Paddy McAloon talks songwriting and sadness
At his peak, Paddy McAloon was revered as a pop deity, his group Prefab Sprout combining the lush immaculacy of ABC and Scritti Politti with the witty literacy of Elvis Costello and Morrissey. These days, he’s a silver-bearded recluse with a trove of unfinished projects. What happened? With the reissue of his solo meisterwerk I Trawl The Megahertz, Chris Roberts talks health issues and the nature of unfulfillable desire with the hermit of Witton Gilbert.
Paddy McAloon laughs heartily at the myth that he’s become a brooding enigmatic recluse. He gets out in Newcastle “all the time”, when health allows. “People say hello, take pictures. I suppose if you don’t put out many records or do interviews then you’re a ‘recluse’. But let’s face it: too much is known about too many people. Too much. And it kills it. I’ve always thought that. It’s not a great look, everyone knowing what you had for breakfast. Photographs of your food? Really? I don’t get that world. But it’s the modern world.”
When kids see his long white hair and beard and he notices their parents looking awkward, he says no, he isn’t Santa, he’s Santa’s brother, and asks if they’ve been naughty or nice. He hasn’t been on a plane in many years – going through an airport departure lounge the day 9/11 appeared on its TV screens put him off “the travel thing”. And then there’s “the hearing, the vertigo, the eyes, bringing up a family… you always mean to do more, and then you let things slip away, and suddenly you’re old. The guy who was in mirrors in the 80s and 90s has gone. He had brown hair and was slender. Now there’s some old geezer looking at me!” Life’s a miracle. He’s aware he’s held in reverence, but questions its usefulness (“It’s a bit like someone looking over your shoulder at every sentence you write”) and never wants to end up thinking he’s “some sort of big deal”. Couldn’t bear to be special.
Now 61, McAloon is in London for only the second time in around 20 years, nominally to promote the reissue of his 2003 “solo” masterpiece I Trawl The Megahertz. He’s a delight; warm, friendly, modest and articulate. He likes to explore a tangent, whether it’s literature, progressive rock (he defends Tangerine Dream and the “admirable purity of intention” of early Genesis), or something this writer has forgotten ever saying in a Bowie documentary once which he wants to discuss. And while he’s justifiably proud of the genre-defying Megahertz (rare for someone who’s his own harshest critic), which now comes out under the Prefab Sprout name, he’s happy to muse over his old band’s hallowed contributions to gently subversive sophisti-pop, from 1984’s Swoon and 1985’s Steve McQueen to their three Top 10 albums, From Langley Park To Memphis (1988), Jordan: The Comeback (1990) and Andromeda Heights (1997), to his much-speculated-over unreleased material.
Though 2009’s Let’s Change The World With Music and 2013’s Crimson/Red reaffirmed his status as the old magician, McAloon’s the first to admit he hasn’t released as much music as he might have. What he has done is written plenty (“I just tend to put them in a box”). He prefers the process of writing to that of recording (“The song is the script. The record is the made film”). That said, as he puts it in his new sleevenotes, “Why would anyone write a whole new album then put it aside to write another, then another? Are they hoping that as long as there’s unfinished business the man with the scythe will go elsewhere? Is it simply perfectionism run riot? Could it be that the hypothetical is much more beautiful, and certainly less disappointing, than the actual?”
Record Collector posits that this passage is reminiscent of the posthumously-published The Book Of Disquiet, an extended reverie on the daydream’s supremacy over reality by Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Before I can blush at my pretentiousness, McAloon is enthusing, “Yes, yes, tremendous book”, and critiquing its structure, then recommending Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art Of Joseph Cornell by the poet Charles Simic. “It’s one for flaneurs.” McAloon enjoys being a flaneur himself, “Going out on the street and reading atmospheres, thinking about things. For years I felt guilty, thought I was wasting time, but that’s just how I build up a head of steam. At 5 o’ clock, the hour feels right, and I get into writing something. In the home studio, if I’m not falling over, I’ll work for an hour and a half a day, maximum. Piece some things together. I hesitate to say it, because if you say you’ve been working on a record for six years, it doesn’t mean it’s… [Michael Jackson’s] Thriller, y’know? And yeah, we’ve all got a hundred novels we haven’t written. But I do have them. They just go into a box, on a cassette. Sometimes they’re too date-stamped. Something on television or in the zeitgeist has energised you, but the recording process is slower than the writing, so you end up with: why did I write 10 songs about Dolly The Sheep? Another song might’ve been a great comment on the Blair years. Twilight Of The Pimps was a good song in 1998; it’s not now. Unless you’re putting out a sort of retrospective, with annotations. But that’s just not a thrilling notion…” Many of us would beg to differ.
Some things hurt more than cars and girls. For all that we would have loved more records, Paddy’s health has hurled some frustrating challenges at him. By means of explanation, he hands me a note on which he’s written “Meniere’s Disease”. He’s used to people not understanding, or spelling it incorrectly. “It slows me down,” he sighs. “All the time. Balance isn’t good.” It must be emphasised here that he is jovial, upbeat company, in fine spirits. Clearly, though, he’s endured a fair bit. Is it something he’s got better at managing with time? “Depends on the intensity of it,” he replies. “There are bouts where it’s terrible because you can’t move. Once, I walked into a record shop and it was like I’d had a gallon of gin. I mean, instantaneously. I was lying on the floor, not caring who could see me. You can’t move your head an inch without being sick. And I just have to wait for that to pass. And then your hearing does strange things. Oh, it’s just a condition… but also, with the tinnitus a few years ago, it’s progressive. So in terms of work, there’s not a lot of pleasure to be had from two loudspeakers. It’s like you’re living in a mono world. The direction isn’t right. The pleasurable aspect of music almost evaporates. That’s just… hard. I try.”
He worries, too, about having to promote something afterwards. “To talk about it incessantly for three months would kill it stone dead.” Isn’t that putting the cart before the horse? “There’s truth in that. Maybe it’s the more basic thing of ageing. When I started all these mad projects, I was never going to get old! In, say, 1991, you’d write something quickly, it’d be hanging in the atmosphere… you felt you could do it any time. Then you start to wonder how many records you can physically do before you pop off. Strange thing is, when I do go to record, some whimsical process takes over: I never reach for ‘the 10 best unreleased songs’. When we first got in a studio, I didn’t immediately reach for the Steve McQueen songs. It’s possibly… over-thinking. Or more likely it’s just enjoyment of the day-to-day.”
He mulls further on the joys of the unrealised. “The unmade ones are as real as the ones that are on vinyl, but I just haven’t committed. Maybe it’s a kind of weakness. It’s unusual, though, that Bowie, in that Low/ Station To Station period, was so smart as to actually do them, to record all his floating thoughts. And I remember reading one of Pink Floyd saying that when Syd Barrett saw how prosaic being a pop star was, he lost interest. I thought: yes. How could he possibly have found being in the back of a van with the rest of the lads interesting? When your head is out there, working all the time…”
McAloon detours into more specifically musical matters: the greatness of Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, who he worked with, and his dislike of the phrase “guilty pleasures”. He recalls listening to late-night radio under the bedclothes during the 70s. “All this music was new and strange. I’d get so fired up by it all. Even Genesis put it down – oh, we were young and didn’t have girlfriends so we wrote about mythological characters. Yes but, you know, everyone writes about their girlfriends. So… where I’m going with this is it all feeds into Megahertz…”
When that first appeared as a solo album 16 years ago, he was second-guessing himself “about the lack of cars, girls, hot dogs and jumping frogs” and thus decided it wasn’t a Prefab Sprout record. “Time passes and these are now quaint scruples,” he reasons. Making it, he felt afresh the “wild possibilities” of his teenage years. Which was some relief, as he was then suffering near-blindness due to detached retinas. Eye surgery followed. Intrigued by radio chat-shows and documentaries, he taped and cut up voices, draping them across an orchestral score which expressed his love of Ravel, Debussy, Boulez. “Trying to capture the elusive” and “you are my one shot at glory” are examples of these haunting, found snippets, as is “the ghost of a chance”. The 22-minute “title track” is one of the most unique, moving pieces you’ll ever hear. Another track, I’m 49, whispers, “Music can work on the level of anaesthetic.” It lifted him up, too. “How much optimism can you summon for something? Sometimes, writing, it’s as if there’s some part of you that’s jaded. Other times, you’re seeing the world like someone’s just cleaned the windows.
“And, yes: ‘mega hurts’ – pun intended,” he adds. It’s evidently one of his favourite musical children, even if it sees one of the finest practitioners of words and melody in British pop parking both of those talents. “Yes, but I do bring my lyrical attention to the found words,” he asserts. “And I wrote a lot more of them than I’ve generally admitted. The tone of the voice, the rhythm. It’s a record which leaves you with space for your own thoughts.
“I think here I was trying to make the record that I would have liked to have existed, when I was ill,” he continues of Megahertz. “You’re lying around, you’re not mortally ill, you’ve just got to be careful: you can’t sit up normally because of the tugging of the eyes against the back of the retinas. Anyway, you’re listening to mainly audiobooks and those are your input. You’re used to generating, but now you’re listening. And when I got well enough, that’s what came out. Originally, it was instrumental, but I got attached to these phrases, and then… it floats. It only recently occurred to me that the chief chord sequence is the same as the intro to Desire As from Steve McQueen. And why the voices? I have always, since before I knew what Modernism was, liked the idea of collage. I’d see a Picasso picture, or a TS Eliot poem, and go, well, this is different. I had a fascination with all this avant-garde stuff that ran in parallel with the obvious 70s pop chart things which we all love. Stockhausen… even before hearing him, again, I’d read about him and the possibility was brilliant. The unmade, the unheard, is a rich source of enjoyment.”
Prefab Sprout committed many magical things to public record, from Lions In My Own Garden: Exit Someone, their first single in 1982, onwards. They sang of love, yearning, religion, showbiz, the macho ache, the shiver of the fur, being quoted out of context and urban blues. And they did this via the medium of popular music. (Even Cher and Rod Stewart have interpreted McAloon’s songs). Does he look back on his hit parade years with affection, or agonise over them?
“I look back and wonder why I agonised,” he exclaims. “If I see, say, a Top Of The Pops we did, I think: you looked OK. What was upsetting you? You were in your 20s! I can’t say I was above trying to write a song to get on Radio 1; I was just never very good at it. You’d look at the charts and go, yeah, Simon Bates is not going to play Appetite or Bonny as much as he’s going to play Paul Young. I suppose I could have observed some basic principles and started a song with a chorus – that might have helped. It was like some world you were supposed to break into. But your attention would wander and you’d go home and write Jordan, ha ha!”
Isn’t it ironic that his biggest hit was an ironic comment on one-hit wonders? “It is,” he exclaims. “The King Of Rock’n’Roll – well, that came true! But then other songs have developed an after-life. Cars & Girls stalled outside the Top 40 but people seem to talk about it. From Langley Park was a pretty big-selling album.”
When Andromeda Heights appeared, Prisoner Of The Past and Electric Guitars felt perfect, both wryly self-aware and innately lovely… “As pop songs, I think I did get certain things right there,” he allows. “Should have had Neil [Conti] play live drums on them, but by then I’d retreated into my house a bit. Song-wise, they’re crafted in an old-fashioned sense, but they’re not old-fashioned. Yet it went sailing over the times, which belonged to Britpop. Which I couldn’t… I couldn’t… no. It wasn’t me. I couldn’t believe that was passing itself off as something grown from the roots of Lennon and McCartney. The Beatles weren’t like that. Of course, the nonsense that fills your head about your sense of place in things, where you fit in, is a daft and foolish distraction. That just washes away. If something’s good, in any era, it’s good, and that’s usually all it has to be.”
Here’s to the good and great Paddy McAloon’s health, genius and appetite. We hope for further surprises and comebacks. We won’t let this star go.