A Pop Survivor
Christmas came early this year, at least for those who love Prefab Sprout. The magnificently bearded Paddy McAloon, sole remaining band member and the pop world’s answer to Santa Claus with his sack full of music, has released his first album of new material for 13 years. The album Crimson / Red proves that he still has a lot left to give us. Astoundingly enough, the disc was created under great pressure from the record company, who had waited in vain for years for something new.
– I was working on something when they called and they said I’d missed the deadline by a long way. I felt pressured. If you listen to the album it might sound like I’m in a good mood, but in fact it was panic!
Paddy McAloon is talking to me on the phone from his home in Durham in North East England.
He went through his legendary archives of unreleased material in a rush, looking for songs that could easily be recorded on acoustic guitar and sequenced on the computer in his home studio, Andromeda Heights.
– I already had tapes with simple recordings of the songs, and I started from there.
– Yes. They don’t sound great but I’ve always recorded my demos on cassettes, because I don’t lose songs on cassettes, unlike digital recordings.
Was it hard to finish the old unfinished songs?
– On the contrary. The great thing about songs kept in a box for so many years is that you can quickly see what is right or wrong when you start working with them. I worked like an editor would, compiling a book.
Actually, this is nothing new. You had some songs in your repertoire long before the final recordings on all Prefab Sprout albums.
– Bonny and Faron Young were written between 1976 and 1977.
Perhaps a lesson for other songwriters – let the music rest a few years ?
– Absolutely. The only downside is if someone comes up with the same song title or song during the time… It happened to me several times.
Any example of that?
– Yeah, the band Elbow had a big hit with a song that I definitely had lying around at home.
The recordings of Crimson / Red took place in autumn 2012, but it never occurred to him to record with a full band again. His brother and former bassist Martin McAloon wasn’t involved.
– No, I can’t record with loud instruments because of my bad hearing. So I programmed the drums and played bass myself instead. I didn’t have time to involve Martin with the new songs but he was very understanding.
The 2000s have at times been a difficult time for Paddy McAloon. After complicated eye surgery came his next big setback – his right ear suffered sudden severe tinnitus.
– It was in June 2006, a disaster. Overnight, I heard terrible noises in my head. It went on for six months, then began to slowly disappear.
How did it affect you as a songwriter and musician?
– I couldn’t even think of music. The worst thing was that I could not sleep. Very scary but now it’s much better.
How’s the eyesight now?
– I recently had more problems, this time cataracts. But the fact is that I can see really well. The hard part is to focus the eyes, one moment at a distance and the next close to. Sometimes I need a magnifying glass.
The distance has also blurred memories of Prefab Sprout golden years in the 80’s.
– The 80’s was an adventure. But I was anxious, worried about having to constantly come up with new musical ideas, to surpass myself. Maybe I should have stayed out and enjoyed the success more?
After the MTV hits like “King of Rock and Roll” and records such as “Jordan: The Comeback” Paddy McAloon was hailed as a pop genius and the band played all over the world.
– But we never toured in the U.S., while we were comparing ourselves with the big bands that sold millions of records. Silly of us to think so.
He remembers a concert in Stockholm in 1990, attended by a younger yours truly…
– You were there? One of our best ever, everything came together then.
Flashbacks are recurring themes in Paddy McAloons lyrics. A good example is the fabulous gospel ballad “I Remember That” from 1987.
– The key to that is the way we comfort ourselves us with the memories of what we have done, rather than what we actually did. Nostalgia is the core of many of my songs, the yearning for a feeling you once experienced.
The contrast between the colorful visions, nostalgia and everyday gloom also echoes in Prefab Sprout’s at once melancholic and uplifting music. Take “Grief built the Taj Mahal” from the new album, where Paddy sings about the Indian Mughal emperor who built a huge mausoleum in honor of his deceased wife.
– Music, like few other art forms, has the capacity to express the bittersweet. A melody can accommodate both. And the melancholy feeling turned is into a strength when you write songs, it’s therapy for me. The music’s healing power is my purpose in life.
Not for nothing is he – like Burt Bacharach – a master at weaving the major 7 chord in music, somewhere between the minor and major, sad and happy.
– That kind of chord offers complex harmonic and melodic potential that I’ve always loved. It probably originated from French composers such as Debussy and Ravel. Bacharach was definitely a fan of them. Also I love the ambiguity they bring, it’s in my DNA.
He cites Paul McCartney as another role model.
– When I think that “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. He couldn’t believe it himself, an evergreen!
A new song, “Adolescence”, about the teenage emotional roller coasters, is addressed indirectly to Paddy McAloons own three daughters.
– Puberty is a time of uncertainty, I’ve probably put some messages in there. They’d rather listen to modern music that’s more accessible to them, but my eleven year old daughter has heard it. I tell them: “avoid doing what I describe in the song. Be who you are!”
Songs of Danny Galway is about American songwriter Jimmy Webb, who has meant a great deal to McAloon.
– Even as a small boy, I was very touched by his song “Witchita Lineman”, it’s still a classic, a gem. I later had the chance to perform with Jimmy Webb on a song, “Highwayman”. I was very nervous, because just prior to the concert he told me he had changed the chorus. I didn’t sing it very well but it was great to meet Webb. A very humble man. He compared himself with Brian Wilson but didn’t think he was as good. “Well”, I said, “You’re up there with him”.
Just like you, Paddy McAloon
– Oh. Many thanks. I’m completely overwhelmed by all the positive feedback I’ve received in recent weeks.
Finally, you have an impressive beard… What’s it like now?
– Haha, I simply stopped looking at myself in the mirror. Age is still not making me better looking The beard is actually even longer now than in the press photos.
Will you ever shave it ?
– Sure. Once it becomes too easy to recognize me again on the streets here in town, I’ll lose the beard.