I had one of those arresting thoughts this morning during the commute, the kind you don’t want to have, but have anyway:
Would I still love the Replacements if I first heard them today, at my age, with all the music I’ve already enjoyed behind me?
But it still gave me the shivers. Said thought came barging in while I was digging The Changes on the personal stereo system, wondering how I can appreciate something so derivative, namely the Changes’ wholesale style-theft of Prefab Sprout. It’s because the Changes jettison the current, fad retro-isms of early new wave and postpunk, the tired Joy Division etc influences, and make a relatively brave move into blue-eyed soul/new romanticism, which, of course, followed new wave as a rejection of music that had sought to cover any outward appearance of high craft. And trying on Prefab Sprout, as a central influence, isn’t easy. Even Prefab Sprout didn’t always get it right. It takes magnificent songwriting and tightrope-perfect production to make this type of pop ring true. Not even the Smiths dared add corny synths to songs so openly about love.
Scritti Politti could be considered a real contemporary, but it was less challenging for a smart listener to love them, since their lyrics , by quoting po-mo theorists etc and arriving coated in noise like Kajagoogoo, worked like some wonderfully cruel joke on populist radio. Although they had their intellectual moments (1984’s chinese-puzzle pop album, Swoon), Prefab Sprout and their main genius, Paddy McAloon, garnered respect from those who understood that to write like Smokey Robinson or Cole Porter, and not sound stupid, was much more difficult than writing like Green Gartside.
There were plenty of pretending contemporaries to Prefab Sprout, like Spandau Ballet and ABC, the Style Council, and Aztec Camera, who came close, as did the Smiths, although I wouldn’t compare the latter, since they were much more rockist. One could also say Prefab Sprout owes oodles to Roxy Music, especially to Flesh +Blood and Avalon. Unlike Roxy Music, Prefab Sprout openly courted the top forty while working out their strange obessions with the Beatles and Elvis Presley but sounding like neither. Only “Goodbye Lucille #1” admits influence, being an unashamed rewrite of “Hey Jude” but with funnier lyrics, as the older, wiser singer gently teases a recently dumped lad: “why don’t you join the foreign legion / You’re still in love with Hayley Mills.”
Their masterpiece remains 1985’s Steve McQueen, or its American-titled version, Two Wheels Good, which might be producer Thomas Dolby’s finest moment as a musican; not even his own stuff ever sounded this wonderful or perfectly matched in form and function. All tracks here are from that album, with the exception of —
which, according to some resources, is an answer to Bruce Springsteen’s catalogue; you’ll find it on 1988’s mildly successful From Langely Park to Memphis. McAloon and his brother continue to make albums despite band member departures, even to this day, but with steadily declining quality; they’re not the first place to go, if ever. But any greatest hits is worth your buck.
No one, not even the Changes’ label, Drama Club, or their own site, admits a Prefab Sprout influence, which is interesting considering how obvious it is, and how the last band to really try it was the Trash Can Sinatras, with almost no one else in between. Their first real full length, Today is Tonight, arrives in September. The following two tracks are from an EP released last year, and I’m still in awe of any American band attempting such sounds, let alone nearly pulling it off. It’s impressive to hear young-ish-sters reject more fashonable stylistic influences of the moment (thinking of you, Talking Heads). The Changes do throw in a little rawer guitar sound, probably a leftover from their plainly awful early work and also just because they were in diapers when their current stlye was first introduced.
For the record, I wasn’t close to driving, yet, in the early eighties. But I did rock an all-white pastel suit with soft loafers.