October 1985. On the twelfth floor of a tower block, in a brick-lined dorm room overlooking a park landscaped by Capability Brown, I am huddled up to a radiator, reading Shakespeare. Next door, Def Leppard is blasting from a flatmate’s speakers. Maggie is from the Valleys and likes her rock gods in bouffant perms and questionable Lycra. Along the muddy-green carpeted corridor and into the living room, the glossy sophisti-pop of Sade’s Diamond Life is on permanent broadcast, which everyone other than me doesn’t find annoying.
In the neighbouring residential tower, boys who will become friends are playing off-piste sounds like Michael Hedges and The Blue Nile. Down in the Union Bar, piped over crowded tables and pints of Directors, the Mamas and Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’ is a firm favourite. Occasionally a Smiths fan will sprint to the jukebox and select ‘How Soon Is Now?’ as many times as their grant will allow. At that point, resident hippies rebel and return us all to Laurel Canyon.
In a few weeks, I will be drinking wine at 1am and listening to Tom Waits’ Asylum Years for the first time. The early Tom I’ve grown to adore: all-night diners, waitress romancing and coffee too weak to defend itself.
By now, Maggie and poodle rock have left the building and my ears have stopped ringing. I finish the section of Hamlet I have to get through, put the book down and leaf through the cassettes on my shelf. Joni, Costello, Motown and more…
Here in 2015, mentally scanning that ingenue’s modest collection, I note an omission – and it’s a significant one. Thirty years ago, an album was released which eluded me so stealthily, I have no idea how it happened. I was into the contemporary music scene. I followed the charts. And though New York was as close as a lunar landing for a provincial teenager, I’d even heard of LL Cool J, for goodness’ sake.
No one I knew had it in their record boxes, yet I’m reliably informed it was ubiquitous in student halls up and down the country. Worse still, it became one of the best-loved pop albums of the late 20th century, by fans and industry types alike.
Perhaps the reason I hadn’t encountered Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen was because I hadn’t met their first album, Swoon, either. The Prefabs only blipped on my radar with From Langley Park to Memphis three years later. I even succeeded in missing them live: they gigged at my university the year before I arrived. (I blame my parents; had I been born a year earlier, I would have been there.)
The irony being, I was no stranger to the Prefabs’ producer, Thomas Dolby, or his 1982 debut, The Golden Age of Wireless. In fact, I loved his work. Besides, no-one alive and into music at the time could possibly have failed to miss his video of ‘She Blinded Me With Science’, with Dr. Magnus Pike playing his mad boffin to perfection – it was everywhere. ‘Airwaves’ from the same album is a recording I still return to, it’s a fantastic track.
But no, I didn’t make the connection between Dolby and Prefab Sprout either.
And for that, I would like to be put in a time machine and head for 1985. Why? So my 18-year-old self can go into Andy’s Records in Cambridge, walk up to the musos who would become the inspiration for Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and ask for a copy of Steve McQueen. They wouldn’t throw me out of the store in contempt, not if it was Prefab Sprout. They’d probably try to sell me Swoon as well.
Then I could go off to college and show my new mates who were playing the Housemartins and The Waterboys and Eurythmics to death: ‘Have you heard this? It’s really good.’
As it is, I reach over to the pile of CDs next to my desk, fish out the 2007 Legacy Edition and pop it into the hi-fi. The album hasn’t lost any of its potency over the years. If anything, it gains much from mature listening and a dose of nostalgia in the veins. Heartstrings tug for the loss in ‘Bonny’, then falter and break for the poignant ‘When Love Breaks Down’. The body wakes and grooves to ‘Moving the River’, and luxuriates in the mindful intensity of ‘Desire As’.
I won’t describe Steve McQueen here. In the three decades since this album came out, pretty much everything that can be said about it, already has been. Suffice to say: if you know it, you’ll understand what I mean. If you haven’t, you need to hear it.
Too long ago I missed out on music by a songwriter I now admire. Paddy McAloon has become an inspiration to me, both as a musician and creative artist. Sometimes you just don’t realise the gap in your collection until you’ve found the cure for it.
Never mind the lost time, I have it now. And that makes me really happy.
Lisa Cordaro – January 2015