THE PREFAB FIVE
Despite two critically acclaimed albums, Newcastle’s finest have found commercial success hard to come by. GEORGE BYRNE here talks to songwriter PADDY MacALOON and investigates the enigma that is PREFAB SPROUT
Prefab Sprout are one of the most enigmatic bands currently operating in popular music. Enigmatic not in the sense that they hide behind carefully stage-managed neuroses for the titillation of the increasingly pop-conscious tabloids but rather in that they pose more fundamental questions than can be conceivably answered in an article of this nature.
Of course Prefab don’t hold the key to the meaning of life (I do, and for a small fee it can be yours) or to any of the lesser mysteries which continually confound our daily existence. But they are a damned fine pop group. And more . . . much more.
The songs of Sprout wordsmith Paddy MacAloon (never has an enigma been more aptly named) have been known to induce bouts of joy, anger, and feverish head-scratching by turn – and that’s just among proclaimed fans. On the other side of the Great Wall of China-style fence sits a veritable host of well-entrenched opponents of MacAloon’s increasingly unique style, muttering vile oaths and occasionally throwing bricks at the opposition with missives such as ‘Ye’re nothing but a shower of wimps!’ or ‘Show us yer copies of Past, Present And Future!’ attached.
When Prefab Sprout were first introduced to the world in the shape of “Swoon” the album provoked that kind of critical hostility. Were these songs the opening shots in the canon of – potentially – one of the greatest writers to have emerged in popular music or merely the carefully-studied doodlings of Wimpus Modemus, a libretto for lentil-eaters, bedsitter images for everyone with the right books on the shelf, non-sexist and therefore sexless? For the record, I was one of the swooners.
With their follow-up “Steve McQueen” Prefab Sprout found themselves making the great breakthrough into the Top Twenty (with a bullitt, may I suggest?). They also managed to score a singles hit with “When Love Breaks Down”, albeit at the fourth attempt. Personally, I thought “Steve McQueen” was the best album of last year – significantly, almost a year after its release, it still retains every ounce of its original appeal. The songs can be touching and funny by turns and by God do they stick! Think about them, love them, even dance to some of them – they still stand up. A remarkable achievement…
Paddy MacAloon cuts a singularly unassuming figure. Dressed mid-way between casually and endearing ‘just out of bed’ look – his semi-beard adding to the latter impression – MacAloon speaks with an attractive North-East lilt and is not afraid to laugh at anything … including himself. He sounds like a man who might be more than slightly embarrased at the number of times his band’s singles have been re-released! So what’s the deal, Paddy?
“Obviously CBS want hit singles, so do I,” he reflects, “but they’ve never pointed a gun at our heads and absolutely demanded them. In fact, I’d imagine if I was in charge of a record company that I’d be a lot harder on us than they’ve been!
“Apart from anything else they know that we haven’t got the usual things that most pop groups have on their side, in that they’re big on the visual image and sex appeal. We aren’t, and they haven’t tried to force anything like that on us. Lots of people might fancy Wendy, I dunno, but we don’t try to come over as ‘here’s the girl in the group and here’s a pretty boy’!!
“I mean I was embarrassed,” he concedes, “at the number of times ‘When Love Breaks Down’ came out but that’s only an embarrassment wthin the hip NME/Rock Press world. The average person in the street doesn’t know what’s hip and what isn’t hip. He or she just hears a song and either they like it or they don’t. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if the song was over a year old by the time they got to hear it. I mean, I didn’t cotton on to Marvin Gaye until over five years after ‘What’s Goin’ On’.”
Prefab apparently blissful relationship with CBS would not appear to stretch as far as the proposed ‘unofficial’ album “Protest Songs” whifch has been in the can for the best part of a year and has had its release date continually put back. So will “Protest Songs” appear at all?
“Good question! It was supposed to! The problem is that it’s not the follow-up to ‘Steve McQueen’. It was never intended to be and CBS are fine about that but there have been problems trying to sort out a release date for it across the world. If we just put it out in the UK then there are problems with copies being imported into Europe, and so on.”
People seem to be confused about its status in the Prefab canon.
“It’s not a four track demo,” Paddy elaborates, “it’s not a ‘Nebraska’ although if it were that type of album it would be easily explained as not being typical of our usual stuff and they could like it or leave it – but as it stands it’s sort of mid-way between what we’ve always done and something slightly rougher.It’s less flowery than most things we’ve done.
“As regards its release, I think they should either piss or get off the pot! Put the bugger out or say they don’t want to release it as it is. I know they like it – it’s just that it appears to be gumming-up the works. Maybe they’re afraid that I’ll never write another good song and they want to hedge their bets by giving a few of the songs on it the full treatment! It’s hard to say, but it it frustrating that it’s been put back so often.”
The title “Protest Songs” seems to be rather…
“It’s more ironic,” Paddy cuts in. “Some people are going to think that we’re just being smartarses again but at the same time there’s a certain simplicity to it and we did want to get the word ‘songs’ into the title because it’s not a highly-produced album. It’s actually saying ‘I hate protest songs,’ and I’ve gone on record in the past on this – I hate those ‘us and them/ we’re right, you’re wrong’ songs. I don’t think those type of things work well in songs. I wanted to make music that was more awake to the reality of the world in that people are ambiguous about things… I think that that’s the common state of most people, that they vacillate between points of view, and I like songs that can capture that confusion.
“There’s a song about the North-East on it which I hope is not like the usual ‘pop stars get sentimental about their home’ songs … I write many different types of songs, it’s just that we seem to be known for the glossy ones, for being wordy, for being literary, for being …”
To use your own word, flowery?
“Yeah, well we’re really talking about ‘Swoon’ there and it was quite an ornate record. It wasn’t through any great desire to be flowery it was just that at the time I thought pop music should offer a bit more and I was hung up on making things not so much complicated or challenging as adventurous. I didn’t think we’d get the kind of precious criticism that we did get – although now I can see a lot of the words are top-heavy. Now I still want to be adventurous but I want it to move people in a simple way.”
Fans of The Phantom may recall a report a few issues back regarding a debauched pop quiz in which Damian Qorless and myself took part. To my great embarrassment I missed what should have been a ‘gimme’ question, namely: What did the title of Prefab Sprout’s “Swoon” stand for? The answer is that it stands for Songs Written Out Of Necessity. Go to the back of the class Byrne! So let’s be completely obvious and ask Paddy if his songs are still written out of necessity, shall we?
“More than ever! I’m absolutely psyched up totally to writing songs at the moment. You have to look at what you’ve done and see how you can improve on them. I stopped writing the way I used to write – the ‘Swoon’ way – as soon as we recorded that album. I thought ‘Hang on, you’re going to have all these little chord changes and the jerky rhythms and you’ll box yourself in’ so I started writing using drum machines to get away from what I saw as being a potentially dangerous situation. I don’t believe that I’ve ever played totally safe. I’d risk it all and make a mad-arsed album rather than have people feel that they’ve got me completely pigeon-holed.
“There are songs which I could have written better,” he admits. “There are songs on ‘Swoon’ which I know are just too wordy and which were written provocatively, from the point of view that I used to play in a pub and I’d write songs with the intention of ‘Right! This one should make those bastards put their pints down!’ Because there’s nothing worse than being ignored. Thankfully that situation has changed for the better.”
The fact that Prefab Sprout are devoid of ‘an image’ hasn’t prevented them from presenting a completely different visual with practically every turn. From the trainee accountants on the inner sleeve of ‘Swoon’ (pre-dating Dexy’s by a full two years) to the reasonably-well-behaved-looking bike gang of ‘Steve McQueen’ via flirtations with (a) a beard, hats and sweaty vests, (“When Love Breaks Down”) (b) a Zorro moustache (the hilarious video for ‘Appetite’) and (c) a suit for “Johnny Johnny” on the Tube, the Sprouts have remained excruciatingly ‘ordinary’… But had these switches come from a self-confessed image-chameleon, can you imagine the reaction?
“It’s quite funny really,” chuckles Paddy, “but it’s really down to trying to suit the mood of whatever you’re doing. I can be all of those things without any feeling of dressing-up whatsoever, as I’d imagine most normal people could. It’s strange for a band which has no image to see how the look has changed over the last couple of years – videos can be quite useful in that respect!”
What about Prefab’s reputation as a weak live band?
“In many ways we’ve only ourselves to blame for that, due to playing a couple of really bad London gigs early in our career which more or less left us stuck with that stigma in the eyes of the media. I remember one review, I think it was the NME, which was along the lines of ‘these songs are great, but you wouldn’t have known it tonight’ – which was fair enough.
“The unfortunate thing is that those early shows seem to have set the tone for any subsequent reviews, which is a terrible pity because I believe we’re a lot warmer and harder than most people would think from the kind of records we make.
“The live thing is not really where my heart lies anyway. I’m a songwriter first and foremost and after that I hope to be seen as a good maker of records. 1 want to be somebody from the Phil Spector era who doesn’t appear anywhere, who just puts his records out and everybody talks about them. I want people to say ‘Ah, that was a great song, one of the classics of last year’, or whatever. I’m not interested in putting my picture to it in the least.”
As someone used to receiving extreme reactions from the press – from ‘some of the most beautiful and rewarding music ever laid down in the name of pop’ to ‘ultra-sugared songs which have no place in these times’ (both from the same paper) -how does he feel about the criticism which has been levelled at his work?
“I read the press and I laugh about it or enjoy it or whatever, but it always seems like it’s happening to someone else – so I like it when there’s a bit of controversy, as happened with ‘Steve McQueen’. I was surprised at some of the things that were said about ‘Swoon’ because there was this talk of hype and overkill. The thing was that the press overkilled it and not CBS – they just put the record out. It hadn’t been produced under their wing or control, they just bought it when it was finished. It was an independent record but it wasn’t judged as that in the press, it was seen as ‘CBS try to save the world and come a cropper.’ The only thing that annoyed me about some of the ‘Steve McQueen’ reviews was that the second side, which has some great songs on it, seemed to be ignored completely. Okay so it doesn’t go bang! bang! bang! like the four singles at the start of Side 1 but very few people even mentioned ‘Desire As’, which is a great pity.
“When you’ve got ho track record,” he continues, “it becomes a case of the Press trying to figure out if you’ve got any integrity or whether you’re just along for the ride and I think that a lot of people who reviewed ‘Swoon’ wondered if it was just ‘this week’s thing’. God knows we got a hell of a lot of that – which wasn’t there to the same extent with ‘Steve McQueen’. When the third album comes out I’ve no idea what they’ll say about us – we’ll probably be regarded as being as boring as Dire Straits!”
When the laughter subsides Paddy looks moderately concerned and says, “I’ve probably just alienated a massive part of your readership, have I?”
Well, “Brothers In Arms” did finish top album in the readers poll!
“Oh God! What have done!” MacAloon adds, throwing his arms in the air, and we crack up yet again.
While the going’s good, how does he feel about his songwriting contemporaries?
“The funny thing is that in the privacy of their own homes everybody listens to all kinds of things for different motives. Even when you know that a particular guy might not be the hippest writer in the world there’s a strain in what he does that’s good and that’s always been my attitude to songwriting. I’ve just done My Top Ten with Andy Peebles and among the records I picked were ‘Wood Beez’ and ‘Running Up That Hili’. Now I don’t like Kate Bush and I’m highly critical of Green and I said that on the programme which people may find very strange – picking your Top Ten and then criticising the arse off everybody in it!
“There are people I’m scared to mention because so much play was made of supposed similarities. But I like Roddy Frame. He’s a good songwriter and I think he’ll come back with something different altogether. I don’t like Elvis Costello’s writing at all. Everybody seems to think that I should feel some affinity because he’s a wordsmith but I don’t actually like it that much.
“I do like some of Green’s things,” he admits, “although I’m not too fond of this idea where every song he writes is a love song which has a political sub-text, if you read it the right way. I think that he wants to keep his cake and eat it at the same time. If it’s a good love song it should just be a good love song and leave it at that.”
We then tail off into an analysis of some of Green’s more blatant excesses – try “I found a new hermeneutic// found a new paradigm/l found a new plan to make you mine” from “Lover To Fall” for size. Or that memorable couplet from “Sweetest Girl”. “Politics is subject to the vagaries of science/She left because she understood the value of defiance.”
“Green can be one wordy songwriter – and believe me I know about these things! (laughs). Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! God, this interview is beginning to get really slanted, but what the hell… it’s showbiz!
“Seriously, even though I might like some records that certain people have made I can’t help but be critical. I’m the same with the things I do myself. I can sit around hating certain things we’ve done. I can loathe us on stage. I can loathe .. .
“Nah! I’m just finnicky, that’s all!”