Prefab Sprout emerged from out of the UK New Wave scene in the 1980s. Their first album, crafted from complex chords and convoluted melodies was highly acclaimed, including by Elvis Costello and John Peel, reaching the top 20 in the UK. Each successive work has brought us closer to the pinnacle of perfection, placing before our ears melodies which are nostalgic yet highly sophisticated, and which bring to mind names like Steely Dan and Burt Bacharach. In this special feature, I will attempt to discover the secret of outstanding songwriting, based on an interview with Paddy McAloon, the central figure of the band, who came to Japan at the end of last year.
Last December, Paddy McAloon unexpectedly came to Japan to promote the “best of” album, “38 Carat Collection”. I’d thought he was a one man band who would no longer come out from his studio, because Prefab Sprout has not been a real band for a long time. This is what I thought, but Paddy surprised us all. He showed an amazing motivation to return to activities as part of a band.
I wanted to look back on the career of Prefab Sprout, one of the most reclusive of the post New Wave British bands, and I wanted to discuss the secrets of Paddy’s creative process, which has earned him massive acclaim as a songwriter. This proposition was put to the interviewee, and a meeting was arranged.
I started by trying to check Paddy’s date of birth, and found out that I had been mistaken in my belief that he had been born in 1960 as was reported up until now.
“It’s June 7, 1957. In Japan I’ve been rejuvenated by three years (laughs). I’m 42 years old. I share a birthday with Prince and Tom Jones. Prince is one year younger than me. I was born very close to Newcastle in a town called Durham.”
Is your family Irish?
“No, if I go back to my parents’ ancestors my family might be of Irish descent, but it’s not a direct link. I think that the family “clan” comes from around the north-eastern part of Durham.”
I can’t pass over Paddy’s academic history: he went to a Catholic seminary. Not least because the elegance that fills his music and the religious aspects that infuse his lyrics seem to have been instilled in him during his school days. However because the UK educational system is completely different from Japan, it’s hard to get a real picture of student life. So I decided to ask him about his days in the seminary, looking back on high school education in the era in which he grew up.
“A seminary is a school for those who aim for the priesthood, and they can be considered as being quite similar to public schools. Public schools are different from those in the United States, they provide a private education. Although they’re called “public”, they’re not for the public. Public education in the UK is known as State education, these are general schools, like grammar schools. But there are no tuition fees any more, that system has been abolished now.”
Why is there no tuition fee even though it is a private school?
“If there is a child who is called to follow the path of God, the school expenses will be paid by the Church and parishioners where the child lives. In the year when I happened to be admitted it was not necessarily reserved for such children, but also for a general intake, so the parents of such students had to pay for tuition. The condition of enrolment is that they must come from a Catholic family background and have a leaning towards the Priesthood. In my case, my father used to teach mathematics at the school in the past and I went there because it was close to home. Until the age of 11 to 18, the classes are similar to ordinary schools. Clerical training was received only by students who decided to proceed further.”
Many young peoples’ films in UK and Europe are set in schools where the discipline is quite brutal. What was the seminary like?
“Although it was a boarding school, I moved to a private room when I was 14 or 15 years old. I was able to play guitar and I started writing songs. Because it was a seminary you can certainly say it was a special environment; although people say my records have strong religious imagery I don’t have a particularly strong faith. At the time I was a kid who was crazy about things like pop music and football. There was a private room in the dormitory where I was able to have piano lessons, and I sneaked my mother’s guitar into my luggage and brought it to the dormitory and played there. There was a member of staff in the dormitory, about 21 years of age, Jim O’Keefe, now a priest, who played the guitar so I launched myself at him and asked him questions. There were five or six students who had a guitar, but I was the most disappointed of all of them when he didn’t answer my questions.
“In the dormitory, listening to a radio was forbidden when you were between eleven and thirteen years old. But tapes recorded off the air circulated like in some sort of underground organisation. One time one of the priests told one of my friends, ‘This is good’, it was a tape of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. That was in 1970. We were allowed to play the guitar, but the radio was forbidden, probably because if you listened to pop music your eyes strayed too much towards the outside world and you’d have difficulty following God’s path I guess.”
I recalled that I’d heard that Lindisfarne came from Newcastle. A long while back they had some UK hits, like “Lady Eleanor” or “Meet Me On the Corner”, and after that worked as an excellent folk rock band with a strong local flavour. The main songwriter, Alan Hull, has already passed away, but he was an excellent songwriter in the Lennon & McCartney vein, with a great pop sensibility in his solo work. Paddy often cites Marc Bolan as being his idol as a young boy, but there was no reason not to also be influenced by the local band, Lindisfarne. I wondered how he regarded Alan Hull who was very similar in many respects as a songwriter.
“Lindisfarne? Oh I loved them when I was a kid, it was their songs that I began playing when I started out. I’ve met Alan Hull once. He is a great Lennon fan, and he has a natural sense of melody. His lyrics had a social conscience, that was also a bit scary. I told Alan how much I liked his songs and that I thought “Fog On the Tyne” (the second Lindisfarne album, released in 1971) is wonderful. Then he explained to me that it was the hit record of the year along with Neil Young’s “Harvest”. But although I hate to say this, they’ve become a bit of a joke. They’re too closely associated to the city of Newcastle, and they look a bit like a cabaret act. They’re very big locally so they can play live for 14 days at a big venue at Christmas, but they’ve become a band that has no meaning to the rest of the country in the UK. You’re the first person who’s ever asked me about them. I tend even to forget about them myself. I remember T Rex and David Bowie.”
The common factor between Paddy and Alan Hull is that both scatter beautiful melodies into the instrumental parts, that in other music is more usually driven along by a beat, and the creation of a beautiful piece of music is never something they are ashamed of. Even though the songs are mellow and with authentic melodies, by dint of elegance and an ambition to be enduring they avoid kitsch.
Although the songs from Prefab Sprout albums do seem to enter the top 20 when released as singles, the best songs don’t ever seem to reach the top of the UK charts. In the particular aesthetic appeal they have, I perceive a distinctive flavour not found in Liverpool or Manchester bands for example.
“Local flavour? I haven’t thought much about that myself. Melody is certainly my strength as a songwriter, and on the other hand rhythm is my weakest point (laughs). To be perfectly honest, I’ve been disappointed with Alan Hull’s recent work. But I think he’s a wonderful songwriter who won’t worry about not having my approval. I guess he’s one of the people originating from Newcastle who is the most overlooked. Everyone knows about Sting and Roxy Music, but Alan is forgotten. Well that’s maybe because Sting’s success has been from a long time ago up to quite recently.”
Paddy had decided to create a band called Prefab Sprout before he started full-scale musical activity. In fact it was a long time before be started music. What was it like to be a Prefabricated Sprout in his fantasies?
“It first came to mind in ’71-’72. Even before I had any songs I imagined playing in a band, and I made a cassette tape by myself. The first tape was a so-called avant-garde album, made in ’71; I made noises by connecting radio circuits to the tape recorder. I still have the tape. I gave it a horrible title and thought of it as an album (laughs). I kept going and made one more, and it was horrible, too (laughs). Anyway, I wanted to be a songwriter, so I was just putting strange words over chords and making tapes. I never even listened to them myself, I just thought I should fill 45 minutes of empty tape up with sound, and that’s what I did. Kind of like a kid playing around. You know, I’ve never told anyone about this kind of stuff before (laughs).”
But it’s an interesting episode. On the eve of the interview I re-listened to all Prefab Sprout’s albums and I felt that here was a man who is making music to paint a picture. I can easily imagine the picture of a boy who was involved in making his tapes, and this honest passion of wanting to make music has remained constant to this day.
“Yeah, my approach to music making is definitely similar to painting, and I like that way of thinking. I realise I don’t have any particular musical background. Of course you can write songs bar by bar, but I’d like to capture the entire work like in a story, a painting or a movie. Because it’s quite easy to understand what is happening with music if you don’t explain it with musical jargon. You don’t have to bother using technical terms to explain the story of a movie. After having experimented with a tape recorder and noise, I began making tapes with my brother Martin around 1977. At first it was impromptu jam sessions, but at least there were two people beginning to play instruments. Meanwhile I began to be able gradually to play songs and we started to play as a three piece with a friend who bought a cheap drum kit. I wrote the songs and listened to them, and when I finished a good song, or one or two good songs, it encouraged me to write the next one as if we were a real group. The drummer, Michael Salmon, had never hit a drum before so he was terrible, but we still brought instruments to the garage and performed. That time is perhaps the era I still find the most exciting.”
In fact you were a band based on original songs right from the beginning, but usually young peoples’ bands start by copying someone else. Did you cover any songs that might indicate Prefab Sprout’s roots?
“I don’t remember the band copying anything – actually I recorded a Jim Reeves song later – because no one was able to play well enough to copy anything. But when I was writing a song I was convinced I was Marc Bolan. . Of course, I did some other songs, and I still have the tapes of those days, but when I listen to them it’s strange that they sound like nothing more than a very early Prefab Sprout.
“In 1977 we didn’t like New Wave. I liked Steely Dan and David Bowie. My musical knowledge was zero but my interests were refined. ‘Steve McQueen’ is an album from 1985 but we were playing most of the songs, like ‘Bonnie’ and ‘Johnny Johnny’ in ’77.
“Just imagine a band that still isn’t that good, but the sound is loud as hell. Wendy Smith wasn’t there yet, so we were a far cry from the Prefab image of ‘soft and angelic’ (laughs). I stuck my vocal mic into a guitar amp and shouted at the top of my lungs. In terms of a three-piece band, I don’t really want to compare, but we might have been close to The Jam.”
In August 1982, Prefab Sprout released “Lions In My Own Garden” on the independent “Candle Records” label. This caught the attention of Keith Armstrong, manager of the biggest indie label in Newcastle, Kitchenware records, who had a unique strategy of signing distribution contracts with major labels for each group. The following year, 1983, “Lions” was re-released on Kitchenware, then Prefab Sprout, now including Wendy Smith, released their second single, “The Devil Has All the Best Tunes” and started working on their first album, “Swoon”. At this time Michael Salmon withdrew from the band and responsibility for the drums was passed to the supporting musician Graham Lant. After hearing Prefab on DJ John Peel’s show, Elvis Costello chose the band to be the opening act on his Christmas tour. And Costello did the band the honour of covering “Cruel”.
Kitchenware were successful in selling Prefab Sprout to CBS. Swoon was released in March 1984, and the album entered the UK top 20. I bought it at the time it went on sale, but although there were some good songs I didn’t find it was completely convincing album. New Wave had completely settled down, and a bunch of neo-acoustic bands who were placing pop melodies and refreshing sounds into the foreground came out into centre stage on the scene, but I didn’t think that Prefab Sprout were particularly amazing. Many of the songs, in trying to use sophisticated chords, distorted the melody, and Paddy’s vocals were poor at times. It was the kind of thing that’s often heard in this stage of a band’s development, but it was also obvious that there was something unique that wasn’t found in other bands at the time. So I bought “Steve McQueen” soon after it was released in June 1985. The jacket that recalled the title and a scene in the move “The Great Escape” was wonderful and very cool, and it was easy to perceive that the sound had changed drastically. The critical point was the arrival of Thomas Dolby as producer.
It was clear that Paddy was very influenced by Steely Dan, but Dolby’s production which introduced more space succeeded in blending Steely Dan’s cool texture with Newcastle’s neo-acoustic band. But what was more surprising was Paddy’s growth as a songwriter. Having a settled drummer in Neil Conti was another reason for the success of the album, but the song-writing was a determining factor. Since this album, Paddy has become in my estimation one of the most notable song-writers.
“I got hooked on Steely Dan because Michael’s older sister’s boyfriend bought ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’ and I heard it. Of course I wasn’t able to reproduce it, but I tried to get the texture. By feeling around on the guitar fretboard I found a sound I thought was nice. I’d never heard terms like ‘Diminished’ or ‘Flat 5th‘ but I found the chords in my own way.”
Steely Dan is a group that makes great sounds, but they make that sound by gathering together leading session musicians. You can make music like that if you have good musicians and musical knowledge, which obviously wasn’t the case with Prefab Sprout.
“In my case, I was like a monkey trying to type (laughs). I almost think if you knew how I made music, you’d enjoy my music better. For example, Captain Beefheart’s music is very eccentric. His music was built on his band members copying the weird shapes and patterns he drew, but he himself didn’t understand what he was drawing. But after hearing the band playing hundreds and hundreds of times, it starts to make a kind of sense. I used to write songs like that as well. When I worked with Thomas Dolby and when he talked about things like ‘the first three bars,’ I always got worried about whether I was counting the bars correctly. There was a big change between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Steve McQueen’. That’s when I started composing songs on the keyboard. I knew nothing about the guitar, but even less how to play the keyboard. Thomas told me once, ‘Paddy’s songs are all 10 finger chords.’ And he taught me how I could play without using all my fingers. But once I understood the keyboard, I reverted to writing songs the routine way. Whenever I listen to my old songs, I’m struck by how original they are and how I can’t write songs like that any more. I might be able to write better songs now, but I can’t be as wild as I was then.”
Prefab Sprout recorded an album that would later be released as “Protest Songs” in the course of just two weeks immediately following the release of “Steve McQueen” with Thomas Dolby’s distinctive sound. What are Paddy’s thoughts about this album, which was also said to have been a reaction to that production style?
“There were a couple of reasons for making that record, one was to create an album that was less controlled than ‘Steve McQueen’. Another reason was that I wanted to make something quickly and release it so I wouldn’t have to bear the weight of expectation following ‘Steve McQueen’. ‘Steve McQueen’ was a good record, and even if I wasn’t great, Thomas was. So I knew it would absolutely not be easy to make a record to follow it. However ‘Protest Songs’ wasn’t released, it was finally put out in 1989, so my strategy was wrecked. If we did the same thing today we’d have put ‘Protest Songs’ onto the shelf and maybe release some songs as B sides, but that was unthinkable to me at the time. I felt I wrote interesting songs and that people should listen to all of the songs I’d written properly (laughs).”
“From Langley Park to Memphis”, released in March, 1988, would become their first album to enter the top five of the UK Albums Chart. It is a work where Paddy’s richness as a songwriter, which can be seen to have taken the opportunity of “Steve McQueen” to begin aiming for mainstream pop, becomes assured. However, beyond the sophisticated pop sounds of the finest quality, a rugged, rocky surface can also be seen through a shroud of mist. It is from here on that Prefab, which has firmly remained in an area of “rock” on the verge of becoming soft, becomes the only one of its kind.
“‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ are two songs I wrote immediately after ‘Steve McQueen’. ‘Steve McQueen’ is a wonderful work, but when I listen to it now it seems very serious. I wrote ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ in five minutes because I wanted to do a fun song, and ‘Cars and Girls’ was written as a pastiche of Bruce Springsteen. I thought I’d like to do a whole album like those two songs. I’d spent three months with Thomas Dolby and I was familiar with his approach, so when I began working on new songs I also found it natural that ‘Thomas will do this’.
“‘Sophisticated but with a rocky surface’ is really because it’s difficult to appreciate new styles of the music at my age. I can never forget the influence the music I was listening to when I was a teenager and started writing songs had on me. So my music has no influence from hip hop or rap. Something like ‘Wild Horses’ might be a Prefab style of hip hop I suppose. When you place an emphasis on melody and lyrics, you have to leave a lot of space so they can breathe freely and go where they want to go. When using dance rhythms, you have short pieces of melody playing against each other, but I like leaving the melody free to fly, so I definitely want to do a different sort of song from what is fashionable this week.”
There’s no doubt that “Jordan: the Comeback”, released in August 1990, is Prefab Sprout’s masterpiece. Just like “Steve McQueen”, “Bonny”, “Nancy” and so on that have appeared so far, there are a lot of proper names in this album. It uses the names of individuals symbolically and the work gains real depth from the world view such associations bring.
“If you use the name of Elvis Presley, everyone can instantly understand the feeling I want to express. The construction of the songs is similar to what happens in a novel where there are no restrictions. James Joyce used Greek mythology to underpin ‘Ulysses’ but he also wrote about Dublin, which was a familiar place to him. In my own way I wrote a little song about the Devil begging to be let back into Heaven, but without forgetting the lightness of pop music. I don’t think there’s anyone in the UK who completely understands the content of my lyrics.”
Following the conclusion of the 1990 tour that took place in conjunction with the release of “Jordan”, Prefab Sprout stopped playing live. After that Paddy continued to make songs in the studio, just as Brian Wilson had. In May 1997, when “Andromeda Heights” was released as the first album for seven years, I reviewed it in a magazine as “A very good album, but maybe a little over-worked. Is Paddy (in a bad way) wanting to become Brian?”.
Because Paddy used the name of his newly constructed studio as the album title, and because there was more of a hint of a secret room or magic garden about it, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that impressed with the quality of the sound.
“It’s a studio made to make recording less expensive, but I do my actual work in a small room, and I haven’t used it much (laughs). I bought a mixing desk for the next album, but I finished the album before I put it together, and so it’s just sitting there (laughs). For “Andromeda…” the engineers brought in their own recording equipment, so even though it’s a studio there’s no tape recorder. What it does have is a mixing desk, a grand piano, and fantastic lighting (laughs). I had to make “Andromeda Heights” twice. First I made a demo in a small room at my mother’s house, then I moved into a studio and reconstructed it with real musicians and a computer. Many musicians believe that spontaneity is wonderful, so the world is full of people who make rough spontaneous records. What I thought was ‘let’s make a record where the word of the songwriter is the law’, like a classical composition, tightly controlled. Sometimes people say that that doesn’t breathe, it isn’t rock’n’roll, but because I’m at the opposite end of what everyone else is doing, it’s quite the contrary: I’m breathing deeply. The problem with ‘Andromeda Heights’ as I see it is that the drum sound isn’t a real drummer playing. That’s why it’s lacking energy. I discussed it with the drummer and programmed it with real drum sounds, but it’s not the same as someone really playing in the same room.”
In Spring this year, Prefab Sprout will play their first British gigs for nearly 10 years. Is the reason that Paddy is resuming live activity – which he himself says is not his forte – perhaps because he wants to play in a band again, to regain the energy and wildness he remarks on in this interview? I can foresee the day when an album even better than “Jordan: the Comeback” is coming closer.
(Sony Music Shirokanedai, 18th December 1999)