“I heard the voice of a DJ in my head while I was eating curry in an Indian restaurant in Newcastle. He had an American accent and was announcing ‘Prefab Sprout’s new album’ entitled ‘Steve McQueen.’”
Paddy McAloon is explaining the origin of the title of the last album. He is the leader of Prefab Sprout, and a songwriter greatly appreciated for his beautifully melodious work, with elegant and meaningful lyrics.
Prefab Sprout consists of four people. In addition to Paddy there is Wendy Smith (Vocal), Martin McAloon (Bass) and Neil Conti (Drums). The band formed in 1983 in Newcastle in the North-East of Great Britain.
“Steve McQueen” is their second album, released in 1985, but following an intervention from Steve McQueen’s lawyer the album title in the United States was changed to “Two Wheels Good”.
“Oh God, yes, there was an incident and I had to change it.” Nonetheless the album sold a total of 750,000 copies, with considerable worldwide success.
There are those in the business who consider this acoustic rock/pop group as being quite serious lyrically, but in fact there’s a lot of humour there; the mark of a real group is that it incorporates both facets. It’s unusual to call an album “Steve McQueen” when it’s a collection of songs with no direct connection to Steve McQueen. So this is songwriting that deliberately fights people’s expectations.
It seems there is more interesting music to come from Paddy McAloon.
Their first new album to be announced for a long time is entitled “Greeting Card from Langley Park” (sic). Both sonically and lyrically this can be described as a mature work with increasing depth and range.
– I understand you completed an album between the previous work, “Steve McQueen” and this new “Greeting Card from Langley Park”. Although you didn’t release it.
Paddy (P): So I released “Steve McQueen” in June 1985, but after a couple of months I thought that it would be exciting to put out a new album. An album containing more personal songs, more vivid, basic, less sophisticated than “Steve McQueen”.
– And the title was “Protest Songs”?
P: Yes, that’s it. But the single “When Love Breaks Down” became a hit and the release was stopped. CBS felt it would be better not to confuse the new fans.
– Were you wounded? Disappointed?
P: I heard the bad news when I was on tour. I was looking forward to it, we had even put flyers out in the concert halls. But maybe when I think about it now I see it differently. There were some songs that needed to be reworked amongst the songs on “Protest Songs”. “Steve McQueen” was a great success, a top notch release. But even if I reached the top rank, even if I succeeded, I proved Prefab Sprout still hasn’t lost its adventurous heart.
– Does “Greeting card from Langley Park” include only new songs written after that?
P: Well apart from one song, “Golden Calf”. I was very tempted to re-record the songs from “Protest Songs” and put them onto the new album. But I’d prefer to put them out on single B-sides or on a CD or record. So I decided to leave the entire album untouched.
– You’re the kind of songwriter who is constantly writing songs, as if you’re writing collections for albums.
P: That doesn’t mean I write a lot of songs. I write maybe an average of 10-15 songs a year, and I feel I can’t breathe properly when I’ve completed an album. If I don’t write songs all the time I get worried, so even now I’m writing new songs for the next album.
– Regarding the songs, it seems many more of them were written from an international viewpoint than before?
P: You might get that impression, as the title references Memphis, and there are songs such as “Hey! Manhattan” and “King of Rock’n’Roll”. But to talk specifically about these songs there’s not much international consciousness. For example, a song like “Hey! Manhattan” references various aspects of Manhattan, but the theme of the song is neither Manhattan nor the United States. I’m touching on dreams and ambitions much more than that. And as young people get older they are touched by and recognize different things.
– In other words, Manhattan is just a metaphor?
P: That’s right. And so is “Cars and Girls”. In that I’m referring to the world of Bruce Springsteen, not about him personally or about his songs. And even “King of Rock’n’Roll”, that’s not a song about Elvis Presley or anything like that.
– Do you remember your teenage dreams?
P: To be a pop star. When I was fifteen years old I believed that being a pop star was the most attractive occupation in the world, the story of people who are obsessed with that idea. Presley, even Gary Glitter, anyone can do it.
– Do the words “rock ‘n’roll” mean anything to you?
P: I make fun of the people who write songs about Rock’n’Roll because I’m that kind of person myself. I think the title of the song is in very poor taste. That’s why I wrote the song.
– Prefab Sprout doesn’t have a Rock’n’Roll sound, but does the band retain its spirit?
P: Even when I listen to the record myself, it’s hard to perceive. But I want to surprise people through a record. I want to move peoples’ minds. When I write songs I hope that those who listen to them find something to interest them, sometimes to shock and excite them. Like the old Rock’n’Roll records.
– There’s a rock feeling in the song “the Golden Calf”.
P: That song was an old tune written in 1977. Wendy wasn’t a member, and the band was very different with just three people in it. We rehearsed every night for three years. We were a very raucous band and there were no keyboards. “Bonnie” from “Steve McQueen” and “Donna Summer” were part of our repertoire. It sounded like Heavy Metal meeting Disco, really.
– There’s something of a soulful feeling in “I Remember That”, “Enchanted”,”Knock On Wood”…
P: When I’m writing songs at home, when I am alone, I sing more soulfully. Because nobody can hear me. I imagine “oh, you should sing this song like Ray Charles”, and I sing it as Ray Charles would (laughs). It’s ridiculous though.
– But there are still traces of it.
P: I do try to swing a bit more in the studio.
– “Nancy” is a mysterious love song?
P: It’s a song about a couple who are married, both of them work in the same place. The wife is the husband’s boss. It’s about the relationship, it’s a modern love story.
– The songs about people working in these offices don’t come from a reality you know, do they?
P: Quite the contrary. “Nancy” isn’t at all Rock’n’Roll so it was easier to sing than something like “Hey! Manhattan”. I’m not a rock’n’roller at all and I don’t have close friends in Manhattan. Manhattan isn’t a real thing for me. I’m not someone like Mick Jagger with friends everywhere in all the big cities in the world.