Paddy McAIoon tells Doug Adamson about the superstar guests who appear on Prefab Sprout’s acclaimed album ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’.
“I love this album,” says Prefab Sprout singer Paddy McAloon proudly — but he s not being immodest. Paddy is just carried away with his own enthusiasm about ‘From Langley Park To Memphis‘.
“I don’t think there’s a duff song on it,” he goes on in his distinct Geordie accent.
“Rather than being Paddy McAloon who’s an interesting songwriter, l wanted to write songs that were more accessible to people.
“It sounds silly, having written some of the most obscure songs in the history of the world, like some of the things on ‘Swoon” (the first Prefab LP, which has now been reissued at budget price). But the older I’ve got, the more I’ve become interested in something that works for everyone.
“I do realise l have a tendency to be heavy-handed, but things like ‘The King Of Rock ‘n‘ Roll’ are meant in a light-hearted way.”
As for the strange album title: “Langley Park is a tiny village in County Durham,” Paddy explains. “The title comes from a line in ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’ — ‘Maybe it hurts your brothers too, from Langley Park to Memphis’. It was my ‘Ebony And Ivory’, I suppose: everybody feels the same emotions, whether you live in an unknown village or somewhere glamorous like Memphis.”
Paddy agreed to fill us in on some of the big name guests on the album — but he stresses that the Sprouts don’t spend their lives ‘hanging out’ with the stars. They just plucked up the courage to approach people like Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder — and it paid off.
“It would be easy for me to say that Prefab Sprout is a democracy. It’s my songs, so I call the shots, but everyone has their say.
“Everyone else would like to tour, but they don’t pressure me: they’re very loyal. It’s a family affair.“
Thomas Dolby isn’t just an innovative keyboard player and singer — he also produced four tracks on the ‘Langley Park’ LP including the hit single ‘The King Of Rock ’n’ Roll ‘.
“He’s my favourite producer. I think it’s an instinct with him: the way he mixes the ingredients convinces you you’ve been missing something all along. I can’t quite figure out how he does it!”
The veteran Who guitarist plays on the current single ‘Hey Manhattan’.
“Our collaborations with superstars have always come about through hilarious circumstances. In this case I’d written the song on keyboards, but I couldn‘t for the life of me think of a guitar part.
“I’d not been very well prior to recording it, but I’d got through the first ﬁve days of it and it was almost ﬁnished when I had to go to bed, ill. So I took to my bed and Martin, Wendy and Neil (the other group members) went along to mix it at Eel Pie Studio, which is Pete Townshend’s studio. “I’d met him before and I knew he was a fan —his daughters like our records — but I’d never really spoken to him before. So I said to Wendy, who’s very innocent really -— she’s not a rock ’n’ roll person and doesn’t know people’s great histories — I said to her before she went into the studio, ‘Do you think you could hint to Pete Townshend that he might play some guitar?’
“Over the phone I dictated some chord windows to Wendy so she could pass them on. Now Wendy doesn’t play the guitar, although she does a pretty good job in videos of pretending she does. And she went up to Pete Townshend and said: ‘Now this here, this is an A chord’, showing him the little bar window. And he said to her, ‘Yes I think I can sort that out’ . . .
“The idea of Wendy telling someone like that how to play is just brilliant.”
The soul giant lends his inimitable harmonica style.
“We had a song called ‘Nightingales’ that I’d always intended to have a horn solo on. But as the sessions went on, everybody unanimously decided wouldn’t it be nice to do it with harmonica. We tried with two English people to have a go at it, who I won’t name to spare them, and it was disastrous.
“To cut a long story short, I wrote Stevie a letter — but rather than trying to flatter the man, I confessed he was third choice and we were desperate, we needed a harmonica part and we weren’t to get along on his name. And his manager, Keith Harris, played the song to him and he said yes.
“He was working in London at the time, so we booked a studio next to his. He has some strange working habits — he’d do his gigs and go straight back into the studio and work all night.
“He was great. I think he knew it was a tough one. He asked to have a cassette made and he went outside the studio, sat in the lounge, and sang along and then he came in and did it. Stunning.
“My brother Martin, who has a repertoire of standards that he plays on the piano, asked him if he’d play ‘Alﬁe’ with him. How far can you push a good turn? He even played ‘Alﬁe’ for us into the bargain — but we couldn’t record it because we were running off the copy of ‘Nightingales’ for him to learn the solo!”
‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen‘ has a big vocal by top American gospel singer Andrae Crouch and his choir.
“If you‘re a songwriter who writes complicated tunes — and ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’ is a big melody — people don’t expect you to go for any kind of power or grandeur in the sound. So I wanted to try and get a way of doing that on ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’: using a black choir was one way.
“We had a great joke, because as soon as they heard the melody they tended to make it sound more white. They were singing it like I would sing it. l was saying, ‘Could you blacken it up please’.
“They then did a parody of how white people would sing it. It was hilarious.”