Category Archives: Steve McQueen

Write Here, Write Now: 5.14 – When The Angels

Prefab Sprout – When The Angels. Flutter off.

And so it comes to the last song on the album, ceremoniously launched with 5 seconds of organ music. Two lines of softly sung lyrics, and then Paddy gets insistent and strident (relatively speaking) for the rest of the song, accompanied by funky bass, lively drums, parping synths and in the background what sounds appropriately like the fluttering of wings.

A diatribe against angels, the subject makes me think a bit of Wings of Desire – the mundanity of their life anyway. The spitefulness I’d associate more with Dogma. It’s not something I can really connect with. And it’s a shame they went all shy about the last word in “Hard faced little bastards” – piety which draws unnecessary attention to something that is, after all, just another word.

Knowing what I know now about the recording and producing of the album, it feel like Thomas Dolby had a big hand in this song – all the ‘colour’ of the music seems to come from keyboards. And it’s probably the closest the band come to the poppy sound of  “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque“, which tells me – ‘you’ve had your fill, drink up, that’s it for Steve McQueen’.

It was good to spend so much time with this album. There are some treasures, that I hadn’t really appreciated before. There were also more dullards than I recalled (unfortunately). But even the less appealing songs are coated in a beautiful glow of polished sound. I’ve listened to the songs as mp3s on cheap headphones. It’s a safe bet that when I get the chance to stick my head between two speakers in an open room as the album plays on a stereo, the sound would be even more impressive.

As far as content goes, I hadn’t made the connection between the album title and the subject of many of the songs – a study into flawed masculinity and the aftermath of failed relationships. Perhaps as the last song tails off into the fade out, it’s appropriate that the last lines are:

When the angels take the angel voice away
Jealously they see, the sometimes man you’d be

 

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Write Here, Write Now: 5.13 – Blueberry Pies

Prefab Sprout – Blueberry Pies. Tiptoeing around the truth

Well, this really s a new one on me. Whereas all the other songs up to now I could at least say I had a familiarity with the melody and some of the catchier phrases/rhymes, even if I had never given each song the concentrated attention I am giving now, this one is different. I don’t recall ever hearing this song before, ever.

Which makes for an interesting experience. It’s full of many of the stylistic features of the rest of the album – soft voice, gentle instruments around the singing, idiosyncratic rhythms and curiously off beat and profound lyrics about love and relationships. But I don’t have the legacy of 20 years of familiarity to scrape away to hear the songs afresh/make me feel at ease with the music.

IT’s a short song – over in 2 1/2 minutes. Starting with keyboard sounds and a sample of the sort of semi-audible babble I’d expect to hear on an Orb record, Paddy starts singing in a halting manner, pausing slightly every few syllables, evincing the difficulty he has in owning up to his own insincerity. The guitar follows his every pause, giving a feeling of Grandmother’s footsteps on audio form. The percussion skitters in on the cymbals and somewhere in the background, there is a reticent bass line (guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm). A micro instrumental break, a bit more singing, and the song is over.

Twice in the lyrics, the eyes say more than words can – “answer me eyes” and “take me back eyes” – windows to the soul, I tell you, mate, windows to the very soul. At election time, when words cannot be trusted (“sure there are reasons for acting like this“), what do we see when we look into our leaders’ eyes?

Paddy’s off-the-wall lyrics in this song – “I’m an air raid, leaving both us orphans and four fifths afraid“. Watch out, there’s probably a battle bus landing somewhere near your constituency soon.

Write Here, Write Now: 5.12 – Desire As

Prefab Sprout – Desire As. There’s no missing ‘s’

The spell of good songs continues with this soft-voiced recollection of regret. Jabs of keyboard keys play as Paddy intones the six things he has on his mind. I’m half curious about what those are and half musing whether there should be an ‘e’ rather than an ‘i’ (probably not). Musing on what was, on what was lost, from what sounds like a position of resolved calm (“there it is and there we are“) – phlegmatic in the face of a failed relationship.

Though, there’s almost a feeling of too much calm – it almost sounds like he’s numb in shock (“all I ever want to be is far from the eyes that ask me“), having an accusatory conversation with himself (“So tell me you must have thought it all out in advance
Or goodness, goodness knows why you’d throw it to the birds“) – the only thing that rouses him from torpor is a few blows on a saxophone towards the end of the song.

I think my favourite line is: “They were the best times, the harvest years with jam to lace the bread“, pretty much the only hopeful line in the song, though it surprised me to read that it wasn’t what I was hearing – “hardest years“.

Listening to the song over and over, it is the repeated keyboard motif that echoes in my head – downbeat, mournful in tone, yet not unharmonious . There’s a roundness, a settledness to its sound which suggests Paddy may yet reach a peaceful place. Best to let things go, with recollection as they pass, both fond and sad.

And what could be more perfect to go with this delicate serving of tristesse than the enigmatic sylph-like presence of Tilda Swinton in a series of exquisite portraits?

 

Write Here, Write Now: 5.11 – Horsin’ Around

Prefab Sprout – Horsin’ Around. Scat’s got his tongue.

After a couple of songs where I couldn’t get a handle on either the music or the lyrics, it’s something of a relief to be listening to something that just impresses on every level again. I might have said Goodbye Lucille was the best song on the album, but if so, this one comes a close second for whip-smart lyrics and music that brings out the best of the band’s oblique style and Paddy’s gentle but knowingly heartfelt singing.

It’s nice to have a clear subject, even if the theme – betrayal  – isn’t. You pretty much know where you are with this song, from the brooding strumming at the start, with the deliberately listless and wistful singing that drops the title words like a dog shit filled plastic bag into a bin.These are not words sung with pride. Moments of self-awareness (“Selling it all up the swanee“) bring forth more force in his voice, and kind of launch, via a bouncing bassline and some flute notes, a few lines of openness and self criticism, and then calls for flagellation. Where can he go after that, but into a bit of scat.

Levelheadedness then prevails as he indulges in a bit of moralizing (quite literally). Trumpet toots accompany his last moments of horsin’ around before the drums beat him out of the song.

There are many other deft touches in the song. Wendy answering his “Quick to forgive and so slow to blame, the very thought fills me with shame” attempts to curry favour with the sharp retort “But that didn’t stop it happening“. There’s the little piano incidental background notes in the next section.

I’ve already mentioned some of the fine lines in this song. Here are a few more:

The thrill of it – can I call it that? – was cheap
And feeling cheap’s the only thing you keep

What felt good disappeared with its act. Knowing where the limits of acceptable behaviour are is a challenge if you are a natural flirt. I read recently about the dangers of emotional as opposed to sexual betrayal – adultery isn’t the only way to go behind your partner’s back. What starts as fun and confiding might lead to detracting from what should be your most significant relationship.

And this central verse is so impressive with its meaning and rhyme and rhythm:

Horsin’ around’s a serious business, last thing you’d want somebody to witness
I was the fool who always presumed that I’d wear the shoes and you’d be the doormat
You wonder why my hands are still shaking : In need of a cry the shoulders are taken…

Not that I know much about songwriting, but those lines put McAloon in the ranks of Gershwin and Porter, who I think are acknowledged as his heroes/role models.

There’s a lot of variety and enjoyably rich content in the songs on this album. I wonder if, in the three I have remaining, there will be anything as good as Horsin’ Around.

 

Write Here, Write Now: 5.10 – Movin’ The River

Prefab Sprout – Movin’ The River – a poultry song

This is a very silly song and easily the worst in in my opinion. It starts off with Paddy’s gentle tones, steady baas, before a change in tempo not untypical in his music launches the song proper. It’s hard to hear the music behind the front and centre singing. Mostly it sounds like conventional pop funk – keyboards over thumpy drums.

And what a song, lyrically-speaking – moving the river – I think it’s something about never stepping in the same river twice – “You’re only as good as the last great thing you did”. We are the things we do, and pertinently what we (are) do(ing) now. The current is always pushing against your legs, patiently waiting for you to stumble and fall. It’s a war of attrition and I guess the weapons our Paddy has are the songs he writes – the rabbits he pulls out of hats to stay in the public eye or to earn a crust. “Money for jam, but it takes such an effort to stay where I am”. A song for our modern celebrity culture?

But the heart of this song are the following pair of lines:

“But I’m turkey hungry, I’m chicken free
And I can’t breakdance on your knee””

Did he compose those lyrics for a bet? It feels like a dry run for “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuqueque“. Does he have Tourette’s  – can’t avoid shouting out strange words? Who knows. I’m just glad to move on from this one, not much the wiser.

Write Here, Write Now: 5.9 – Hallelujah

Prefab Sprout – Hallelujah. It’s gentle funk time!

Last night I thought I had listened to the best song on the album and this one doesn’t prove that wrong.  I don’t go so much for the funk rhythm here – it’s too breathless, like everyone is playing catch up with the beat, which itself stumbles forwards and falls over itself.

It’s still a very classy song, though I ‘m tempted to say more of a conversation set to music. That isn’t a criticism. I suspect that Paddy backed by Wendy and the rhythm team could sing and emote a telephone directory, if such things exist any more. My favourite line is probably “I swear at you ’cause I believe that sweet talk like candy rots teeth” which I can well fucking associate with.

The guitar playing is something I can admire, but not really enjoy – all the instruments seem to follow and reinforce the internal rhythms of the singing. It’s like Paddy wrote the words, spoke them and gradually shaded and coloured in the musicality and tones that just needed to be drawn out – like a pencil sketch that slowly turns from simple lines into a full colour representation.

Listening to it I hear something of the arch jazz-lite pop of Matt Bianco, which is somewhat unfortunate, although I quite like the Half A Minute Hitmakers.

Looking at the lyrics, I realize I don’t really have any idea what the song is about. unless it’s something like ‘treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen’. These three lines seem to be the heart of the song:
“With his hand on his heart, it’s a posing place
While draining the mystery from your face
He admits all he’s chasing is the chase”
There’S for once in this song, a fine rhyming scheme, but for the life of me I can’t delve into their significance, particularly as it marks an abrupt change from the first person narrator to a third person perspective.

All in all, it’s an odd, disjointed piece, appropriately enough a bit like my rambling thoughts about it above.  I think it’s time to move on from this enigma.

Write Here, Write Now: 5.8 – Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)

Prefab Sprout – Goodbye Lucille #1 A jewel of a song

I hadn’t listened to Steve McQueen for a long time before this week and when I did, it was as a whole album, each song flowing into the next, giving an overall impression of sensitive songwriting and delicate arrangements, without any focus on a particular song. Apart from When Love Breaks Down, I probably would have struggled to associate any song title with the lyrics and words if I was pressed. (Like New Order, the song titles are often somewhat oblique).

So, in some ways, this song, close to the centre of the album, is one which, although familiar in passing, feels fresh and unheard when listened to over and over again closely. I’d never noticed the line “You’re still in live with Hayley Mills” for example.

With the repeating crystaline descent of that guitar line and gentle keyboard chords, it has something of the Cocteaus’ Victorialand about its opening phrases. 25 seconds in, the bassline is warm and nurturing. Beautiful sounds to wallow in. And then that pure voice of Paddy McAloon, softly alighting into the music some 40 seconds in, with lines of cautious advice that almost completely do not (need to) rhyme. The first verse ends and the drums pick up a pace.

The first line not to start “Ooh Johnny Johnny Johnny”, and it ends with a little breeze up the guitar neck. The next line has the beginnings of a cello chord – like a dollop of cream added into the smooth sound – adding a subtle, dragged-out,  sad texture without overbalancing into a sickly sweet mix.

These little details are fun to spot. In the next verse, a little piano line around the 2 minute line marks the point at which power guitar chords drive the song towards a McAloon vocal frenzy of assertions: “No you won’t. No you won’t!” The emotional force of those lines ebbs away with more chiming guitar, like we’re in Spandau Ballet’s True.

Then the second half of the song, with more arguments against youthful breakup sulking. Exasperated with the stubborn subject of the song the voice takes a thumping run up for a pole vault into a scream with soaring guitars to match, the constant descending guitar riff given full vent and surfing the song to a glorious conclusion. It’s to the credit of the writing and musicians that the song gets to the histrionic peak at the end without abruptness – it all follows through as a natural build.

The tones in McAloon’s voice are so expressive – comforting yet exhorting, aching with Mitleid and showing the frustration of someone older and wiser not being able to really do more than point the way through the romantic tangle of young love. “What are you? 21” – love that line.

This is definitely my favourite of the album so far. A happy surprise and discovery of something I thought I knew.