Prefab Sprout’s lost Steve McQueen was a perfect slice of synth-pop heaven

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Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down,” a synth-washed, melancholic Top 30 finisher in the UK, should have been a big hit in MTV-era America. Instead, after its release as part of Steve McQueen in June 1985, this Thomas Dolby-produced single never charted stateside.

The album disappeared, too. Probably because Steve McQueen was filled with songs like “Bonny” and “Appetite” that shared the same shimmeringly dark context for Paddy McAloon’s impeccably crafted lyrics. There was a deeper complexity elsewhere, however, as Prefab Sprout skipped through everything from soaring anthems (“Moving the River”) to Faron Young (a cover of his country gem “He’ll Have to Go”).

So, what happened? McAloon was operating at a very distant remove, Thomas Dolby tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “He is just one of those people who doesn’t like to go around, a problem that the band shared with XTC,” Dolby says of Paddy McAloon. “In order to crack in the U.S., you have to be willing to tour. That was just something you had to do.”

“When Love Breaks Down” was later covered by artists as diverse as the Zombies and Lisa Stansfield, even as Steve McQueen — renamed Two Wheels Good in America, after a dispute with McQueen’s estate — continued to impact its famous producer. “‘Nothing New Under The Sun’ (the opening track from Dolby’s most recent album, A Map of the Floating City) sounds a lot like the Spouts, in some ways,” their famous former producer adds.

In fact, Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon remains a key confidant. “We’ve influenced each other a lot, not only when we were working together, but ongoing,” Dolby tells us. “I talk to him maybe twice a year. We hold each other in very high esteem. When I’m working, I might think: ‘What would Paddy do here?'”

Steve McQueen reached No. 21 on the UK charts, while stalling in the lower reaches of the Billboard 200. Prefab Sprout’s follow up, 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis, shot to No. 5 in the UK, but didn’t chart at all in America. Prefab Sprout had two more Top 10 UK albums in the 1990s, before the Paddy McAloon-led group returned with a No. 17 UK release in 2013’s Crimson/Red.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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