I realise that he was the catalyst for my love affair with Prefab Sprout. They had (have?) a perfect combination of songs and production. Thomas Dolby was their man, and the combination was a glorious thing.
At some point it was determined that they should release a compilation album, A Life of Surprises, and I was recruited to produce a new single to help promote it. Also I reworked a couple of other songs that probably didn’t need reworking at all, but a pleasure to work on Thomas’s tracks. The designated song for a single was called The Sound of Crying, so I booked my then favourite studio, Metropolis B, and that was where first I met them. Brothers Paddy and Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti. As I must have mentioned, my memory of things is probably completely wrong, but here goes.
Paddy, Martin and Wendy showed up with nothing apart from possibly a bass guitar for Martin and a book (Proust or Tolstoy) for Paddy. Neil was not going to appear until there was something for him to play to which made complete sense. They expected me to just “do the track”, probably how they worked with Thomas. I hadn’t expected this at all, but luckily had my gear set up. I found a loop and (most likely) got Paddy to play the chords on the first electric piano sound I could find. We quickly figured the arrangement and Paddy put a guide vocal down. I asked Martin to play the bass. He looked at me and said he didn’t have a clue what the bass part should be and did I have any ideas. I replied that the only idea I had was to plug a bass in and try, so why didn’t he do that. He wasn’t all that enthusiastic and suggested that I should have a go, so, with literally no idea where to start, I played through the song. That became the bass part on the record, me, with absolutely no idea. We patched a couple of bits but it’s 99% the mindless doodles of an average player. Funny to think that I would never have played like that in lockdown – no audience……..
Now we had enough to put drums on, so Neil showed up and instantly became my favourite drummer (until he moved to France and I met Ash Soan……). So now a short digression:
I love Neil, and although he’s a truly lovely guy he’s also fundamentally rude, or at least was. But that attitude directly translated into his playing, and that’s what made him so good. His fills always seemed to me like he was snarling at something or someone. He played in a very assertive way, reckless and without any consideration for anything or anyone around him. It was utterly wonderful.
I remember once when we had an extremely small window to record a B side for Annie Lennox, a cover of Don’t Let Me Down, I’d assembled a few people to play the track live, in the same room, Metropolis B. Neil turned up over an hour late, showing absolutely no remorse whatsoever. We did a take which was really strange and Neil informed us that he’d nailed it, there was no need for us to play it again and he left, leaving us all totally bemused. He was right though. His playing had just the right attitude and, after a few quick overdubs we were done.
Anyway, back to the track. Once he’d put the drums on it actually started to sound like a record. I put on some guitars, a few punctuations, Wendy did some beautiful oohs, a mix and it was finished. I wonder if this was how their records were made with Thomas. Throughout the process I remember Paddy reading, Wendy doing Tai Chi in the studio area (a first for me – it looked crazy), and Martin measuring random things with a tape measure. Pretty surreal.
The record became my go to reference track whenever I started working in a new studio.
FROM THOMAS DOLBY