On the forthcoming Prefab Sprout album, Jordan the Comeback, there are 19 songs. It’s a generous allowance, by any measure, but Paddy McAloon, who wrote them all, still feels short-changed. In a series of white-knuckled discussions with the band’s record company, CBS, he had staked a claim for 24. ”They got very coy about modern attention spans. And the words ‘double album’ are forbidden. So 19 it is.”
Which means that a few key elements in McAloon’s overview simply had to go. Like, for instance, the song pondering whether Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys is, in fact, a reincarnation of Mozart. McAloon agreed, for the purposes of this interview, to a brief rendition: Meet the new Mozart / The come-back of the Saltzburg wizard / He’s in the bed where commerce sleeps with art. He sounded disappointed, even singing it. ”It was just a thought: Mozart’s sussed it out – he’s coming back and he ain’t gonna die poor.” Unfortunately, it contained the lines, One day there will be / A more conducive century. ”Thomas Dolby, our producer, had trouble with it. And it is true, you don’t often get ”conducive” in the Top 40.”
Still intact, though, is the sequence of numbers which contemplates a distinctly more plausible re-appearance: Elvis Presley’s. One of these finds Elvis, alive in the desert, pondering the life of Jesse James (”A good subject for Elvis – a bit of self-pity, give him some of that”) and waiting for the right song – preferably one by Paddy McAloon. Another imagines ”the once and future King” on-stage again, or, more specifically, in concert on the moon, which allows for a neat joke: Handsome, doggone rake – the truly weightless. ”There is,” McAloon suggests, ”nothing like a ludicrous premise to get the writing juices going”.
McAloon is, it is readily apparent, not short of songs. He has composed, when possible, a song a day since CBS wrote him an eight album contract in 1984. ”If you write all the time, it generates a confidence from song to song. If you come back to it after a period, you start to look too closely at the first song you pick up with.”
He also suffers from no shortage of ludicrous premises. The Presley songs join other off-beam narratives in the Prefab Sprout catalogue, like ”Cue Fanfare” (from the first album, Swoon, released in 1984) which wondered whether the chess master, Bobby Fischer, got the same boost from chess as McAloon did from hearing lines in his favourite songs: or like ”Don’t Sing” (from the same source), in which Graham Greene seems indirectly to be encouraging the singer to renege on his vocation.
But perhaps the most outrageous scenario of all came in the song ”The King of Rock and Roll” which opened 1988’s collection, From Langley Park to Memphis. It pictured McAloon as a rock star – a challenging premise as even he would confess – condemned to repeat the youthful jingle ”Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” far into old age. The irony was that, borne on a naggingly catchy synthesiser squelch masquerading as a bass line, it travelled to number seven in the singles chart, and threatened, albeit briefly, to turn McAloon into a rock star, condemned to repeat the youthful jingle ”Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” far into old age.
It was the cue for a short deluge of publicity duties. ”I was interviewed by an American journalist who put his feet up on the table, told me Prince was a devil-worshipper, and asked me what I wanted to talk about. I felt like I was with a prostitute – ‘what do you want to do?’ And then I went on the Radio 1 review programme, Singled Out, and I didn’t find a nice thing to say about anybody, from U2 onwards. And I thought, well there goes my audience. No more review programmes for me.”
Until this lapse into commercial promiscuity, most critics thought they had Paddy McAloon fairly neatly labelled. He had clearly read a few books, and wasn’t above building complicated lyrical lines which could stretch a song’s rhythm, rather than get beaten back into place by it. He was, in short, the kind of writer who puts together songs with ”conducive” in them.
Worse than that, they might say, he was of that potentially regressive school given to writing pop songs about pop songs and pop singers (”as decent a subject as any”), whether it was Faron Young in the song called, appropriately enough, ”Faron Young”, or Bruce Springsteen, whose implausibly earnest visions were slapped at in ”Cars and Girls” (Brucie dreams life’s a highway / Too many roads by-pass my way). Elvis Costello is said to have admired the early ballad ”Cruel”, which attempted a wordy reconciliation between the demands of feminism and a pop writer’s urge to deliver the silkiest love platitudes. File him alongside Costello and Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame, and any other clever clogs you could think of.
It wasn’t, though, the kind of company that McAloon really wanted to keep. ”I get filled with deep despair that it’s a thoughtful, wordy English music I’m lumped in with, when my own instincts are with something else.” McAloon’s heroes are those for whom music operates virtually as a vocation, something you could conveniently relate to a detail in his own biography (he studied in a Catholic seminary in County Durham, and considered becoming a priest). Number among them Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson. ”I have a strained relationship with Michael, and what interests me about him is probably extra-musical. But what he does with pop music seems to me to beat, say, writing to an audience of blue collar workers about the lives of blue collar workers. I’ve worked in a garage like any other rock and roller, but I don’t want someone telling me about that. I want someone to astonish me. So I tend to prefer the Michael Jackson aspiration to a kind of Disneyland of the Soul. So what if Prince is out of touch with the world, when he’s so clearly in touch with his music? There’s a capacity in him, or in Jackson, to astonish, to tip over the paintbox and come out with something you’ve never seen before.”
Converted into the practicalities of record production, these principles issue in a sequence of markedly shiny albums. Jordan the Comeback is the group’s third successive collaboration with Thomas Dolby, a producer who works from a sound-library of other-wordly squeaks and shimmers. ”People probably think I write the songs and Thomas Dolby tarts them up. Whereas the truth of the matter may well be that Thomas Dolby wants to de-tart them, and I want them tarted to the heavens. A sweet tooth, I’ve got.”
A furiously expensive tooth, too. The price of recording From Langley Park to Memphis was so steep that, despite its going platinum in this country, McAloon claims his personal wealth runs to no more than ”a small sum in a high interest building society account”. 19 tracks on the new album means value for money for anyone who buys it, but a lot of people will have to be tempted before the band pays off the fees from the year it took to record. ”But what the hell. I don’t want people to say, ‘It’s their 15th album, and they’re doing the Town & Country tonight’. I’d rather have it said, ‘He’s been at home for 16 years, writing the big one.’ ”