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Music Review: Prefab Sprout – Two Wheels Good

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Last week Britain saw the twenty-fifth anniversary of a social conflict which would go on to divide the nation's political, cultural, and economic circumstances like no other since the second world war. A quarter of a century ago the nation's coal miners called a halt to production in a dispute ostensibly over pit closures, triggering what the government would regard as a clash of radically different ideologies The strike was far more than just a denial of labour; Union leader Arthur Scargill saw himself as a latter day Kier Hardie and was duly portrayed by the country's reactionary media as a Trotskyite beelzeebub. His nemesis was the Prime Minister, leader of the Conservative party and confidant of Ronald Reagan – Margaret Thatcher.

Against this backdrop the entertainment business carried on regardless; there were no protest songs, few benefit events for those on strike and instead of intervention on behalf of the increasingly poverty stricken and destitute on their own doorstep, the pop world scandalously chose to pool their resources to record "Do They Know It's Christmas?" instead.

From the country's north east – an area already savaged by the radical decline of the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries – Prefab Sprout made music which sounded more like it belonged to the Sixth Form common room than the working men's club. Two Wheels Good's predecessor, Swoon had been critically hailed a near miss in the minor classic stakes, despite lead singer Paddy McAloon's apparent joy at making his music as inaccessible as possible and flirting with a sound that had the suspicious hallmarks of art school jazz. With the addition of eccentric Thomas Dolby at the controls – a whizzkid who was highly simpatico to band's inherently skewed aesthetic – the tendency to over-elaborate which had blighted Swoon was replaced by a highly attuned pop sensibility. But if you think the virtuoso material that became Two Wheels Good was just a savant producer getting results by simply tidying up the attic and removing clutter, you’d be underestimating McAloon's prodigious gifts of both songwriting mettle and winsome self effacement.

First and foremost, it’s an unashamedly commercial record, designed to be cherished and diligently embossed with touching songs full of wit, charm, and warmth. In an era of big hair, big choruses and lowest common denominator appeal it was a welcomed, intelligent curate’s egg. Opening with the country tinged “Faron Young”, before down changing tempo completely for the brilliant, heart wrenching sonnet for a funeral bouquet “Bonny”, McAloon makes his play for the heartstrings with rare and dazzling eloquence. This after all is his country – aquiline tales of love and loss played out across a canopy of a dozen post-modern Heathcliffes, delivered in a voice sometimes no more than a whisper.

“When Love Breaks Down”, a hit on what seemed like it’s dozenth re-release, is loss without bitterness. “Appetite” is the knowledge of joy confined. “Hallelujah”, seemingly a Swoon refugee, carefully illustrated where the band had come from without being trapped by it. Frustratingly, much of the rest seemed a little pallid, less sure footed, like the nervous runner up at school science day. For this reason, Two Wheels Good found itself eyed mistrustfully and damned with faint praise at the time of it's release. Perhaps in career retrospect though you could hypothesise that this was Prefab Sprout’s true calling: minor genius, a brilliant cameo.

It would be easy in hindsight to castigate McAloon – or Lloyd Cole, or Roddy Frame, or even Morrissey for that matter – for pseudo intellectually fidelling whilst Rome burned, but this is missing the point. Retaining the right to sing about funerals, bastard sons, guilt and unwanted solitude was what it was – the perfect antidote to mainstream convention, a trojan horse designed to mock the increasingly pervasive big and dumb popular music of the era. Prefab Sprout, with their name obscurely derived via Frank Sinatra and a produly literate approach to music which reeked of exclusivity, would've tormented the country's new capitalist iconoclasts.

Ah yes. Margaret Thatcher. This is a difficult epilogue to write, but it at least proves that history doesn't always belong to the winners. Seeing her rapacious fiscal policies disenfranchising millions in 1982, diplomatic procrastination created the conditions for the Argentine invasion of The Falklands, directly causing the deaths of nearly 2,000 men. Small beer compared to the actions of our current crop of meglomaniacs, but more than enough if you're a grieving mother. Twelve months after she strengthened her choke hold on the country with victory in the next general election. Three years later, same modus operandi, this time at home; using MI5 to infliltrate both strikers and unions along with a level of police brutality Hitler, Pinochet or DuValier would've been proud of, she eventually ground out her victory. To her, the minimal collateral damage was the destruction of the self respect, quality of life, and dreams of a few hundred thousand men, women and children, none of whom would ever have voted for her anyway.

In May 1987 she was re-elected for a third term by a landslide.

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  • Jay S

    Every year, when fall rolls around, I always put on Prefab Sprout – Two Wheels Good, since I discovered it back in 1985. It hits me the same way every time. It’s just one of those special records that captures a perfect melancholy of this time of year. The songwriting combined with Thomas Dolby’s considerate crafting is brilliant. The first three tracks, in particular are just genius, and still bring a tear to the eye…