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…

Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola: 30 Years On

radio-musicola-527b885540974MCA Records, released October 1986

7/10

The rather despairing NME headline at the time said it all: ‘When The Little Girls Have All Grown Up…’

After releasing two albums in the space of barely six months, Kershaw took his time over the third. He settled in to Swanyard Studios in North London for most of 1986 to work on the self-produced Radio Musicola, employing the cream of the English session scene (The Kick Horns, Charlie Morgan, Mark Brzezicki, Wix, Andy Richards, Simon Phillips etc).

Yes, Musicola was Kershaw’s chance to take on the Trevor Horns of this world and deliver a big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over studio ‘project’…

kershaw

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his meteoric rise to fame, the main themes of the album are press intrusion and tabloid sensationalism. And, in a neat irony, the rise of technology-led, assembly-line music was also in Kershaw’s sights, despite Musicola making liberal use of all the latest sampling and synthesizer technology.

So let’s get Musicola‘s duff tracks out the way first – ‘What The Papers Say’, ‘Nobody Knows’ and ‘Running Scared’ are jarringly overproduced, though the latter had real potential.

But there are loads of treats elsewhere – ‘Life Goes On’ is a musically-rich, very pretty ballad with swooning chord changes and fine vocals from Kershaw. ‘LABATYD’ is pure class, a half-time shuffle with tasty Mark Brzezicki drums, an excellent Kick Horn arrangement and soaring synth by either Wix or Andy Richards.

The title track blew a lot of musicians’ minds back in 1986. It really was state-of-the art and still sounds pretty novel today, as striking as the title track of Level 42’s World Machine a year before. I remember eagerly tuning in to ‘The Tube’ to see Kershaw performing the song live. You can hear a lot of the ‘little girls’ turning off their TVs as he lays into the opening guitar solo…

‘Don’t Let Me Out Of My Cage’ is pretty damn ambitious fare for a pop album, a fast swing number featuring some cracking Phillips drums and effective close-harmony backing vox from Mrs Kershaw (Sheri). ‘When a Heart Beats’, an excellent, intricate slice of pop/prog in the It Bites mould, gave Kershaw his last top 40 chart appearance (peaking at a disappointing #27) when it was released in November 1985.

The closing ‘Violet To Blue’ is possibly Kershaw’s finest and most ambitious recording to date, featuring some rousing vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir and superb, driving drum work from Phillips (much imitated in my music room back in the day).

kershaw-tour

An interesting album which clearly fell between the stools of art and commerce, Radio Musicola reached a barely believable #46 in the UK album chart, just over a year after Kershaw had played Live Aid. It disappeared without trace in the US.

The little girls had certainly grown up. Or maybe it was the new haircut. 18 months is a long time to leave between albums when you’re hot. But Kershaw didn’t seem bothered about his new ‘selective’ popularity; in fact, he seemed genuinely relieved, but wondered how MCA were going to sell him now that he was focused on being a musician rather than a pop star.

Despite the poor album sales, Kershaw embarked on a sold-out UK tour in early 1987 including three nights at London’s Town & Country Club. And he would be back once more before the ’80s were out to deliver perhaps his finest solo album to date.