Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s Bearpark

prefabThere’s a quality to demo recordings (rough, early versions designed to demonstrate a composition for a potential multi-track studio recording) that really appeals, especially those with ‘delusions of grandeur’ that try to sound much more expensive than they are.

In the 1980s, a demo would typically be very quickly recorded onto a four-track tape machine and then tarted up with a bit of cheap reverb. But these artefacts can very often take on a quality all their own. ‘Chasing the demo’ syndrome is common among musicians and producers, where they try in vain to replicate the freshness of the original as compared with an endlessly-tinkered-with studio version which quickly loses its zing.

‘Bearpark’ first appeared on the B side of Prefab’s ‘Nightingales‘ 12” single as part of a three-song EP called The Demo Tapes (the other two tracks were ‘Life Of Surprises’ and ‘King Of Rock’n’Roll’). It never made it onto any album but has nevertheless become one of my favourite ever Paddy McAloon compositions. It was also apparently the first time he had ever used a four-track cassette machine, recorded with a Dr Rhythm drum box, cheap synth and electric guitar.

I love the way the chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on my bass, you could use any number of root notes under each chord. They all kind of work. It’s hard to imagine how ‘Bearpark’ could be improved by a big-budget production, hence possibly why it hasn’t appeared on an official album, though Paddy says he ‘felt like Phil Spector’ when he’d finished it. Its charming musical naivety and sparseness perfectly suit the lyrical theme: home, for better or worse.

The middle eight always makes me smile:

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

In fact, sod it: I’ve just looked up the lyrics. They’re great and deserve to be reproduced in full.

Home, sweet home
Sweet home, hard as nails

Bearpark, you were mine
I know, I know, I’ve been away but you’re
Not the type for valentines
Bearpark, I get homesick

Langley you are fine
I know, I know, I’m a gypsy
But Bearpark, Bearpark’s on my mind
There’s nowhere else like you

I’m gonna walk this weary body that’s been nowhere far too long
I’m gonna drag it back where it belongs

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram,
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

Bearpark, what a place
I know that this will sound soft but I
Sometimes think you’ve got a face
Both eyes black and blue

A stranger comes to town
I know, I know, the chances are that
Some bright spark will run him down
No honey on your tongue

I’m gonna take this broken spirit
Gonna heal it for all time
When I see your dear name
Upon a sign

Bearpark, you are mine
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram…

Maybe it is time the song got a ‘proper’ recording. As Paddy says in the liner notes on the back of the 12” single, ‘You might think you can do better – be my guest. I like cover versions.’ But he also advises: ‘Don’t spend too long on the demo’…

The Tube: The Best ’80s Music Show?

Paula and Jools

Paula and Jools

So Channel Four have reignited ‘TFI Friday‘, the mid-’90s, Chris Evans-fronted chat ‘n’ music show. Though it pretty much defined the ‘golden age’ of Britpop, its format still rings true, mainly due to Evans’ endearing ‘innocent abroad’ presenting style but also its exciting presentation of live acts.

I’m not a fan of Will Young’s music but his performance on ‘TFI’ the other day was funny and cool; he visibly (and I’m not just talking about his insanely tight trousers) enjoyed having his fans at touching distance and raised his game accordingly.

Watching ‘TFI’ got me thinking about music on TV in the ’80s. My favourite music show still is and probably always will be ‘The Tube’, which ran on Friday nights between 1982 and 1987 and was presented mainly by Jools Holland and Paula Yates. Though Jools has found his niche presenting the very successful ‘Later…’ series for BBC1, I preferred the more youthful, risky, ‘uncut’ Jools of The Tube (who was given a hefty slap on the wrist when he famously trailed the show one week by saying people who watched it were ‘groovy fuckers’!). And he had a good chemistry with the intelligent, funny and sexy Paula.

jools-holland-and-paula-yates-on-the-tube-384542018

From week to week, you could never guess what you were going to see. There were live bands, star interviews, specially-filmed videos, on-location featurettes and weird bits of alternative comedy usually involving Rik Mayall in various degrees of drunkenness.

Some of it was great, some of it was OK and some of it was crap, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it. It helped launch some careers (Twisted Sister, Fine Young Cannibals, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Terence Trent D’Arby) and relaunch others, and you could see every type of music on the show – Metal, Goth, Funk, Fusion, Indie, Pop, Soul – all in the spirit of discovery without any pandering reverence or bourgeois pretension. And though the show featured many huge names, it also embraced up-and-comers: if your band was any good, had some fans and a decent plugger, you were on. And there was a bar on the set too.

Here are a few clips from The Tube that have stuck in the memory:

The Bangles – ‘Manic Monday’

Check out the creepy guy at the front staring straight at Susanna Hoffs throughout, almost blocking the camera. Full marks to the girls for giving the (Prince-penned) song their all despite a dumbstruck Newcastle crowd. Tight harmonies.

Billy Mackenzie interview, 1985

One of those great, weird, un-PR’d interviews that popped up now and again. A post-‘Party Fears Two‘ Billy is clearly taking the piss throughout, in the nicest possible way, and it also shows how The Tube wasn’t scared of going out into the ‘provinces’ (Dundee in this case).

Cocteau Twins – ‘Pink Orange And Red’

Great haircuts, great voice, great guitar sound and underwater bass. The golden age of goth/pop.

Blancmange – ‘Living On The Ceiling’

More good hair, and there’s something about this performance and song that always cheers me up. Someone or something is making singer Neil Arthur struggle to keep a straight face throughout.

Prefab Sprout – ‘Cruel’

This little Bacharach-influenced bossa nova was my first glimpse of the marvellous Prefab. Rather sweet, really, and totally unrepresentative of their later work.

More memorable Tube moments? Of course. Let me know yours below.

Sondheim Meets Springsteen: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis

prefabKitchenware/CBS Records, released 14th March 1988

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1988

9/10

Prefab go Pop. There are big-name guest spots (Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend), gospel choirs, an orchestra and Deacon Blue’s producer. The lengthy recording period and increased budget certainly paid off; synths and strings glisten, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sound like they’re singing in the room with you and one can hear every nuance of Neil Conti’s tasty drumming.

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby could only find the time to oversee four out of the ten tracks; of these, only ‘Knock On Wood’ sounds like trademark TD. Apparently, once McAloon learned that Dolby would be unavailable for much of the recording, he flirted with the idea of using a different producer for each song. The notion was quickly abandoned but it reinforced the idea that this would be Paddy’s most collaborative project so far.

At the time of its release, Paddy publicly declared that he hated the sound of records being made in the late ’80s and in response seems to have looked for songwriting inspiration from pre-rock’n’roll forms – Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and Broadway musicals. He had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano.

Consequently, McAloon’s melodies are incredibly daring and original, but there’s arguably a fair degree of musical ‘schmaltz’ in the arrangements too, particularly on ‘Hey Manhattan’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, but it’s Stephen Sondheim schmaltz rather than Disney schmaltz. The wonderful ‘Nightingales’ sounds like the score from some kind of futuristic Broadway musical (and the 12″ single is worth tracking down for exquisite B-side ‘Bearpark’).

prefab stevieCBS obviously had high hopes for the album and their faith was paid off in the shape of a hit single, ‘King of Rock & Roll’, and one near-hit, ‘Cars And Girls’, though one wonders how McAloon views those now – I’ll wager with a degree of sheepishness. But I remember being extremely excited to see the video for ‘Cars And Girls’ popping up on ‘The Chart Show’.

Listening back after all this time, it’s From Langley‘s minor, more understated tracks that really stand the test of time. ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘Enchanted’ could have come from Steve McQueen. The former features a simple, unusually direct lyric from Paddy over a surreal, subtle pot-pourri of percussion and synth effects from Dolby. One wonders what McAloon’s demo sounded like. It’s slight and simple but no worse for that.

Nancy’ is gorgeous, a ‘Brief Encounter’esque tale of unrequited romance in the workplace, possibly inspired by McAloon’s relationship with his fellow Sprout (it doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine the word ‘Wendy’ in place of ‘Nancy’). ‘I Remember That’ sees McAloon in full-on crooner mode, emoting over MOR strings and weirdly-stilted gospel backing vocals. Paddy pokes fun at Springsteen’s obsessions on ‘Cars And Girls’, but then hilariously attempts a four-on-the-floor, Springsteenish rocker ‘The Golden Calf’ which doesn’t quite come off.

It’s hard to overstate the weirdness of the closing ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, a collision of slick Steely Dan drums, wonky Farfisa organ, distinctly-unfunky vocals from the Andrae Crouch singers and some amusing cocktail guitar from McAloon. It unnerves in a way I’m sure was intended, coming over like a Ken Loach tale told in Broadway-musical style. For better or worse, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the Prefab output.

So, an important, big-selling album for Prefab (reaching number 5 in the UK album charts) and another hugely impressive chunk of songwriting from McAloon. He was in a bullish mood, talking to the media about chart placings and competing with Michael Jackson and Prince, and his purple patch led to an even more cogent and powerful piece of work in the extraordinary Jordan The Comeback, of which more later.