Detlef Diederichsen, Spex Magazine – May 1988

Chordal Rhetoric

Three years ago, we told you about a band we could all agree on. Today, following the release of their thrid LP, they’ve once again become either “too difficult” or “too glossy”. Detlef Diederichsen draws attention to the connection between such accusations and ignorance of the standard textbooks on harmony. A beautiful melody is no such thing when it sounds like the Sixties, and the new Sprout album sits boldly alongside “Gaucho” by Steely Dan.

PADDY MCALOON is the first interview participant we’ve had who is able to hold an erudite conversation about Steely Dan (apart from Rosie Vela – but she doesn’t count because talking about Fagen and Becker also meant talking about her own record). After a short monologue about his favourite records, following which he introduces the name of Stephen Sondheim (co-writer of ‘West Side Story’), we couldn’t help but blurt out the Gretchen question (‘Won’t you pour me a Cuban Breeze, Gretchen?’, a Steely Dan in-joke): What about Steely Dan?

“Oh, of course, I never talk about them, I have all their records, they were brilliant, it was only ‘The Nightfly’ (Donald Fagen’s solo LP) I didn’t like, I think I’m the only person in the world to say that, that would be a record I’d say is too smooth, all those session musicians… For example, this is a part of our own style: we make use of our limitations. We’re not virtuosos, and although we might think some things are well played, we’re all – apart from Neil – amateurs. We’re fans, that’s what counts. What’s is your favourite Dan LP?”

‘Gaucho’, of course.

“What? Really? A normal Dan fan wouldn’t say that! Why?”

Because they’re approaching their peak, they’re playful and extreme like never before, so experimental, in their own way. Of course it’s not perceptible on the surface, since everything sounds wonderfully chrome-plated and glassy, but if you delve into the innards, it’s all driven by perverse games…! They strip things back, like for example the end of ‘Hey, Nineteen’: two minutes of lazy bonus beats, as it might be called today, only an electric piano chord from time to time…

“‘Third World Man’ – that was a great piece. Great lyrics!”

Exactly, the lyrics are fantastic, for example, ‘Time Out Of Mind’, also one of the most jaunty arrangements, this comic drumbeat going all the time, and the band emphasizes only the two beats, so really very strange…

“Oh, I hope people also look just as closely at my records.”

(Hey, what does that mean, a green light for a music-theoretical analysis of all McAloon songs from ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’ to ‘Nero The Zero’? But I’ll have to ask permission again in Cologne.)

“I’ve never heard anything say these things about ‘Gaucho’. Mostly people say: ‘Oh, it’s just the same thing…’ But it’s strange they emerged in America. They were very smart, but also in matching themselves to the audiences tastes. Those people haven’t stumbled on their lyrics…! Though I shouldn’t say something like that, some American will read it and ask me, ‘Hey, why did you say that? We’re really hip to irony!’ Things like that happen to me all the time. People ask me ‘Why don’t you like Belgium?’”

How does the American audience react to Prefab Sprout?

“Good question. I’ve not been there. You can get problems when you scratch their icons. I’ve now read a few reviews of the record in the British press, and it always amounts to the fact that I’m somehow obsessed with America. Let me say one thing: If I were obsessed with America, I would never go anywhere near their icons. In the first place, if you’re writing a song about Bruce Springsteen’s language, the idea is quite left field in itself. Secondly you have to be sure you’re on solid ground if you’re going to do something like that. And thirdly, Americans are very concerned that nothing happens to their idols, and sometimes we don’t quite understand that and we overlook it. There are things they don’t want to see treated ironically.”

We might imagine that if a phrase like ‘Life’s a highway’ is taken without a connection to cool rock & roll language, it could be misinterpreted.

“What can you do? I always think that if you have a sense of humour you can like or buy or think about a Springsteen record: the man is really rooted in the rock tradition, and perhaps he’s taking it forward. I don’t demand peoples’ exclusive attention when they listen to my records. I don’t expect them to think I have the only vision in the world. I’m a bit cynical because I find it okay to like things and not to like them, or not to take them seriously.

“I don’t want to make judgements about people. I just want to say that you can notice these contradictions and perhaps find things that are right for yourself. That it doesn’t matter.”

One thing is certain: he has a great interest in America. It’s not just Steely Dan who love to make fun of Bruce Springsteen and Rock & Roll (and he has the best joke with the ‘Cars and Girls’ sleeve design, and the least funny in the song ‘King of Rock’n’Roll’, the weakest song from ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’), as well as in-jokes about Faron Young and his UK hit ‘Four in the Morning’ and imagery like ‘There is no Chicago urban blues/ More heartfelt than my lament for you.’ The US plays a central role in McAloon’s thinking.

“Sure, as a bunch of symbols. But I don’t want to live there. And I can’t say much about her present condition. For me, America is a source of myths. I live near Langley Park, a village as English as there could possibly be. That’s where my heart is. Every reference to America comes from the perspective of a youth who says: ‘My God, this is the dream world!’”

And you never reach the point that this youth wants to be a part of this dream? (Another of those moments when you want to have a lie detector in your pocket!)

“No never. I’m a pop fan, and it’s enormous fun to write about modern myths. My lyrics are the thoughts that come to my mind when I write. ”

Something as grey and wet as England or Europe, of course, is far less fascinating than the mythic landscape of the USA…

“Yes, it’s more modern. It’s much more difficult to quote Shakespeare or Dante than ‘Purple Rain’. It would sound kind of cranky or academic, I’m afraid. ”

Early in his career (‘Green Isaac II’ on ‘Swoon’), Paddy McAloon sings: ‘It’s hard to act so simple / it’s easy to make noise,’ and thus he formulates his credo as if he were being reproached for Prefab Sprout. So gentle, so delicate, so fragile, such a hopeless romantic on the one hand, and behind the times (nothing learned from the Velvet Underground or the Stooges or even the Sex Pistols) on the other. But Paddy says “Urggh!”. And his explanation shines through. “Everyone says to me that my music is ‘gentle’, but that’s a word that can only describe the quality of the surface, and it may be true, because I have a different sense of space than the people at Def Jam, And I set other priorities: I’m not concerned about the hardness of the drum sound, but about the hardness of the sentiment or its softness, you could say, the consequence: I find that what I say isn’t just in the lyrics, but with the song as a whole – it’s sometimes quite hard, but it’s an intellectual quality, not something that can be measured in decibels What’s behind this accusation that we’re too soft is, in my opinion, an English 1980s new wave attitude, a selfish ‘see what society has done to us, we’re sorry for the products of the modern England’. Completely ridiculous!

(Paddy’s ‘harshness of sentiment’ can be summarised as follows: ‘life is unjust, but I’m an outsider, a detached bystander who can afford to show a generous helping of measure of compassion, but also a certain amusement towards the cruel fate suffered by those I observe.’ Or perhaps to carve out his own image from wood, to describe people so as not to be like them. In any case the infinitely sad melodies are a bit misleading.)

He is emphatically harsh against people who want to deny he stands with both feet in the present: “I’m completely certain my music is modern. I mean as banal as it sounds: I live in 1988, how could I make music that reflects a different time? There’s nothing else that interests me. I hear old records from time to time, but who doesn’t?”

You could also say: Prefab Sprout are a typical British 80s band. Unlike their predecessors in previous decades, the English sounds of today come from the head, not the hands. Where you previously formed a band because you wanted to play an instrument and wanted to communicate with it, the intermediate step of instrument playing is nowadays gone, you wake up one afternoon and decide to make a record.

The roots are in the record collection. That’s why Rock & Roll is current firmly in the hands of the Americans or the forty-somethings (from other countries) because for stylish rocking you must be able to hold an axe. Prefab Sprout are relatively good on their instruments but Paddy says, self-critically, “I don’t consider myself a good guitarists, but, oh the songs…!”

For song writing, however, nothing is more important than guitar playing. The average British Sixties wimp-guitars band with delicious tastes ranging from the Zombies via West Coast Pop Art experimental bands to the Left Bank, is content with a few soundalike soundscapes, similar looking guitars, and claims (often even bought by the critics) of writing ‘beautfiful melodies’ even if they would have no idea which way up to hold a standard text on harmonic theory.

However, at some point Paddy McAloon discovered his taste for full-bodied chords and gained access to the unspeakable secret knowledge associated with these deadly secrets of musical beauty. As the years go buy (and we should recall the fact that a song like ‘Faron Young’ allegedly dates back to 1974) he is succeeding in what only a very few masters of this art achieve, namely being a treasure in his own right. He’s the only one who can assimilate a few dozen idioms, such as Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Bacharach, Jobim, Brian Wilson, Mike Brown and others into his own musical vocabulary. And by the way it was very interesting for us to follow Paddy’s learning process: “Swoon” still had quite a few quirky, illogical, unstructured songs. On “Steve McQueen”, Thomas Dolby removed the fluff from McAloon’s oeuvre to reveal only the finest and most successful works. On ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’, the master himself now says, “Oh, I’ve always liked simple things. And I’ve now learned to apply this to my own songs. Sometimes, ‘simple’ songs are a lot better.” And, of course, ‘easy’ is only a matter of the quantity and type of the chords, because overall ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ seems more difficult, less accessible than ‘Steve McQueen’.

So when Paddy continues in ‘Green Isaac II’ : “l worship the silence that sings like a bird,” then we learn two things from that. In the first place, his tragic “Green Isaac” may have something in common with him, and secondly, when silence can sing like a bird, the six-note sound (with so many additional dissonances that barely make it out of the soundbox) can drive into your brain like a thunderbolt. Which isn’t a new idea, but I had feared this art, this chordal rhetoric, had already been lost.

Other people who had once found their way into it later went into other areas or lost their abilities as they grew older. Examples from the recent past: Robbie Robertson. Or Joni Mitchell.

“Yes, I don’t know Robbie Robertson, but I agree about Joni Mitchell, I prefer to listen to ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’ rather than ‘Dog Eat Dog’. On the other hand, there are also people who prefer ‘Both Sides Now’ to her electric records. It’s easy to say at a certain age; ‘I won’t do that when I’m older’. You never know what will go through your head. I can only say about Joni Mitchell: ‘I’m not interested any more’. But it happens to me as well, people say ‘the new record is too smooth.’ And I say: ‘Not the old ‘you’re not indie any more…’ stereotype. It’s a bit of a running gag in the Kitchenware office. I say exactly the same about other people. I’d be happy if the person I was ten years ago would like the new record but I don’t know. I can imagine that more and more people will come and tell me they prefer my early records. But I’d like it to be like how film-makers can follow ‘Indiana Jones’ with ‘The Color Purple’. Why should I be the same person who wrote ‘Cruel’?”

But in pop music, constantly jumping back and forth between different styles is very hard work, which people from NRBQ to Neil Young have repeatedly experienced. “Yes, in pop music this is particularly extreme. Then you’re told off for having no roots. Pop music is the most conservative of all media. Writers, film-makers, painters – all have much more freedom. I hate people who shape their image to be like a rock person, having a good time with drugs and women. It’s as stupid as saying all black men have rhythm in their blood.”

So what Paddy does, and what he also meant with the Sixties bands listed above as a daunting example, is to to tailor his records for his own record collection. What is important to him when he is listening to music is probably not just the lyrics. And the interest in modern myths also extends into music. “I’m a pop fan.” he says, and what that means for us (and you) is that he’s working on his own legend. So he throws a lot of ‘rare’ material onto the market. B-Sides (most recently there was even a song that was only included in the CD-single issue of ‘Cars and Girls’), sampler contributions, etc. And there is even a “Great Lost Prefab Sprout Album” called ‘Protest Songs’, his ‘Smile’ (or ‘Black Album’).

The album was recorded when “Steve McQueen” had just been put out and was supposed to be released in the autumn of ’85, not as a regular new LP, but rather as a postscript, so to speak. Distinctly rough, everything played live (interestingly also a great version of ‘Cars And Girls’ is included, the lyrics identical, but played faster with some extra guitar effects), but according to Paddy ‘Dublin’ and ‘Til The Cows Come Home; are two songs that would have made ‘Steve McQueen’ into one of the records of the century (we would have preferred ‘Tiffany’s’ to ‘Til the Cows Come Home’). ‘Protest Songs’ didn’t appear in 1985 because ‘When Love Breaks Down’ was climbing the top twenty at the fourth attempt, and the record company “didn’t want to confuse their customers”. After that Paddy didn’t want to see the record released because he didn’t want it to be thought of as a regular third LP, it was a bit too rough around the edges. But he gave us a firm suggestion that the record would appear soon.

Prefab Sprout B-sides generally correspond to the classic B-side clichés. ‘Oh, The Swiss,’ a Satie-tempered piano instrumental, “Oh, yes, that’s one of my favorite pieces,” Paddy confirms, “there’s one thing I especially love about it, the very oblique chord. I remember how I played it to Muff Winwood (Stevie W’s brother and the A&R manager at CBS London) and he suddenly turned to me in his revolving chair with a raised eyebrow and said “Oh, the Swiss”, and it was also a great title. It went down very well in Switzerland, they were happy with the mention.”

Or, let’s take ‘He’ll Have To Go,’ the Jim Reeves classic, the only cover version ever recorded by Prefab Sprout, with naturally McAloon chords, completely different from the original. “Yes, I think so too. That was the only reason I did it, I don’t see myself as such a great singer that I’d sing a song where there’s already a well sung recording, but I was playing the guitar somewhere, played these chords and suddenly I sang ‘He’ll Have To Go’, no idea why.”

What about Ry Cooder’s version?

“Yeah, I remember, that will have been a part of it. It’s also very different from the original. Perhaps it was unconscious.”

And then the three songs on the B side of ‘Johnny, Johnny’ (‘Goodbye Lucille # 1’), which everyone will remember from the drum machine, songs that sound like a clumsy attempt at being ‘experimental’

“We were on tour. I was in a bad mood. But I want to do my fans a favour by including bonus tracks. That’s why I went to the studio without songs, I wrote them there, which I usually never do”.

By the way, you may never see Prefab Sprout play live.

“I hate to say categorically never again. I dropped myself right in it when I said in December ’85 an LP called ‘Protest Songs’ was going to be released, so I don’t want to slam the door completely, but I went to my record company and told them, ‘Look, I did it last time because you wanted it.’ I didn’t like it at the time but I told myself, ‘fair is fair’ – I will try it. But my future is in song-writing and when I go on tour it changes me, I don’t like what I become. I’m not nice to people around me, and then you come home and you lose the adrenaline and no-one applauds you. Which is supposed to motivate you to do the hard work and write another song.”

And that’s exactly what he wants to do. There are several projects already started, such as the Christmas LP ‘Total Snow’ or the musical ‘Zorro The Fox’. Paddy sees himself at the height of his creative power and wants to take advantage of this. But what if ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ becomes a total flop and no one wanted to hear more Prefab Sprout, if no company would put the records out any more? “I’d look for a job that leaves me a lot of free time, Like my last job, in a filling station, a classic rock & roll background, I could live on the thrill of the song-writing alone, I have a low standard of living, I don’t have a car, I can’t even drive, I’m not Bruce Springsteen…”

What about the motorcycle on the “Steve McQueen” cover?

“That was rented for one day. Yes, I know: another myth goes out of the window. Here’s the whole truth: When I sat on the motorcycle for the first time, I tipped over slowly and the brake went through my thumb. I was nailed to the ground. Even though I did look damn cool on the cover. I know I shouldn’t be telling you everything, I should say: ‘Here, I’m a biker, but I don’t do it any more since that damned accident where I broke my neck.’”

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