SWOON – A COMPLEX SLAVE OF APPETITE
SOME SAY PREFAB SPROUT MAKE MUSIC FOR WINE BARS, TO SOOTHE THE SOULS OF DRUNKEN COMPUTER OPERATORS. OTHERS WONDER WHY PADDY McALOON (RIGHT) CALLED HIS GROUP STEVE MCQUEEN? Photograph ADRIAN BOOT Text DON MACPHERSON
In the North-Eastern town of Consett, County Durham, nothing much happens since the steelworks shut down a few years ago. The area is ﬁlled with all-too believable tales of men once devoted to making steel now devoted to racing pigeons, or other hobbies now part of the leisure economy. It’s a topsy-turvy state of affairs, where betting on whippets is considered a safer investment than shipbuilding, but for surreal improbability two recent events take the post-industrial cake crumbs. The ﬁrst was a plan to build a winter sports ski slope on the site of the old Consett steel works and give the unemployed the chance to parade in jean-Claude Killy sportswear. The second was, if anything, more unlikely; namely the irresistible rise to prominence of a local seminary-trained garage hand by the name of Paddy McAloon.
A few years ago you might have seen him serving petrol in a run-down garage, impatient to get rid of the idiots who asked for directions and get back to his novels, maybe James Joyce or something else the combination of an Irish/English Catholic background and a polytechnic degree would indicate. But this curious, underfed, wiry ﬁgure in his mid-twenties was, in reality, a special kind of provincial species: the pop hermit. For Paddy had formed a group known even more improbably as Prefab Sprout. They performed all Paddy’s songs, hundreds of them which he’d written, like all neglected geniuses, in his bedroom. The group contained another McAloon — younger brother Martin — and a singer known more prosaically as Wendy Smith. But the only problem with the senior McAloon was that he had to be dragged screaming to play his songs in front of an audience.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his songs. Far from it. He was ashamed of the PA, their lack of money, their lack of perfection. “We’d do one gig in front of thirty people in a pub, and then I’d say — right, I’ve done it now, that’s it. Now I’m gonna retire and go back to the songwriting.”
It was going to be a long haul . . .
Paddy had started to perform his own songs between cover versions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “All The Young Dudes” when he was 12 years old, giving shows in old people’s homes. Like the good, polite Catholic boy he was, he’d take a deep bow at the end. But .years later that youthful cockiness had vanished and the thought of casting pearls before swine was too awful to contemplate.
“I didn’t want to play live because it involved showbusiness, gesture and compromises,” he says.
“I wasn’t prepared to play to people who’d be happier listening to Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits. I only did it at all because I was forced to.” Paddy didn’t care. He may have been polite, but he was proud and knew he was good.
“I was so far gone,” he rues, looking back. “There was a stubbornness about me. But I was also enthralled at what I was doing. Awfully narcissistic, but I thought that these were truly splendid things which no-one knew about. And I thought I could preserve their strength by never showing them to anybody, and therefore never having to change them. So I took refuge in being unknown and having no money.”
Paddy returned to the bedroom and imagined himself as a future Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Jim Webb and more. Brother Martin eventually took the tapes down to CBS in London. A couple of years later, after two LPs (“Swoon” and “Steve McQueen”), it has gradually dawned on many people that they’ve been listening to a kind of McAloon’s Greatest Hits, a distillation of the past 15 years work.
As if from nowhere he’s been acclaimed in gushing terms as the best thing since McCartney, Bacharach, blah, blah. Not since The Beatles’ “Revolver” . . . since “Pet Sounds” . . . since “Notorious Byrd Brothers”. Maybe the only person who wasn’t entirely surprised was Paddy McAloon. Nothing could have been less improbable.
His feeling seems to be that if people get half as much fun listening to his songs as he does writing them, then they’ll be pleased. “I live to write,” he says. “If I can’t write, I get anxious and I can’t relax. I feel it justifies me being on earth. It’s a neurosis. I’m not functional and don’t do anything unless I do that. I’d love that self-sufﬁciency of people who can sit back and enjoy a quiet day and reﬂect on things. I have to be beaten into submission to get to that stage.
“I can get lost in writing. It’s the most pleasurable experience I know. The experience of making something from nothing is one I can never get over. There’s always a chance that one day, through a combination of skill and lucky breaks, you get a sequence of chords or a melody that bypasses the intelligence and hits the nervous system. Most rock critics go for analyzing lyrics. It’s totally misleading compared to the thrill of writing and listening to them. The magic of them is beyond the purely verbal. A word can mean one thing in the voice of Leonard Cohen, but in Marvin Gaye’s or Michael Jackson’s voice completely another. I love to see people get in a tangle about it.
“All this is delivered in a thoughtful, gentle Geordie accent that seems refreshingly straightforward after the ﬂood of intricate augmented and diminished chords and frequent time changes in his songs. But in both speech and song he gives the unexpected impression of sounding simultaneously analytical and soulful; loving both the art and spontaneity of a song, expressing complexity in a simple melody line or using a catchy hook with an unexpected lyric. He knows both where he is, and what he’s after.
“I’m not an instinctive rock‘n’roller. I mean you wouldn’t say I made records like Little Richard. Although if the truth were told, my approach has far more sympathy with that than the hunt-through-thePenguin-classics-I’d-better-get-a-few-ofthese-in-a-song approach.
“I try to strip down language now. But I’ve put out so many things from a time when I had different ideas, when I thought the idea was to be ‘different’ or ‘shockingly original’ or ‘personal’. I am very private though. When I see interviews with people discussing their parents or their girlfriends, I think, ‘My God, you’ve got no shame!’ I feel absolutely revolted by it. If I live quietly like an idiot or a loafer, then allow the spotlight to be turned on it, it just seems obscene.”
Unlike most of his praising critics, he does know when to shut up. “Everything I do goes into the writing,” he says. “Aside from that I really believe I’m boring.” He isn’t, of course. He just hasn’t listened for a while to those who reckon they’re really interesting.
In addition, he possesses the ability to bypass the established networks and conventions. It stems from his remaining up in the allegedly provincial North-East. The result is that he measures neither his songs, nor his morals, ambitions, emotions, nor his tastes by the standards of the London media and showbiz circuit. He just lives with his mother and invalid father, a former maths teacher.
Their house, an old vicarage, affected producer Thomas Dolby with its “musty, Gothic mood”. He went there to hear the songs that eventually became the “Steve McQueen” LP that he produced. “Paddy took me up to his bedroom and started playing the songs on an acoustic guitar, arranged as you hear them on the record. He had a notebook with about 50 songs in it. I was so impressed. There was a very special atmosphere about them and the place.”
The fact that neither Paddy nor singer Wendy Smith talk about romance makes anyone interested in such matters put two and two together anyway. Otherwise the course of conversation flows naturally past such unexpected landmarks as “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell, “Eloise” by Paul and Barry Ryan, W.B. Yeats or Thomas Pynchon and The Jesus And Mary Chain, and returns to such McAloon favourites as Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. It’s a map that is decidedly idiosyncratic.
“I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact that we may live somewhere that is considered unusual to other people,” he says. “It never occurred to me until a French journalist asked me about it. It’s 1985 and you have access to absolutely anything, wherever you come from.
“But I always think I was rather stupid, since people aged 16 or 18 either have a sense of belonging somewhere, or a sense of being an outsider like a character from a John Braine or Alan Sillitoe novel who will get some kind of ammunition from being in a Northern place. It had never occurred to me.”
What has occurred to him is how the effect of music is both surreptitious and unheroic, more a backdrop to life than some messianic force.
“People aren’t conscious of the fact that records are the things they dream to. They don’t have to be. But whether you’re The Jesus And Mary Chain or Duran Duran, that’s the function of records: something that gets in there, into your background like an aid to your memory. As years go by the fabric of your times is bound up with music. I like the fact that people aren’t conscious of that, but that’s What they dream to. You should be ﬂattered when someone buys your records. You are a small part of What they do ”
Now that he is no longer Paddy McAloon — bohemian, layabout, unemployed loafer and dreamer — but Paddy McAloon, pop star, he has become more than a small part of what some people do. When he came off stage a few weeks ago, and was waiting to return for an encore, he met his ﬁrst Rupert Pupkin; a man who, like de Niro in King of Comedy, knew more about Paddy than Paddy, a man who imagined himself to be on a special psychic plane occupied only by himself and Paddy, and who presumed he was about to enter some special communion with his hero.
McAloon was polite, but ﬁrm, and gamely went back on stage to complete the encore, registering only how improbable the whole thing was. “People have the strangest ideas of what you’re like,” he says. He met someone the other day who said he could imagine listening to Prefab Sprout’s music while sipping wine in a wine bar. Indeed that was what it was made for! “I had to grit my teeth,” says Paddy, “and just say, ‘Well, not really’. “