Prefab Sprout are a confoundedly strange band, seemingly out of time yet of their time (whatever that was – it isn’t really a definable era). The same is true of their songwriter and band leader, Paddy McAloon, who has apparently retired to his native County Durham suffering from eye and ear problems.
After their second album, the smart and mercurial Thomas Dolby-produced Steve McQueen (1985), the band became associated with the dead-hand of ‘sophisti-pop’ (surely the least appealing name for a musical genre ever conceived). It’s hardly McAloon’s fault he is subtle and emotionally literate, but there you go. You write a couple of clever songs and suddenly people start lumping you in with Deacon Blue or Hue and bloody Cry.
Their most commercially successful album, From Langley Park To Memphis, followed in 1988 and included two decent-sized hits, Cars And Girls and The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but my favourite tune on it then and now is Nightingales. It’s a love song for purists: playful but with just enough world weariness to stop it cloying.
At first listen it seems oddly moving in spite of the late Eighties production sound – also Thomas Dolby – but paradoxically I think its emotional rawness is enhanced by the plastic Eighties flower pot in which it grew. This period is so distinctive, both in its awfulness and its occasionally breathtaking warmth, and Nightingales glows like a boy doing his paper round after a bowl of Ready Brek.
It’s a song that reminds you of the great habitual truism of pop music: how something that seems so weightless can disguise something so profound. In this case that Eighties miasma is made up of synthesised string fills, ersatz tubular and sleigh bells, plus typically stodgy drums that sound like someone hitting a Laura Ashley duvet with glazed ceramic tiles. Apart from the voices, the only organic sounds I can make out are a bass, a banjo and Stevie Wonder’s harmonica (yes, it is him).
The lyrics, typical of McAloon, manage to be simple yet original, and work as well for a couple one week into ecstasy as they do another 40 years into marriage. It’s more Cole Porter than Morrissey, admitting the folly and awe of romantic awareness.
If singing birds must sing, with no question of choice, Then living is our song, indeed our voice. Best agree you and me, We're probably nightingales.
I’m not crying, I just have something in my eye.
George Chesterton is chief subeditor and a contributor at GQ magazine and GQ.co.uk - Follow on Twitter at @geochesterton