I mentioned Raymond Lister in the first part of the Thomas Dolby interview. I knew Raymond Lister because he was the biographer of Samuel Palmer, one of the greatest unknown English artists of the early 19th Century, who married into my family, and I was researching that connection for a period.
During that research I learned that Palmer’s son, Herbert, recalled in later life that his father had a sign in his studio over his easel with one word written on it: “Parsley!”.
Before explaining the significance of that to Prefab Sprout, let me show you something.
This is an almost pure sine wave.
Now what, I hear you asking, is the the relevance of an almost perfect sine wave to this blog?
Well let me give you a clue.
This is Lorraine McIntosh of Deacon Blue. Deacon Blue are often confused with Prefab Sprout, because they performed intelligent music with many of the same underlying influences. Good songs well played. And both bands set up an a conventional way as a guitar band, but added a female singer in the front line instead of playing in front of backing vocalists.
But the big difference between Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue is that sine wave. Because that’s Wendy’s voice from “Desire As”, isolated onto a single track, in an unretouched trace.
Where Lorraine had much more of a traditional, soulful, singing voice, singing lines weaving in and out of the lead vocal as much as harmonising with it, Wendy was able to produce an absolutely pure sound, and was in effect used as an instrumental and harmonic element as much as a voice. That’s one of the reasons Prefab Sprout were unique, and why they don’t really fit into the same bracket as Deacon Blue.
But that’s not all, because her voice can also have a very organic timbre. Like a flute. I’m reminded a little of Peter Gabriel’s flute playing in the early Genesis. There’s a lot of electronic keyboard in early Genesis, but the flute introduces a very welcome organic element which was very much missed when Gabriel left and his parts were moved to Tony Bank’s synths. The flute somehow brought things onto a more human scale, connected it to the earth and wind.
Wendy has a wistful and melancholic quality about her singing too: “We let the stars go free…”. Or deadpan: “But that didn’t stop it happening…” Always understated, never showy.
It’s fascinating to revisit the arrangements with this in mind and listening for what Wendy adds, which is considerable but not always obvious. It’s often little accents, delicate harmonic touches. I think she’s at her best on Jordan, and in particular I love her in “All Boys Believe Anything” where her voice washes into and across Paddy’s like a warming breeze (but with a hint of Autumn chill). Or listen to “Desire As” which is where the sample came from, and you can see how subtly she is used in the arrangement.
And so now we return to Parsley. Samuel Palmer was reminding himself of this quote by Philip Gilbert Hamerton:
“Amongst the dishes for which my friend had a deserved reputation was a certain gâteau de foie which had a very exquisite flavour. The principal ingredient, not in quantity but in power, was the liver of a fowl; but there were several other ingredients also, and amongst these a leaf or two of paisley. He told me that the influence of the parsley was a good illustration of his theory about his art. If the parsley were omitted, the ﬂavour he aimed at was not produced at all; but, on the other hand, if the quantity of parsley was in the least excessive, then the gâteau instead of being a delicacy for gourmets became an uneatable mess.”
And so we arrive at my point. Which is that Wendy was the parsley in the Prefab Sprout gâteau de foie.
Samuel Palmer had his “parsley” reminder in front of him as he painted, and applied it to his use highlights, taking care not to overdo them. And so it was with Wendy’s vocals, they add highlights. If you were to take them away, the songs are good but the result isn’t sublime. She was more or less in the background, which led quite a number of people to discount her contribution.
But you miss her in the more recent albums. It’s not something you can quite put your finger on. Sometimes you even think you can hear her – Paddy has explained that most synthesisers have a preset that sounds a bit like Wendy, and he even digitised her voice in a Fairlight at one point – but it’s not the same. Dried parsley from a jar in the larder perhaps, a hint, but not the real thing.
I have to hope that she’ll sing with Paddy again. It’s simply not the same dish without her.