Here’s one I made earlier
Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon, a long-time recluse, is releasing a new album, 17 years late. It’s the first of many lost classics under his bed, says Dan Cairns
In a bar in Durham, Paddy McAloon is talking about his new album. Or, rather, about an album, Let’s Change the World with Music, that he recorded 17 years ago. Since 1992, it has languished in one of the many boxes of unreleased material that have taken on an almost mythical status for fans of Prefab Sprout, the band he formed with his brother Martin in Co Durham in 1977. “Ah, the legendary boxes,” the 52-year-old says, affably, but with an unmistakable air of discomfort. “I can sort of understand the whole mystique about them. But it’s become a hypothetical nowhere land.” Until now. Let’s Change the World lifts the lid for the first time.
One of the boxes is rumoured to contain a concept album entitled, ambitiously, Earth: The Story So Far; another, a song sequence entirely about Michael Jackson. On Meet the New Mozart, a track from what is the first new Prefab release in eight years, McAloon sings of the titular wunderkind: “He’s in the bed where commerce sleeps with art.” To the despair of his fans (and, no doubt, his record label), McAloon has proved singularly averse to such pragmatic coitus. Were he a more opportunistic soul, he might even now be dusting down that Jackson album and joining the dash for Wacko cash. But his whole career, since the brief but heady Top 10 days in 1988, with perfect pop singles such as the King of Rock’n’Roll, has been characterised by a determined retreat from the pressure of fame and expectation.
“I can’t downplay the past,” McAloon says. “I thoroughly enjoyed it on lots of levels. We had some good times, but a part of me was reluctant to participate. And I hit 40, and thought, ‘I’ve got to do something else.’ I could hear my voice in my head, and I didn’t like it, I didn’t like myself. I thought that I was underdeveloped as a person, that I’d overdeveloped one little part of me. I’d be in Paris, doing six interviews a day for five days, and I’d think, ‘Where are all these words going? Where is the market for all this blabber?’ ” He laughs again, aware that he’s repeating the exercise. “And you go back to your lonely room, and for the first few days you’re trying to get your voice out of your head.
“I could see it wasn’t good for me. As a doctor could find himself hooked on the drugs he administers, introspection is morphine for a songwriter like me. You go off down that tunnel, trawling your imagination, and you come back with this picture of yourself as someone who is enormously accomplished, has a great back story, then you go into the lonely room and… it’s disjointed, it’s inauthentic.”
McAloon’s appearance and wardrobe today – black fedora, tinted glasses, tartan trousers, a flowing, Howard Hughes-like thicket of silver beard, a cane – are unrecognisable from the lean, leather-jacketed, crop-haired young blade who sits astride a motorbike on the cover of the band’s 1985 masterpiece, Steve McQueen. If not quite a disguise, his God-as-dressed-by-WillyWonka look is certainly a statement, and possibly armour, too. But then McAloon always came across as an artist with a fear not of failure, but of success. In recent years, this has been compounded by serious health problems, including temporary hearing loss and a degenerative eye condition.
Now, though, his flight from his back catalogue is being interrupted by an album that can justly be called a lost classic. Recorded as the follow-up to 1990’s sprawling but brilliant allegorical epic, Jordan: The Comeback, Let’s Change the World never made it beyond the demo stage (the tapes have been restored and refurbished by the engineer Calum Malcolm). Instead, McAloon began his long march away from the charts and the production-line time frames. This unofficial retirement was shocking to people who had, since the band released their first single in 1982, regarded McAloon as the British Bacharach, capable of astonishing lyrical acuity and complexity, and with a gift for melody arguably not heard in this country since the heyday of another musician with the initials P and Mc. Let’s Change the World rekindles that love, but it sharpens the feeling of loss, too.
“I am the representative of the optimistic person who sang those songs,” their writer says. “I was 35 when I made it, and I sound like I don’t have problems, that I have things to say, that there’s a purpose. And I thought, ‘Yeah, you used to be able to do this, and do it really well; and it wasn’t so troublesome to you.’ But if I really think back to the time when I was working on it, I had dark days. But I sound young, that’s a physical fact. So the record we’re talking about is old – but I’m a younger person on it. And that’s a strange responsibility.”
Listening to Music Is a Princess, one of the album’s standouts, is a conflicting experience. On the one hand, the typically dextrous analogies do that familiar McAloon one-two of being both expertly fine-tuned and emotionally depthcharged; on another, you listen to the circular melody, never quite a verse, never quite a chorus, and it’s heartbreaking. First, because, well, it’s so beautiful, it just is. Second, because you get such a clear sense of a supreme talent that you can’t help but mourn its subsequent concealment, and feel compassion for the concealer.
Except, sitting there twinkling like Kris Kringle, he doesn’t look as if he wants our compassion. Quite the contrary: the Prefab main man conveys the impression of someone who has long feared an eventuality, then finds the reality nowhere near as bad as he imagined. I would swap 1,000 workaday songwriting toilers for one Paddy McAloon, a (semi) hidden pop genius in our midst. More to the point, if Let’s Change the World is anything to go by, I want to look inside those boxes.