The intricate tales and thoughts in the lyrics of Prefab Sprouts guiding light Paddy McAloon indicate a major songwriter. The combination of Bob Dylan imagery and Elvis Costello bluntness helped make Prefab Sprout one of the most refreshing pop bands of the late 80s and beyond.
The band was formed in 1977 by Paddy McAloon (Patrick Joseph McAloon, 7 June 1957, Durham, England; guitar/vocals) and his brother Martin McAloon (b. 4 January 1962, Durham, England; bass), with Michael Salmon completing the line-up on drums. Allegedly taking their name from a mishearing of the line hotter than a pepper sprout in Nancy Sinatras Jackson, Prefab Sprout did not make their recording debut until 1982 when they recorded the self-pressed single Lions In My Own Garden/Radio Love. The recording session featured Wendy Smith (b. 31 May 1963, Middlesbrough, Cleveland, England) on backing vocals, and she was installed as a full-time member by the time Prefab Sprout signed a recording contract with the independent label Kitchenware Records. Kitchenware released The Devil Has All The Best Tunes/Walk On from an earlier recording session, but by this time Salmon had left the band. Temporary drummer Graham Land filled in for the recording of the bands debut album, which built on the indie success of the earlier singles by reaching the national chart, thanks in part to a major distribution deal with CBS Records. Swoon was a wordy album featuring songs with many chord changes that ultimately concentrated on lyrics rather than melody.
New drummer Neil Conti (b. 12 February 1959, Luton, Bedfordshire, England) became a full-time member of Prefab Sprout in 1984, just in time to help out on the recording of their second album. Later that year the excellent When Love Breaks Down failed to excite the singles-buying public. A remixed version by Thomas Dolby was released the following year, but once again failed. When Steve McQueen was issued the same year the band became media darlings, with Paddy McAloon coming near to overexposure. The album was a critical success, featuring hummable songs with fascinating lyrics, and it made a respectable showing in the charts. At the end of the year, When Love Breaks Down was issued for a third time and finally became a hit, reaching number 25 in the UK charts. In the USA, Steve McQueen was forcibly retitled Two Wheels Good and two additional tracks added to the running order. A striking work, the album included a tribute to country singer Faron Young and the arresting Goodbye Lucille #1 (aka Johnny Johnny).
Prefab Sprouts belated third album, From Langley Park To Memphis, was released in 1988 and became a major success worldwide. Paddy McAloon had now refined his art to produce totally accessible yet inventive pop music, with the album representing a courageous change of direction by employing strings and composing melodies that recalled the great show musical writers of the pre-rock n roll era. Nightingales was very much in this vein, and the work ended with the strikingly melodramatic Nancy (Let Your Hair Down For Me) and The Venus Of The Soup Kitchen. Already the band had reached the stage of having superstar guests turning up on the album. Both Stevie Wonder (harmonica solo on Nightingales) and Pete Townshend put in appearances. The King Of Rock N Roll became their biggest UK hit to date when it reached number 7 in May, although the sublime Cars And Girls stalled outside the Top 40. The subsequent Protest Songs was an odd collection, originally scheduled to appear in December 1985 and its success was muted by the continuing sales of both Steve McQueen and From Langley Park To Memphis. The follow-up proper, Jordan: The Comeback, was unleashed in 1990, and for many critics it was the album of the year. All Paddy McAloons talents had combined to produce a concept album of magnificence. Over 64 minutes in length, the album boasted 19 tracks, full of striking melodies and fascinatingly oblique lyrics. The ghost of Elvis Presley haunted several of the songs, most notably the elegiac Moon Dog.
Following the release of a greatest hits set and the departure of Conti from the band, Paddy McAloon spent the next few years tinkering with various new projects, paying the bills by writing songs for actor/singer Jimmy Nail. Martin McAloon and Wendy Smith spent the downtime working with children in music therapy and teaching. A new Prefab Sprout album, Andromeda Heights, finally appeared in 1997, with percussionist Paul Smith providing additional musical support. Sophisticated mood music, the album met with a polite response from critics still entranced by McAloons intricate musical and lyrical conceits.
Another lengthy gap ensued before The Gunman And Other Stories, the first Prefab Sprout album to be recorded without Wendy Smith and their debut for new label EMI Records, was released. This time McAloon had donned cowboy boots and a Stetson hat. The remastered edition of Steve McQueen released in 2007 came with a bonus disc, on which McAloon offered up his acoustic reworkings of eight of the tracks.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.