Until he saw Paddy McAloon’s living quarters, Thomas Dolby didn’t fully comprehend the massive undertaking he was about to shoulder.
McAloon and the rest of the ‘80s British pop band Prefab Sprout had invited Dolby to produce their next record after listening to him on a BBC radio show gush about a song they’d recorded. Everything else Dolby critiqued that day was rubbish.
“That was myself and a couple of BBC DJs, and I sat through three-quarters of an hour of songs that I hated,” recalls Dolby, talking about his first introduction to band. “I had nothing good to say about any of them.
Then on came a Prefab Sprout song called “Don’t Sing,” and [I] fell in love with it from the get-go.”
It turned out, Prefab Sprout was listening. “After hearing me,” says Dolby, “they got in contact with me to say they were convinced [I was] going to rip [them] to shreds (laughs). And they said, ‘Incidentally, we’re looking for a producer for our new album, and are you interested?’”
Dolby was, but first, he needed to hear the songs they intended for what was to become a landmark record in Brit-pop history, 1985’s Steve McQueen. At the time, the band didn’t have a tape to play for Dolby, so “ … they invited me up to their house in the north of England to listen to a bunch of songs that Paddy was considering. At the time, he lived in a tiny bedroom that was not much bigger than the bed, and the mattress was [surrounded] with stacks of hundreds and hundreds of songs. And he would pull out a stack at a time, and he’d read the lyrics, and he had some chord notations at the top so that he could strum along with the songs.”
McAloon’s poetry stunned Dolby, and out of about 50 songs he heard that visit “ … there was at least a dozen that I thought were really stellar.”
Prolific to a fault and often compared to such revered songwriters as Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, McAloon, born in 1957, has been crafting gilded pop confections since he was a teenager. His crowning achievement was Steve McQueen, a record that pricked U.K. ears with the slightest of melodic stings and wistful lyrics that could break the hardest hearts with their poignancy and insight.
A Legacy Edition of the album, digitally remastered by Dolby, was released Aug. 7 by Sony/BMG Music Entertainment. A second disc of newly arranged acoustic tracks from Steve McQueen is included, along with detailed liner notes and rare photos. Getting the reissue finished was a long ordeal fraught with unexpected problems.
Two years ago, as the 20th anniversary of Steve McQueen’s release approached, McAloon began work on the project. Originally, the thought was to package demo versions of Steve McQueen tracks with Dolby’s remastered version, but that idea was squashed in favor of spare, gutted alternate versions that reveal the naked beauty of Paddy’s pop sensibilties.
“Those demos are out there on the Internet anyway, and they’re not very good,” says Prefab Sprout bassist Martin McAloon, Paddy’s younger brother. “They’re just sort of rough sketches on the guitar.”
Then, Paddy developed health problems that caused delays.
“My brother started on the project and, along with it, he developed, over a period of time, a hearing condition,” says Martin. “And what was originally intended as something that would be very easy to produce and put out became an 18-month trek through the Andes by the sounds of it.”
Now that it’s out, the world can hear what it missed the first time around. Formed in 1977 by the McAloon brothers, Prefab Sprout caught the ear of British radio legend John Peel with its single, “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone).” In March 1984, the band, which included vocalist Wendy Smith, released its first album, Swoon, a batch of clever, quirky songs full of odd pop twists and turns.
Prefab Sprout entered the studio with Dolby, and a new drummer, Neil Conti, in tow, in the summer of 1985, with Dolby having selected the tracks himself from Paddy’s extensive back catalog of songs. Tabbing Dolby for Steve McQueen helped streamline the band’s sound, as Dolby fleshed out the arrangements with full-bodied keyboards.
Some, including members of Prefab Sprout, have said the album is as much Dolby’s as it is Paddy’s. Dolby disagrees.
“I think I was just a producer,” says Dolby. “I don’t think The Beatles’ albums were George Martin’s.”
After Steve McQueen was released, it took months for it to catch on with the listening public. In fact, it wasn’t until the third single, the gorgeous “When Love Breaks Down,” that a song from the record cracked the U.K. Top 25. Over there, the album reached No. 21 on the charts and stayed for 35 weeks.
In the U.S., the album never caught on. Problems with its title didn’t help as the Steve McQueen estate balked at the title, forcing the label to change it to Two Wheels Good. Among other pristine singles, the breathtaking “Johnny Johnny” (originally titled “Goodbye Lucille #1”), “Bonny” and the airy, transluscent “Appetite” merge Paddy’s classic pop leanings with the stylish swoops and dives of The Smiths, while “Faron Young” and its locomotive rhythms and vocal elegance posited McAloon somewhere Johnny Cash and Morrissey.
Deciding which songs would make the cut wasn’t easy for Dolby.
“All of Paddy’s songs have a lot of charm,” says Dolby. “Some are more challenging than others. I think, in some cases, because Paddy starts with the lyrics and strums along, you end up with a song which musically that sometimes has three bars in a phrase or five beats in a bar, or a bunch of chord changes and key changes, and they might work okay when you’re strumming a guitar, but when they’re arranged for a five-piece band, if you’re not careful, they start to be unlistenable. So a lot of my role really was to figure out how to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
Dolby’s song selection was crucial to the making of Steve McQueen.
“We probably wouldn’t naturally have made that record had it not been for Thomas listening to a whole pile of demos and saying, ‘I want to do this one. I want to do that one,’” says Martin. “He just heard all these songs just on guitar and vocals, so he had no preconptions of what the band would sound like, and he basically took it and fashioned it as he wanted it [with] songs that we’d have given up on we’d been playing so long.”
In the song “Goodbye Lucille #1,” Paddy sings, “Life’s not complete till your heart’s missed a beat,” and that’s what the best pop music does. Martin was 14 when he recorded it with Paddy. In fact, before that, he remembers doing a demo tape with Paddy in 1972 and sending it off to Brian Eno, “ … and getting a, ‘No thanks, it’s not what we’re looking for.’”
Eno might have thought differently about Steve McQueen