Thin and slightly frail, Paddy McAloon sits before me on a hotel bed, staring up through his cheap spectacles, listening as I ask him on what he bases his conviction that his songs are so good. “I just know,” he insists, twisting his fingers together, clearly uncertain how far to lay his cards on the table. Finally, he proceeds. He speaks not with arrogance but with the bewildered confidence of someone who is sure they are stating the obvious:
“You can print this if you want but it’ll sound really odd,” he apologises, before getting to the point. “l know I’m probably the best writer on the planet. Seriously. Seriously – l just know it! No-one even knows half the things I’ve written. But l know I’m really good because I’ve compared myself with the great songwriters – Prince (‘Little Red Corvette’), Lennon & McCartney, Bacharach, Richard Rogers, Gershwin, even people like Chic – they don’t write words to interest sociology students but the music does it all.
” It’s an awful thing to say and l never ever say it to anyone,” he continues, “but l know that on my day . . . who are my rivals?”
A silence follows – one that l decline to fill. Partly because I’m struck dumb by the boldness of Paddy’s assertions, plainly inspired not by horrible competitive rock’n’roll bragging but by sincere conviction; partly because l don’t have any rival names I’d dare suggest. Laugh now, but I’m not sure that one day Paddy won’t be included in the prestigious list he just unveiled.
“Laugh now,” l said, because l know many of you will. “Prefab Sprout!” jeered incredulous friends and ex-friends when l told them l was to meet Paddy. Few bands can inspire such instant vitriol as Prefab Sprout – condemned as too clever-clever for the pop kids, too wimpy for the alternative scene and too ridiculously named for either.
“I quite like the idea of people in an office block hating us,” says Paddy putting a brave face on it. He relishes the challenge. “I’m going to destroy that,” he claims, “The one thing that does away with any worry l have about being categorised is that one day l will sell a lot of records.”
By then, hopefully, people will be used to the name, much as they’ve got used to other terrible names of our time (e.g. the Jam, Echo and the Bunnymen). “If I saw a band called Prefab Sprout,” admits Paddy, “I’d probably hate them and not want to give them a chance. But l just kept it because l picked it when l was a kid.”
But what about the story you always tell – that you got it from mishearing a line from some famous old song?
“Oh, that story,” he replies. “It’s a ‘funny’ story for radio. You can’t go all earnest with them and tell them how you were at 14. The name means absolutely nothing. All the bands then had heavyweight names which meant nothing – at the time l thought profundity lay in slapping two separate words together.”
Paddy was brought up in a small village near Newcastle near his dad’s petrol station. At school, he “was always kicked out of music and had to read the books on football with those who couldn’t sing” but eventually, he succumbed first to the charms of “my first hero, Marc Bolan” then to “David Bowie and lots of excessive bands who l won’t even mention”. Soon young Paddy had formed a band himself.
“l used to work in the petrol station,” he reminisces, “After work, we’d go across the road and play. We were literally a garage band.
“We were so arrogant then,” he laughs. “Much more so than now. l wouldn’t play in pubs – l was damned if l was going to play in front of people who were drinking beer! I wasn’t going to be just a jukebox.”
“It’s one of the greatest sadnesses of my life that we had a working band in 1978 . . .” he sighs, his voice trailing off into silent recollections. Even back in those days their set included ‘Bonny’, ‘Faron Young’ and ‘Goodbye Lucille No. 1’ – all songs off their new 1985 LP, ‘Steve McQueen’ – but few people seemed to listen. The few who did included Dave and Martin from the Kane Gang and then finally Keith and Paul from Kitchenware Records who quietly released their mysterious first single, ‘Lions ln My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’. “I’m scared because I’ve found something to lose,” screamed Paddy over a complicated but beguiling tune that the critics enjoyed likening to Steely Dan. It was only a taste.
‘The Devil Has All the Best Tunes’ followed, an intricate web of melodies and voices, but it was with the ‘Swoon’ LP that they finally came of age. Inside the gatefold, Paddy was pictured (with the other members – his brother Martin and Wendy Smith) in clean-shaven serene monochrome; on the record he immortalised himself in brilliant tongue-twisting love-knots of music and words. Elvis Costello praised ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’, and ‘Cruel’s account of the perils inherent in expressing a male desire that isn’t oppressive: “If I’m troubled by every folding of your skirt/ am I guilty of every male-inflicted hurt?/ But I don’t know how to describe the Modern Rose/ when I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes/ with the fever of purple prose.” Most people however just ignored it all, or pronounced it too complex and contrived.
And now it’s ‘Steve McQueen’s turn. Produced by Thomas Dolby, it is even better than ‘Swoon’ but, nevertheless, its prospects for massive success seem poor – its best single, ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (perhaps last year’s best song) has already failed twice in the singles chart. It’s obvious talking to him that Paddy is mystified by this, though he talks enthusiastically about how the new single’s up-tempo guitar-pickin’ sound may at least shake off the rather derisive “quality music, subtle, takes a few listens” tag they seem to be lumbered with.
It’s called ‘Faron Young’ and is apparently, according to CBS, “lyrically obscure”. “They think it won’t get through to Sun readers,” explains Paddy shaking his head as we consider whether anything could be more obscure than a typical Duran Duran lyric – l mean, what were ‘Union Of the Snake’ and ‘The Wild Boys’ about? “And my lyrics actually do mean something,” smiles Paddy.
‘Faron Young’ actually seems to be about how all the borrowed culture with which we fill our lives can be seen as inappropriate, even alienating, and can strip us of “what it takes to be honest”.
“Faron Young’s a country and western singer – I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him,” explains Paddy. “He had a massive hit back in T974, 1975- ‘Four ln The Morning’. l was trying to picture country music – supposedly a people’s music – having relevance to someone who has to work in a city, a factory, a petrol station, an office. I figured it was a kind of inadequate music, another American thing that we’ve taken over – that it wasn’t really reflecting people’s desires, their needs today. The other things in the song – they’re things-that are irrelevant too.”
“you offer infra-red instead of sun/ you offer bubblegum/ you give me Faron Young, ‘Four In The Morning’”
Beneath his beard, Paddy smiles awkwardly; the layer of bristles helps hide his expressions from the outside world. Which is, l think, how he wants it. Though he chats effortlessly, endlessly and fascinatingly through numerous topics, some irrelevantly diverse, some undisclosably private, he claims to loathe the publicity machine. He is, he emphasises, a writer – he wants people to know his songs, not his soul. “When I’m not writing, I feel dead,” he explains. “I only came down to London this afternoon and I already wish I’d brought a guitar or keyboard with me. If it’s over two or three days, it becomes a nightmare. I’m oversensitive to time.”
So is writing everything? ls that all his life revolves around? ls there nothing else? What about a social life – families, kids, marriage?
“l don’t know,” he muses. “Maybe one day I’d like to get married.” But then he shakes his head. “I’m very, very, very selfish. If I’m not writing, l go to pieces. There was a time a few years ago when l thought I’d be ready to get married. l was properly set for it and then l suddenly realised how important what l do is – and how l would either end up messing people up or give up on writing music.”
l say nothing, but he answers my silent question: “l think, though, to be a fulfilled human being, there’s got to be more than what l do. l know that what I’m doing isn’t really right. But I’m just trying to prove that l can do something really really good.”
Paddy’s lifestyle suggests he’s a typical obsessed artist who is continually striving above all else to further his art. Which makes me worry. After all, don’t the life ‘stories of nearly all great artists read like horror stories when it comes to their personal relationships, their personal satisfactions – is this what Paddy (whether or not his ‘art’ is ‘great’) is like? ls the man in front of me really just the mild, sensitive, intelligent person he appears in conversation or does he also turn into a woman-beating, drug-abusing, screwed-up criminal wreck in his private moments? It’s frightening to realise that l can’t be sure. So many others who’ve proved highly sensitive to emotions in their work later turn out, in the dirt-digging biographies that inevitably appear, to have actually been some of the biggest bastards in existence. Could Paddy be at all like this, I tentatively enquire?
“l write not as l am but as I’d like to be,” he answers honestly. “If someone were to write about me and say ‘yeah, well for all the noble things he expressed in his songs, when he came down to it, he was incredibly selfish’ l would say ‘yeah, that’s true’. There’s no doubt about it.
“I may be painting a really black picture but l write about what l aspire to. I think that’s like most people.”
So why doesn’t he stop all this “aspiring” in his writing, put down his guitar and notepad and get on with sorting these things out in real life?
He answers hesitantly. “Because . . . the thing is . . . what makes most meaning out of my life is . . . being good at something. And there’s no way to become good unless . . . l know I’m a slow learner. There’s no way l personally could be some sort of whizz-kid who intermittently wrote and was an all-round great human being the rest of the time. For me to become really good, I’m going to have to devote a tremendous amount of time to it.”
“Words are trains for moving past what really has no name.”
“What l would really like for our music,” he sighs one last time, “is for me to be really really arrogant about it. But not arrogant in the sense where l have to sit round saying ‘ I’m the best writer on the planet’ or some mega-claim. I would rather have the arrogance of being totally silent.”