Everything But The Girl, Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout… The end of the tyranny of the synthesizer? It doesn’t look like it for the moment. Still, there’s an undeniable resurgence of semi-acoustic pop and bass, folk guitar and harmonica are back with a vengeance. Responsible for a tidal wave of not to be sneezed at sonic gems, PADDY MCALOON, singer and guitarist of Newcastle contenders PREFAB SPROUT has delivered a début album as elusive as it is timeless. Forcing the twists and turns of the words of eighty songs into the grooves of a single record.
(note, interview dates from early 1984, before Neil Conti joined for the May tour)
“You have to set priorities!” rattles off the 27 year old Paddy McAloon with the enthusiasm of someone a decade younger as he replies to a question I put to him during a short promotional visit to our country as to when we can expect to see Prefab Sprout performances. “Why should we come to the Netherlands? So people can hear us play live once? In the same period of time we can make a record that people can play as many times as they want.” He’s keen to argue further that working on new songs is much more important than performing them: “If playing live is given the highest priority songwriting really is a secondary activity. At least, that’s what happens to me. I’m just not someone who gets the necessary inspiration in hotels and dressing rooms. I leave that to others. Star artists like Carmel and PAUL YOUNG will demand contact with the public, it’s very important to them. But they are pure performers, not songwriters. And let’s be honest, I really don’t have a voice à la Paul Young, always powerful, no matter what he sings. What I do have is that time and time again I’ve been interesting, people at least want to keep listening to me.”
Paddy was only twelve years old when he and a school friend wrote his first song: Tramp. “Our songs had to be about the real world!” he notes when I ask why he chose this topic. Ultimately most rookies at that age are mainly engaged with a saccharine sweet display of their inner feelings: “I already had a deep dislike for nonsense like ‘Here I am’, followed by an extensive introspective discourse.”
The young McAloon had his first stage experience with bands like Chrysalis Cognosci and Grappled Institution, playing not only in folk clubs and youth centres but also retirement homes. The repertoire still consisted mainly of songs from T REX, THE BEATLES, MOTT THE HOOPLE and SLADE. Unremarkable were it not that these first steps on the musical path were made in an environment that generally would not seem the most obvious breeding ground for young rock ‘n’ roll talent: a small Catholic seminary. The sort of place where you might believe rock & roll is inclined quite often to be seen as an instrument of the Devil. A mistake? Paddy thinks so: “Many people have a total misconception of such a school, thinking you spend all day on your knees. Utter nonsense. We had Mass every morning and of course there were no girls, but we knew damn well what the world had to offer. And because the hierarchy was not so fond of radios we were encouraged in any case to make our own music. There was always someone to play the piano or twang on a guitar. I remember one classroom where there was almost a guitar at every desk. It was mad!”
In 1977 he started Prefab Sprout. He took the name from a NANCY SINATRA-LEE HAZELWOOD LP, although according to Paddy any other name could have been just as good: “There are plenty of groups with ridiculous names. And lets face it, pop is actually still a weirdo’s occupation!”
Prefab Sprout started as a trio with Paddy’s brother Martin on bass and drummer MICHAEL SALMON. The music that the group launched themselves into sounded somewhat rougher than the later lighter material on Swoon, but is broadly similar: seemingly simple pop songs radiating vitality, which on closer listening reveal themselves very ingenious. In addition to surprising twists in tempo and song structure, they mix extremely tasteful colourings of harmony, vocals, keyboards, harmonic and the subtle use of wind instruments. After the modest success of the first self-released single, Lions In My Own Garden in 1982, the base was strengthened with the angelic soft focus siren voice of WENDY SMITH, transforming the trio into a quartet. After which the group a year later was reduced to a trio, as Michael Salmon finally turned his back on his drum kit. On Swoon the studio drummer GRAHAM LANT takes up the drumsticks, and for the English tour DAVE RUFFY of Aztec Camera.
“It isn’t easy to find someone who is prepared to put all their energy into Prefab Sprout,” Paddy explains. “Ultimately, there is always the chance that we say after a while, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not working” What we have achieved today is the result of some five or six years working very closely with each other and playing our music for our own enjoyment. So a new drummer would need at least three years before really integrating well. But we hope that one day a Mister Right will walk in. Although we’re not really looking hard for him. Maybe it has to do with the fact that we don’t want to upset the balance in the group. It hangs together very well, although we certainly didn’t have the gang mentality of the Stones. That’s really just a bunch of overgrown schoolchildren ‘being in the big gang.’
“It took years for your work to be released. Why wait so long?
“I could answer that it was a case of ‘only move when you’re really sure of yourself’, but that would be simplistic. Lack of money and lack of familiarity with the entire process of recording and releasing an album. The way we organized everything was really lousy. We also had no manager Fortunately we picked Keith (Keith Armstrong Kitchenware Records – CE) when we released our second single The Devil Has All The Best Tunes, so all at once we had both a label and a manager.”
“Despite the fact that Lions didn’t sell spectacularly – I believe around 900 copies – we got a lot of positive response, so we very quickly had to come up with a successor. This was The Devil. Not because that song was the most appropriate, but it was the only thing we had ready on tape. We did it, amongst other reasons, to impress Wendy, who had just joined us, to prove that we were doing something more than just organizing rehearsals. Surprisingly it became a hit single and in some places quite a big one.” (Including a number one ranking in the Italian magazine Rockerilla -. CE).
“The Devil is about writing songs and avoiding clichés; but also flipping clichés so they come out as something completely different. I like to do things that are very basic and just a certain simplicity can be immensely powerful. Something like: ‘My love and I, we work well together, but often we’re apart’. That sounds almost like an old piece of poetry Someone who writes in moderate clichés might continue then: ‘And if it goes on like this, she will break my heart’. But I love to toughen it up with abrupt turns, something like: ‘But absence makes the heart lose weight’. Simplicity intersecting with effectiveness .”
Do you read much poetry?
“Absolutely not. In poetry the words have to do all the work. A lyric, however, can almost never stand on its own, it’s often stupid. For many people this is very difficult to digest, but it’s true. I also regularly come to the same words again, just because they are ideally suited to a piece of music to bring in colours. Words like ‘sweet’, ‘hair’ and ‘eyes’. Especially ‘eyes’. I love that sound, I’ve tried to write self-contained texts, but they never spoke to me. I don’t really do poetry, it can move me, cause emotion. But understand it? No! I think that’s a completely different world. If I were to write a text without musical accompaniment, I would never know if it was any good or not.”
You had about fifteen songs. So you had a wide choice for the first album?
“That’s right. I really have to weigh things against one another. Some things were recent work, but there were also older songs in new arrangements. The result ended up being far better than I expected, although you can always do better. Incidentally I don’t use anything I wrote when I was eighteen any more. Walk On, the b-side of The Devil comes from the time I was eighteen. Still a great song. Maybe a bit simple, but that keeps everything balanced.
It strikes me that in your lyrics often the word God appears, while you eagerly make use of names and images from the Bible. Is religion important to you?
“Yes, but this mainly comes from my past. Ultimately a large portion of a person’s imagination and vocabulary is formed at a young age. However I have no desire to preach, even if I have to admit that occasionally I put lyrics in my songs which suggest the contrary. I use these terms only to evoke certain associations. Why would a person be called ISAAC (Green Isaac – CE) instead of the classic Bobby or Joey? If I wanted to write religious songs I’d do things differently. I don’t find it necessary to convey a message, not a political one. Individuals, small groups of people, mean more to me and therefore are my main source of inspiration.”
Some find your music similar to jazz. If I look for a frame of reference I find it’s more related to musicals. Does that surprise you?
“No absolutely not. I love the way songs are written in the world of musicals. Composers in that world aren’t constrained by the first three chords that emerge, it’s only a pity that the lyrics of the musical composers are often not much more than candy floss. But the way their chord progressions sit together speaks to me. That has a lot to do with the way we do things. We do one riff and then we don’t repeat it indefinitely. And because I don’t, some might argue that my songs are jazz influenced. Sheer nonsense! I’m really only influenced by pop music. But what pop music has to offer, I want to deal with in the most adventurous way possible. There are for example in my opinion too many songs in which the rhythm is made to say anything other than what the composer would like. Hence the complexity and unorthodox chord progressions in the Prefab Sprout songs. Although I personally think that you actually have to look at it differently. For example, people will see ten titles on the cover of Swoon, but actually it the material on the album is made up of about eighty short songs. And all equally good or at least interesting. And most really quite simple.”
Can you actually still muster appreciation for other songwriters?
“For various reasons I enjoy listening to Marvin Gaye, Stephen Sondheim, but above all I’m blown away by appreciation for Lennon & McCartney. Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera I find really a natural. And Bowie. Only he shouldn’t complain that he’s not a songwriter, that he puts things together. He’s much better than he thinks.”
How do you see Prefab Sprout surviving amidst the kind of groups that currently dominate the charts?
“We love the combat. We are certainly not a band that looks for convenience and wants to play it safe. I’m chasing a couple of singles that lift us above the status of a rather nice LP selling band. Although we absolutely don’t want to be a Duran Duran whose success is still mainly based on teenage appeal. Dylan and Costello aren’t really big selling singles artists. How long ago was it that Bob had a single in the charts? But still, no one would really be surprised if someone with his talent suddenly had a big hit. Incidentally, I do hope to get more hits than Bob ever had. But for that matter I wouldn’t want to be burdened like Duran Duran with everything being a million selling number one.”
As I get ready to leave, he flipped quickly through the copy of OOR magazine I brought for him. His interested gaze falls on a photo of NICK CAVE. “Tragedies with a capital T – Nice song title.”