This is the album on the list which has me most confused about its release date, and when I bought it. I have a clear memory of hearing Faron Young on the radio in early 1986, and going into the Other Record Shop in Inverness to buy a tape of the album that same weekend. It’s such a clear memory that it won’t be shifted by anything as trivial as facts, which suggest that not only had the album come out the previous summer, the single which was actually out that January was a completely different track, released under a different name (I’ll get to that), which I vividly remember hearing while parked in the car park of the Western General hospital in Edinburgh some time the following summer.
I can’t account for any of the memory lapses; my recall of specific events, dates and places is normally pretty much spot on (just ask my long-suffering family), so I think I’m going to have to try to unpick all the things which happened between buying that Smiths album back there and heading off to work in Inverness in my company car, with Prefab Sprout blaring out of the fancy built-in cassette player….
I did eventually finish my dissertation on Turkish grammar, and graduated (on a Friday 13th in 1984, to my great delight). I promptly went back to my summer van-driving job and pretended that I wasn’t going to have to decide what I was going to do with my life now that I had finally shaken off academia. Some of my friends were going on to do a one year postgrad course, but I really was finished with studying and the student life – at least, I thought I was; looking back, another year of something a little more practical than Linguistics might not have been a bad idea. My mind was made up, however – I was going to plunge headfirst into the corporate life – just as soon as I could find someone who would employ me.
After several false starts, and a half-hearted attempt to join the civil service, I found myself in possession of a full-time salaried job complete with company car (I missed the ‘company van’ phase by only a few months). I started work for Bookwise Service as it was then known in January 1985, trailing round the supermarkets and department stores of Aberdeen, filling the shelves with Jeffrey Archer and Catherine Cookson novels, sending unsold copies back and generally passing myself off as a bookseller, when I was in truth little more than a sales rep for a book wholesaler.
I had, of course, impressed my new employers with my knowledge of all kinds of books, but being the kind of person who was easily distracted by a new book by a favourite author coming along proved to be as much a handicap as a benefit – I wasn’t always as efficient as I might have been in getting my day’s work done, as I might find myself idly flicking through this book or that for much longer than I needed to, especially when it meant I could delay as long as possible the inevitable drudgery of tallying the returns and finding someone to sign my paperwork.
And if that meant there was little time left to do the actual selling part of my job, so much the better – I wasn’t, at that stage of my life, a natural salesperson, and actively avoided getting into the conversations where I was supposed to negotiate extra space for the next bestseller, or ask for an larger than normal order for the new children’s book on the grounds that there was a new TV show coming along. I enjoyed my time at Bookwise, and learned many basic truths about commerce and the retail environment which still serve me well to this day, but it wasn’t an actual career as far as I could see.
Still, I could pretend to be a bookseller, and swan around in my company Vauxhall Astra, so it had its compensations.
One of which was that, for that first year, my Mondays were spent in the enormous book department of the old Boots store on Union Street. For some reason, it was the largest selection of books other than in the mainstream bookshops, and it took most of Monday to restore to order after the ravages of the weekend (if memory serves, I also used to go in there on a Friday morning to top things up before the weekend). The book department was right next to Boots’ eclectic record department, and my Mondays were often accompanied by the sounds of whatever new releases the record department had acquired the previous week. There weren’t many customers about on a Monday, so I could often place requests for rarities – I finally got to hear some of their extensive Frank Zappa collection that way – or just listen along to whatever was fashionable in 1985.
So, in all likelihood, I first heard Prefab Sprout in Boots; I can believe (but not remember) that I heard this whole album while filling shelves with Agatha Christie and Wilbur Smith back copies. It seems likely that it inserted itself into my brain when it was a new release, and I only got round to getting my own copy much later.
Many things happened in 1985, including Zoë and I deciding to get married the following year, which threw up a whole new set of questions, including where we would live. I think we were both keen to be out of Aberdeen; we’d both studied in Edinburgh, but found ourselves living ‘at home’, and I know I was chafing against it. However, Aberdeen was a ruinously expensive place to live in the mid-eighties, so when the opportunity came up for me to relocate, we agreed I should go for it.
Which is how I eventually ended up in the car park of a guest house on the banks of the River Ness, clutching my newly acquired copy of Steve McQueen. I’m sure I was supposed to be house-hunting or something, but buying records always took priority over the minor details of life, and I did find the first of three places I lived in in Inverness shortly afterwards – no more guesthouses for me.
There was a certain amount of discontent from my bosses at Bookwise when I declared that I was going to be living at the far end of my new territory – I was now covering everything from the outskirts of Aberdeen to Dingwall, with occasional trips to the far north and the Western Isles thrown in for good measure, and I’d been asked to find somewhere to live around the mid-point of the area. Jobs for Zoë, however, were far more likely to come up in Inverness, so – stretching the definition of ‘middle’ somewhat, we took root in the Highland capital for a couple of years.
So when I put Steve McQueen on my list, I remember thinking ‘oh, that’ll be fun, to talk about living in Inverness and hearing Faron Young on the radio and so on’. It has come as something of a surprise to discover that none of that was true – that I may well have owned the album months before moving up, and that I may not have bought it in Inverness that first weekend, after all.
I do, however, remember playing it while I drove round Inverness looking for somewhere to live, and I do definitely remember it being a fixture in my brand-new Astra (I broke the previous one just before Christmas in 1985; black ice and a lucky escape involving having to be pulled backwards out of a hedge by a grumpy farmer in a tractor; don’t ask). I remember all these songs with great fondness, and how Prefab Sprout, in spite of their name, became one of my absolute favourite bands of the next few years. This is one of those albums which has retained its freshness and familiarity for me over nearly forty years; I’m not rediscovering this one, because I know exactly how it sounds.
I’m still looking forward to it, though.
I mean, how can you not love an album which starts with a passionate cry of “Antiques!”?
Faron Young caught my ear because – like so much of the music in the mid-eighties – it didn’t really sound like anything else. It’s a slice of faux-Americana, filtered through the cynical gaze of the outsider, who sees and hears all these things but isn’t much impressed by them. It wasn’t a fond anthem of respect for a legendary country singer (who, I’ll be honest, I had never heard of); it was a clear denunciation of how his music was fake and insincere like so much of what appeared on the surface of a road trip across the US.
And then there’s a completely off-the-wall instrumental break which fits completely with the weird banjo-driven sound while simultaneously sounding like the band were just fumbling around blindfolded.
And then Bonny comes along and is just a perfect jewel of a song; it’s a metaphysical reflection on the end of a relationship delivered as a straightforward pop song, sung with real feeling and heartbreak. If you ignore the message, though, it’s just a delightful melodic confection which has you humming away merrily while the song bitterly regrets missed chances and lies awake wondering how things turned out this way. It’s easy to sing songs like this as laments; much harder to do this and still sound convincing.
After thinking about it for several decades, I’ve decided that I still don’t exactly know what’s going on with Appetite; it sounds in some respects like a nonsense song – perhaps sung to an unborn child, but it’s clearly not that – it deals with broader philosophical questions around the more basic human urges. None of the songs on Steve McQueen are disposable pieces of pop culture; they all have something to say. It’s just that a song like Appetite needs a lot more study than you might at first think, hearing its cheery melody and its playful lyric. It’s saying something profound about the human condition, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to work it out, given enough time.
On the other hand, you can read When Love Breaks Down – probably the best known song on here – as a straightforward ‘end of the affair’ song; this time, the tone is appropriately slow and mournful; it conflates autumn and sadness in the usual way, and then…
And then it kicks up into another of those bouncy choruses, and you wonder if you’ve read it all wrong again. The second verse suggests all is actually well, but the conclusion is surely that both parties are lying to themselves and the truth is more painful than the upbeat attitude suggests.
And, I think, that’s part of the overall thrust of this album – you have to consider the medium and the message; nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
For example, the next track, technically known as Goodbye Lucille #1, was called Johnny Johnny when released as a single (which I’m certain – or am I? – I first heard on the radio while sitting in the car park of the Western General. There was a good reason for being there, but this is rambling enough as it is; what I do remember is momentarily being excited at the thought of a new Prefab Sprout song, and immediately realising that somehow the name had been mixed up; only later discovering that it had been given a new, more radio announcer-friendly name).
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. It’s another breakup song, this time from the perspective of a well-meaning outsider. Poor Johnny is being comforted and advised by someone determined to run through all the cliches in the book until he reaches “give it a rest” – thanks, pal.
But that’s not why this song sticks in the memory so powerfully – neither is it due to the committed singing, or the delightfully fluid bassline, or – again – the sheer catchiness of the whole thing.
No, Goodbye Lucille #1 stands out for the way it plays with the cliché of a missing heartbeat. The first time round, Paddy McAloon’s vocals push straight through the beat that the band deliberately misses; the second time, he catches on and also pauses, causing my head to snap up in delight; I just love when a song plays with metre like that, and this is so understated and cool that it manages the same trick twice with only a subtle variation which keeps it fresh. The fact that after the second missed beat, the song starts to crumble, and the veneer of politeness is stripped away to reveal the real raw emotions underneath is a bonus. Again, it sounds deceptively straightforward, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.
It takes a certain degree of confidence to call a song Hallelujah in the wake of Leonard Cohen and all the cover versions out there; it’s braver still to invoke George Gershwin in the lyrics while protesting that – in the words of someone else entirely – “this is not a love song”. Fortunately, this is another work of genius, drifting along in that delicate tracery of 1980s guitar washes with snatches of woodwind and knowing backing vocals – it sweeps you up in its dishonesty and treachery and leaves you whistling a merry tune while it makes off with your loose change.
I’ve pretty much always believed that Moving the River is the best song on here, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to explain why, even to myself. Part of it, I know, is the half-spoken intro, full of twists and turns, where the clear impression is of someone only just able to keep up with his own thoughts. He addresses his father as ‘kid’; he invokes the newfangled art of breakdancing; he is clearly complaining about the futility of his existence in the shadow of his parents, or of picking up the pieces after them, or – well, or something. It’s another lyric of deliberate complexity which never quite comes out and says what’s on its mind, while beguiling the listener with its slippery precision. Only after its done do you wonder what, exactly, that was about.
But it’s enormously satisfying to sing/speak along with the opening verse; it has a hand-tooled precision which just flows – this is not one of those songs where the writer has shrugged and said ‘good enough’.
Horsin’ Around has a whole different meaning for anyone who has ever seen the stunning BoJack Horseman and – only now am I seeing this – I think it might be connected. I’d love to know if there is some germ of a connection here, because I now can’t help but hear this from BoJack’s perspective; it’s pretty much perfect for his character – the ‘worthless friend…or foe’.
Leaving that unlikely synergy out of it, I love the loping swagger of the confidently incorrect protagonist, and the way the song drops into an exaggerated swing to make the key point in the middle eight before coming to its inevitable, painful conclusion that it really was all his fault all along.
Look, it’s basically the plot of BoJack Horseman, and I’ll never hear it the same way again.
Desire As is the counterpart to Appetite – long before there were ’99 problems’ to worry about, Paddy McAloon had six things on his mind, and despite his protestations, the nature of desire clearly is one of them.
From a collection of songs about the fragile nature of love and the fickle nature of the human heart, this song stands out as the most ambivalent and – perhaps as a result – truthful about the transience of desire. To point up the ambivalent quality of the words, the song itself never quite seems to get going, threatening to break out into something else but continually being pulled back by the uncertainty of the words. It’s perhaps the key to the whole album, but don’t expect answers.
Blueberry Pies is inflected with doo-wop singing and strangeness. It never quite says what it means, and swings along in a kind of woozy haze of half-truths and unremembered dreams.
I’m assuming the title is rhyming slang for ‘lies’ – if I’ve been wrong about this all this time, well, I guess I’ll spend the next few decades trying to figure it out again.
You can’t end an album like this on the down beats of woozy lies, though – there has to be some more fast-paced philosophy, and When the Angels delivers in spades. It’s as religious as this album gets, with its church organ opening, and musings on the nature of angels, but it’s a particularly English religiosity, concerned with the kind of things William Blake pondered, and doesn’t have any qualms about calling angels ‘heart-faced little bastards’.
I mean, how can you not love a song, an album, which ends with an upbeat discussion about the nature of the skin of angels, and whether they are jealous of us mere mortals?
Well, on the basis that the angels have probably never heard this album, I think the jealousy is justified. Steve McQueen doesn’t just stand up as an album, it actually improves with each listening, and has done for nearly forty years now. I’ve never tired of it in all that time, and while – as we’ll see – there’s another Prefab Sprout album I love even more, there was no way I was missing this off my list.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I’m going to skip my usual ‘all of them’ recommendation, and point you at Jordan: The Comeback which is a great, sprawling, concept album covering all kinds of things no-one else would even think to write about, never mind trace a thread through, and culminates in the staggering Scarlet Nights, which is one of a select few songs I consider actually perfect in execution.
But the other albums, especially From Langley Park to Memphis are also great.
Compilations to consider?
When Life of Surprises came out, I actually had a CD player in my car, and it lived in there for years.
For various reasons, Prefab Sprout weren’t really a live band, so – as far as I’m aware – there’s no such thing as a live album.
Anything else? Yes, and it’s apparently now classified as a Prefab Sprout album, so it should probably be under ‘other albums’ up there. Paddy McAloon now suffers from sight and hearing problems, making his chosen profession a little tricky to carry on. In 2003, as a direct response to losing his eyesight, he released I Trawl the Megahertz, which is a truly unique work of genius, but is sadly overlooked and unregarded. You should try it; it’s not like anything else you’ve ever heard, not even Prefab Sprout albums.