I gotta thank Prefab Sprout for one thing. I was in this record store in downtown Manhattan early one Friday evening looking for a copy of their second album, Two Wheels Good. because I had promised the editor I’d do a story on the band and I didn’t own any of their records. The store didn’t have it. so I headed up towards Tower Records and on my way decided to buzz by the building where Keith Richards lives, as I always do when I’m in the neighborhood, just in case. I had already passed the building. It’s got a really nice foyer – when out of the corner of my eye I saw a small commotion around the doorway. Fuckin’ a: it was Keith. I nealy shat. I ran back and pressed my nose against the foyer glass: he was boppin’ across the floor with a lopey, rolling gait, wearing a black suit and big purple sunglasses. and his hair was pushed up in every direction just like in all those pictures. He was with his wife Patti. They got on the elevator. The elevator door closed. That was it. Bye.
I found my way into Tower shortly thereafter. They didn’t stock the Prefab Sprout record either. ll didn’t matter.
The other thing I have to thank Prefab Sprout for is that Paddy McAloon, their singer and songwriter, is one hell of a nice guy. at least to interview. I met him uptown at the offices of his record company; he wore a voluminous white suit and tortoise-shell specs. and he was smoking a cigar. In fact, the first thing he did was autograph the copy of their new record. From Langley Park to Memphis. which the record company so graciously provided for a friend of mine whose birthday was approaching and who was a huge Sprout fan.
Paddy explains that he likes doing things like that and as a matter of fact. his brother Martin. who serves as Prefab Sprout’s bassist. recently married and received as a wedding gift the sheet music for “Alfie.” autographed by Burt Bachrach. Not only that. he continues. when they were in the studio recording a song called “Nightingales” for the new album. Stevie Wonder joined the band to add a harmonica solo onto the track. “My brother said to Stevie Wonder. ‘Can I play Alfie with you?‘ Stevie said. ‘Okay.’ and they played a duet!” Paddy recalls. “So his life’s complete.”
Wow. I replied. before asking if Burt Bachrach had been a big influence for Prefab Sprout.
“He wrote very brilliant. adventurous pop songs.” describes Paddy. “I realize he made what you would call ‘smooth music.’ it’s not rock music. Whereas I still think what we do is rock—I don’t know the distinction in this country. You speak of different things as ‘rock’ and ‘pop.’ I sort of blur them together.” Paddy. like Keith Richards. is an English pop star; but unlike Richards. Paddy still lives in England. From Langley Park to Memphis was recorded in London and Los Angeles. and was produced, in part, by Thomas Dolby. Dolby manages to infuse McAloon’s Bachrach fixation with a modern sheen—Langley Park is filled with broadly melodic, high-gloss pop. The first time I listened to it I gave up halfway through the second song and threw on Between the Buttons. because drums that don’t sound like drums kinda freak me out.
“The sound on this record,” Paddy explains. “is my idea of paying strict attention to the songs and in some cases. forgetting about being a band. It’s less of a band album than. say. the last album was. We all play on it. but the emphasis is purely on the songs. I don’t play on certain songs; instead I’ve got the music arranged just the way I want it. Now that makes you unusual compared to a lot of people. like say R.E.M. or the Rolling Stones which are band bands.”
In the beginning. Though, Prefab Sprout was a band band. Paddy and Martin founded the enterprise around 1980 in their hometown near Newcastle, England. though Paddy had been writing songs (and darn good ones I might add) as early as 1976 or 1977. As a trio, with vocalist Wendy Smith. the group recorded a single for U.K. indie Kitchenware in 1983 called “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Somewhere)“. By the next year. they had been joined by a permanent drummer (Neil Conti) and recorded their debut album. Swoon.
“Do you know Swoon. our first album?” Paddy inquires politely. I do: I had been lucky enough to come across it, on one of my post-Richards forays through New York City record stores in search of Prefab Sprout records. in a used bin, tremendously overpriced and marked in great white letters OUT OF PRINT. “I’m glad.” smiles Paddy. “Lots of people don’t. That is a more unusual record, in the sense that the song shapes and song structures are more unusual.” It’s actually a quite beautiful record. spread with colorful, impressionistic lyrics sung in Paddy’s naive, soulful voice. The jumpy. playful melodies are fenced in by acoustic guitars and light piano arrangements that brought frequent comparisons to Aztec Camera.
“The songs I wrote on Swoon were all written on acoustic guitar I’ve abandoned that slightly.” Paddy offers. choosing “Venus Of The Soup Kitchen” from the Langley Park album. as an example. “What I’ve tried to do here is take some of my favorite elements, things I’ve come to over the past couple of years. One is a broad. longer sense of melody. So you think. okay. it’s a big tune, you want big voices, It’d be good to have a gospel choir!” Paddy chose the Andrae Crouch singers.
“Because the intention of the song is that it should be a modern idea of gospel music, which I realize has nothing to do with gospel as it is. but it’s a song about being down and out, feeling on the edge of things. But a big melody also suggests Broadway. and yeah. I like Broadway as well. So the overall effect is that people who maybe in the past would think. ‘Oh. yeah, Prefab Sprout. a lot of guitars going on there, ‘ now think. ‘Oh. this is slightly different.‘ Which in some cases is difficult for people to take. and in other cases you reach people. they might be seduced by the overall glamour and romanticism of the song.”
In the song “Cars and Girls,” however. Paddy tries to destructure romanticism by dissecting the romantic imagery commonly used by, say, Bruce Springsteen. The cover an on the British 12″ for the song shows a matchstick figure in torn jeans and a white T-shirt, holding a Fender Telecaster. its sulfur head spurting into flames. “The artwork was a continuation of the cheekiness of the song.” explained Paddy. “which was to take a look at Springsteen’s main metaphor, which is life’s journey. ‘Baby we were born to run.‘ I’ve pretended to be someone who’s heard his songs and doesn’t get it: what are you singing about a bike for. a girl on the back of the bike? I don’t know any girls. I don’t have a bike.” Ironically. on the cover shot of Two Wheels Good. Paddy sits on a motorcycle in front of singer Wendy Smith.
“It’s a deliberate misinterpretation.” Paddy continues. “l wanted to say. listen. life is too hard and too big an issue for any metaphor to contain.”
The night before the interview I still hadn’t had any luck securing a copy of Two Wheels Good. so I hit yet another record store, where I found the import matchstick “Cars and Girls” 12″, as well as a 12″ for “Faron Young,” the single off Two Wheels Good (titled Steve McQueen in the U.K.). Both were tremendously overpriced. so I picked up a copy of Beggars Banquet to compensate.
I don’t know what it is with the Stones fixation. I never really got into them as a kid. I just keep thinking there’s something missing from pop music today. Anyway. on the B-side of “Cars and Girls.” neatly tucked away for people with an irrational fear of modern production was “Nero the Zero,” a meaty session leftover laden with heavy electric chords and chiming six-strings. The melody was straightforward and propped up with an ounce of melancholy; in the background hummed a wise harmonica refrain, like a teenager looking down on the follies of society. I played it five times over, it nailed me in the heart, and I told Paddy so.
“It’s lovely that you should pick up on that,” says Paddy with so much sincerity I felt like squirming. “It’s one we used to play live when we played in tiny pubs in Durham, where we come from. We went into a local studio in Newcastle for a couple of days and banged down six songs real quick, pretty much live, with a few embellishments. I wrote ‘Nero the Zero‘ when I was 18 or 19, and it has a funny lyric, actually about playing in Durham.” Indeed, the chorus ends. But don’t you worry / In Durham County / What you’re really feeling / You’ll soon forget. “
“You know what it is,“ he ponders. “l‘m 31, and I went through that, and I like it, but I suppose with the intervening years I’ve changed in what I want to do. But I still like to go back to that. A lot of songs that I wrote, what I know some people think are some of my best things, I was 19. I was 20. I’m pleased that they still hold up and that people like them, but then I had the feeling of ‘I wish I was better.’ And I now think I am better. no matter what people think of the new songs compared to the old ones. But I still feel I’m not doing what I want to do. And that’s healthy. I still feel I’m in the early days as a writer.”