Imagine if Elvis Presley were alive. Now imagine him singing songs about Jesse James. Al Pope takes in the hits and myths of Paddy McAloon
Funny old name for a hand, Prefab Sprout. Then again, it’s a funny old band. The man from whom Sprout ideas spring is Paddy McAloon, a man whose birthplace in County Durham is about as far from London as his ideas on running a musical career are from the, norm.
Since their first appearance on long playing disc in 1984 (Swoon), the band have managed only two other orthodox releases -1985’s Steve McQueen and 88’s From Langley Park To Memphis – plus the long-delayed appearance of Protest Songs in 1989, up to the present.
Not content with severely rationing his audience’s diet of fresh sprout, McAloon has also exhibited a marked disinclination to tour, thus ensuring that when it comes to absence, Prefab Sprout fans have the fondest hearts of all.
This parlous state of affairs is happily about to change dramatically with the release of Jordan: The Comeback (CBS/Kitchenware), a golden hour of music divided into 19 new songs. The group will also, shock horror, be touring in October to support the new record. Mr McAloon and friends have finally popped out of the woodwork and by their own rather reticent standards, they are positively screaming for attention.
It’s early in the morning at the proverbial record company offices – frighteningly early for those of the rock ’n’ roll persuasion – and Paddy McAloon is as chipper as a dog with two tails. So how does he explain this unexpected plethora of new material?
“It’s partly to do with the fact that I’d written a lot of things – say three or four songs -on the same subject, like the Jesse James cycle on the record. These songs were vaguely to do with the idea of Elvis Presley, the idea of him still being alive, used just as a point of departure as a songwriter. I was putting myself in the frame of mind of writing something for him, of thinking what sort of subject might appeal to him. Something like that mythic bad boy Jesse James – could he read something of his own life into that?”
Are you following this so far? Well, there’s more.
“Do you know ‘American Trilogy”? The Presley song where he takes on the flag and Old Glory and all that business? I thought I’d do that without being too authentic about it, but make it gospelly because that’s the only stuff he was really bothered with in his last few years. I wondered whether, if he was still alive and trying to make a comeback, would he dare try something unusual?
“Also, there was no way I could put out ‘Jesse James Bolero” this year and keep the ‘Jesse James Symphony’ for a couple of years’ time. People would say that I’d done it all before and, anyway , it would be boring, So, there’s a lot of tracks and as everyone tells me it’s the CD age, then you can program it as you like… or make a tape – everyone likes to make up their own tape.”
Paddy has unusual theories, to say the least, but the fact to bear in mind is that he writes unusually fine songs with a much larger frame of reference than your average three-chord trickster. He also tended to underplay his creativity so as not to be forced into releasing songs just because they’re there.
But on the other hand… “Record companies don’t really like you to have too many songs at one time, because it’s harder for people to focus on in terms of obvious hits. Everybody seems to be agreed that most double albums would make a much better single album – and, generally speaking, I go along with that – but on this occasion, I’ve decided to put out a lot of songs, many of which are about similar subjects, so the listener can choose the four or five tunes that they want to hear that day. There’s a bit of variety.”
Old cohort Thomas Dolby was brought in to oversee production and his fanatical attention to detail has ensured that sound quality has been maintained through the full hour’s music. “Thomas is very fussy about what he does, especially as the album was recorded in England, which involved him being away from his wife for a year.” Dolby’s wife cracked the whip in the end, though, and the album was mixed in LA, much more convenient for the Dolby household.
LA is most certainly not County Durham, so what did McAloon make of the city of eternal suburb ‘n’ freeway?
“I like LA. in a perverse sort of way. It’s a bit different from Newcastle! But as I don’t drive, I’d be no good there myself.”
Although Paddy is obviously well pleased with Jordan: The Comeback, he is the last person to pass any kind of critical judgement on it: “I tend to damn records in one listen and let everybody know. then, three listens later, I love that some song but I’m too embarrassed to own up to having gone out and bought the record after slamming it.”
The type of songs Paddy will own up to loving are “Dancing Queen” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You” by Abba and whole of West Side Story. If that strikes a chord, then try “Looking For Atlantis”, “Machine Gun Ibiza”, “Paris Smith” or the sublime “Doo Wop ln Harlem” from the new record. The discerning will not be disappointed.