When the self-proclaimed, “world’s greatest songwriter” met one of Britain’s most precocious musical talents in the early nineteen eighties, it felt like the stars had aligned. Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon had just delivered Swoon – an album that many regarded as genius, but difficult. The task of Thomas Morgan Robertson Dolby was to make the follow-up just as good, but easier…
Dolby travelled to McAloon’s house in Durham. Aged twenty eight, Paddy was still living with his parents, and when the two began to choose music for the new album, his father was lying in the bedroom next door, recovering from a stroke. Dolby remembers that McAloon had a pile of fifty or more songs scrawled on paper under his bed; the two began playing them, and he duly selected the ten that would go on to Steve McQueen. Dolby had been approached by the band’s manager, who had heard him on BBC Radio One’s Roundtable. It was a weekly review of new releases, and TMDR was a guest who, when asked to comment on Prefab Sprout’s new Don’t Sing single, had celebrated it rather than pilloried it the as other panelists did.
By 1984, Thomas Dolby was already a hugely respected electronic music pioneer. An industry-savvy master of the new technology, he had a string of impressive collaborations already under his belt. By contrast, Paddy was still strumming his songs on an old guitar in his bedroom; he too had garnered great critical acclaim but Swoon failed to make a significant impact on the charts. Reaching Number 23, it was a triumph for the Kitchenware independent label, but failed to propel him to Dolby’s level of fame. For this reason, the band deferred to Dolby on pretty much every decision during the recording process. They had struggled to translate Swoon into what they wanted, so were delighted that he was there to strip things back to basics, and remake the new songs with his trademark rich and gloriously spacious sound.
The predictable thing would have been to drown the album in the new digital synthesisers – like Scritti Politti did on Cupid and Pysche with its prominent Yamaha DX7. Instead Dolby subtly upholstered Steve McQueen with his ageing (and by now rather out-of-fashion) Fairlight and PPG Wave. It gave the album a less than contemporary sound – more 1981 than 1985 – but now its soaring analogue soundscapes seem timeless. Indeed, it marks Steve McQueen out from the other albums of that year – and indeed that decade – as being far more polished.
Swoon was an audacious debut long player. It was Paddy McAloon shouting to the world, “look at me”. Musically rather ersatz, choppy and quite unresolved, it was a manifesto from a man who knew he had huge talent, and was trying to let it break free. It can sound just a little studied, but there’s a rich seam of melodic and lyrical beauty within. Dolby’s job was to channel this and capture the band’s greatest strengths, almost despite themselves. He did this in a brilliantly surefooted way for one so young, and the result was an album that sounded completely different to the legions of Smiths and Lloyd Cole impersonators that packed the charts. Steve McQueen sounds grand, expansive, almost epic at times – in stark contrast to the rather austere jangly guitar music dominating the British scene back in the day.
The result is a beautiful record – showcasing McAloon’s instinctive feel for the human condition (“all my insights from retrospect”), Thomas Dolby’s swirling soundscapes (Appetite), loving paeans to country music (Faron Young) and plaintive, minor key moods (When Love Breaks Down). It captures Prefab Sprout at their brilliant best, yet lacks the scratchy, nervous feel of a band going through growing pains. Memorable melodies meet poignantly emotional lyrics, in a subtle pop album polished to perfection. “In 1985, I felt that nobody made a better record than us”, Paddy McAloon once said. “I liked Steve McQueen as a fan, it was as much to do with Thomas Dolby as it was do with me. I got that finished record and thought, dear God how did it end up sounding so good?”