Alternate Version of this intervew published in HMV Magazine
IT WAS A PRETTY ordinary Sunday really. A Sunday on which The Observer covered ‘style’ in all its mid-eighties manifestations, and got it sadly wrong. It seems that enough time has elapsed since the initial Style Wars flare-up for Fleet Street to want to join the fray. A death knell for any self-respecting clothes horse, l would have thought.
Which brings us to Paddy McAloon. Prefab Sprout’s singer-songwriter is wearing a green Marks and Spencer pullover, baggy trousers and tartan plimsolls. He’s grown a beard and adopted a pair of wire-framed sunglasses since we last met, but more of that later. Fashion foibles are easy to spot in an industry geared to high turnover. But it’s what the style merchants leave out that could turn a few heads. Let’s start with Prefab Sprout.
Paddy McAloon’s dutiful parents wanted their dreamy eldest son to be a priest. The sensitive boy seemed a natural choice for the Catholic clergy, displaying a lively, if slightly awkward, outlook on the people and places that so enriched his childhood years in smalltown County Durham.
“The years at the seminary training for the priesthood do tend to dominate any recollection of my childhood years. I remember thinking as I settled in, ‘Thank God nobody’s pious. All the lads seem to know dirty jokes and like football.’ My preconceptions were entirely different. You know, everybody jostling to be altar boys or become the star pupil at Bible reading . .”
At eleven years old, each day at the seminary brought a new sensation to the impressionable McAloon. ‘Chasing the crack‘, that most Irish of pastimes, in part made up for the lack of girls. “Anyway,” he says, his eyes still twinkling. “There was always the holidays!”
At eighteen, he waved the Brothers goodbye, and although he was never to enter the priesthood, his years at the seminary still stain his acute, cut-up perception of the world around him.
“I’m quite religious, but not in a conventional Catholic way. I don’t go to mass every day. I’m as cynical as anyone about organised religion, but I believe in God.”
Any number of Catholic luminaries would have given the same answer, from Bruce Springsteen’s windscreen visions to Scorsese’s loaded iconographic symbolism. The ever-candid McAloon admits that the almost surreal imagery central to Catholicism serves to fire a whole series of other images he weaves into his songs. So what happened next?
“For a number of reasons I decided to go to Newcastle Poly to read English. For a start I loved reading, and it also served to placate my parents while allowing me ample time to rehearse the group — in a garage, of all places!”
McAloon, never one to stray far from home, took a job pumping petrol at his father’s garage Prefab Sprout’s practice sessions continued in earnest.
“My period at the garage was like something out of that film The Last Picture Show. It was County Durham’s answer to a Mid-West one horse town, only not as exciting. I‘d hate to over romanticise. because I loathed it, but it was a period crucial to the development of Prefab Sprout.”
PADDY McALOON was nineteen, his brother Martin was fifteen and together with a drummer they set about making a sound that didn’t depend on musical dexterity. You see, they still couldn’t play their instruments properly.
But in time it got easier. They played hard and saved hard and scraped together enough money to finance their own single, the sublime Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone). The title’s initials spelled Limoges, where the pining McAloon’s girlfriend had gone to study.
The single kindled the interest of Keith Armstrong, whose fledgling Newcastle based Kitchenware label could perfectly accommodate McAloon’s mysterious pop songs. There was an added bonus — Armstrong was about the same age as McAloon and could loosely identify with the diverse strands that composed his songwriting world view. It was Armstrong’s drive that deflected CBS Records’ gaze North Eastwards. Prefab Sprout had hit town.
An album’s worth of songs had already been recorded in a tiny Newcastle studio for a pittance. These were subsequently leased to CBS, who seemed happy to give the single-minded McAloon total artistic control.
Swoon was released in early ’84 and polarised the critics. It became one of the most sadly neglected LPs of the year, when it should have carried away most of the prizes. One or two unhappy live appearances followed, but McAloon’s vision that “One day we’ll sell loads of records on our own terms and blow the criticism away,” remained intact.
1985 heralds a new era for Prefab Sprout. McAloon aims to unclutter his material, pay less lip service to the novels and travelogues that have so impressed him, and articulate his gut reaction to more everyday things.
This changed mood prevails to some extent on the new LP, Steve McQueen, a collection of heart-tugging songs whose half-finished hooks tear at your insides and renew perspectives on some age old themes.
With songs like Faron Young la one hit wonder country and western singer), McAloon deals with a counter culture imposed on us from which we can gain nothing except gratuitous fake emotion. When The Angels is a less than obvious tribute to Marvin Gaye, who in the song is taken away because Heaven is jealous of his voice. Goodbye Lucille No. 1 is an older hand (brother) offering advice to a love torn boy who’s been dumped by his girlfriend: “Life’s not complete ‘til your heart’s skipped a. . . beat.”
By delving into his subconscious and crossing the results with a variety of buzzwords, loaded phrases and hard hitting responses, McAloon is redefining the pop song. Only problem is not enough people recognise this . . . yet.
His previous work contained more than a fair sprinkling of literary references, which led to more than one charge of ‘artiness’. McAloon is aware of the problem:
“That’s a failing which I hope to dump completely. It’s a real weakness. At its worst. you’re feeding off someone else’s work. You should create your own world, instead of reproducing a book you’re impressed with. That’s so sixth form. I hate it in my work and in other people’s. If I’m going to name names (Go on! Go on!) then . . . Lloyd Cole, he drives me mad. Away from his film references and groovy French existentialists, he could probably write very well.”
McAloon neatly pinpoints Cole’s stumbling blocks. Why feel the need to drop names like Truman Capote. Simone de Beauvoir and Eve Marie-Saint? By the same token, why did Paddy feel it necessary to call the new Prefab Sprout LP Steve McQueen . . .?
“Smart guy. You’re pulling me up here.” He smiles into his hand, which moves up from his beard to cup his mouth. ‘Well yeah. I latched onto him not because of his film career. but . . . it sounds kooky this, hippyish, I’m burying myself . . . but I like the sound of his name. I had a vision one night that the LP should be called Steve McQueen.
“l like playing around with the idea of how people will see us. The LP cover is the three of us on a motorbike, one of McQueen’s trademarks, yet something you’d never associate with Prefab Sprout. So it’s a pretty superficial link between the title and the album. It’s eye-catching and sounds great on the ear. If it gets people’s backs up. then great.”
And this from a man who bears more than a passing resemblance to the cancer-fighting McQueen of a few years back in his aviator sunglasses and new beard. McAloon well knows the inherent value of a little image building on the side.
If justice prevails, the Thomas Dolby-produced Steve McQueen LP should see Prefab Sprout upset the current pop aristocracy. Whatever the outcome, it’s the other, rather more modest, benefits associated with a songwriting career that so please McAloon —the happiness his invalid father feels at the progress of his two sons, the fact that his mother pretends to hate his singing voice are just two. But let’s close with a more trivial subject altogether—the one we came in on.
“I’ve never been very keen at the thought of belonging to one musical movement, because fashion is so fickle, so unenduring. I live very simply in Consett. County Durham and view the world from there I don’t feel obliged to swap ideas with the smart set in a London club or coffee bar. That sort of opportunism just doesn’t appeal.”
Street cred? Drop dead!