[19] Prefab Sprout, ‘Billy’


“We had this song at home,” points out Junior 3 as we try this out in the car. She’s right. Prefab Sprout have been part of my staple musical diet for nearly 30 years so the girls are never going to get away with it. ‘Billy’ – probably the most immediately lovable track on surprise Paddy McAloon comeback Crimson/Red – does all the right Sprout things: a fanciful story, a succession of shivering catches (if not hooks, which might explain the lack of hits) and a woollen warmth.

There’s a song on the album (‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’) that plays out a meeting between McAloon and Jimmy Webb, but ‘Billy’ is where Webb really looms. A melody of tear-choked comfort, imagined wide vistas, harmonica taking us to the prairies – it just needs McAloon to leave the house for once and go and find a string section. “I like the harmonica,” says Junior, which would please Paddy. He’s letting his feelings show.

Prefab Sprout, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’

Junior first heard this in Cyprus, an unexpected treat on an otherwise bewildering Greek music channel. She was three months old and learning how to laugh. Dad singing along to the chorus, bouncing her up and down was particularly amusing. I don’t know whether her fits of giggles were directed at her father’s ability to hold a note, or whether she was ridiculing the lyrical pearls “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”. Either way, she shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions.

Dad has a cold, so the singing this morning was cracked and the high notes were just that little bit beyond his grasp. Junior found some faint hilarity in this, but lightning didn’t strike twice. Paddy McAloon’s gifts for gentle ribbing and pop catchiness were no match for a growing girl’s hunger pangs.

Perhaps it’s a shame that Prefab Sprout will linger in the memory of most for this track alone. Yes, there’s a quirkiness to many of their songs, but it’s most obvious here and it muddies the more thoughtful message beneath. Rock ‘n’ roll posturing, its bombast is being pricked, with no little affection.

Affection runs through McAloon’s work, but his words could be caustic. Nonetheless, as the albums have become less frequent and he has quietly slipped into his 40s, the tone has softened. It makes Prefab Sprout more suited to Radio 2 these days, although there are flickers of beauty that reach beyond pigeonholing. So, they were never kings of rock ‘n’ roll, but you may as well be remembered for something.