STILL KING OF ROCK’N’ROLL
Once every ten years, Paddy McAloon packs up his flightcases and suitcases and leaves his home near Consett and goes on the road with his band Prefab Sprout. Last year, he did this with no record to promote and no record deal. But in 1990 he toured in support of Jordan: The Comeback, a 19-track album set in places such as Harlem, Atlantis and Ibiza, and featuring songs about Jesse James, Elvis Presley, God and the archangel Michael.
Clever, elevational, vauntingly ambitious stuff, for sure. He may, pop -famously, be the tongue-in-cheek King of Rock & Roll, but on a clear day McAloon can see Broadway from his County Durham window.
“Playing live is not new enough for me every night,” he says, explaining his long absences from the stage. “Do it once and you’ve climbed the mountain. Do it twice and …” He shrugs.
So, after the Jordan tour, McAloon went back to doing what he does best: being a reclusive, master, “eccentric” songwriter. Over the next decade he would write for Jimmy Nail (Cowboy Dreams), Cher (The Gunman) and Frances Ruffelle’s 1995’s British Eurovision contender God Watch Over You. Prefab Sprout released one album, 1997’s Andromeda Heights, before ending their long association with Sony with a Greatest Hits in 1999. Paddy McAloon would also spend the 1990s writing and demo-ing seven other (unreleased) albums. But today in his west London hotel room, we are here to discuss an eighth Prefab Sprout record: The Gunman And Other Stories, an album that, essentially, is a collection of his songs for other people (mainly Nail).
“It’s like a liberation writing for other people,” he says in his soft, measured Geordie burr, “thinking, this is not for me. It also means you have to be slightly more straight in what you do.”
Certainly, The Gunman veers towards the easy side of listening. With the Nail and Cher songs already in place, McAloon completed the circle on the cowboy/wild west theme with new songs Cornfield Ablaze and Farmyard Cat (“I’ve got nine lives and I rhyme with mat”). Overly-literal and cheesy, both seem unsure whether they’re meant for musical versions of Shane or Blazing Saddles.
Similarly, in the shovel-shaped hands of Nail, McAloon’s songs are supper club, faux country music. When McAloon wraps his floating vocals round I’m A Troubled Man, though, the pathos is prairie-wide. Returned to the source, Cowboy Dreams reclaims its wistful elegance. His version of the traditional The Streets Of Laredo features a new section he wrote; he is hoping it will be “absorbed” into the song, “so that someone in the future might think it was all a traditional song, and they’ll use bits of mine”.
Forty-four this month and married four years ago (he has two young daughters), this musician-out-of-time is increasingly concerned with leaving behind a body of work. This appears to be motivated in part by an eye condition: the jelly inside his eyes is shrinking, tearing holes in the retina. The release of The Gunman was delayed last month while McAloon had surgery to insert a third silicon buckle into his eyes. “I’ve never been told it’s fixed permanently, but no-one ever says you will go blind. But I don’t feel too sure about it.”
So McAloon ploughs on regardless. He seems happy to concede that The Gunman is in part a stopgap record; he has bigger musical visions to convey.
There’s his “Michael Jackson one”, Behind The Veil, an album “about a child star who goes on to this weird life.” Then there’s Let’s Change The World Through Music, Earth: The Story So Far, The Atomic Hymnbook (“a bit more questioning than a normal gospel record. There’s big room for doubt on a Prefab Sprout religious album!”), 20th Century Magic, featuring a song about the Dome called Twilight Of The Pimps, and Doomed Poets Volume One. “It’s half instrumental, half about modern kids. Elegy For A Ramraider, wait for that one, that’s a good one!” he grins. But most pressing for McAloon is I Trawl The Megahertz, an instrumental piece featuring a woman talking about her voice. The McAloon who thinks he hasn’t written enough “good stuff” yet, who worries that the quality of his voice is diminishing, likes this idea. It’s him, but it’s not him.
On last year’s tour, McAloon sported a massive, bushy, grey beard. The truth now: was he playing up to the myth of McAloon, prolific songwriter, concept album specialist and Geordie hermit? No, he smiles. Simply, at home he doesn’t shave; in ten years, that’s a lot of hair.
“I didn’t realise how weird I looked until I found a picture in my suitcase from the tour,” he says, sheepishly. “You know how things get out of proportion a”
Then he remembers something, this quietest, gentlest of geniuses: another album waiting patiently on his shelf. It’s called Geoff & Isolde.
“It’s like an opera, but with tiny bits,” he enthuses. “I can see that this’ll take me a long time to do as well.”