in my humble opinion, good albums come from all times and places. In contrast to this, many avid listeners of music tend to disregard whole decades of material, as if you could wrap up tens of thousands of albums from countless countries and music scenes into a nice bow and say that a whole time period was nothing but trash. I suppose this is a human tendency, to categorize into groups of likes and dislikes and give it little thought after that.
I hadn’t been giving the idea much thought until just the other day, when a friend made an interesting remark to me: “All 80s music is terrible. I can’t listen to it.” I immediately balked at the statement. “There’s plenty of bad music in every decade,” I responded, “And there’s lots of great stuff you wouldn’t expect.” I admitted that many of my favorite 70s artists, like Chicago and Earth, Wind, and Fire, made some horrible music in the 80s, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of good stuff to go around.
Two albums come to mind when I think of the 80s. The first is the heart-opening romantic epic “A Walk Across The Rooftops” by The Blue Nile. The second is the dynamic pop spectacle “Two Wheels Good” by Prefab Sprout.
I prefer to call the album “Steve McQueen,” which was its original name in Europe when it was first released. In the United States the band ran into a legal conflict with the estate of the actor Steve McQueen, which caused them to change the album’s name to the much-less-cool title “Two Wheels Good.” Forgetting the controversial name-switch, though, the record is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Released in 1985, “Steve McQueen” was Prefab Sprout’s second studio album. Their first, “Swoon” from 1984, attracted the attention of musician and producer Thomas Dolby, who highlighted one of its tracks on BBC Radio 1. Prefab Sprout frontman and primary songwriter Paddy McAloon subsequently contacted Dolby, who would pick out his favorites from McAloon’s songs and go on to produce their next album.
What’s so entrancing about “Steve McQueen” is its place inside of its era. As a musical statement, it exists as a nice snapshot of refined, smart mid-80s music, capturing the essence of sophisti-pop as it cycles through slick, well-laid-out verses about love and desire, digging through layers of musical influences in the process. In true, refined fashion, McAloon’s lyrics are insightful and opaque, with references and turns of phrase that I honestly don’t understand, and don’t feel like I need to.
“I’m turkey hungry, I’m chicken free / And I can’t break dance on your knee” McAloon sings on “Moving the River.” Though I have no idea what he means by this, especially the first line, it doesn’t seem to matter. The track is incredibly catchy, with a danceable beat and rousing synth hook that always keeps me coming back, not to mention the piano line that ascends toward the song’s end and consummates the feverous pop energy that had been slowly building.
The intersection between artistic expression and pop finds itself extremely comfortable throughout “Steve McQueen.” No other track sounds like “Moving the River” on this eclectic collection, which is what is so delightful about the album. The band runs the gamut on influence from synth pop to rock ‘n’ roll to carefully inserted swing breaks, not breaking a sweat in the process. In a decade ruled by manufactured sounds, Prefab Sprout crafts their synths tastefully, inserting them just enough that they accentuate the album but don’t overtake it. Even on synth-heavy songs like “When Love Breaks Down,” they find a great instrumental balance between airy tones and more traditional drum and bass elements that sounds fresh and new even today.
Although it’s hard to pick a standout track on “Steve McQueen,” “Goodbye Lucille #1 (Johnny Johnny)” ranks up there as one of their best. It slowly builds off a descending guitar line that re-appears many times through the songs in different forms. Oscillating from soft to full throttle sections, the song climaxes in a primal scream by McAloon, not only fulfilling the emotional weight of the song but showcasing just how dynamic and wide-reaching his songwriting is: “Ooh Johnny Johnny Johnny you might well make it worse / Ooh Johnny Johnny Johnny I advise you to forget her” later turns into yells of “No you won’t” as the song heightens the emotional stakes.
Although Prefab Sprout would go on to put out a steady stream of highly regarded art pop over the ensuing years, “Steve McQueen” is still their masterpiece. Always on the edge of kitsch, some of their later work would tip over the edge and dwell in a place of indulgent corniness, like on their single “The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” which I find to be a cringe-worthy song. Don’t even get me started on the video
To get a better taste of Prefab Sprout, listen to “Desire As,” a moody, spacious song about heartache: “I’ve got six things on my mind / You’re no longer one of them.” It builds in lyrical layers and subtle sounds so organically you hardly notice you’re caught up in its spell. Personally, I can’t help but feel the ache in my bones as he sings “But there it is, and there we are / And all I ever want to be is far from the eyes that ask me / In whose bed you’re gonna be and is it true you only see / Desire as a sylph figured creature who changes her mind?”
As a closing note, when you listen to “Steve McQueen,” it’s important to remember the instructions on the vinyl sleeve: “Due to the exceptional length of this record, play LOUD.”