No Little Sprout
Even 20 Years Later, ‘Two Wheels Good’ Retains Its Sweet Sound
Twenty years ago, “Two Wheels Good” was the gourmet offering on the college radio menu.
The British pop band Prefab Sprout had enlisted the legendary Thomas Dolby to produce and play keyboards on the record, and the result was one of those rare marriages of top-shelf songwriting and lush sonic delight that transcends its era.
The Sprouts released a handful of records after that, but to the astonishment of fans and the few critics who noticed them, the band never caught on.
Despite that, Dolby was recruited to remaster and refresh the record for a deluxe reissue, which includes a disc of reinterpreted acoustic versions by Paddy McAloon, the songwriting force of the band. It will be released Tuesday on Sony Legacy as “Steve McQueen,” the title of the original British version.
Because even more than 20 years later, the record is still that good, Dolby says.
The songs have a sultry sweetness, a sigh of awe and beauty and unabashed romanticism. McAloon sings with the simple warmth of soul-familiar, and the melodies have an elegant complexity that should be the envy of any composer.
“Great songs transcend the era they derive from,” Dolby says. “There’s no reason the new acoustic versions shouldn’t be playing in Starbucks along with Elliott Smith.”
It’s remarkable they were remade at all. McAloon began losing his sight a few years ago, and his hearing is failing. Even being in the studio is “unpleasant” for him, says Dolby.
“It’s very hard for him to work right now,” he says.
The new songs aren’t cheap unplugged knock-offs of the originals. Nor is the re-release an attempt by the label to suck money out of the band’s few fans, Dolby says.
“I can’t imagine that it would sell well,” Dolby says. “It’s important, believe it or not — there is a legacy to some of the masters at the Sony archive.”
Still, “I do hope it will gain enough attention that it will come to be identified as an enduring classic that has influenced a great many musicians over the years.”
The label was particularly interested in releasing acoustic versions, specifically the original demo tapes.
“They had asked Paddy whether the original set of demos that he did at home — that he sent me when the band first approached me — whether he could dig some of those up.”
It wasn’t a good idea.
“No. 1, they were recorded on cassette, and No. 2, Paddy thought they were not very representative,” Dolby says. “He put them down in his bedroom … the quality was not very good and the performances were haphazard. It was a good time to go back and revisit. The new versions sat better with the person he is in 2007.”
Part of the beauty of the originals was the bracing cool of Dolby’s production.
“I was pleased that he hadn’t tried to re-create the originals,” Dolby says. “It would have been a pointless thing to do. It’s a hard thing for an artist to reinterpret, and I’m glad he went that route.”
The song that most enchanted Dolby during the recording of the original was “Desire As,” a lament for the difficulties of relationships. “I’ve got six things on my mind; you’re no longer one of them,” McAloon sings.
The words stay the same on the new acoustic version, but without the lush production, subtle nuances of the melodies are highlighted.
“For fans of the original, it’s sometimes hard to accept a new version that you’ve been living with for 25 years,” Dolby says. But “what I love about the modern era is that you can have different versions of a song … the way you sing it evolves over time, the context in which you sing it changes. It could be a sweaty nightclub or a winery.”
The remastered record is not that different from the original, Dolby says — instead of fiddling with details, Dolby simply processed the old tapes through modern equipment.
“I’m pretty stubborn about my mixes,” Dolby says. “There’s only a tiny percentage I’d redo. I don’t want to change it.”
The original was made before the digital age, when instruments were recorded to tape and the mix was pressed into records. “You have to make a lot of concessions (in production) to get it on to vinyl, cutting grooves in plastic,” Dolby says. “So now, you have other choices that you can make.”