by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
We continue our exploration into the beloved but overlooked sub-genre of music affectionately dubbed “sophisti-pop” – a delicious melting pot of jazz, pop, and soul that caught on in a big way over in the U.K. in the mid-‘80s and would remain trendy for the remainder of the decade – by delving into three more fine examples of the genre, starting with Two Wheels Good, the sophomore outing from the curiously named outfit Prefab Sprout. [The album is actually better known by the title Steve McQueen, but its British title was changed for American release to avoid a potential lawsuit from the estate of the legendary actor of the same name.] The album is considered an all-time classic in Britain, but it attracted only scant attention in the U.S., where it only climbed as high as #180 (the only one of the band’s albums to make the American charts, sadly).
It’s somewhat odd that the album went ignored on this side of the Atlantic, if only because the disc was helmed by one of the decade’s most beloved one-hit-wonders, Thomas Dolby of “She Blinded Me with Science” fame. He’s a somewhat curious choice of producer, since his own records are heavily rooted in synth-pop and new-wave and lack the jazz and soul stylings that characterized much of Prefab Sprout’s work.
Dolby does a marvelous job, however, of helping the combo smooth out its sound and build sonic cushions around the songs to make them all the more atmospheric, songs like the chilling “Appetite” (easily one of the greatest singles of the ‘80s to miss the Hot 100 in America) and the fondly-remembered U.K. hit “When Love Breaks Down” being just two great examples of how the band strikes just the right balance between melody and mood. (Pay special attention to the layers of ghostly harmonies at the 1:06 mark in the latter song and the jazzy guitar chords in its chorus.)
The dreamy “Bonny” boasts an acoustic guitar-heavy instrumental track that recalls Johnny Marr’s best moments with the Smiths, while the funky soul-pop of “Moving the River” recalls Paul Weller’s work with The Style Council, and the impressively genre-defying “Faron Young” (named after a sadly-long-forgotten American country singer from the ‘60s) is equal parts alternative rock, cow-punk, and bluegrass.
Johnny Hates Jazz – who got discovered and signed by Virgin Records after performing a showcase at, ironically enough, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – came only one spot shy of topping the American charts on their very first try with the massive hit, the angry yet ironically danceable and glossy sophisti-pop of “Shattered Dreams,” which sat in the #2 spot for three weeks (though topping the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts). The song - from their 1988 full-length debut Turn Back the Clock - still holds up as one of the finest and most well-crafted pop singles of the late ‘80s, though it’s inexplicably all but disappeared from American radio airwaves in recent years.
The U.K. trio consisted of lead singer Clark Datchler, guitarist/bassist Mike Nocito, and keyboardist/drummer Calvin Hayes, the son of legendary producer Mickie Most, who had produced countless hits in the ‘60s for the likes of Donovan, Herman’s Hermits, Lulu, The Animals, and the Nashville Teens.
The trio also scored a second American Top 40 hit from the album with “I Don’t Want to Be a Hero,” which is interestingly sung from the perspective of a man seeking to get out of being drafted into military service – not exactly the most commercial fodder for a pop lyric, but the soulful and danceable arrangement of the song – which allegedly went down badly with Datchler, the song’s writer – helps to make it a surprisingly accessible song. But like Prefab Sprout, the trio was not simply just a good singles act, and Turn Back the Clock is consequently fantastic from start to finish, boasting such other great songs as the lovely nostalgia-minded title track, the stunningly pretty piano-and-percussion-driven ballad “Different Seasons,” the relentlessly toe-tapping “Don’t Say It’s Love,” the percolating “Listen,” and the brass-heavy “Heart of Gold.”
The trio’s initial success was disrupted when Datchler suddenly left over creative differences, the remaining members replacing him with new frontman Phil Thornalley, formerly the producer and bassist for The Cure. [Thornalley had also co-produced, among other hits, Robbie Nevil’s “C’est La Vie,” and, fittingly enough, Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down.”] The trio’s next and last album, 1991’s Tall Stories, arrived too late to capitalize on the group’s momentum and consequently flopped, but things would work out quite well in the long run for Thornalley: he would become an in-demand writer/producer in the U.K. in the late ‘90s, co-writing BBMak’s “Back Here” and co-writing and producing the Natalie Imbruglia hits “Torn” and “Wishing I Was There.”
The Scottish outfit Danny Wilson turned a lot of critics’ heads with their 1987 debut Meet Danny Wilson, the trio (led by Gary Clark, later a songwriter for the likes of Natalie Imbruglia, Demi Lovato, and The Veronicas) being favorably compared to a more lighthearted version of the legendary jazz-pop duo Steely Dan.
Like Johnny Hates Jazz, Danny Wilson also managed to make some waves on the always-hard-to-crack American market, landing a Top 40 hit with the classy adult-contemporary-pop of “Mary’s Prayer,” later used in the comedy classic There’s Something About Mary.
American radio overlooked the remainder of the disc, unfortunately, which was full of some quite catchy tunes, particularly “The Second Summer of Love,” which now seems decades ahead of its time with its foot-stomping raucous folk reminiscent of acts like the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons, the mellow acoustic pop of “Davy,” the Burt Bacharach-like “Steam Trains on the Milky Way,” the propulsive “A Girl I Used to Know,” the cinematic “Aberdeen,” and the jazzy closer “I Won’t Be Here When You Get Home.”
The trio didn’t last long (splitting up after a failed sophomore outing, 1989’s Bebop Moptop), but then, it’s not likely they could have ever topped their debut, anyway, which has often been dubbed the most artful of all sophisti-pop albums.