Currently an a sell- out British tour, PREFAB SPROUT are still basking in the acclaim for their recent fourth album, ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. PADDY McALOON explains why hero worship and Elvis Presley play such an important part in his songwriting
“Dear Mr Beatty, I am a songwriter… ”
Paddy McAloon can’t believe what he’s just found in the bottom of his bag. It’s a crumpled, half- finished note to Warren Beatty.
“We were at this Guardian film lecture a few weeks ago and he was there, promoting Dick Tracy,” Paddy explains over tea and buns in a cafe in his Newcastle hometown.
“I’d heard that he was working on a film about Howard Hughes and I really want to write a song for it, a song about Hughes himself. It seemed like a good idea at the time just to introduce meself with a note. But at the last minute I just lost me bottle.”
Why write a song about Howard Hughes anyway?
“Well…it sounds pretentious but I love the mystery of records when you never know who makes them. I can understand why people love to see their heroes — and I’m a hero worshipper meself — but I’m even more in love with the idea of never seeing your hero. And, in a way, Howard Hughes is that kind of character – he affected things enormously but he always stayed out of the way. And as a subject for a song that fascinates me.”
Paddy McAloon, former garage forecourt man turned (in his words) “tousle-haired Geordie songsmith is that kind of character too.
In a seven-year recording career, Prefab Sprout have gained widespread critical approval as purveyors of pop that’s an intellectual cut above the rest. Their first two LPs (‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’) combined a lightness of touch with McAloon’s sweet but oblique lyrics, and were lauded as Albums Of The ’80s within weeks of their release.
1988’s ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ gave the Sprouts the germ of mega-success, but they never quite bought into the pop mainstream except to send it up. Their chart appearances have been fleeting. To the average punter Prefab Sprout exist chiefly as “Hot dog/Jumping frog/Alberquerque ” from their biggest UK hit, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ – a man dressed as an amphibian, dancing fast food and Paddy by the pool in a gold lamé jacket and mirror shades, in the video’s pastiche of rock ‘n’ roll life.
Meanwhile, the scoffers called them a shower of clever ex- students with a Bacharach fixation. Though McAloon always steered clear of the Lloyd Cole put-your- cross-where-the-literary-allusion-is school of songwriting, the band still inspires an almost unhealthy academic fascination. Somebody even wrote their PhD music thesis on the early works of Prefab Sprout 1984-’85.
“I’ve got a copy at home,” says the incredulous McAloon. “This feller only had ‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’ to work from, but he fuckin’ did it all the same! And it’s a strange read. Instead of saying, this is good about Prefab Sprout and this is crap about them, he’s got, Paddy McAloon – beard or no beard? Short hair or long hair?”
These days it’s no beard, moderately short hair and none of his erstwhile pained thinness. Paddy is basking in the acclaim accorded to the Sprouts’ fourth album proper, ‘Jordan: The Comeback’.
These are the best of times for Prefab Sprout. No one has yet suggested that ‘Jordan’ is anything less than a contender for the album of 1990, and Paddy (who admits to not like making records much) says he loves it, and with good reason.
‘Jordan’ contains some of McAloon’s most affecting work yet. And if the album’s first single, ‘Looking For Atlantis’, wore its FM pop heart too much on its sleeve, and suffered accordingly, songs like ‘Carnival 2000’ and ‘Doowop in Harlem’ are every note the equal of ‘When Love Breaks Down’.
The LP also showcases Paddy’s fondness for character-based songwriting. Side one closes with a quartet of songs written for Elvis Presley, featuring Paddy as The King living as a recluse in Las Vegas. Later, Paddy—as-Elvis relates the life and times of Jesse James, in the style of late-period burger years Presley. We even get The King in space (“Beyond the Colonel ‘5 arms”). While the songs are bitterly funny, they’re always affectionate, cutting through the half-truths and bullshit of 30 years to paint a picture of Presley that.-Albert ‘ Goldman could never understand.
“Elvis is obviously never going to do our Elvis songs: one cos he’s dead,” laughs Paddy, “and two cos they’re not in his idiom. He liked his rock ‘n’ roll country gospel style, he wasn’t gonna go for any of this modern crap that we write. Especially not from a bunch of godless bastards with a faggot name like Prefab Sprout.
“So on these tunes I tried to give a little back to the spirit of Elvis, to give him something more in the gospelly, countrified line that he’d be comfortable with.
“You might think that Elvis is a bit of a daft subject for sympathetic treatment, because if he had it good for most of his life and then blew it then that’s his fault. But everyone knows Elvis. Everyone understands a bit about him, and it appealed to me to have Elvis saying, I wish I had me time again — before I get to the point where I’m thinking that meself.
“That’s why I write all the time. I don’t want to be an old man, thinking that I wasted all me time, that I never did anything.”
On ‘Jordan’, Paddy has also written some tunes for God. This prompted producer Thomas Dolby to suggest that it be called ‘Death And Elvis’ — the two things in life that you can’t avoid. Once again, he’s courting a hard time from the sector which says that pop with wit and a brain is no pop at all.
“People think you’re being too smart if you even step away from simple, autobiographical themes, if you stop pretending that your songs are out of a diary. I get very defensive when people say we’re difficult, because we’re not at all. I’m doing something that’s entirely natural to me, I’m playing with themes and characters. And suddenly people get their backs up — or even offended.”
That was the case with the satire of Bruce Springsteen, ‘Cars And Girls’, in 1987. The record was a Top 50 hit, not least because Broocey’s fans virtually erected firey crosses in Paddy’s front garden for his impertinence towards The Boss.
“Springsteen was perfect, just perfect, for showing how authoritarian, how pompous, how unliberated the big-rock scene — which, after all, was supposed to have come out of the so-called liberated ’60s — really is. So l wrote this song, which is a gentle play on his image, in his own playground of cars and girls. And all of a sudden I got all this real stick — as if I’d attacked the Queen Mother, or said the Queen was a groupie on The Rolling Stones 1972 tour.
“I was hoping to elicit a humorous reaction, but I can see why people react that way. Because people are thick. People are stupid!” he laughs. “My view is that most rock musicians don’t even address a normal level of intelligence, and who can blame ’em? They seem to sell OK.
“People used to say to us, Go on tour, it’ll broaden your horizons – that spent old rock ‘n’ roll idea. Well, I’ve never bought this David Bowie idea that going to new places somehow changes your music, makes you different.”
Broadened horizons or not, this month Prefab Sprout break a five- year habit to embark on a 14-date British tour. It’s their first since the ‘Steve McQueen’ outing.
For all their glowing notices, respect in the Biz (Stevie Wonder guested on ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’), moderately healthy sales, hot dogs and jumping frogs, Prefab Sprout remain a difficult proposition for the music establishment for one reason: their fierce allegiance to Newcastle.
This inspires dewey-eyed eulogies of the hardy working classes in the papers. Paddy finds it faintly ridiculous. “People say, Oh, you’re from Newcastle? As if it’s some big deal. But I can still sense the power in being in the place where you come from. You still feel at your best there. You go to Los Angeles, where all the supposedly hippest figures in the music and film businesses are, and you know you’re better than them because you’re hip in Newcastle.
“But I also know that I carry whatever it is that makes me write around with me. This time around I took great comfort from the fact that I was going to write about Elvis in Newcastle. I was writing about God in Consett.” Amen.