Reason #7 Why The 80’s DIdn’t Suck As Bad As We Thought It Did

ARTIST: Prefab Sprout

YEAR OF RELEASE: 1985

SIMILAR ARTISTS: The Smiths, The Beautiful South, Aztec Camera,Squeeze, Lloyd Cole

FOLLOWERS: Ben Folds, Fountains Of Wayne

Although Prefab Sprout never made much of a splash stateside, it’s 1985 album “Steve McQueen” (origially titled “Two Wheels Good” in the States and Canada due to some legal posturing by the McQueen estate) remains a landmark of 80’s songwriting and production prowess.

The lush production of the album is courtesy of one Thomas Dolby, who adds space, air  and elegance to songwriter Paddy McAloon’s dense, sometimes obtuse lyrical pretensions.

The first 6 songs are absolute classics, and although some of  the studio techniques Dolby uses are utterly of their time, the songs themselves remain oddly timeless. Opening track  ‘Faron’ is a rockabilly shuffler and a great way to start the album but not  necessarily representative of the album as a whole.

Allmusic states,

Smart, sophisticated and timelessly stylish, Two Wheels Good (titled Steve McQueen throughout the rest of the world) is a minor classic, a shimmering jazz-pop masterpiece sparked by Paddy McAloon’s witty and inventive songwriting. McAloon is a wickedly cavalier composer, his songs exploring human weaknesses like regret (“Bonny”), lust (“Appetite”) and infidelity (“Horsin’ Around”) with cynical insight and sarcastic flair; he’s also remarkably adaptable, easily switching gears from the faux-country of “Faron” to the stately pop grace of “Moving the River.” At times, perhaps, his pretensions get the better of him (as on “Desire As”), while at other times his lyrics are perhaps too trenchant for their own good; at those moments, however, what keeps Two Wheels Good afloat is Thomas Dolby’s lush production, which makes even the loftiest and most biting moments as easily palatable as the airiest adult-contemporary confection.”

‘Moving The River’, one of the standout tracks on the album,  is truly majestic pop, and the lyrics are some of the finest of McAloon’s career.

“You surely are a truly gifted kid
But you’re only good as
The last great thing you did
And where’ve you been since then
Did the schedule get you down
I hear you’ve got a new girlfriend
How’s the wife taking it ?

If it’s uphill all the way you should be used to it by now

You must know me, Father it’s your son
And I know that you are proud of everything I’ve done
But it’s the wonders I perform,
Pulling rabbits out of hats
When sometimes I’d prefer
Simply to wear them

Movin’ the river, money for jam, and it takes such an effort to stay where I am…”

‘Bonny’, ’When Love Breaks Down’ and especially ’Appetite’ are also standouts and excellent examples of seemingly facile pop, but listen closely and you’ll find that (like Nick Lowe) these are, in reality, very complicated and sophisticated mini-suites. The remaining songs, while perhaps not immediately as affecting, are top notch album tracks that add to the overall mood of the thing.

This album has spawned numerous fan sites and inspire a fanatical following worldwide. I myself have owned this album in it’s vinyl form, on cassette, CD (two copies, one still in shrink wrap) and the remaster in MP3 format.
The band has recently released a re-mastered edition of “Steve McQueen” which includes a generous helping of gorgeous acoustic editions of some of the tracks. I would definitely recommend you hunt down this edition.

The excellent Jordan: The Comeback, also produced by Dolby, is a very close second.

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