Prefab Sprout - Two Wheels Good
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The first and perhaps most important thing you should know about Prefab Sprout’s second full-length album Two Wheels Good is that it was titled Steve McQueen everywhere else on Earth. Apparently the late actor’s estate wouldn’t let the band use his name here, and so the album was retitled in America. While the new title certainly matched the cover art well enough, it didn’t pack the message that Steve McQueen did. But what’s in a name anyway? Well, plenty it turns out.
For those of you reading this who have no idea who Steve McQueen was, suffice it to say that he was the archetypical movie tough guy. McQueen was renowned for his method acting chops in such films as Bullitt, The Getaway, and The Great Escape—in fact, the cover of the album is an homage to the latter film—but it was his offscreen persona that really made the headlines. McQueen was a daredevil, a hard drinker, a womanizer, a straight shooter who wouldn’t take any lip from anyone—basically, what used to be referred to as a “man’s man,” an icon who took John Wayne’s testosterone, mixed it with Scotch, and drank it from the crotch of a Vegas showgirl. By choosing to name this intensely personal album after perhaps the most stereotypical “male” actor of his youth, Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon was making a profound statement on what it is to be a man in the modern world.
I can still hardly believe it myself, but after more than a 15 years of listening to this record it finally hit me—Steve McQueen is a concept album. The concept is masculinity, or rather, the aftermath of acting like a stereotypical “man’s man.” McAloon sheds light on a whole host of “little bastards” throughout the album dealing with the various aspects of being with a badass from an older, wiser, cautionary perspective.
The “cast of characters” as it were could be all the same man, but more likely each represent a different “male” characteristic that has backfired on the narrator. For example, check the singer of “Horsin’Around,” lamenting his infidelity, begging “Lord, just blind me, don’t let her innocent eyes remind me.” Or the “poor slave” of “Appetite” who can’t say “no” to anything, but passes advice that his son shouldn’t grow up to be like him. Or even the Prodigal Son of “Moving The River,” trying in vain to please his father (“You must know me/Father, it’s your son”). They’re all here, looking back on their misdeeds with emotions so painfully accurate that you’d believe that McAloon really was the biggest male chauvinist asshole ever in a past life. As it stands, he’s actually one of the best—and underrated—songwriters of his generation.
The music enforces the lyrical message rather nicely—this is no macho rock stuff. Produced by Thomas Dolby (yes, that Thomas Dolby), the songs are laden with all those cool minor jazz chords I was always trying to discover on my guitar, but fused with goofy (somewhat dated sounding) synth noises and a few other little oddities—banjo, strings, sax and, most significantly, the haunting, almost ghostly backing vocals of Wendy Smith. The riffs and melodies seem simple at first listen, but grow complex with each replay. The term “well-crafted” might just have been invented for this record.
And the lyrics—oh Jesus, the lyrics. That was where the album got its hooks in me and never let go. Here were vocals that went from a breathy whisper to a frustrated scream at the drop of a hat. The lyrics called to mind Elvis Costello, Morrissey, and even the Gershwins (George’s name is dropped at one point). These were songs of regret, of longing, of nostalgia, of sexual tension, of insights in retrospect—all rendered with such unerring accuracy that you just knew this poor guy had lived through all of this (and likely more).
But of course he didn’t, and that’s what makes McAloon’s writing so amazing. Granted, he had already mined the fertile soil of the distant, jilted lover with the very first Prefab Sprout single, “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone),” reportedly written for a girlfriend who left him to study abroad in Limoges, France (check that song title again for the anagram, wordsmiths). McAloon’s gift is expressing every emotion like it’s his own—and again, they might well be—but regardless of the source material, he is utterly convincing in his roles here, and that’s all that matters.
In my experience of being a Prefab Sprout fan these many years, I have noticed one particularly ironic fact: I have never met a single female who likes Prefab Sprout. Truth be told, most every woman I’ve ever played their records for has run screaming from the room, and I’ve gotten similar stories from many of my male friends as well. When I first noticed that trend some 7 or 8 years ago, I remember thinking to myself that it didn’t make sense—the music is insanely catchy, not too “rockist,” and has super-intelligent lyrics. It seemed tailor-made for the intelligent female pop fan. I remember thinking to myself that if only I could find a female Prefab Sprout fanatic... that woman would be the greatest catch ever. She would appreciate great pop music, and by default have a keen insight into the hidden, sensitive depths of the male psyche. If I could find such a woman, I knew I could forge the sort of mature relationship I’d longed for since graduating college—I mean, how could we not have the perfect relationship after all that knowledge that Paddy had dropped on us?
Well, I never did find that mythical female Prefab Sprout fan, although I’m sure she’s out there somewhere. But I’ll say this: The first and only woman I ever met who sat through and actually enjoyed a Prefab Sprout album (I believe it was their debut, Swoon) married me on June 1st, 2002. Thanks, Paddy!