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A Letter From Prezhnev

Prefab Sprout

Article from Making Music, May 1987

two veg

THE PREFAB SPROUT case is one of the few I remember. It was a quiet day in spring. Quiet enough to hear the tiny patter of creditors' feet marching down the mean streets to my pebbled glass office door marked John Morrish... Investigations. I decided to push the objects around on my desk in an effort to get the dust moving. I prefer it that way. And then they came in.

There were three of them. The tall blond one, "P", gave the orders. His sidekick, "T" has a dubious moustache and skin the colour of pork crackling: a little strange in mid-March. The third (no initial) had a fashionably lean and hungry look.

"We've got a job for you, if you want it," barked the leader. "I want it," I said.

And so it unfolded. There were these guys, and this dame. So far, so predictable. But two of the guys were brothers, and they all called themselves the Prefab Sprout. Now are you interested? They got themselves a record. They got in deeper. Next thing, they're wanted all over the world and then, all of a sudden, they're gone.

"Just find them, and tell us what they're up to, OK? Usual terms: Xp a word plus expenses." I was just about to tell him I'd put up my rates because of demand, but the tall one, whose name was Colbert, snapped one more instruction: "And cut the Raymond Chandlers, OK?"

Fine, I thought. But who's Raymond Chandler? I whistled a couple of bars of my next hit song, Quick Nurse, The Grease, and thought about it.

Next morning, I'm bending some paper clips into a model of the Golden Gate bridge when a hefty thump from the hallway announced the arrival of a thick envelope. This was quality all right. "Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel" it said in one corner. Combined with the Los Angeles postmark, this was enough to convince me that it was not my gas bill.

The paper was cream and so thick that I didn't know whether to read it or use it to reroof my house. And then the signature, "Paddy". So, it was from him, leader of the missing McAloon gang, even if he did add the curious greeting "Have A Good Day Y'All" as a PS.

The letter itself conformed to what I knew of the bearded one's obsessions. Brian Wilson, George Gershwin, they were all there. This boy's a songwriter remember. But a new name caused me a moment of doubt. Stephen Foster is "a new favourite of mine", he wrote. Could this be true? Swanee? The Folks Who Live On The Hill? Maybe someone's forcing him to write this stuff. Could it be a code? A ransom demand?

Paddy's story went like this. Just before Christmas the Sprouts recorded one song with a keyboard player/producer, part of the notorious Trevor Horn gang. This was called Hey Manhattan!.

Then they started work with Thomas Dolby, the bespectacled whizz-kid (whizz-man now, surely?) who was on the team for their last big job. They did four tracks with him in Fulham before he moved to LA. The next thing, Geordie Goes To Hollywood, in close pursuit. Of course, I thought, the title of the song gave it away. Hey Manhattan!, that's California, isn't it?

It must have been a terrible blow, I mused, watching as the latest burst of torrential south-east London rain washed the last smart-ass B-picture one-liner from my persona.

Paddy told me that the new album would be done with a whole bunch of producers. "Maybe this will give us problems with continuity but I don't really believe it," the spidery hand confided.

And he intended to play all the guitar this time, a considerable wrench now that he was in the habit of writing solely on the piano (and on hotel notepaper). "Actually, Pete Townshend played Hey Manhattan! because I was ill! And very good he was too," Paddy wrote before going off to breakfast. "It's lovely weather," he said, a touch unnecessarily.

The letter went on in a different ink, though the same hand, and became confidential in tone. "I must tell you this beauty while I remember. We'd just arrived here t'other night, and brother Martin went to his hotel room. He picked up the local telephone directory and purely by chance opened it... at Van Dyke Parks's phone number and address. I figure he lives within a mile of this hotel," he noted, as if trying to tell me something.

Again, an enigma. Clearly this man Parks — if that's his real name — had some part in the plot. They didn't ring him. I toyed with the idea of doing so myself. But I didn't, I don't speak Californian.

And so the letter came to an end. "Well, we're off to record: wish us luck. We'll be here till the last week of Feb and it's work all the way, so we're unlikely to end up absorbing too much of that maligned 'laid-backness'."

I was puzzled. The last week of February... Just as they had said, they were no longer at the hotel! So where could they be?

I won't bore you, gentle reader, with how I found them. The hours of painstaking gumshoe work, the failed calls, the combing through files, the opening of the address book. Let's just say I did it.

I put through the call and waited for a reply. Brother Martin was called to the instrument. I open up my line of questioning. The bass-player brother gives me his own verdict on Hollywood. "Boring. It shuts down at 12.00, and it's sunny all day long. I never knew whether it was time to get in the Jacuzzi or not.

"It was nice driving through Hollywood but as far as the rest of it went I couldn't wait to be back here. I like being places, anywhere, but it was too much for me... or rather too little," he said, and seemed to mean it.

"We are only half-way through the record. I think CBS are hoping it will be out in July or August. We've been using a lot of different studios, including Sound Castle, where Michael Jackson records. We went from one studio to the other finding Michael Jackson and Prince stories," he said, but despite my entreaties, would not tell me them...

"It was great knowing somebody who has worked with them, but otherwise we had a very dull time. The food was good," he added, mentioning that he'd enjoyed a strawberry, cream and coconut omelette for breakfast one morning. I reached for the wickerwork waste-paper basket I use for filing my income tax letters.

But none of this culinary chitchat answered my questions. What had they been doing during their lay-off? How had they got away with it? Don't the record company bother them?

"They have forgotten where we live, and we don't get in touch with them that often. I think they are hoping we'll form a band some time and join them," he said, with a laugh.

Next they plan to work with Richard Niles, the man who did the string parts for Grace Jones's Slave To The Rhythm. "We've got tons of songs. If we had a studio in our back garden we'd have an album out every month," said Martin.

The last act of the McAloon boys before they disappeared was a cheapo do-it-yourself album called Protest Songs, Prefab's Nebraska or Prefabska if you like. Martin didn't like.

"It wasn't demos, it was a very quick real LP," said Martin, a mite tetchily, adding that they'd made the record without telling CBS, and that it didn't fit the company's plan for world domination. Other than that, he concluded, they'd just been "pottering about".

Pottering about? It sounds more like the Sleepy Shores Home for Senior Citizens than the future of rock and roll, but that's their business. I knew the scene well: "getting our heads together in the country", it used to be called. So that's it, then. Another day, another dollar. I wonder what happened to Syd Barrett?

I handed in my report the next day. Colbert said, "You really are a Dick." Quite a compliment, I thought.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - May 1987


Prefab Sprout



Related Artists:

Thomas Dolby

Neil Conti

Interview by John Morrish

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