shape of the song and chose less awkward material. He’d go for something more rounded, something that would build to peaks.”
Dolby was also impressed with their flair and charmed by their lack of technical expertise: “None of them were trained. For vocal harmonies, Wendy had a little Casio and Paddy would give her a copy of his lyrics with the notes she was supposed to sing written over each word. She’d read out this sheet of lyrics and work out the tune on her keyboard. There were a couple of issues with this. One was that Paddy and Martin used to detune their guitars, so when Paddy wrote E he really meant F. He would write down the note but he didn’t always write down the octave that the note was in so you’d get strange leaps at strange intervals where he or Wendy leapt the octave, which always makes things very interesting. Paddy, Martin and Wendy were always present, even if I was spending time working on a drum sound or whatever. They were always there, really enjoying the experience. Martin has always been the little voice in Paddy’s ear, beyond his bass playing. It was very important to keep Paddy on the rails, to have a reminder of where they came from and what their core values were.”
Steve McQueen was ready for release in June 1985. Its title, which allegedly came to Paddy one night in a dream, didn’t spring out of life-long adulation for the actor, who died in 1980. “It just seemed like an intriguing title for an LP,” he said in 1985. “He was really good in an un-arty way. He was never hyped up. It’s that instinctive feeling I like.” The sleeve parodied the sensitive image of Prefab Sprout; in a black-and-white photo, retouched into colour, the McAloons, Smith and Conti were all draped around a vintage motorcycle the same as that ridden by McQueen in The Great Escape. “I like playing around with the idea of how people will see us,” he told the long-defunct Blitz Magazine in 1985. “The LP sleeve is something you’d never associate with Prefab Sprout. So it’s a pretty superficial link between the title and the album… If it gets people’s backs up, then great.” It certainly got the backs of the actor’s estate up: they thought the group were making fun of the late star. In America, the album was released as Two Wheels Good.
The album opened with the punk-like Faron Young, before taking the listener through 10 further ruminations on love, loss and despair. “One of things I love about it is that Paddy has a streak of exhibitionist in him, where he cranks his amp to 11 and hits a chord and screams at the top of his lungs,” Dolby recalls. “That was so beautifully balanced with the more intimate, breathy, melodic side, it’s very seductive. From the very first word on the album, ‘antiques’, the hardness and softness of it is really striking.” Aside from the vaudeville settings of Horsin’ Around or the cod-Italian restaurant sound of Blueberry Pies, which still sound clever for clever’s sake, the album is still fresh as the proverbial daisy. Standout track Goodbye Lucille #1, also known as Johnny Johnny, was originally conceived in waltz time. “That’s how we first played it back in ’77, in the era of punk. We sat round the piano, and we all sang it with our friends,” Martin remembers. The Goodbye Lucille title came as part of another scheme to have an album with tracks all of the same title, just numbered differently. “We had about eight Johnny, Johnnys in total. Three or four of them were piano versions and were quite beautiful, but we have no record of them, and I’m not sure if Paddy could remember them.” It was album full of lovely touches: Kevin Armstrong’s guitar lick on Hallelujah; Smith’s vocals; Dolby’s grand piano.
Keith Armstrong was delighted with the final result. “I remember the first day I heard it; I listened to it on a Walkman and it was snowing,” he says. “I walked through the snow and thought it was the best thing I’d ever heard. Thomas completely avoided any of the signature 80s clichés — the keyboard stabs, the daft Phil Collins drums. He made a really classic sounding album.” The album was full of Fairlight samples — the banjo on Faron Young, the vocal treatments throughout — not that you’d really know. Steve McQueen is one of the best examples of band and machine playing unobtrusively together. The album was immediately taken to people’s bosoms. Rolling Stone called it “melodic pop, complex but irresistible”. It became a student staple, a record shop No 1. Brieﬂy, Prefab Sprout were everywhere. It’s amazing, however, that the album only got to No 21 and a great deal of the spotlight in the rock inkies was taken up by another album. “It still annoys me that the year that Steve McQueen came out,” Armstrong laughs, “The Jesus Si Mary Chain’s Psychocandy was the No 1 album of the year in NME. I don’t know why I should still be upset about that, but I am. We had a better record.” Steve McQueen sold somewhat less than Thriller in the end.
The sound was so rich and full that the band decamped to make their basic, anti-Dolby record, Protest Songs, soon after. They went on to release some stunning work — including two more Dolby- produced albums, From Langley Park To Memphis and the ambitious Jordan: The Comeback. Their last album to date was The Gunman and Other Stories in 2002. They continue in their slow-moving vacuum to this day, never having formally dissolved, although Paddy McAloon’s health determines their future.
“He’s got Méniéres disease and tinnitus,” Martin sighs. “He’s lost frequencies from what he’s hearing. Méniéres gives him vertigo and dizziness. He finds it difficult to listen to things. If he plays a chord on the guitar or keyboard, he’s not hearing the full chord — he’s hearing sevenths and amended notes in there. He can’t monitor what he’s hearing properly in his head. When he ﬁrst found out he’d lost almost all of his hearing from one ear, he thought it was a virus that would clear up. Dealing with that is all they can do, rather than bring it back.” He has stockpiled a great deal of material that Martin realises may never see the light of day. “Albums and albums worth of stuff; themed albums, random selected songs, whatever — there isn’t enough time in the day to demo them, certainly not at the level of sophistication he would like. I’m his biggest fan and that’s always been the case. I showed him how to play the guitar, I learned when I was seven. He had the intelligence to write, and he could also sing. He came as a package.”
Martin, after a long period of music lecturing, is now involved in band management and production. Wendy Smith is a full-time mother; Neil Conti lives in the south of France and is still an in-demand session man, most recently playing with Will Young. Thomas Dolby more or less invented the polyphonic ringtone and lives on the west coast of America, and Kitchenware currently look after one of most successful bands of recent years, Editors.
The plan to re-release Steve McQueen was first mooted for 2005, but, as so often in Sproutland, things didn’t travel on linear tracks. “The original intention was to get the album out for the 20th anniversary,” Martin says. “There were some original scrappy acoustic demos, about 20 or 30 songs, which Thomas chose from. When it came around the 20th, we were going to use the demos as bonus material. But Paddy thought he’d do new proper acoustic versions — glamorous demos, if you will. He’d got new gear, so it became an 18 month operation — we missed the 20th anniversary, it became 21st and then the 22nd — so Keith put a spin on it so that it ﬁtted in with the 25th anniversary of Kitchenware!” SonyBMG’s Phil Savill, who has put the album out, worked in a record shop in 1985 and adored the record. “Steve McQueen is quite simply beautiful. It’s the sort of record you had to play constantly because you couldn’t bear not hearing it. The new acoustic version of the album matches the magniﬁcence of the original. It’s been a privilege for me, still the same awestruck fan of 1985, to have played a very minor part in the new edition.”
With these new recordings, and Dolby’s lush remaster, hearing Steve McQueen again after so many years is reminiscent of returning to your childhood home and realising that the reality is actually better than the memory. “I was so chuffed how timeless it is,” Armstrong concludes. “Records like Aja are timeless, and I think Steve McQueen has that same quality, it’ll last Forever.” Thomas Dolby agrees: “It’s great. It was my ﬁrst production in the conventional sense, with a record company who had a band they believed in, with a decent budget, who were willing for the band to go into a good studio to record the album from start to finish with a single producer.” The last word has to go to Martin McAloon: “In its way, it’s like listening to Bacharach: there’s an ease of listening to it, but a complication in the chords and the melody. It’s fabulous, stunning and sophisticated, yet difficult to get your head around.” That’ll be Prefab Sprout, then.