Two Wheels Good, Prefab Sprout’s second record is a disk best served cold. One can imagine it spinning steadily on the stereo at, say, about four In the morning on a snowy night in mid January a few weeks after White Christmas has turned to brown slush. You’re blowing cigarette smoke and steam out the open window while the incoming breeze mixes with the radiator heat The juxtaposition of the two temperatures doesn’t create a watered-down lukewarm – it accentuates the two extremes.
And Sprout is on, just loud enough for you in make out the chilly words over the lovely ethereal melodies with the occasional hot lick thrown in for proper measure. On side one you hear songs about missed chances and the same regrets, howling hunger, and how absence makes make the heart lose weight. There’s also a girl group-style tune approached from a different angle. with lyrics that advise “life’s not complete till your heart’s missed a beat.”
These are not careless imaginings, laced with teenage angst. Rather they are barometers, giving listeners a feel for the atmospheric pressure of a particular situation involving, equally, romance and reality.
“I think my viewpoint is really intensely romantic, but it’s romantic in a sense that it’s the romance of hopelessness.” says Sprout songwriter-vocalist Paddy McAloon. “Your starting point has to be that you take the rosy glasses off and start [with] no expectations. There’s a romance in that…
“I am anti-romantic but at the same time I’m fiercely romantic. It’s a kind of ‘I wish that things were that way or that things could be that way.’ Everybody makes promises. Everybody vows this and vows that, and to let it all down is a completely chilling experience.”
But as cold as it all might seem, it is not McAloon’s intention to freeze out his audience. To the contrary, he believes his words forge a link joining him with the listener.
“Everything I do has an imaginative quality. If someone said to me ‘do you write from your experiences?’ I would say yes, but you don’t always have to have gone through a situation to know really what it entails. And that is your contact with your audience, that they too have imaginations.” McAloon’s sincere desire – and ability – to communicate one-on-one with his audience somehow comes into direct contrast with certain factions of the pigeonholing press. He therefore feels forced, on occasion, into an unfortunate self-explanatory position.
“I don’t take myself terribly seriously, for all this talk. I don’t go around thinking, you know, I’m a singer-songwriter/poet or something. I think it’s dangerous. But when you’re faced with someone who’s got you so wrong or who’s got you so badly placed then there are times when you have to be arrogant. It doesn’t come naturally to me.”
One such situation occurred during an interview with a British pop magazine, wherein McAloon made his now-famous claim of being probably the best songwriter on the planet today. But the innocence with which he clarifies such a statement betrays less egotism than simply confidence and an honest belief in himself.
“The Sunday Times have echoed [the claim] and not said I’ve said it. They said ‘he’s obviously the best songwriter in Britain.’ They haven’t said ‘the world’, but that’s a start.” says McAloon with a laugh. “From my point of view, I believe that, in a way, in that I don’t hear anybody today and it’s maybe because it’s like a psychological block – but I can’t admit to contemporary rivals. I would never ever ever put myself in the same category as guys who maybe reached the peak a few years ago. I would never put myself in any league with guys like Jimmy Webb or Lennon/McCartney, or even lesser talents than that.”
And it’s not just the words themselves but the way he says them. McAloon is a nervous, fast-talking fellow who admittedly doesn’t sleep very well. His high-pitched laugh and soft eyes are miles away from the pseudo-cool, tightly-posed photos of him. This is a 28-year-old man who lives at home; in England, with his parents and his brother, Sprout member Martin McAloon; who spends a great deal of time with his girlfriend, Sprout vocalist Wendy Smith.
And while the album-cover photo suggests the setting for The Great Escape – the British title of the album is, by the way, Steve McQueen – the lyrics are more sensitive than fast paced, the tunes more ethereal than gritty, penned by a man who sits by the light in his bedroom and writes. If it sounds like too much of a romantic vision, or too contrived, the equally snotty response is that nothing, nothing is as important as the end result in this case, the songs on Two Wheels Good and the often chilly atmosphere it inspires.
My father always tells me, a nostalgic smile shining in his lips and eyes, that his day’s radio is better than today’s television because the former demanded the use of one’s imagination. Taking that statement to heart, it seems like a good idea to turn off the television for a while and turn up Prefab Sprout. Just make sure you turn the heat up as well.
Thanks to Matthew Hane who sent in the original scan