Beyond the Darkness
PREFAB SPROUT’S PADDY McALOON ALMOST WENT BLIND. THAT’S WHEN HE TURNED TO RADIO FOR INSPIRATION, HE TELLS ALEX O’CONNELL
PADDY McALOON is showing me his gadgets. “You can probably see them,” he says. “I don’t know how squeamish you are, but if I look over there you’ll see I’ve got a device in each.” Small mechanisms, the size of peanuts, bulge under the surface of his eyes. “I have one in this corner here and another which is threatening to come out, poking through. Do you see it?”
Five years ago McAloon, the Geordie singer and songwriter of the Eighties thinking person’s pop band Prefab Sprout, developed retinal detachment which threatened to blind him and for a while rendered his world a fog. Usually the retina is attached to the inner surface of the eye but if there is a rip, fluid can get underneath and the retina becomes detached -like wallpaper peeling off a damp wall.
It’s best known as a boxing injury, which develops after a thwack to the head.
“Mine just came on,” he says, cheerily, when we meet at Baltic gallery in Gateshead. McAloon wrote some of the most perfect pop songs of the Eighties, releasing albums such as Steve McQueen -all scratchy guitars and arch, university lyrics. He had the effete louchness of a young Morrissey, the originality of, well, himself and the attitude of an articulate Liam Gallagher. “Who are my rivals?” he famously asked a journalist while discussing his songwriting craft.
Many albums later, he’s as modest as a white wine spritzer. He lives in Consett with his family and has abandoned Andromeda Heights, the studio he had specially built near his house. He’d rather work at home to be near his wife and children.
He even grew a sort of folkie Nemo beard, although he’s since shaved it off.
A prolific reader and writer -throughout his career he has scribbled almost a song a day, including hits such as Cars and Girls, When Love Breaks Down and The King of Rock’n’Roll – his injury meant he was unable to write in his usual way.
But his convalescence has produced some striking work. His solo album, I Trawl the Megahertz, released this week on the Newcastle label, Kitchenware, that signed his band in 1982, sounds like the work of part self-indulgent madman, part genius.
Largely spoken word, set to luscious instrumentals, the lyrics are mostly not Mc-Aloon’s but borrowed from fragments of radio conversation weaved into narratives.
The title track, a 25-minute monologue which includes the line “Her’s is the wingspan of the quotidian angel” is either the soundtrack to heaven or an offcut from a low-budget meditation tape, depending on your religion. It’s certainly a grower, as they say.
Thankfully, McAloon, now a publicity-shy 45-year-old recluse who rarely does interviews and confesses that he slept not a wink the night before this one, is happy to provide footnotes.
“The album is about the idea of looking through your memories, like someone might look through the stations on a radio,” he says, sensibly.
“Before I had the op I was looking through the world as though a giant raindrop.
They gave me drugs to repair my eyes (since the ‘buckles’ were inserted his blind- spots have gone but reading is still difficult) but they stopped me being able to focus.
“You can’t do anything productive, leaning forward was frowned upon. So what do you do? I started to make up lyrics from listening to things. Part of the fun was pulling them from different worlds, a phone-in on Radio 3 or 4, or a documentary.
I would leave the tape recorder going and then, later, fast forward through it. I got the first paragraph from the radio…I wanted each paragraph to roughly refer to an event in your life.”
Did he listen to obscure Lithuanian stations to increase the random factor? “I felt more comfortable going through Radio 4,” he laughs. “You’re not going to get ‘quotidian’ on a phone-in late at night. It’s like Borges trying to get a coincidence of events that might happen in eternity.” Help, I’m losing him.
“Sometimes I had to cheat and make it up,” he says.
McAloon’s voice features only briefly near the end of the album, almost as an afterthought. Instead, that of an American female dominates. It’s sensual, lulling and hugely effective in giving gravitas to lovely, lyrical comments, previously thrown away in their original context on phone-ins and chatshows. It loses its charm only slightly when you learn that she’s a commodities broker called Yvonne.
“I was looking for a woman who would be the opposite of myself,” says McAloon. “I wanted to make a record that was me but wasn’t me so I could hide a bit, because I don’t like listening to records with me on them.”
Didn’t he feel that stringing someone else’s words together was cheating? “Yes, you are actually taking someone else’s work,” he admits, but seems unworried by the possible legal implications. “I told myself that I wasn’t too bad because I was taking something so out of context, using it for poetic use when it was much more factual.”
His working methods, at least, are reminiscent of Brian Eno and David Byrne, who worked with radio on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. “I’m aware it’s not entirely original,” he laughs. “I have a problem that I don’t think my work is original enough.”
The album was relatively cheap, costing £25,000. Nowadays, McAloon owns his records and puts them out through EMI. “I had a discussion with (the producer) Trevor Horn once and he said, arty records deserve arty budgets. I know what he means, you can’t go to a record company and expect them to give you loads of money if you can’t recoup.”
On the future of Prefab Sprout he says that it’s handy having his brother, the bass player Martin McAloon, in the band because he understands the need to take a break. “My approach is that the trouble with bands is that you get locked into roles. But we should make another record soon.”
Wendy Smith, the band’s guitarist and singer, is now a teacher “with her own life” and McAloon is unclear as to whether she’s involved in the next chapter. Not that he knows what it is, exactly, although it will be “more traditional, with guitars”.
He has five projects fully written from the past three years, but hasn’t chosen one yet. He must be the hardest working pop scribe in the world. “Well, if you don’t tour or do anything else …” he says. “I moved to a new house this year and in that time I’ve written three albums. Since January, 12 to 15 short pieces which I’m pleased with.”
But isn’t he tempted at least to attempt to write another perfect pop song which would become the soundtrack of a summer?
“No.” he says. “It’s an awful thing to say because it admits your limitations. Now I’ve defined the outline of what I do. I don’t think I’ll do anything better than what I’ve done. As a writer I no longer sit down and think, ‘I want to write a hit’. A hit is more complicated, it has to do with reaching an audience that might be interested in me.
“If I wrote something that Linkin Park or Justin Timberlake could possibly do, then it’s not going to be a hit if it comes from me. I’m an older guy, people are very blinkered.” Justin Timberlake dueting with Paddy McAloon. Now that’s something I’d love to see.