This week Prefab Sprout releases a new record, Crimson/Red–their first in 12 years. You might not know it, but Prefab Sprout is one of the best bands of all time, so to mark the occasion of their new album, I wanted to share some of their music here. The Durham band formed in the early ’80s, lead by singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon and featuring his brother Martin on bass, Neil Conti on drums, and Wendy Smith adding sublime female vocals. Throughout the ’80s the group became recognized as one of the smartest pop bands, with intricate chord progressions and beautiful, thoughtful lyrics. They have been referenced as major influence by artists like Sondre Lerche, Fountains of Wayne, and Broken Social Scene, and their songs have been recorded by Kylie Minogue, Cher, and Jimmy Nail.
The band’s first big hit “When Love Breaks Down” comes from their masterpiece second album Steve McQueen (renamed Two Wheels Good for its US release due to issues from the Steve McQueen estate). The album is a wonderful collection of dark pop songs centered around the idea of lost love and early adulthood. It was also their first of three albums produced by Thomas Dolby. You know, the “She Blinded Me With Science” guy. (Later in life, Dolby’s tech company innovated cell phone technology by installing MIDI synthesizers in phones and creating the polyphonic ringtone).
But the band is probably best known for their 1988 hit “The King of Rock and Roll.” The silly song tells the story of a ’50s one-hit-wonder remembered for a novelty song, which is sung in the chorus. “Hotdog/Jumping Frog/Albuquerque!” It’s an odd song, with an even odder music video, for the band to be remembered by, but I’ll be surprised if the song doesn’t get stuck in your head for days after listening to it.
(From “The King of Rock and Roll” music video)
In the ’90s, McAloon continued to expand their musical and lyrical scope with 1991′s Jordan: The Comeback, a loose concept album exploring ideas of pop culture, fame, love, and religion, separated into four suites. After the album, the group essentially ended. 1997′s Andromeda Heights and 2001′s The Gunman and Other Stories, are good albums in their own right but feel separate from the band’s previous efforts.
In 2009, Paddy released an album titled Let’s Change The World With Music, which was one of many albums he had recorded on his own in the ’90s with the intention to record with the rest of the Sprouts. Though the album is essentially home demos, the songs are fantastic, spiritual, and have a certain lo-fi charm with their drum machines and layers of cheesy synths.
Prefab Sprout’s newest album, Crimson/Red is sonically similar. At this point ‘Prefab Sprout’ is really just Paddy McAloon. His tinnitus prevents him from playing or recording with loud music, so the tracks have a similar quality of sounding a bit like home demos, but, as always, McAloon’s songwriting is peerless.
Though nothing the band has done since the early ’90s has come close to the classic albums, the music on Swoon, Steve McQueen, From Langley Park To Memphis, Protest Songs, and Jordan: The Comeback is more than enough to cement their place in musical history, even if not everyone is aware of it.