Just recently, Heart FM broke out of their playlist, and played a track from years ago, the preposterously catchy pop parody The King of Rock and Roll, by Prefab Sprout from 1988. I’d forgotten about them, and that I’d loved their earlier single, the dour Faron Young, on BBC Radio One’s John Peel’s Festive Fifty back in 1985 (it’s no. 38). I couldn’t get enough of its Ghost Riders sound, the irony, and the doom laden prophecy.
“Antiques, every other sentiment, an antique
As obsolete as warships in the Baltic”
In 1985, I spent most of my time at the steering wheel of an Austin Metro . So instead of buying the vinyl version of Steve McQueen (titled Two Wheels Good, in the US), with Faron Young on track one, I’d bought the cassette so I could listen to it all the time in the car.
The rest of the songs weren’t at all dour, but they became equally absorbing and unforgettable with repeated playing, and with plenty of opportunity to play it, I grew to love Steve McQueen, quite literally, to death, and I soon wore it out. Cassettes weren’t durable, and left overnight in a car, extreme temperature changes made the tape edges expand so they went frilly, and then sounded as though the speed varied. I suppose my cassette of Steve McQueen was binned at some point, and not soon after, my Metro went the same way.
Having heard Prefab Sprout on Heart, I thought it’s time to buy the CD. Others, in current online reviews, also talked of having the cassette version of Steve McQueen by Prefab Sprout in the 80s. I suppose many were in the same situation as me, with plenty of free time and opportunity to listen a lot.
By 1985, Margaret Thatcher had cracked the unions by globalizing much-needed investment ensuring the UK was drained of money, and jobs. I sank. I didn’t swim. I was twenty four, thinking I had a job, a career in Engineering, and then suddenly, I was on the British motorways heading south with millions of others desperate for work. ‘On yer bike’, said the hatchet-faced Tory politician Norman Tebbit, when referring to the mad British experiment.
So last month, I looked up Steve McQueen, bought the CD, and remembered what a great piece of work it is. I know why I liked the tunes so much. The Thomas Dolby production is extraordinary, and the great sound must have drowned out the noise of a straining 998cc Metro being hammered flat out on the M6. Even so, I couldn’t really have been listening to the lyrics, the finer detail. But now I can listen, and I’ve realised singer / songwriter Paddy McAloon actually refers to someone who was not a million miles from my situation in 85, on the road, in a car, usually with the bonnet up, and doubting their ability to swim, and not sink.
But here I am with head inside the bonnet
I’ve lost just what it takes to be honest”Read more at http://www.songlyrics.com/prefab-sprout/faron-young-lyrics/#0PJCwtCRaxDKfXWG.99
Here’s a review on All Music.
I re-listened to Steve McQueen again and again, in light of new austerity raining down on youngsters as though it’s good for them. But there was one thing I forgot, the Sprout’s big hit, The King of Rock and Roll, ain’t on Steve McQueen. By 88, I’d been swept up in a new IT job craze in the south, and I’d lost touch with my motorway self. I wasn’t as affected by the mock pomposity, and the bombast of The King of Rock and Roll, as I had been by the earlier Faron Young, and I never bought the Prefab’s follow-up to Steve McQueen, called From Langley Park to Memphis. I remember thinking that, thanks to people like me, they’d made it big, and now they were showing off. I thought the title referred to their rise from Newcastle to Memphis. You see, I didn’t know much about Memphis.
I suppose Madchester, acid house, The Second Summer of Love, and 1989 was a way of moving on from the austere early 80s. I much preferred Stone Roses to Prefab Sprout by 89. However, what goes round comes round, and last weekend, Caroline bought From Langley Park to Memphis for £3 in the pannier market in Tavistock. After a long break of many decades, we were both listening to new work from Prefab Sprout. It sounded good. The glorious production. The clever lyrics. It was all there. It wasn’t supposed to be there thirty years on, but it was, and it was absolutely brilliant.
In my mind, it had all gone wrong for the Prefabs, and singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon. I’d read somewhere he became a bearded recluse with the usual rock star habits, and he’d burned the golden calf. From Langley Park to Memphis was, I thought, their swansong, and the final track, The Venus of the Soup Kitchen, seemed like a defiant parting shot into obscurity. What a shame they gave up making CDs and dropped into obscurity, I thought, wondering what had really happened. I Googled. Prefab Sprout didn’t give up. Far from it. In fact, I’d been listening to their second and third albums. There was a first album I knew nothing about, Swoon. It gets five star reviews. Protest Songs, and Jordan: the Comeback, are equally highly praised.
How had I missed that the title, From Langley Park to Memphis, is about global austerity, the putting, and taking away, of food on the table, a universal constant from, say, Langley Park to Memphis? The band I’d departed from, that kept me rolling on the M1, was actually making great music shortly after I’d turned off Junction 1 for the M25 London orbital. God, what an absolute idiot I’d been to lose track of that. After all, “some things hurt more, much more, than cars and girls”.
Please read (an excerpt) of my not-published-anywhere-but-here novel, The Making of Modern White English Women- a handbook, Gin’s journey from naivety to hidden war hero, and daughter Alexis’s journey from downtrodden and downgraded to triumphant, courageous woman.