Prefab Sprout are an English pop group, formed in the late 70's and still releasing music today, more or less - some thirty years later. The core members are brothers Paddy and Martin McAloon, with Paddy being the frontman and songwriter, and Martin playing bass (and giving Paddy the occasional shove in the right direction.)
Other members in the 'classic' Sprout lineup include Wendy Smith, as a backing vocalist, Neil Conti as drummer, and Thomas Dolby as producer (occasionally known as 'the fifth sprout.') This lineup was responsible for the Sprouts' main period of success in the mid-1980's, the most notorious moment being their #7 hit single 'The King Of Rock 'N' Roll,' with accompanying 'dancing hot dogs' video.
Since then, however, the Sprouts have become more known for creating 'perfect pop' albums, and are frequently acclaimed by critics and fellow musicians alike. Words like 'underrated' are often used to describe the band, who despite their mainstream success enjoy something of a cult status.
For the very latest updates, you should consult this site's front page. For the band's history, read on below.
The Early Days
Patrick Joseph McAloon was born on June 7th, 1957, with Martin following some five years later, in January 1964. Their childhoods were spent in the tiny village of Consett, Durham County, in the north of England, where - as John Birch says in the opening of his book on the Sprouts - 'the people are very hard; where there's not much space given for poetry or artistic ambition.'
At the age of 11, Paddy attended Ushaw College, a Catholic Seminary near Durham. He 'boarded' there, staying away from home, and apparently learned to play the guitar through the guidance of kindly songwriting priests. Paddy thought up the name 'Prefab Sprout' during these teenage years, for an as-yet-imaginary future band that would play the songs he was writing. The name was intended to go with the current trend of unusual band names (e.g. Moby Grape, Grand Funk Railroad), and was appreciated by Paddy for 'not giving the listener any preconceptions,' and being 'a mixture of the organic and the technical.' However, it was several years before this moniker was actually used.
By the time Paddy left school, in 1975, he had formed a covers band ('Avalon') with four friends, and achieved a small local following. While mostly playing MOR covers, the band also played some original material, including early Sprout b-side 'Walk On' in their live set. The band broke up as they went to higher education or found jobs, with Paddy taking Humanities at Newcastle Polytechnic.
The McAloon family had now relocated to the village of Witton Gilbert, running a garage which, despite the wishes of some locals, is still standing today. Paddy and Martin worked at the garage for several years, with Paddy enjoying a simple life of writing songs and 'pumping gas,' with 'Bonny' and 'The Golden Calf' being penned by 1977, when 'Prefab Sprout' offically got together.
At this time, the Sprouts were Paddy, Martin, and drummer Michael Salmon. For four years they toured local pubs, clubs, and colleges with a set of mostly original Paddy tunes - and a surprisingly 'punk' sound. The young songwriter wrote to many record companies, sending out demo tapes, but received only rejection letters (which he allegedly still has today.)
On the 25th February 1982, the Sprouts went into a local recording studio, and laid down two tracks - 'Lions In My Own Garden' and 'Radio Love,' funding this session with money Martin had earned from two months work as a night watchman. The title of 'Lions' spelled out LIMOGES, a place in France where Paddy's girlfriend had gone to study. Paddy had allegedly been writing the name on an envelope when he had the idea to make it an acrostic.
Using money saved from gigs, the band had a thousand copies of the single produced and released on their own label, 'Candle Records' - the motto being 'the wax that won't get on your wick.' Most copies of the single can now be found in Martin's attic. The band resumed gigging to promote the single, with Wendy Smith - a regular attendee at Sprout gigs - providing backing vocals. She was a pleasant contrast to the rough, punk-like vocals Paddy was using at the time (which wouldn't last.)
In September '82, the band recorded two more songs at a studio in Durham University, namely 'The Devil Has All The Best Tunes,' and Paddy's old live staple 'Walk On.' Wendy made her first appearance on tape at this session, and was joined by her friend Feona Atwood. This new single recieved airplay in the Newcastle branch of record shop HMV, bringing the band to the attention of the store's manager, Keith Armstrong.
Keith also ran a club called 'The Soul Kitchen,' the scene of gigs by New Order, Orange Juice, and Aztec Camera - to name just a few. Prefab Sprout appeared in one of the final shows at the Kitchen, and in March 1983 were signed to Keith's next venture, Kitchenware Records, a label still going strong today. The 'Lions/Radio Love' single was re-released the following month, on the band's new label, and recieved mentions on national TV and radio (including extensive airplay by John Peel.)
Having helped the McAloon brothers get this far, drummer Michael Salmon left the group to form his own band, 'Swimmer Leon' - which unfortunately never got the breaks. At last report, Salmon was pursuing a career in teaching, in North East England. The Sprouts spent the next twelve months looking for a replacement drummer, using session drummer Graham Lant in the recording of their first album, Swoon, which was completed in August 1983.
In October, Kitchenware released 'The Devil.../Walk On' single, and the band played several gigs with a range of drummers - including Daniel James, David Ruffy, Steve Dalder, Louis Connolly, and several more! Also in this month, Keith Armstrong took the tapes for Swoon to CBS in London, who immediately signed the band up for an eight album distribution deal (with Kitchenware remaining the band's management.) The band toured again in December, opening for Elvis Costello several times, and looking forward to the upcoming release of their album...
The next single, 'Don't Sing,' was released in January 1984, and the album followed in March. April saw Neil Conti play his first gig with the Sprouts, in Dublin - having first heard the Sprouts on the radio, while in the bath. Upon hearing they needed a drummer, Neil had driven up to Newcastle to audition, telling them 'I'm the one for the job!' Obviously, they agreed!
Swoon entered the national top 20, while a follow up single, 'Couldn't Bear To Be Special,' failed to made an impression. The band recorded a new single that year, 'When Love Breaks Down,' which managed to reach number 88 - this time round.
Paddy had heard Thomas Dolby reviewing 'Don't Sing' on Radio 1 that January, and in time he contacted CBS to indicate a desire to work with the Sprouts. He visited Paddy at home later that year, and heard demos for lots of material, often self-accompanied on acoustic guitar. He was extremely impressed by Paddy's simple charm, and together they chose more than a dozen tracks to appear on the Sprouts' next album, to be called Steve McQueen.
The album eventually appeared in June 1985, produced by Dolby, and including a slightly remixed version of 'When Love Breaks Down.' The album peaked at #21 in the album charts, and stayed in the charts for 35 weeks, eventually earning platinum status. It remains the Sprouts' most highly-regarded work, often appearing in all-time lists and recieving name-checks by current artists. In the US, however, the estate of Steve McQueen (the man) took issue with the name, resulting in the album being called 'Two Wheels Good' when it was released there.
A 'Two Wheels Good' tour followed, including some dates in Japan. Kevin Armstrong joined the band for this tour to play guitar, and Michael Graves contributed the keyboard parts that Dolby had provided on the album. Not long after returning, the band recorded another album - Protest Songs - with a strange plan to release it for just one week, to support the next part of their tour.
These plans went awry, however, when 'When Love Breaks Down' finally became a hit, reaching #25 in the UK singles chart. The label felt having another album around would confuse fans, and so Protest Songs was shelved until 1989.
Late 80's/Early 90's
Fans waited three years until the Sprouts' next album, 1988's From Langley Park To Memphis. Dolby had not been involved with Protest Songs (it being very much a low-fi, budget effort), but he did produce several tracks on Langley, including 'The King Of Rock 'N' Roll,' the band's most successful single to date. It peaked at #7, and (with the assistance of a rather unusual video featuring dancing hot-dogs) became very popular with kids.
The song was about a 'Rock n Roll' star, tired of performing the same hit over and over again - an irony not lost on Paddy as the years went by. He wrote the track in twenty minutes, and even at the time thought it was embarassingly ridiculous. Paddy once told Paul McCartney, 'I'm not sure that record did us any good, because it's taken as a kiddie record,' to which McCartney replied 'Yeah, Paddy, I suppose that song's your "My Ding-a-Ling" (referring to the infamous track that was Chuck Berry's only US #1.)
Langley was notable for being the start of Paddy's more lush, orchestral sound, which would appear again on several future records. It also features a cameo from Stevie Wonder, playing the harmonica on 'Nightingales.' Stevie's appearance in the studio stunned Paddy and Martin, especially when it turned out he didn't mind recording several takes, to make sure it was perfect.
Protest Songs eventually saw release the following year, intended not as protests against nuclear power or war, but against ordinary life - 'daily existance,' as Paddy put it. It was seen as something of a 'filler' album, but resulted in the Sprouts releasing three albums in three years, when Jordan: The Comeback arrived in 1990.
Paddy's mammoth, nineteen track masterpiece cost half a million dollars to produce, leading to some concerns from CBS that it would outlast the public's attention span. This was not the case, however, as it soared to #7 on the UK album charts, and was extremely well-recieved by the music press. It was even nominated for a BRIT Award, for 'Best Album.' Thomas Dolby was again a major contributor - for the final time - and said recently that he ranks Steve and Jordan as some of the best things he's ever done. The band also went on tour in 1990, turning in what many consider to be their finest live performances.
After the excitement died down, Paddy made several attempts to create a new album, recording one called Let's Change The World With Music in detailed demo form, which didn't see release at that time. There are many legends surrounding this time in the band's history, but we also know Paddy attempted to turn one of the tracks off 'Let's Change The World' into a concept album in it's own right, which was to be called Earth: The Story So Far. This didn't work out either, and while he was considering his next move, Paddy wrote some songs for Jimmy Nail's 'Crocodile Shoes' TV programme.
The Sprouts were next seen in 1992, with a 'greatest hits' compilation entitled A Life Of Surprises. This was their biggest album hit, peaking at #3, and provided two new songs as singles - 'If You Don't Love Me' and 'The Sound Of Crying.' Q Magazine described the compilation as 'damn near indispensable.' This was perhaps the moment when the public were most aware of Prefab Sprout - and so, in typical Sprout fashion, they disappeared for five years.
After a seemingly endless wait, Paddy returned in 1997 with an album of new material, entitled Andromeda Heights. The new sound was orchestral, with some songs being written entirely on the computer - Paddy now felt that Prefab Sprout was 'a virtual orchestra, a pure artefact, being shaped in our studio.' An unfortunate side-effect of this was the absence of Neil Conti, apparently having been 'let go' sometime during the break. Wendy and Martin's contributions were also scaled back, though Martin still considers the bass line in 'Life's a Miracle' to be his finest.
The band's return was announced by a performance of new single 'Prisoner of the Past' on the UK's National Lottery programme. The single reached #30 on the singles chart, and was followed a month later by the album, which rose to a much-healthier #6. One of the 'Prisoner' b-sides, 'Where The Heart Is,' was used as the theme tune to a popular British TV programme, which ran from 1997 until 2006 - regularly attracting seven million viewers.
A few months after the release of Andromeda, Paddy married his wife (Victoria), who he met in the classical music section of HMV Newcastle - where the band were first spotted by Kitchenware. For the next few years, he enjoyed something of a normal life, having two daughters, and continuing to write songs for other artists. He also experienced some problems with his eyes, which would inspire a solo album several years later.
The end of 1999 saw the turn of the millenium, and the release of the second Sprout compilation, The 38 Carat Collection. 'Where The Heart Is' was also released as a single, hoping to build on the success of the TV show, though it didn't make a dent in the charts. It did, however, come with a demo of a new Sprout track as the b-side, hinting of a future album to come.
The Sprouts also toured in 2000, for the first time in ten years. Wendy was absent, having just had a baby herself, though Neil had returned to play the drums. Jess Bailey also contributed, on keyboards, and the tour included an appearance at the Fleadh Festival in London - videos of which can be found here.
In 2001, the new album surfaced. Titled The Gunman and Other Stories, it was released on a new label (EMI), and comprised mainly of the songs Paddy had written for other artists (such as Cher and Jimmy Nail.) Wendy and Neil were not involved, nor was Dolby - it was produced by Tony Visconti, and had a vague theme centering around the American West.
2003 saw a surprise for fans - the release of Paddy's first solo album, I Trawl The Megahertz. Mostly instrumental, the album was produced by Calum Malcolm, and featured the voice of American actress Yvonne Connors on the twenty-two minute title track. Only one track ('Sleeping Rough') features Paddy singing, a decision apparently made because he wanted an album he could listen to himself, without it being 'spoiled by the sound of his own voice.'
With Paddy once again 'on a roll,' a plan was hatched mid-2004 to co-ordinate a re-release of Steve McQueen alongside a new album, produced by Thomas Dolby (who would also remaster Steve for the new release.) Work began on the new material, with Paddy also recording acoustic versions of eight Steve McQueen tracks to go on a special bonus disc. There was also a mention of including the band's now extensive catalogue of b-sides, though Paddy didn't feel these were suitable for public consumption.
Unfortunately, the project ran aground when Paddy began to suffer from meniere's disease, losing hearing in one of his ears. As Martin put it, 'the noises inside his head became louder than those on the outside.' Musical projects were abandoned, until April 2007, when we were finally graced with the Steve McQueen re-release, complete with the new acoustic disc. Though now unable to hear bass, Paddy is still working on a range of projects, including a 30-track project called 'Digital Diva,' which he intends to be sung by a virtual opera singer, as soon as someone invents one. Martin, meanwhile, has started a management company ('Microtonal'), and taken on the management and production for several new bands (see links section for details.)
September 2009 saw the release of one of the Sprouts' many previously abandoned projects, Let's Change The World With Music, being eleven of Paddy's original demos cleaned up by Calum Malcolm.
This section was brought to you partly by John Birch, whose out-of-print book on the Sprouts was an invaluable source of information on the band's 'early days.'
The story of Sproutnet - which if you haven't guessed, is the site you're visiting now - begins in April 1988, when the Sprouts' biggest hit single, 'The King Of Rock N Roll,' was released. April '88 also happens to be the month I was born, so as you can imagine, my memories of the Sprouts' glory days are a bit shaky.
I first discovered the Sprouts in 2004, in the Scarborough branch of HMV - the record store chain where the Sprouts first came to the attention of their manager, and where I also worked for a while several years later. At the time, me and my mum were on holiday, and upon entering the store I was told I could have any CD I wanted, to remember the trip. (Incidentally, she stopped doing this the following year, when presented with the £45 'Pet Sounds Session' box set in Edinburgh.)
I spotted the Sprouts' 38 Carat Collection amongst the racks, and (for reasons that are still a mystery) I found myself drawn to it. I think it might have been the cover, which just looked moody, deep, and not at all ridiculous. I then noticed a sticker informing me that it contained the theme to 'Where The Heart Is,' which I thought was a pretty good tune - and so that was the CD I went for.
Back at the hotel, I gave it a listen, and found quite a few tracks I liked. It was a grower, however, and after taking it with me on several long car journeys in 2005, I had become a proper fan. In the summer of 2006, having collected all the albums and a fair few ancient singles, I found myself with nothing to do for a week - and decided the best way to spend my time would be creating a new site for Prefab Sprout, frequently updated with a thriving community.
To be honest, I didn't do this out of the kindness of my heart - I had found out about the many rarities out there, and figured that creating the site was the simplest way to get my hands on them. But even after I'd got all the bootlegs I could handle, I kept the site going, realising that if I didn't, no-one else would.
It has brought me a lot of joy over the years, the highlight being a chance to meet Martin McAloon in Newcastle and conduct a video interview (now found in the misc section.) It continues to be an interesting hobby, and gives me the slightest feeling that I've made a difference to the world. And still - upon hearing a Sprout track around town - I grab the arm of whoever I'm with, look at them with mad glee, and gasp: 'PREFAB SPROUT!' Which, for people who don't know me very well, can be somewhat frightening.
Anyway, thankyou for reading - and I hope you enjoy visiting the rest of the site!