Alternate Version of this interview published in Blitz Magazine
THERE WAS much discussion over who should join Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon for interview. Martin could sense that his own earthy good nature would detract from his elder brother’s unpredictable responses, while Wendy Smith, the delicate girl next door, didn’t seem to be in the mood for too much straight talking.
So it was left to Paddy McAloon to represent the trio in the front room of his manager’s house. He cut a strange figure — thin and pale, sporting a new growth of beard and aviator shades. A likely pop star? Not on the face of it…
Prefab Sprout provoke strong, often conflicting reactions to their music. As a result, many critics who aren’t intelligent or sympathetic enough to unscramble their songs, dismiss them as too clever- clever for their own good. lt’s an accusation that Paddy McAloon contemplates with a big sigh. He nervously traces a pattern with his finger on the table that separates us.
“l think our first LP, ‘Swoon’, worked really well as a collection of songs. When we made the LP we had no prior idea of seducing radio programmers. l had no concept of what crossover potential was. We naively thought that lf it sounded good it should be on the radio.”
But now Paddy McAloon is under no illusions. Pop’s pecking order is promoted through play-safe radio and throw-away pop mags, and that makes it difficult for music’s more inventive types to gain the recognition they so often deserve.
“ln the past CBS (who license Prefab Sprout’s records from the Newcastle- based Kitchenware set-up) found it difficult to choose singles, because they didn’t think that any of the tracks on ‘Swoon’ had the obvious ingredients. But l think we’ve rectified that with ‘When Love Breaks Down’. lt’s the first song I’ve written that all concerned agreed should be a single.”
A more straightforward song certainly, and one that bears little resemblance to the mysterious tracks on ‘Swoon’. But isn’t McAloon in danger of trying to please everyone? By making his songs more simple, isn’t he taking the sterner criticism to heart?
“Well criticism does bother me in some respects, but at least it shows the critics know you’re there. There’s nothing sadder (he grins) than the three line review.’ it’s funny when we’re under the microscope, l always feel it’s happening to someone else. I’m always much more thrilled by a destructive piece than flattering prose.
“So, in answer to your question, no, my writing is changing all the time, and while I weigh up criticism of my songs, l still write them to private criteria.”
McAloon’s voice tails off. He gazes trance-like from behind his sunglasses and strokes his beard.
“You see, I’m anxious to dispel this attitude that I’m arty. I’m not, and talking about my craft embarrasses me… I’ve been thinking about your last question… What blows criticism away is the fact that one day I’m going to sell loads of records. It sounds mercenary, but it’s the only measure of what l do. l know they’re good records and that the end result really pleases me.”
Once again his voice wavers. To many, that last passage may have sounded arrogant. He fixed his gaze on me to gauge my reaction. He needn’t have worried… well, too much.
Mind you, there seems to be a fair sprinkling of literary references in McAloon’s work, so maybe people have reason to call Prefab Sprout arty.
“That’s a failing which I hope to dump completely. It’s a real weakness. At its worst, you’re feeding off someone else’s work. You should create your own world, instead of reproducing a book you’re impressed with. That’s so sixth form! l hate it in my work and in other people’s. If I’m going to name names (Go on! Go on!) then! Lloyd Cole, he drives me mad. Away from his film references and groovy French existentialists, he could probably write very well.”
McAloon pinpoints Cole’s stumbling blocks. Why feel the need to drop names like Truman Capote, Simone de Beauvoir and Eve Marie-Saint? By the same token, why did Paddy feel it necessary to call the new Prefab Spout LP ‘Steve McQueen’…?
“Smart guy. You’re pulling me up here.” He smiles into his hand, which moves up from his beard to cup his mouth.
“Well yeah, I latched on to him not because of his film career, but… it sounds kooky this, hippyish, I’m burying myself… but I like the sound of his name. I had a vision one night that the LP should be called ‘Steve McQueen’.
“I like playing around with the idea of how people will see us. The LP cover is the three of us on a motorbike, one of McQueen’s trademarks, yet something you’d never associate with Prefab Sprout So it’s a pretty superficial link between the title and the album. lt’s eye-catching and sounds great on the ear. If it gets people’s backs up, then great.”
Repeated plays of the new LP reveal that McAloon has lost little of the irony, mystery, pain and purpose of ‘Swoon’. His lyrics continue to acknowledge that much of the world isn’t fit to live in.
“There’s no such thing as keeping politics out of music, even if you don’t refer to it. What’s the point in learning a musical instrument if all you’re going to do is rip off Chuck Berry Memphis ’55 riffs. Your music has to be informed by the world outside. You won’t catch Prefab Sprout with titles like ‘Rebel Land’ or ‘King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’!”
Nowhere is this more apparent than on ‘When The Angels’, a tribute to Marvin Gaye. ln many ways it’s an anti-religious song; the Angels take Marvin Gaye away because they’re jealous of the sound of his voice. McAloon could’ve been hip and mentioned Marvin’s name, but that would’ve been too easy. ln reality you wouldn’t know it was a tribute unless McAloon told you himself.
“Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ LP is absolutely brilliant, and in many ways the song is me trying to work out why he should die at that moment. Marvin Gaye’s name isn’t mentioned because l feel that if you try and write in the party line, whether it be about politics or music, then you don’t give people enough room to manoeuvre. It’s too dogmatic. But give people something that needs to be looked at in different ways or is controversial, then it’s good – it gives them something to fight against.”
It had been a nice day. Most of it spent with the ragamuffins and desperadoes that make up Kitchenware Records in the North East. A desire to see label mates succeed in the big bad world of pop was common to every group l met. The Kitchenware world view is healthy and should be promoted in these stifling days of Spring.
At the forefront of the crusade Prefab Sprout offer up a new LP which sparkles much like its predecessor. Come to think of it, Paddy McAloon will probably hate that last sentence. He finds praise difficult to cope with.
As he left l tried to imagine him rescuing victims from the skyscraper in Towering Inferno or riding his motorcycle at the Swiss border fence in The Great Escape. But in the event it seemed much more appropriate that this Steve McQueen should put on his coat and finish the cheese roll in his manager’s kitchen.