Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s ‘Nightingales’

Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.

But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.

Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.

Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.

It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’. Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.

‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads. In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).

The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.

‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever. He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.

Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:

By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo. Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).

Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.

Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).

Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London. He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.

Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:

He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…

New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.

A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…

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.

The chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on bass, virtually any root notes work under each chord. 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.

 

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

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’ Holland (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 f***ers’!) and he had a great chemistry with the intelligent, funny and sexy Paula.

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:

5. 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.

4. 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).

3. Cocteau Twins – ‘Pink Orange And Red’

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

2. Blancmange – ‘Living On The Ceiling’

Good hair again, and someone or something is making singer Neil Arthur struggle to keep a straight face throughout.

1. Prefab Sprout – ‘Cruel’

This little Bacharach-influenced bossa nova was my first glimpse of the marvellous Prefab.

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, Broadway musicals (he also later said that he was slightly obsessed by Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album around this time).

Paddy had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano. Consequently, his melodies are 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.

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.

Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen 30 Years Old Today

prefabCBS/Kitchenware Records, released 25th June 1985

9/10

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby had taken part in a ‘Round Table’ singles review programme on Radio One in early 1984, waxing lyrical about Prefab’s ‘Don’t Sing’. The Sprouts happened to be listening in and asked their manager Keith Armstrong to ring Dolby the next day. Dolby takes up the story:

thomas dolby

Thomas Dolby in 1985

‘Keith said, “It so happens we’re actually looking for a producer right now. Are you interested?” I said, “Absolutely.” So they said, “Well, we don’t have many songs on tape to play you, but we’d like to invite you up to Paddy’s (McAloon, Prefab singer/songwriter) house.” I took the train up, spent the day there. He lived on the top of a hill in an old Catholic rectory where his mum had looked after the church. There were crucifixes on the walls. His dad, who’d had a stroke, was ill in bed upstairs. Paddy took me to his room and pulled out this stack of songs. He’d squint at them and strum his way through them. He would write notes for chords and melodies over the top of the lyrics but primarily it was about the poems.’

The songs for Steve McQueen were worked up in rehearsals with Dolby at Nomis Studios in West London in the autumn of 1984, before the recording sessions proper started at Marcus Studios.

The Sprouts apparently found the Big Smoke in turns beguiling and baffling. Taken out for dinner by CBS execs, they were introduced to the dubious pleasures of haute cuisine. According to Dolby, upon being delivered a tiny plate of food, bassist Martin McAloon was once heard to utter, ‘That was for me neck – now what’s for me stomach?’!

Dolby brought out the best in singer Wendy Smith, often using her unique soprano almost as a musical instrument, especially on ‘Moving The River’ and ‘Blueberry Pies’.

Dolby realised that part of his role as producer was to ‘smooth out’ some of the rough edges of Paddy’s remarkable songs:

Prefab Sprout

‘What happened when the band started to arrange those was that there were lots of extra beats here and there, strange chord changes or rhythm changes, or odd lengths of phrases. The musicians tried to sort of accommodate those, but in fact what needed to happen was a few of the rough edges needed to be trimmed off. But at the same time, I didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I mean, what made them so unique is that they defied logic. So the task, really, at hand, for me, was how to elevate them to a more accessible level, commercially, without homogenizing the essence of the music.That was the first meeting with Paddy. He’s a very interesting guy, very well read but humble.’

The album was mixed at Farmyard Studios in Buckinghamshire. That was where Paddy really became aware of what Dolby had cooked up:

‘It’s taken me decades to try to absorb what it was that Thomas did. I mean, he had a great ear for individual sounds, he wasn’t swayed so much by the things of the day. He had a Fairlight and a PPG Wave and he would use them sparingly, and he had no time for the Yamaha DX7 and the things that everyone else rushed out and bought. He was into synthesis really. He didn’t make a big thing of it… it was just what he did, in addition to having a good sense of structure.’

Dolby talks about Paddy’s vocal style on the album:

‘He can be coaxed into letting rip every now and then. So one of my favourite things about the album is that you get these occasional primal screams. The way he sings “Antiques!”, the opening line. And then later on in “Goodbye Lucille” which is this very sort of lush, soft song, in the chorus he just lets rip at the end with this scream. And I always liked that he did that on that album. In later years he tended to be this sort of breathy crooner, and you hear less of that raw side.’

prefab

Drummer Neil Conti on recording Steve McQueen:

‘When we went in to record the album, there was a very relaxed vibe which I think you can hear in the music. After a rather tense start, when Thomas Dolby, who was used to drum machines, basically tried to get me to play like a machine, things loosened up and we had some hilarious late night jams after coming back from the pub. The track “Horsin’ Around” was recorded after one such rather inebriated sojourn to the boozer and you can hear Martin laughing while I’m counting it off. That track is all over the place, but it was just what the song needed. We couldn’t get it at all before we went to the pub to horse around a bit. I think the relaxed vibe really is one of the keys to why that album sounds good. No clicks, three takes max of each song, very loose and natural.’

Steve McQueen reached 21 on the UK album chart, perhaps a slight disappointment, but the critics generally loved it. It made number 4 in NME’s Albums of 1985 poll and was well-received in Europe and the US. Rumours even appeared in the press (some good CBS PR) that Prefab might play at Live Aid. That was never going to happen but half the band did back David Bowie (producer Thomas Dolby, drummer Conti and occasional guitarist Kevin Armstrong).

An extensive UK and European tour followed the album release after which the band quickly recorded Protest Songs in late 1985, though it wouldn’t released for another four years. There was so much more to come from arguably the British band of the decade.