Classics Revisited: Prefab Sprout - ‘Steve McQueen’
With it's wordless refrains and non-sequitur exclamations that took pleasure in twisting expectations, and lamentations on miserable truisms that most artists would find trivial, Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen contorted the face of 80's pop beyond recognition. Thirty five years on and to mark the return of The Mic's beloved Classics Revisited feature, Owen White dissects the band's sharded sophomore marvel.
Prefab Sprout were one of the most unique acts to emerge amongst the British weirdo-pop of the 80’s. While frontman Paddy McAloon’s sensitive lothario persona may have held some qualities analogues of certain contemporaries (most obviously Morrissey), his brand of wit was a smidge dryer, and his misery a smidge more cerebral - so when blended with the bands singularly sophisticated song-craft it produced pop sublimity that stood out even amongst their idiosyncratic competition.
The scrappy post punk of their debut Swoon belayed a degree of pop craftmanship and meticulous attention to lyrical detail that indicated interests more in line with Steely Dan than with Joy Division. The result was an album decidedly charming and well rendered, but ultimately suffering a degree of anonymity - masked in the sound of that style and the era that accompanied it.
“McAloon’s penchant for forging dull, aching ennui into voluptuous stadium-sized hooks... is already on full display.”
This would not be an issue on the groups immaculate 1985 follow up Steve McQueen. The band rallied around the crystalline mechanical perfection of Thomas Dolby’s New Wave sorcery - which he had previously deployed on his own iconic 80’s singles, albeit to a far classier and more timeless effect. The music on Steve McQueen is, at once, as stately and intricate as a cathedral roof, and as rugged and worn as a heart. It is this heart which frontman Paddy McAloon bares openly across the tight 45 runtime - one enclosed in cynicism, but gushing romance and empathy through its cracks.
McAloon’s penchant for forging dull, aching ennui into voluptuous stadium-sized hooks, able to contain heaps of both quiet melancholy and anthemic melodrama, is already on full display here from opener Faron Young onwards – the same which would later propel blockbuster single The King of Rock and Roll into the top 10. The titular cheeseball’s 70’s pop country smash is weaved into the hook, as the song’s nomadic narrator laments on the reality of his road trip across America. Undertaken in search of something authentic and life-affirming, it continues to merely offer “Faron Young, four in the morning”; sterile plastic cliches and counterfeit Americana. The melody carrying this complaint is gorgeous and swooning as pop hooks are delivered abed a potent blend of ethereal bells, gentle banjo, and nimble bass.
The ability with which McAloon gently sculpts and contorts subtle jazz chords on the chorus of Goodbye Lucille #1 into an enveloping cinematic slow-pan sounds almost effortless, worthy of the inherent drama in phrases like “Life's not complete/Till your heart's missed a beat.” Dolby’s production shines across the track, as weepy guitars contract and release. Breathing subtle life into each melody, they finally fully alleviate the tension on the chorus, where everything coalescences fully, whilst still giving each individual component space in the mix - to pop, crackle and fizz.
Appetite opens on a warm breath of velveteen synth notes, drawn unmistakeably from the iconic Fairlight synth, before settling into the most danceable groove on the album. The subtle soft rock of the verse gently bristles with silvery keyboard embellishments. Below, gentle piano chords propel it towards a triumphant chorus, replete with pillowy arpeggiator and guitar chords that ring out like long stretches. Lyrically, writer McAloon paints a gorgeously evocative, yet economical, narrative. The perspective is of a young woman, left pregnant after an impassioned liaison with a now absent man (probably one of the other likeable lechers which McAloon inhabits across the record). Across the song, he alleviates the potent sadness in sentiment like “Wishing she could call him heartache / But it's not a boy's name,” with his cerebral wordplay and dry wit.
“Steve McQueen is not only the crowning achievement in one of the most regularly overlooked discographies in 80’s pop music, but also a pinnacle for the genre and era as a whole.”
80’s staple When Love Breaks Down and late album highlight Desire scratch similar itches for lavish, sophisticated synth-pop with delicately crooned lyrics that bleed heartache without treading on each other’s toes. They are spaced out far enough on the album to not feel repetitive, and the more straightforward balladeering of When Love Breaks Down draws an interesting comparison with the slow-burn progression Desire goes through in its first half. These tracks evoke a sort of late-era Roxy Music style grandeur and decadence, with their sweeping Dolby production and impeccable arrangements raising McAloon’s song-craft to new heights. Roxy Music could never have dreamed of producing something as legitimately dramatic and captivating as the bass stabs, minimal detuned chords and disorienting vocal layers that make up the later verses.
Steve McQueen is not only the crowning achievement in one of the most regularly overlooked discographies in 80’s pop music, but also a pinnacle for the genre and era as a whole - all while also serving as the condensed mission statement for sophisti-pop as a genre. McAloon is a more empathic storyteller than Morrissey and arguably a wittier one too - so it’s baffling that these songs don’t find success along similar lines as The Smiths’ sad-boy dorm room classics. Surgically produced 80’s pop music arguably lacks the hipster charm, but, when employed right, it makes for an effective sound.
Undeniably, the song-writing here is charming and affecting in spades. Groups like Steely Dan and The Blue Nile were able to achieve similar lofty heights, either in terms of production or composition. But neither ever wrangled the pop song quite as well as Prefab Sprout do here - where they drag it kicking and screaming into the sublime.
Written by: Owen White
Edited by: Louise Dugan