Sonic purity, simple harmonies and surreal lyrics. Yet with a great clarity of ideas and precision of intent. Paddy McAloon, the band leader of “Jordan: The Come Back”, talks about it.
Thirty-three years old, from a Catholic Christian background, originally from Newcastle and enrolled at a local university together with his younger brother Martin, he began scribbling verses between classes; intelligent, resourceful and sure of his means of expression. However, believing more in a musical future than a career with a social and educational direction: he breaks open the piggy-bank and records a couple of songs for the elusive Candle label.
Let’s talk about Patrick Paddy McAloon and an artistic adventure named Prefab Sprout begun seven years ago and now come to full maturity with a varied and original work entitled “Jordan: the Comeback.” Sonic purity, simple harmonies and surreal lyrics come together in a unique and highly enjoyable album which although highlighting Paddy’s creative power doesn’t exactly slam Prefab Sprout onto the front pages to a backdrop of hysterical screaming. Although the British public, particularly those in the fringes of the middle and upper classes, seem to have very much appreciated the album.
It’s a useful observation anyway just to frame the band and its repertoire, since our Paddy doesn’t much care for statistics or market research. “We always played what we liked, what gratifies us as people and musicians. Of course the intent is to sell as many copies as possible; to be known and appreciated in America and Australia and Europe”. Great music is a policy the band has followed since the official debut “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes” and the following album “Swoon” in 1984 that saw McAloon joined by singer Wendy Smith and various session musicians on drums. But it was with the arrival of Neil Conti that the organic connotations became more precise, and the subsequent work “Steve McQueen” (1985) established the transition from the embryonic stage of cult band to the top of the bill. “Success hasn’t caught us unprepared,” recalls Paddy, smiling a little, “given that we had had an artistic retreat of almost two years during which we defined a precise course of action and refined our technique and composition”. Credit is also due to Thomas Dolby, by then an unofficial member of the group, whose production and contribution on keyboards gives the completed work a determinant allure of sophistication and lightness.
Next was a mysterious little episode, forcing Prefab to take a break of three years. In fact, with the plaudits reserved for “Steve McQueen” still in the air and in the charts, “Protest Songs” was recorded. But just as it was going off to the pressing plants, the brakes were slammed on, so as not to interrupt the pace of sales for “When Love Breaks Down”, and also due to some uncertainty on the part of Paddy whose hesitation helped the bootleggers who placed on the market good quality counterfeit copies of the album in question (a sort of “Black Album” by Prince before its time).
This brings us to 1988 and the release of “From Langley Park to Memphis”, a not entirely convincing record even though it has luxurious setting including Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder. Enthusiasm and interest in Prefab Sprout appeared to have waned, though it’s worth pointing out that not all the songs misfire. “The King of Rock and Roll” was a minor hit, and “Cars and Girls” confirmed McAloon as a composer with a rare talent, albeit one hiding himself behind allegories and tortuous references.
Surprisingly though, “Protest Songs” (1989) made an appearance in the middle of the recording sessions from which “Jordan: the Comeback” came, and almost without the involvement of the group. Four years after the original sessions, it retains a freshness and a significant sonic impact, and it can be welcomed with open arms unreservedly.
A good business decision. A few months later came the official comeback, a collection of nineteen songs that unfold in a continuous sequence of tracks, overlapping, overdubbed. Over an hour of high quality music enclosed, or perhaps better to say imprisoned, in the grooves of a single album
“We’re living in the era of the CD,” a frowning Paddy retorts with a look of reproach. “And if I caused some problems to my record company, you should know that I’ve been under pressure for many months. But let me make it clear from the outset, it’s a complete work, and therefore indivisible. No bonus tracks on CD or other variants depending on the format, this was the original concept, and it was maintained.”
If the first adjective that comes to mind is “pretentious”, a victory of the ego over teamwork, on listening to it several times you realise “Jordan: the Comeback” is a complete work and the result may be of one brilliant mind, but also demonstrates a close and fruitful collaboration between leaders and followers. Perhaps more so than in the past.
So, Paddy, can we start with the title?
It refers to many things, it’s subject to multiple interpretations not least mystical and religious. It unfolds like the plot of a movie based on the cherished but improbable return of Elvis Presley; Elvis singing a spiritual, that caters to the public with words such as “End of the road I’m travelling, I can see Jordan beckoning” Of course I’m not Elvis, but as I said, it’s a script, it’s playing a role. The protagonist could even be Jesus Christ, who would decide to return to Earth at a time of crisis and tension. For example like the Gulf War, the worsening of old hatreds and the reopening of old wounds.
You’ve always been attracted by titles, their importance. What do you aim for when you choose a title for a Prefab Sprout record?
The first aim is to arouse uncertainty, stimulate people’s curiosity. Today it’s rare to find something, and I speak not only of the album titles of course, that’s able to provoke questions, to give rise to a genuine interest. I remember being fascinated by titles like “Bad” by Michael Jackson or “Hats” by the Blue Nile: I wondered what they meant, what connection there was with the songs and especially with the nature of the author. Because I’m convinced that the value of a disk goes well beyond simply listening or the record’s outward form: everything is looked at, admired, studied in depth in terms of what its implications are, the small secrets. A kind of ritual that is repeated and prolonged in time, not a kind of musical throwaway. Today I happened to hear “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys, and as if by magic I am thrown onto the sunny beaches of California or start to dance to the rhythm of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye: the fact is that the sound is merely one component, and not even the most important.
How much of Thomas Dolby is to be found in the grooves of “the Jordan Comeback”?
A great deal. If we exclude some pieces including “Wild Horses”, the title track and another couple which I’d already recorded at home on a 16 track, as far as the rest of the material goes Thomas is in effect one of us. A massive contribution, technical but also psychological. For example, on many occasions he gave me carte blanche and that’s not like other producers, who want at all costs to put their stamp on the song. Which obviously achieves exactly the opposite result, a negative one.
That raises the questions of why you don’t integrate him officially into the ranks of Prefab Sprout? Now he’s one of you.
He’s a composer, an author and perhaps he’d suffer if he had to share the role with me. And then he likes his stuff more than mine … (he laughs but composes himself immediately). I understand, too, I’d be the same.
British music is going through a “down” period, little desire to do new things, with creativity exhausted. Do you agree?
Broadly speaking, yes, although as always there are some exceptions. I think British music has lost the central role it had until recently, with regard to youth culture. But it’s not all music’s fault, the underlying problem is the culture itself, a rapid and inevitable disintegration during the Nineties. Paradoxically, the English way of life today reflects its smallness: it’s not just music, Empty and vacuous like never before in near or distant past. I listen distractedly to bands like the Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, and the like, the Charlatans for example. I’d never buy an album because they’re selling hot air, it’s often ridiculous and irritating. But there are people who flock to buy their records, who put themselves physically in danger to get a spot in the front row. That’s what it is, what do you expect from such a situation?
But you and Prefab Sprout, have you decided to remain in the ranks of cult artists or venture into becoming one of the biggest of the established names on a global scale?
Our purpose is to sell, sell, sell. We make excellent music and we are good. The conditions are right, I think.
However, given the results, at least in the international arena, you’ll have a little wait before you can plan strategies for the immediate future?
It’s not about us being different or having to deal with things more intelligently, it’s just to keep playing what we like. The line we’re following stays the same. Would you ask Umberto Eco to change something? (Maybe no-one told him that the estimable Eco sold millions of books, unlike many other authors)
Let’s talk about the tracks from “Jordan: the Comeback.” The lyrics of “Michael” and “Scarlet Nights” amongst others are interesting…
The first, like much of the album, reflects the my spirituality as a former seminary student growing up as a Catholic; in this case it’s about the Devil surprising the archangel Michael by requesting tips on writing a letter to God. As concerns “Scarlet Nights”, it describes mortality and the possibility of another life, at least hypothetically. I stress these aren’t themes or deliberate meanings, I’m only writing about the facts in my life, external and internal. People have written that some lyrics are difficult to decipher but I don’t think they are. Allegorical, undoubtedly, esoteric, but difficult? I would say no. “One of the Broken” is very simple: about a God who speaks to the faithful urging them to be kind and gentle with others. Of course I’m the main character (the Lord), but then someone had to do it. Sure, we had even thought of using a female voice, maybe Wendy, but in the end we respected the tradition.
But on the album there are other songs, other themes. “All Boys Believe Anything” and “The Wedding March” that almost seem to come from a musical.
I’m not a particular fan of that kind of music. I’m interested rather in the use of certain sounds in the context of entertainment, as in the case of “West Side Story”, a classic of the genre. Very pointed lyrics and challenging arrangements, somehow “contrary” to the “The Wedding March” and a good example. And so we come to what can be considered a kind of trilogy. The title track, “Jesse James Symphony”, and “Jesse James Bolero” complement each other by offering an insight into the real life world of Paddy McAloon, his heroes, his ideals. Yes, I’m a fan of Elvis, it’s no secret, and I like the atmosphere of westerns. In “Jordan: the Comeback” I wanted to write a song about Presley, but an Elvis now disenchanted with rock and roll, brought back to the true origins of blues and its gospel sources in the deep South. Regarding Jesse James I wanted to talk about the myth of the old West, the pioneer past that has become legendary of a handful of heroes and outlaws, good and bad, like Jesse James. You can sing of Presley alongside the same stories, and frame it in a movie script and its soundtrack.
Leaving your love, or fanaticism, for the King aside, your heroes in your youth were David Bowie and Marc Bolan.
For a period, the beginning of the seventies, they were really fantastic and creatively perhaps unique. I bought their records and I wore them out listening to them; it was then that I discovered, a few years late, “Tommy” by The Who and in particular the song “Pinball Wizard.” Just the guitar intro convinced me to take up the instrument, given to me by my mother who paid a few pounds for it. But I listened to Genesis, the albums with Peter Gabriel, and some of the Canterbury scene, not to mention the Beatles starting with “Sgt. Pepper”. But now I’ve partially abandoned guitar in favour of keyboards because the harmony is more complete and it allows you to have a clearer idea of the melody. Live, however, I go back to my first love: I apologize in advance for any mistakes!