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…

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.

Portrait Of Paddy As A Young Man: Prefab Sprout’s Swoon

prefab swoonKitchenware Records, released March 1984

Bought: Tower Records Piccadilly, 1998?

7/10

Perhaps like a lot of Prefab fans, I came to Swoon some time after I’d bought and fallen in love with the later albums Steve McQueen, Protest Songs, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan The Comeback. The dry, Thomas Dolby-less production came as a bit of a shock at the time but Swoon stands up pretty well today.

Though some critics have compared the album to Steely Dan, my contemporary reference points would be Lloyd Cole, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Songs To Remember-era Scritti, though it’s basically impossible to locate Prefab’s influences.

I’m tempted to say that Swoon sounds like the epitome of an ‘indie’ record, 1980s style, with its stripped-back production values and jagged edges. Prefab singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon recently told The Guardian that he thinks of it as more akin to Captain Beefheart, nicknaming the album ‘Sprout Mask Replica’!

Swoon definitely still sounds very much like a debut album; it’s perky, eager to please, naive, studenty, slightly pretentious. McAloon’s vocals occasionally resemble the ramblings of a slightly squiffy, randy teenager. But the album’s adolescent in a really good way with its literary flights of fancy, indulgent ruminations on romantic love and lots of audacious melodic flourishes.

paddy prefabIt sounds almost like rock, with solid 4/4 drums, always-inventive bass from Paddy’s brother Martin and ‘girlie’ backing vocals from Wendy Smith, and yet it resolutely refuses to ‘rock out’ with not a single power chord or jangly electric guitar in the mix.

Instead, the intrepid layering of synths and acoustic guitars (utilised to far greater effect on Steve McQueen and Jordan) probes the songs’ pressure points. And Smith’s pristine vocals give the music an enigmatic, otherworldly flavour.

Lyrically, Swoon reminds me of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; a survey of a young man’s hopes, dreams and romantic/professional disappointments. From a songwriting perspective, the words presumably came before the music, resembling stream-of-consciousness prose rather than traditional verse/chorus songcraft. Novelist/essayist Dave Eggers wrote a great piece about how much he was influenced by this golden generation of literate British songwriters.

As befitting a band from the North East, work (and the lack of it) is a recurring theme, particularly on ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ and the extraordinary ‘Technique’. ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’ is a classic Prefab ballad (though surely never the right choice for second single) and seems to offer a truly original take on the doomed love affair – the narrator simply doesn’t feel worthy to deserve the attentions of another. Very Nick Hornby-esque. Future producer Thomas Dolby has talked about the shock of hearing ‘Don’t Sing’ when he was a guest reviewer on the Radio 1 ‘Round Table’ show.

‘Cruel’ is still a delicious piece of pop/bossa nova, more than a decade before the likes of Belle and Sebastian mined similar ground. Some of Paddy’s chords are gorgeous on this. Lyrically it’s original too, an expression of lust and affection from someone who is desperately afraid of offending his ‘enlightened’ paramour. A very modern love song. It was once covered by Elvis Costello.

Oh – and don’t forget to read the funny mock liner notes penned by McAloon in the guise of an over-exuberant music scribe.