“Thank you. Costello.” he said, as the shambling but somehow familiar figure left the room Later. I was to learn how this same Costello, once a popular entertainer in the music hails, had praised Mr McAloon’s admirable trio (now quartet), the Prefab Sprout, in their earliest strivings. McAloon. a kindly man, had found a place for the sad old figure in his dotage, after watching him make an embarrassment of himself in a public place. il believe he called it the Terry Wogan show.)
“Tell me about your instruments.” l began, but the look of dismay was enough to tell me that Mr McAloon did not consider such trifles a suitable topic for two gentlemen of scholarly inclinations to discuss l advised him that the periodical which your scribe represents has been known to take an interest in musical equipment.
He came back “l can’t understand it, you do a lot of reviews on all these sequencers and what have you and what is really needed is some sort of editorial comment on the uses to which these things are being put.
“It sounds a bit schoolmasterly,“ said Mr McAloon, his gown flapping around him as he rose to his feet and began pacing, the better to ponder the question “But if you’ve got somebody who’s 15 years old in a band, and he’s wondering what kind of effects to get. it might be worth pointing out that effects in themselves . . . ”
l saw him groping for words, and suggested. “Can’t perform miracles?” Evidently that was not Quite what he had in mind. He pursued a different line of thought “If the day comes that they actually go into a studio, they’ll find plenty of people to advise them, not try and sell them this, that and the other. You would be much better off actually learning how to write a song, or working out how to criticise some of the records that you like yourself.” he confided.
Indeed, learning seems to come very close to the heart of things for Paddy, who says that he invited me to his baronial hall on the moors above Durham Cathedral because he wanted to speak about the “aesthetics” of music and not its technicalities, which he compares with asking, say, Graham Greene about his biro.
For there are many, gentle reader, who believe that with the 11 songs composed for his group’s second Long Playing collection “Steve McQueen”. Mr McAloon has taken on the task of resurrecting such valuable skills as song-writing and arrangement. There are those in the public prints who speak of his compositions in the same light as those of McCartney. Brian Wilson, the aforementioned Mr Costello and, strangely, Steely Dan.
“I’ve got a couple of Steely Dan albums.” he admitted, adding, “but I’ve got all of Led Zeppelin’s.“
Nobody ever mentions that, I thought, before pushing my host to tell me more of his own preferences, which veer recklessly towards the more classic names in musical history. or so I had read.
“I thought I’d throw what I hoped would be a few spanners in the works by mentioning Stephen Sondheim, hoping that other songwriters would check out someone in a different field of writing who wasn’t going to be hampered by bloody rhyming couplets of maybe/baby, you know, the whole boring disco plodding schtick.
“So I mentioned these and now I’m labelled as the Tin Pan Alley man.” he protests.
In fact his real favourites come a little earlier, with names like Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel prominent.
“All these great people, the music was of worth, and had sociological relevance without them having to say ‘Look, I’m a working class hero’ about it. Anybody who has to strive for that is out of the window as far as I can see,” said Mr McAloon, adding that for his last birthday (27th) he was given by singer Wendy Smith a complete set of Stravinsky recordings (also on CBS), running to 32 albums. Now Patrick is spending his evenings delving into the nether regions of late Stravinsky, trying works like “Agon” that hardly anyone but the composer has ever heard.
But it would be wrong to make Mr McAloon into some kind of musical egghead. Walter Becker he is not: indeed, he does not read or write notation as yet, though he is struggling towards it. A struggle made worse, l would add, by his poor eyesight.
Nor is he a supreme instrumental technician.
He plays most of the guitar on the “Steve McQueen” album. “l usually play it because I’ve written it,” he says. “I’m not particularly happy about my guitar playing because I’m not as fluent as l should be. I’m a very, very slow learner. If I can sit at home and work out an elaborate part, I can learn to play it, no bother.
“But in the studio, Thomas would suggest something to me and it would take me an awful lot of time to digest it. But my brother, who’s used to having instructions through the years, he will remember something quickly,” he said, before I stopped him to ask about this “Thomas”.
It seems he was speaking of Thomas Dolby, Master of Science, the man who took the always interesting but somewhat unfocussed Sprout sound as heard on the first record, “Swoon”, and conjured up the infinitely seductive sound we hear on “Steve McQueen”.
McAloon continued, “I’m used to saying, ‘This is the song, this is how it goes,‘ but to have somebody else say to me,‘ ‘Yes, it’s your song, but I think you ought to do this to make it better,‘ I find it very difficult. So I was a bit of a slow student in the studio. And I got a bit depressed by it.”
On the earlier “Swoon”, Paddy, a self-proclaimed non-player of the piano, played all the piano parts. This time round he played “the bones of it”, while Mr Dolby played “the virtuoso things, the embellishments”. McAloon has no complaints about the synthesiser wizard and his appliance of science.
“l think he kind of went along with that because in America it was, ‘For God’s sake, what else are you going to do, to do your Canute act against the tide of Pat Benetarism?’ You do something to get yourself on the radio, I can understand that,” he laughed.
In fact, it’s as a master musician rather than the clichéd mad scientist that McAloon pictures Thomas Dolby. “He’s an all-rounder. I think he’s about 26 or 27. . .I tend to think of him as a junior Quincy Jones. I can picture him at 60 with a wealth of experience.
“Thomas did the main bulk of the keyboards. He even did a brilliant banjo impersonation on the opening track (‘Faron Young’) on the Fairlight. Unlike a lot of people, if he’s going to imitate it with the Fairlight he will make it play like a banjo player would play it, with the style of the picking,” he said.
Then there’s Thomas’s arranging skill, very prominent on this cunningly organised album. “I write very chordal things and he’ll look at my hands spread across the piano and he’ll say, ‘We can do without that, you’re duplicating that.’ And he can do that with guitar parts. I would play an open chord quite high up by the 12th fret and he would say, ‘Only play the bottom three strings. I’ll play the top three on another instrument.’ It’s just a revelation to me, splitting the six strings over two} or three instruments.”
But he doesn’t stop at pitched instruments. “He’s also marvellous at thinking of a rhythm track to complement the melody and interlock with the bass line. On one of the songs, ‘Appetite’, the bass and drums are locked together in a beautiful pattern underneath and that’s mainly Thomas’s work.”
The multi-faceted Mr Dolby also sorted out Paddy’s voice, to the evident satisfaction of all parties. On “Swoon”, the combination of haste, unsympathetic vocal production and what McAloon admits was “ornate, or perhaps verbose” writing left things sounding too murky by half. Dolby pulled the McAloon voice out from the dark Mike McDonald-isms he was indulging in and left him loud, clear and straightforwardly passionate.
“Overall, it’s maybe more comfortable. Listening to it l don’t cringe, whereas with ‘Swoon’, if I was to put that record on, my head would be under the seat with embarrassment,” confessed our host.
The clear critical success of “Steve McQueen” has placed some unspoken pressure on the Sprouts to take more of Mr Dolby’s direction in future. They will resist, they say, even if his magical skills help them to a hit single (which remains to be seen as l write). “I would love to work with Thomas Dolby any day of the year, but wouldn’t it be more refreshing to go away, give it two or three years, do something else and then maybe. . .come back and try it again?” he pondered.
I made a parting quip about the group’s ridiculous name. “It’s the sort of name that people feel uncomfortable about asking for at the Woolworth counter,” I said.
“We haven’t helped ourselves with the name, I know,” said Paddy. “But I’m a bit puzzled that so much has been made of it, because I think a lot of bands have ridiculous names. I think Frankie Goes to Hollywood is quite strange as a name.”
I stood up to leave and saw, on the wall behind Mr McAloon, some kind of framed document. It was a reply to a letter from Patrick to Karlheinz Stockhausen, written when Mr McAloon was 17.
“I wrote when I was at school. I was writing songs and I wrote this stupid letter to him. It said, ‘Dear Mr Stockhausen, do you write your material at the piano?’ And anybody with any acquaintance with Stockhausen would know that, Jesus, you don’t write something like ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’ or whatever on a piano. I found his I address in ‘Who’s Who’ in Wigan library, I sent it to Cologne, and I got this thing shortly after Christmas. It was like a photocopy of the first page of a score.
“And he’d signed it, I think it was himself because I’ve seen his writing on other things since, ‘Cordially for Patrick McAIoor’. He couldn’t read my name,” added Paddy by way of explanation.
We shook hands and parted. As I walked along the hallway behind Costello I heard in an upstairs room the gentle tinkling of Mozart. “That’ll be Miss Wendy,” offered the man. l decided some subterfuge was called for, and asked him point blank if he knew anything about Master Patrick’s instruments.
From him I learned that the young master owns a Stratocaster acquired, it- appears, from a Shadows roadie, and not much loved. Recently he has acquired a Paisley Telecaster in the antique style, and then there are his two electro-acoustics, a Takamine and an Ovation damned as ‘characterless’. For writing he has a Roland JX3P, a Dr Rhythm, and lots of other ‘toys’. Then he stopped suddenly as brother Martin, a fine bass-player, walked past.
l walked off as Costello closed the door. “How pleasant,” I thought, “not to have to interview people in a nasty record company office. l should do this more often.”
instruments + backline
PADDY McALOON Gretsch Tennessean, Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Takamine semi-acoustic, un-named Spanish acoustic. Marshall 100W combo. Un-named phase and echo unit.
MARTIN McALOON Wal electric bass, Music Man Stingray, Fender Fretless. Ampeg SVT amp, Peavey 2×15 cabinet.
KEVIN ARMSTRONG Yamaha DX7. 1963 Fender Stratocaster with trem, customised Johnstone Telecaster. Boss FX: Comp/Lim, Heavy Metal, DDL, Touch Wah. Roland JC120 combo.
MICHAEL GRAVES PPG Wave 2, Yamaha DX7. Roland JC120 combo.
NEIL CONTI Gretsch five-piece kit, Tama stands.
WENDY SMITH Vocal cords. PA by SSE.
pa + monitoring
CONSOLES TAC Scorpion 32/8/2 front-of-house. TAC 24/8 monitor.
FX RACK Roland 555, Yamaha D1500 DDL, Yamaha R1000 reverb, four DDX complimiters. three Drawmer dual gates, Urei peak limiter, Eventide 910 harmoniser.
CONTROL RACK Allington four-way crossover. Klark Teknik DN27 graphics, NAD CD and cassette players, Allington intercom.
POWER AMPS RSD MOSFET 1000s throughout.
FRONT OF HOUSE 6k rig: four-way active SSE/LSA system. Plus two tri-amped sidefills, 10 bi-amped wedges, and bi-amped drum monitor.
MIKES Include Shure SM57s, SM58s and PL85s, E-V RE20s, E-V RE16s. Sennheiser 421s, AKG 451s and 414s.