The Story of Steve McQueen

A little bit of a departure, having spent a lot of time swimming in interview soup and wanting to try a bit of writing instead.

I’m a great fan of the RamAlbumClub, which if you don’t know it consists of a brilliantly evocative piece about a great album followed by a review by a celebrity who has never heard the album. They’ve never quite got round to Steve McQueen, but reading it recently I wondered how they might tell the story.

I can’t get to more than a clumsy pastiche of bits of the style, but here’s an attempt at how it might unwind. Please excuse the artistic licence, the liberties I’ve taken with the sequence, the omissions and the historical blunders. None of how we perceive any of this is real anyway, and rock biography is a futile art as I’ve explained… Fiction works better.

And no, you can’t see the photo I mention. Sorry.

So this is mostly a story about two brothers.

One, handsome, diminutive, literate, urbane and just those few important years older than his pair. The other: goofy, crooked-toothed and cauliflower-eared, hero-worshipping his brother.

Paddy and Martin McAloon. Living in a mining district of County Durham in Witton Gilbert in the 1960s, sons of a maths teacher and a musical mother who, inspired by the folk revival, had bought herself a Spanish guitar.

Which of course her sons immediately nicked. Martin first, and then Paddy, so they could play at being Pete Townshend. Martin worked hard, paid his dues, learned fast, and taught his brother some chords, and they sang  “Green Green Grass of Home” into the family cassette recorder, or at least as many of the words as Paddy could remember, so as to hear their own voices as if on the radio.

Somewhere around 1970 Paddy is sent to a Seminary. Not, as legend has it, to train as a priest, but because his dad presumably thought it’d be a good education for his intelligent but lazy and easily distracted boy.

Martin stayed at home, played with his mate Mick Salmon from down the road, and looked forward to his brother coming home for holidays.

One of the real priests being trained at the seminary was a young man called Jim O’Keefe with a passion for music and guitar playing, who took Paddy under his wing. And so Paddy spent his time in somewhere in between listening to Marc Bolan’s Hot Love on a battery powered transistor radio under his pillow and playing folk covers with Jim O’Keefe and other school friends in old peoples’ homes and teacher training colleges. There’s a photo of them floating around: Paddy is barely larger than his guitar.  He is unbearably cute.

At this point he was beginning to puzzle about the intricacies of songwriting, because his heroes, now starting to include the Beatles, Led Zep, Genesis, Bowie, all did that. How do you approach a song? Lyrics first? Tune first? Was there some sort of magic incantation? His first effort was a co-written work with a friend, “Tramp”. About a tramp. Not very good. He tried the approach of writing random words on pieces of paper around the floor and forming lyrics from them. He read about Stockhausen. He wrote to Stockhausen. Stockhausen wrote back and sent a signed score. Paddy was none the wiser.

Meanwhile, Martin would wait for the holidays and the return of his beloved brother, when he and his mate Mick could jam and be instructed on the mysteries of music, professorially, by Paddy, in between cleaning accidental spillages of Newcastle Brown Ale out of the amplifiers.

So having reached 1975, we find Martin now in possession of a bass guitar. Mick plays guitar and xylophone. During the Christmas holiday the obvious thing happens and it occurs to them to form a band and make a million dollars.

Prefab Sprout. Two words chosen at random, like Procol and Harum or Peters and Lee. That’s all there ever was to it. 40 years on, Paddy is still trying to explain that in every second conversation with a journalist, presumably ruefully pondering why it is that Frankie never gets quizzed about Hollywood.

And so that longest of all decades that was the 1970s continued. Paddy’s father had retired from teaching and bought a filling station on a busy junction, attached to a bungalow, with a cherry tree in the garden, where the family lived.

The master plan had been for Paddy’s mother to use one of the filling station buildings on the other side of the road as a tea room for passing trade having their vehicles attended to, but she was thwarted by the arrival of a third McAloon sibling, Michael. And so there was an empty space, perfect for a teenage band to practice in.

They were of course dreadful.

Like all teenage bands are dreadful. Thumping and lumpen. Clattering and loud and tuneless. But generously tolerated by the Witton Gilbert locals as they shook the windows of the erstwhile tea room with over amplified bass guitar and Mick’s newly acquired drums.

I spoke to one of the locals about them a couple of years ago. A guy called Tommy, amongst other things the village  milkman. “Ah yes, I remember the McAloon boys,” he said. “My kids used to play with them when they were little. God, they were dreadful when they started.”

And in between times, Paddy, now in and out of Polytechnic emerging with a History and English degree, thereby justifying the faith of his parents that he was the one with the brains, wasted them working in the filling station, strumming his guitar between customers and writing songs, which he would take back to his room and put in boxes under his bed.

A bit like Bruce Springsteen, but with more shoeboxes.

If this was a biopic, we would now be cutting to a shimmering fade and be preparing to retire the child actors.

The image would come into focus, and, amazingly, we would find a fine sprinkling of magic dust on the shoulders of our three heroes. By dint of rehearsing day in, day out, Prefab Sprout have become a proper band, and Paddy has finally got songwriting genuinely figured out. He has stonking songs. Not, it must be said, stonking in the conventional sense, but stonking with wit and charm and originality. That kind of stonking. Songs about Igor Stravinsky (“he’s not what you thinksky”). About Don Quixote (“ooooo Don Quixote”). Stonking. Fast, slick and rocking. Prefab Sprout.

There are more time signatures than you can shake a filling nozzle at, often all crammed into the same song – Runaway Train going off into so many random directions and changes that it’s amazing the passengers ever alight, yet they do, wobbly legged and confused, and yet still somehow ending up humming it.

Never knowingly the same chord twice either. The lyrics are, granted, sometimes bad free associative poetry (“Three wild horses and a peppermint/are all you need to make an amphitheatre”), but illuminated, Bede manuscript style, with glorious flashes of colour and warmth.

There is a whole song cycle about a breakup with a girl called Lucille, presumably inspired by BB King’s guitar. And a song about a cherry tree.

Martin is relentlessly touring the neighbourhood finding pubs to play in. Negotiating for a rate, talking his band up, finding places that would agree to turn the jukebox off while they were on… When he gets a gig, he crayons the posters himself. They get a residency in a local pub. They even get a fanbase of maybe a dozen diehards.

Meanwhile Paddy mostly sits in his room writing songs. Which he puts into boxes under his bed

Somewhere around this time they pick up another waif, a slight, painfully shy teenage girl by the name of Wendy Smith who hates pop music but who loves Paddy’s “Walk On” so much that she’s prepared to take money on pub doors so she can hear it every time it’s played.

And the magical songs continue to fall out of Paddy’s imagination. Bonny: a wounded, glorious song of personal loss and tragedy, the protagonist suspended between heaven and earth, unreachable by those he loves and who love him. Faron Young: an irritated sideswipe against the ersatz nature of country and western in working mens’ clubs with a thunderous riff. Desire As – a crystalline dissection of the agony of lost love. And many more: at the time they were signed by Kitchenware records in about 1983, Prefab Sprout were reputably able to play for four hours straight without repeating a song.

A lot like Bruce Springsteen, except that all the songs were completely different from each other.  And they were kept in shoeboxes under a bed.

Somewhere between the period just described, and the bit where Wendy officially joined the band to add vocal colour, leading to a minor schism in the fans (“something was gained, but… <TRAGIC PAUSE> something was lost… <SAD DOWNWARD GAZE>”), and Martin had taken a job in a quarry on night shifts to get together the money to record a single which Paddy heard and immediately dismissed as not sounding any different to the tapes, because the vinyl magic he was expecting to happen hadn’t worked, and Mick leaving because he wanted a band where he was allowed to contribute his own songs, and Martin wearing out the train tracks between Newcastle and London trying to get people to listen to demo tapes, and signing for Kitchenware and finding five grand to record an album…, somewhere in the middle of all of that, everyone had become a bit bored of the old songs which they had after all been playing in pubs for five years.

So they put them away in boxes under Paddy’s bed and got new ones out.

We’re going to skip over the result, the first album Swoon, not because it’s not unique and wonderful, but because it’s actually a step out of sequence into the future. Nothing ever runs sequentially with Prefab Sprout. It’s part of the charm.

Except that there was a single, “Don’t Sing”, which was played on Roundtable on Radio 1, and roundly mocked. “Good advice, ‘Don’t Sing!’ they should listen to it, haw haw”, opined the glitterati.

All except one, an odd looking and geekish character. Thomas Dolby. In our imaginary biopic, he casts a sorrowful and indulgent eye towards his companion reviewers on either side, and quietly whispers “Actually, I quite like it.. It’s… different…”

Fade to a leafy, cold, autumnal road in County Durham, at the end of which is a Church and a decaying Rectory, now  home to the McAloons. The landscape is one of bare trees and brutal beauty.

Martin has heard the radio show and managed to make contact. He persuades Dolby to visit, who after dinner is escorted to Paddy’s room, where he sees the boxes full of songs and gets Paddy to play as many as he can for him. Just Paddy with his mum’s old Spanish Guitar, sitting on the end of his bed with his boxes and his songs. Whispering his way through Moving the River: “you surely are a truly gifted kid…”.

If there was ever a Tutankamen’s tomb moment in pop music, that was surely it. Dolby, eyes closed, tapping his fingers on his knee, imagining vast arrangements, understanding he had stumbled across greatness in a primitive form.

A few songs are selected and recorded on an old tape recorder to take back and consider. Mostly not new songs, mostly the old songs from the County Durham pubs that everyone was bored with and never wanted to hear again. Which over the coming few months, would become transformed into absolute sonic perfection. Not a note out of place, beautiful gemstones in scintallating settings. One of the greatest albums ever recorded.

I started by explaining this was a story about two brothers, and that’s true. Bluntly, Prefab Sprout existed only because one brother – the goofy one – worked his bollocks off selflessly for years to make sure that the music of the obsessive, unworldly, brother he adored came to the attention of the outside world.

But there’s more to Steve McQueen than Prefab Sprout. It took Thomas Dolby to do the archaeological fieldwork, to dig for the lost treasures, and to polish what he found to the peak of perfection.

It’s his album really. Paddy would never have released it himself.

He’s still busy, sitting in his room, writing songs, and putting them in boxes under his bed.




6 thoughts

  1. A great informative read. I thought i first heard Don’t Sing one Friday afternoon on Peter Powell’s Radio 1 show aged about 19. I just remember thinking how different and how thrilling it was. Can’t remember hearing the Roundtable slagging. How dare they? Who were these imbeciles? Needless to saymy love for the Sprouts was born and endures to this day. Would have loved to have seen the 4hr pub sessions.

  2. “Whispering his way through Moving the River: “you surely are a truly gifted kid…”.

    “If there was ever a Tutankamen’s tomb moment in pop music, that was surely it. Dolby, eyes closed, tapping his fingers on his knee, imagining vast arrangements, understanding he had stumbled across greatness in a primitive form.”

    It might sound melodramatic (but hey, I’m inclined to melodrama, so shoot me), but I can picture that image with absolute clarity. And, I can picture the thoughts that may have been going through Dolby’s mind as well. Having been in a similar position (although not as a full time pro) and happened across someone of a similar vein – just writing and putting the stuff in shoeboxes, maybe never to be found – and then thinking “what the hell have I just found?”, I can relate to it entirely. Its exactly how a producer’s mind works.

    And, I would gladly have traded vital organs and limbs to have been a fly on the wall when Moving The River was first played to Dolby. The acoustic version is one of the most achingly beautiful things that I’ve ever heard. Irreverant, humour-laden but heartbreakingly poignant all in one song.

    I could read stuff like this all day long. 🙂

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