Prefab Sprout. Not entirely the most prepossessing name for a band and not the most sensible, really. It came, oddly enough, from the misheard lyric of an old Nancy Sinatra song but there’s little else very flippant apart from that about this unusual quartet from Durham. They’re one of the most serious, philosophical bands in Britain and they are led by a severe, bearded gent answering to the name of Paddy McAloon.
So far they’ve made two albums, ‘Swoon’, and more recently, ‘Steve McQueen’. They haven’t had any hits yet but were unlucky with two singles which one day will go down as being amongst the classics of their age: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ and ‘Appetite’. But perhaps their most notorious cut is entitled ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’, a mini-epic of most over-wrought proportions. In the light of a sentiment such as that it seems strange that McAloon should come out with a remark like “I have to record my songs. It would be criminal not to.”
This is his explanation for the raison d’etre of Prefab Sprout. Making music either for other people’s pleasure or to make a lot of money for himself are strictly of secondary importance. But Paddy was upset that his group’s first album didn’t sell very well, in addition to its being lambasted by most critics for being too “clever clever” (which it was, actually).
“I was disappointed, sure,” he admits, “but as for that charge of being too clever . . . I think the record’s strengths outweigh any cleverness. It might seem a bit precious but I liked the idea of making a record which I know wasn’t going to be terribly fashionable. And I’m rather proud of the fact that we haven’t plastered ourselves around everywhere.”
Not in England at any rate. Apart from a short tour last August just about the only dates played by Prefab Sprout were some European festivals the summer before that. I can’t imagine how that went down . . . “In Belgium the audience was positively Neanderthal,” he fumes. “It was like 1977 with everybody spitting so I gave them a bit of that Monty Python thing about the Belgians being the most boring people on earth. They went mad!”
Enter phase two of their career and going into the studio to record their second album with Thomas Dolby. Why the young techno-boffin?
“I’d heard him sticking up for us on the radio, Round Table or something,” Paddy reveals, “and I thought what an interesting attraction of opposites working with him would be. The image people have of him is all wrong,” Mr. McAloon points out. “Far from drowning us in technology he brought back some of the dynamism which we were losing.”
Why the title of the record, I wonder. I hear that in America Steve McQueen’s family are up in arms…
“Yeah, it looks like we might have to give it a different name. But it did seem like an intriguing title for an LP and yes, I was a big fan. He was really good in an un-arty way. Never hyped.”
A slightly more subtle tribute on the album is ‘When The Angels’, a tribute to Marvin Gaye. The subject matter of this song is that the soul singer died because the angels were jealous of his voice being nicer than their own!
“I wanted to talk about somebody incredibly gifted being taken away too soon,” he elaborates, “but rather than being serious about it I wanted to be irreverent, y’know, put two fingers in the air. Marvin Gaye was one of the few black singers who didn’t just rely on the sensual tone of his voice. His words were really good, too. Literate.”
Do you consider yourself to be a poet – everyone else seems to think you are?
“Well although words are important, I don’t just like to put them together for the effect that might have. As in ‘wow, what a great turn of phrase’. I’m more into emotional importance. I mean life is very complicated and music or poetry or art should reflect that. That doesn’t mean to say everything should be loaded with hundreds of different meanings. But it is worth bearing in mind that you can be thinking of or feel more than one thing at a time.”
Is that why your songs are what might be described as indirect? Presumably if you had a straightforward message the songs would not be able to operate on more than one level.
“Well that’s it, really. If you’ve got a direct point of view you should put it down in direct language and that’s it, message and all. Nice, neat and self-contained. But rather than put those views in a song, why not use the form of direct prose, or even a news story if you’re going to be journalistic about it. No point going to all the trouble of creating rhyming couplets when you want to say something clear and direct.
“But it you really want to try and make your audience think, then the poem is a more suitable format. Not because it’s cleverer or anything but the truth comes across better in an indirect way — when you’ve got to unravel a couple of layers to get to it, rather than being hit over the head and told ‘This is the truth. Ignore it at your peril!’”
Apart from the people you mention in your songs (Country and Western singer Faron Young is another) who else are your heroes?
“The Clash!” he announces unexpectedly. “Not everything I like is necessarily classic or melodic. The Clash prove that songs need not be quiet.”