From an old record box: Prefab Sprout – Life Of Surprises

I’m doing this the wrong way ’round, mainly because that’s how this record was purchased. I was only really interested in the b-side of catalogue number SK 63.

‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is the only Prefab Sprout I can remember being able to stand – and nothing has changed over the years.  I’ve a new colleague who I think is going to make a determined assault on my disinterest, but for now, this is the only material of theirs I own, or care to.

As is often the case, the dream of this song was slightly better than the reality, but I’m still pleased to be reacquainted.

With the benefit of less rose-tinted glasses, and the need to cast a critical eye over this track, I can no longer forgive or ignore Wendy Smith’s execrable backing vocals. I’ve also only just noticed by what sounds like someone intoning “ribbit ribbit” in the background during the intro. Why ?

Finally, I’ve had my enthusiasm tempered by the relative weakness of the chorus – musically and lyrically – compared to what are high-class verses.

Frontman Paddy McAloon is at least conflicted about this song, if not downright dismissive of it. When he talks about it in interviews (you can read a couple here, from The Independent, and The Express) he acknowledges it, and moves on, preferring to talk about the present and the future.

It is very understandable; if you’re still serious about making music and all anyone wants to hear or talk about is something you knocked off 26 years ago, why wouldn’t you be miffed ? Because who wants to face a possible truth that their best work was half a lifetime ago and that nothing they have written since, and slaved over, has even come close ? That must be uncomfortable. And I am sure that there will be legions of Sprout fans decrying my ignorance and lack of taste, but if you can write pop songs this good in 20 minutes or whatever, what the fuck have you been wasting your time on since ?

Two answers are most persuasive to me: either he keeps trying and can’t repeat it; or it’s about conceit, snobbery, thinking that songs like this are beneath him and that he is capable of music that is worth much, much more. If it’s the former, then we should sympathise. How frustrating, how crushingly depressing would it be to have achieved the gold standard and not be able to do so again ?

If it’s the latter then we might be inclined to think less fondly of McAloon, one of those songwriters’ songwriters.  But whichever it might be, we should sympathise, because McAloon is now severely constrained in composing and recording on account of sight and hearing problems. And we should also pay tribute to the fact that he wrote this.

This tale of a desperate attempt to hang onto a sense of superiority and status, despite being haunted and embarrassed by the past, and terrified by a new sense of self-awareness, is a beaut. If we believe McAloon’s legend we should expect lyrics of the quality of lines such as “all my lazy teenage boasts/are now high-precision ghosts”. The squelchy synth that leads the melody is irresistible – it has funk, rhythm, and an unexpected melancholy air. Wendy Smith’s other contribution, a wash of keyboards, provides crucial augmentation to that atmosphere of sadness and decay. Also critical to the poppiness of the sound, the catchiness of this record, are Neil Conti’s drums.

You can’t talk about this song without some focus on the video. Yes, the dancing hot dogs, the frog waiter, the singing statue, and the narcissistic diver are all laughable. But Paddy McAloon’s performance in the video is not to be missed, adding emphasis and depth to the song throughout.

The a-side, ‘Life of Surprises’, is inconsequential next to the titan on the flip. There’s an irritating keyboard parp that kept me awake but otherwise this feels thin and lightweight, lyrically and musically.

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