How Thomas Dolby Produced Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

Though there is no band like Prefab Sprout, they do encapsulate British rock in the 1980s like no other. They doubled down on hooks like the Stone Roses, infused lyrics with wordy poetry like Morrissey and keenly bounced bass off of synth chords like New Order or the Pet Shop Boys.

Fronting Prefab Sprout from the late 1970s onwards, Paddy McAloon was more keen than any of his contemporaries to inherit an esteemed history of jazz–informed pop songwriting from Stephen Sondheim and Paul McCartney. As he sings on the 1991 song "Paris Smith," McAloon wished to be the “Fred Astaire of words."

And while the band’s 1985 album Steve McQueen never achieved the immediate fame of many of its peers’ work, the album’s legacy has steadily grown over three decades thanks in large part to its arresting tension between good old fashioned rock and roll and groundbreaking digital production.

Just like how the Beatles stretched the modern studio to its limits in the mid–’60s, Prefab Sprout knew it would need embrace the cutting edge technology of its time to get the most mileage out of its expert pop compositions. That’s where Thomas Dolby came in.

When British Pop Went Digital

Thomas Dolby first took a shine to Prefab Sprout in 1984 as part of a panel on BBC’s Roundtable, a program where DJs and popular musicians weighed in on new releases.

By that point, Dolby had hit it big in North America. His single “She Blinded Me with Science” rocketed to the top of the US and Canadian charts in 1983 with the help of a video that proved popular on MTV.

McAloon wanted a hit of Prefab Sprout’s own. Aligning with a tech savvy hitmaker must have seemed like a smart move, even if he was singing songs about bygone idols like George Gershwin and the American country music hitmaker Faron Young.

Given the landscape in Britain at the time, the choice wasn’t all that strange. The like–minded Scritti Politti used an array of drum machines and digital synths including the Linndrum, the Roland TR–808, Yamaha’s DX7, the Fairlight CMI, and the Oberheim Systemizer to make sugary sweet and decadently funky pop music as complex as Prefab Sprout’s own.

Additionally, given that the most successful British groups of the era were synth pop acts like The Human League, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran, it makes sense that an old school rocker like McAloon would sense that a splash of electronics could make his music more commercially marketable.

Despite Steve McQueen’s run in the Top 40 of the UK charts, McAloon would publicly lament what he perceived to be poor commercial performance. Dolby apparently admonished McAloon about this. And within just the three years between Steve McQueen and its follow–up, the album sold 900,000 copies worldwide, better than any of Dolby’s own albums had performed.

Steve McQueen has not endured because of its sales or chart success, though. It sustains thanks to masterful pop songs equally thick with forlorn romance and earworms, skillfully arranged by Dolby.

Dolby’s innovative, nuanced production used synthesizers and the Fairlight CMI to paint McAloon’s McCartney–esque, dense compositions in water colors at a moment when Kate Bush and Jan Hammer were using the same tools like spray paint. The Fairlight CMI was a groundbreaking and infamously unreliable sampling computer best explained by Herbie Hancock on an episode of Sesame Street.

Dolby Hears the Sprout

It may have been Dolby’s self–identification as a songwriter that drew him to “Don’t Sing,” the single from Prefab Sprout’s first record, Swoon, played on that BBC program. It’s a gnarled song, with dense lyrics that sprawl past the margins of 4/4, forcing unexpected sequences of two and three beat phrases.

Soon after the program, Prefab Sprout’s manager and Kitchenware Records head Keith Armstrong asked if Dolby would be interested in producing the band’s next record. The band had no demos to show, so Dolby was invited up to the McAloon County Durham family home in Northeast England.

There, in a small bedroom in a remote former rectory, McAloon sat with Dolby and a tape recorder as he played Dolby around 40 songs he had written, pulling sheets of lyrics out from stacks under his bed.

Dolby took back these tape recordings and selected his favorites — some of them already seven or eight years old — for what would become Steve McQueen.

In the Studio

McAloon’s songwriting involved strumming a guitar until he felt the time had come for the next line of lyrics, leading to phrases with an awkward number of bars. Dolby saw his role on Steve McQueen mainly as the “the editor, the filter.” Only once that work was done could he “add a little fairy dust of [his] own with the keyboards.”

Using studio technology as part of the songwriting process was the ace hidden in Dolby’s sleeve. His savvy with music technology earned him fame with a mad scientist “synth boffin” persona employed on his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless.

That integration of studio and songwriting was old hat to Dolby. His early years saw him building his own Powertran Transcendent 2000 monosynth from a kit and recording his own compositions on a Tascam Portastudio with a Boss Dr. Rhythm, presaging this century’s wave home electronic producers and songwriters by at least two decades.

Dolby favored the Fairlight CMI and a Jupiter 8 on the record, the McAloon brothers later recalling that Dolby was not a “DX7 man.” He worked closely with the band’s other singer, Wendy Smith, to add her parts, often doubling them with her voice sampled through the Fairlight — one of the most distinctive and defining textures on the record.

No One Planned It, Took It for Granted

Paddy McAloon knew nothing about recording and was insecure as an arranger. “I’m only really happy when I’m writing songs,” he told Jim Reid in an interview for the Record Mirror in 1985, “even the arrangement is a labour to me.”

Dolby choreographed the band’s approach to performing and arranging the songs closely. Dolby took apart and reconstructed McAloon's chord sequences, with a mind to layer sound with different instruments and textures.

He would examine McAloon’s piano phrasings and edit his fingering note by note. If McAloon was playing a full guitar chord high up on the fretboard, he would instruct him to only voice the bottom strings, leaving the rest to another keyboard or two.

McAloon, then self-conscious about his singing, recalled being coached closely. Dolby told him to emphasize the lighter, more breathy aspect of his voice, with a few allowances for harshness on “Faron Young” and “Goodbye Lucille,” called "Johnny Johnny" when released as a single.

These were old songs Dolby selected — holdovers from the band’s early incarnation as a pub rock band — retaining something of their rock n roll origins but made wide screen by Dolby’s production.

The truckin’ pastiche guitar riff that serves as the main motif on “Faron Young” is given doses of heavy reverb for a cinematic quality during key moments. Dolby used the Fairlight on this track to imitate a banjo, performing credible banjo roll patterns to uncanny effect in the song’s intro.

On the opening to “Goodbye Lucille #1,” the gentle four–note descending guitar line that opens the track is doubled by a palm muted guitar — a simple, thoughtful detail that adds a world of texture to the moment.

The rehearsals paid off and Dolby recalls that once the mics were set the album “basically mixed itself.” Dolby’s own instrumental contributions were the embellishments and textures, added after the basic tracks were recorded.

McAloon would have a few other artistic triumphs, like Jordan: The Comeback or I Trawl The Megahertz. He would finally score a top ten hit with Steve McQueen’s follow up, From Langley Park to Memphis.

But Steve McQueen stands alone as a high watermark for ‘80s production and is a stunning example of the power of collaboration in which the traditionalist songwriting values of Paddy McAloon found a happy, transcendent marriage with the empathetic and technologically-literate ears of Thomas Dolby.

Paddy was thrilled with the results. While talking about Dolby's production work on her 1985 album Dog Eat Dog, Joni Mitchell was quoted as having said that Thomas, “has a tendency to interior-decorate you out of your songs." Paddy instead claimed that Dolby had “made my songs into little palaces.”

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