It was 1985. I was working as an editorial assistant at William Morrow in NYC, earning slightly less than a pittance, and renting the upper floor of someone's house on Long Island. I didn't exactly have a lot of money to spare, but I'd still take a chance on music that I read about if it sounded interesting based on reviews, even if I hadn't actually heard it. Oh, I'd wind up with the occasional clunker that I'd regret (a Dutch group called Won Ton Ton comes to mind, though perhaps the band name should have been a tip-off), but I also found a lot of artists that I still love. The Blue Nile. Jane Siberry. And Prefab Sprout.
Two Wheels Good, the American name for the Prefab Sprout album known as Steve McQueen in the U.K. (the McQueen estate protested, hence the name change) became an instant favorite. I dubbed the LP onto a cassette and it rarely left my Walkman during my Long Island Railroad commute for the next few months.
I can't even explain why this become such a favorite so fast. Some combination of the melodies (hummable, yes, but not in a stick-in-your-head-till-you-go-crazy way), the ambience of the recording (an amazing job by producer Thomas Dolby), and those lyrics, hardly standard-issue pop.
A few favorites--
From "Moving the River": "You surely are/A truly gifted kid/But you're only as good as/The last great thing you did/And where've you been since then?/Did the schedule get you down?/I hear you got a new girlfriend/How's the wife taking it?"
From "Appetite," about an unwed mother: "Here she is with/Two small problems/And the best part of the blame/She's wishing she could/Call him 'Heartache'/But it's not a boy's name."
And from "Horsin' Around": "I was a fool who always presumed that/I'd wear the shoes and you'd be the doormat/You wonder why my hands are still shakin'/In need of a cry, the shoulders were taken/I/Deserve/To be/Kicked/So/Badly."
It was announced a while ago that Sony U.K. would be releasing a spiffed-up 20th anniversary edition (yes, two years too late, but it's the thought that counts), with newly recorded acoustic versions of most of the songs. I was a little dubious, to be honest. Part of the album's appeal is its luster. But I just got the CD from Amazon U.K., and boy do these songs hold up.
What I'm saying is... Trust me. Buy it. It's cheaper to look it up on Amazon U.K. and buy it from there than to get the import from Amazon U.S. (no, that doesn't make sense to me, either). But it's even cheaper to get it from iTunes--a steal at $9.99 for the original album plus the eight acoustic do-overs. (Search for the British title, Steve McQueen or you'll end up with the unspiffy U.S. version.) If you just want to sample a couple tracks, make them the acoustic versions of "Faron Young," "Bonny," and "Appetite."