Exaltation, renunciation, sickness and silence – the legend of Prefab Sprout is a confounding one, yet their main man abides. Is he the sanest mad genius in pop?
“I will write a song about anything” says Paddy McAloon. “That’s my dark secret.”
RECENTLY, FILM-MAKER SPIKE LEE invited songwriter Paddy McAloon to lunch in a posh London restaurant. It prompted a rare excursion into the semi-public sphere by the otherwise reticent Prefab Sprout main man, and some initial bemusement.
“One of the first things I said to Spike was, I know! You’re looking for a Santa Claus for a Christmas movie,” says McAloon. “Morgan Freeman’s turned you down.”
The reality was perhaps even more unlikely. Lee’s younger brother Cinque had written a film, a musical based on the songs of Prefab Sprout. “Spike went through the script with me,” explains McAloon. “On every page there’s a lyric from one of the songs. Surreal.”
Sat in a hotel room in his native Durham, clad in crimson velvet and carrying a silver-topped cane, his long beard and snowy locks enhancing an air of twinkly wisdom, the 61 -year-old McAloon could certainly pass for St Nick in mufti, or perhaps a Hogwarts’ Potions Professor on sabbatical. Born Catholic, educated in a seminary, but schooled in song by Stephen Sondheim and Jimmy Webb, he joined bassist brother Martin, gossamer-voiced Wendy Smith and, later, drummer Neil Conti, to forge a sui generis brand of highly literate, harmonically complex pop on ’80s albums Swoon and Steve McQueen, before swapping hit singles for industry-confounding concept albums. From the mid-’90s, he slid into the realm of eremitic legend, from whence rumours of unreleased opuses (with titles like 20th Century Magic, Doomed Poets, Zorro The Fox) and even the occasional actual unreleased opus, emerged. Already dogged by acute tinnitus, a year ago he suffered “another ear disaster”: Meniere’s disease, affecting the blood supplv to his inner ear.
“So I get dizzy and I fall over,” he says. “Hence the stick. I couldn’t hear properly and a lot of the time I still can’t. A bad one for a musician!”
With releases at a premium (McAloon’s last ‘current’ album, Crimson/Red, came in 201 3) and Cinque Lee’s Sprout movie in turnaround, McAloon’s manager and longtime Kitchenware label boss Keith Armstrong has his work cut out retro-engineering the singer-songwriter’s career (good job he also manages Jake Bugg). That said, a McAloon composition, Who Designed The Snowflake, has just been covered by Rod Stewart, and in February, a remastered version of I Trawl The Megahertz, the record McAloon conceived while recovering from multiple operations on his retinas in the late-’90s and released under his own name in 2003, emerges on CD and vinyl.
It is an unusual record even in the McAloon/Sprouts canon, being a lyric-light collection dominated by a hypnotic, 22-minute orchestral piece backing a monologue written by McAloon, and intoned by one Yvonne Connors in the style of a late-night radio phone-in confessional. It’s heart-breaking and beautiful.
“I felt it was a good thing that kind of got missed a bit,” says McAloon of the reissue, which now carries the Prefab Sprout imprimatur. “OK, it’s not Steve McQueen. It isn’t Swoon. But maybe it is the kind of thing you might expect me to do if I was pushing myself.”
It makes sense that I Trawl The Megahertz is coming out on vinyl at last. It’s an album for heads…
My way of saying it is that it’s a headphone record. It’s its own little world. It won’t suit everyone all the time – what record does? I think I made something – after I had been ill, lying down – that I wish I’d had when I’d been ill, lying down. I’d been listening to audio books, and radio phone-ins, and I thought if only these things had had music, too, something I could have got lost in. I think that’s what drove it.
When pop and rock musicians generally dabble in classical…
…It’s an uneasy mix, yes. I’m naming no names, but from ’68 onwards rock people tried to do it. Maybe they were looking for a kind of validation – “We’re better than that three-minute thing.” Personally, I don’t think I completely got it right. I hate to rat on the product, but if I’m being honest I had ambitions for the 20-minute piece that I don’t think I quite pulled off. But I was caught up in this notion of being lost in this cosmos of sound, with this woman’s voice telling you fragments from her past. It spoke to the part of me that was still interested in progressive rock.
Was there much music in your home as you grew up?
There was music. Both my parents could play the piano, although there wasn’t a piano in the house when I was little. They could both bash something out in a non-tutored way. We had a few records. But they didn’t spend a lot of money on themselves… They didn’t have a lot of things. I spend more in a week on myself than my parents ever spent on themselves in a lifetime.
Did you have a pop music epiphany?
I experienced the ’60s as if through a veil. My childhood is lit up by these strange memories, which are probably false, of being stood in the kitchen hearing Eleanor Rigby for the first time. But the thing that hit me in adolescence was T.Rex. I’m 13 in 1970. I’ve been watching kids at school with guitars and somebody teaches me a chord: D suspended, the Pinball Wizard chord. That got me. And I drove my mother demented with Ride A White Swan. She thought I’d never get over that record.
What was the first song you wrote that you thought was decent?
There were a couple. But did I play them to anyone? I’m not sure I did. There was one called Don Quixote – it was nothing to do with Cervantes, I just liked the name. It was a DADGAD thing. But the first things I wrote that I knew were good? I remember writing Bonny [later to appear on Steve McQueen] – I thought, Yes, you could play that to someone.
Were your songs always more complex than the norm?
The hardest thing for me to do, and I still struggle with this, although I am better at it now – is to relax into C major. Because everyone else has done it. I couldn’t think of anything to do with those tools. So I fought that, and made as many different shapes as I could. Also, I had broad tastes in music. I remember buying, here in Durham not far up the street, the Firebird by Stravinsky. [Sings the finale melody] I thought, That’s something I could imagine Television doing. I could see the correspondence. It struck me these things could be transposed. And that was my attempt to find ground of my own. So if you listen to I Never Play Basketball Now, on Swoon, there’s 50 or 60 different shapes in the first three minutes. Not that that makes it good, but it just has. And that all came out of, I don’t know how to make a convincing song out of C, F and G7. But I wasn’t a jazzer. I wasn’t a Steely Dan fan. I learned about that stuff later. I was like an amoeba drifting towards evolution.
Did you always know what Prefab Sprout’s sound should be, or was it trial and error?
Trial and error. The original thing was gruff voiced me, trying to sound like I should be at the microphone when maybe I shouldn’t. You work with what you’ve got, but I thought it would be nice to have another colour. Hence: Wendy. I didn’t even know [her] that well. She didn’t really speak to me. She just turned up to gigs with her boyfriend and she’d relay things through him. I was looking for a tone – this really pure sound. I hadn’t even heard her sing.
Did you really decide to put all your most challenging material on your first album?
We could have put Bonny, Faron Young and Johnny Johnny on Swoon. Keith [Armstrong] wanted us to put Bonny on it -I think he would have liked more songs like Bonny. Secretly, I too, would have liked a career with more songs like Bonny. Then we’d have been more like The Rolling Stones, where you have some key songs that only have four chords and I wouldn’t have to struggle so much to remember what I’d written (laughs). Seriously, I’d have loved that – a setlist like that.
Steve McQueen  is Prefab Sprout’s cornerstone album, where the songs and the production came together perfectly. What led you to Thomas Dolby?
The God’s honest truth is that there was an article in the paper that said he was helping Michael Jackson buy food for his llamas. I had a huge interest in Michael Jackson, and I thought, Well he sounds like the guy for me. And Tom had been on that Round Table radio programme, with Mari Wilson I think, and one of the songs was Don’t Sing off Swoon. And he said, “I hear an explosion of talent.” So that endeared him to me!
Steve McQueen seemed fixated on the end of relationships, and infidelity…
What shaped Steve McQueen was Thomas Dolby choosing the songs that interested him. It was only later I realised the album had this angle – the infidelity aspect, of letting someone else down and letting yourself down. I’m not really that proud of anything I’ve done, but I am pleased that we never really went in for ‘It’s your fault’ songs – “That woman done me wrong.” I always hate that shit. Can’t stand to hear it.
After Steve McQueen, you were hot, hot, hot. What did hotness feel like?
Maybe I was the guy who missed the moment – didn’t really notice he was hot. We finished Steve McQueen in the January [’85]. I wrote King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll and Cars And Girls in the February. We did various little tours, like groups do, ‘cos it’s a bit of a lark and there’s nothing much else to do and what are the options? But I wasn’t convinced it was the life for me. You could see the possibilities of a life on the road, but also that it will possibly diminish you in other ways. You’re not writing new stuff. You’re propping up the moment. I also think – which may sound strange because I did like my cigars in those days – that if we toured we’d have just ended up like everyone else, with the tabs and the booze. You’d be in that atmosphere so long that when you came back you couldn’t live normally. I worried about that.
Were you an idealist? There was a stand being taken against the trappings of rock. Was ‘on the road’ one of those?
It was a very 1984 thing, to be against the rocky stuff that had come before. I liked Led Zeppelin, but I didn’t see it as a feasible option, for bands to go on like that in perpetuity. I didn’t even have much of a political consciousness. Except that I knew there was a way to write about relationships and women that wasn’t that tired old shit. I saw that too, in [Scritti Politti’s] Green [Gartside],
But I was never too good at hanging out with people. I was a bit standoffish. There were people who were kind to us – like Elvis Costello. He did a version of Cruel and he put us on a gig with him. But I remember feeling that I needed to preserve a sense of being in a bedroom writing a song, and I couldn’t do that by being ‘pally’. I still feel like that.
There are lots of interesting things about your next album. From Langley Park To Memphis , but were you also trying a bit too hard to be the big pop band?
I know where you’re coming from, but… From Langley Park To Memphis mainly suffers from not all being produced by Tom Dolby. Not to put [FLPTM producer] John Kelly down, but to put me down a bit. The thing of it being the big pop band? Hmmm, we may have noticed that the two previous records had got to Number 21 in the charts. For the album cover, we got ourselves styled a bit. Maybe we did wonder what it would be like to be popular popular. It was hardly crammed with hits, though. It had “Hot dog, jumping frog” [ie. The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll]. But that was a throwaway moment for me, like a Yellow Submarine thing. It’s a bit of a laugh and we’ll move on. Except it kind of stays there… It’s a bit like Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining – it shouldn’t reflect too much on the rest of what he did, but it’s a pop moment, and those things have their own power.
The album also seemed to be examining rock stardom – referencing Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen…
Yes! I’d forgotten that stuff! Fame in itself interested me. I was interested in these figures and what they meant. The Springsteen thing – when I try to talk about this, my tongue turns to rubber, because it’s a strange concept to explain. Part of it was the feeling that rock stars were held in such high esteem and I wanted to mock that slightly. And I did that by misreading him, as if he didn’t know that life is hard, as if all he thought about was cars and girls. It’s a misreading of Springsteen. But why? To tweak the nose of someone at Rolling Stone? Possibly. Something like that.
You had Stevie Wonder play chromatic harmonica on Nightingales…
And we recorded in Stevie Wonder’s studio! And we had the gospel choir he worked with, The Andrae Crouch Singers. I remember showing Andrae Crouch the chords to I Remember That and him saying, “Oh, you’re bad!” And at the time I wasn’t sure this was a term of approval. But Muff Winwood, our A&R at Sony, was resolutely unimpressed that we had Stevie Wonder on it. He was, “So what?” But to me it was a big thing. Who else can play like that?
It’s around this point that the chronology gets weird. Protest Songs came out in 1989, but you’d recorded it before From Langley Park To Memphis…
People had said very nice things about Steve McQueen. And that frightened me – Arrrgh! What do we do next?! That’s what I was doing in the summer of 1985.1 was up here, probably dodging tour commitments, and I thought, We’ll get a local studio, record something really quickly, and before people expect a follow-up, we’ll have it! And I also thought, Let’s film the whole thing, so that down the road when we’re old and grey with long beards we can have our own bijou Let It Be documentary. The problem was, whenever the chaps turned up to film us we weren’t actually playing anything. We were sat in the control room scratching our chins. It wasn’t very dramatic. So summer 1985, I hand Protest Songs to Sony. There’s no big producer. I don’t think they were very interested. I remember Muff Winwood telling me a year or so later, “My daughter loves that record,” and I said, “Doesn’t that tell you something?” “Yes – it means my daughter’s musical.” It didn’t mean he was actually going to put it out.
Jordan: The Comeback  was a double album, and contained the first inkling of the spiritual themes you’ve continued to explore. Did that have anything to do with your schooling?
I can’t remember what the starting point with Jordan was. I have no idea. It just moved towards the more spiritual thing without any degree of consciousness. I’d picked up a guitar and I was singing, “Hi, this is God here,” [One Of The Broken] and thinking… Well, where’s that going? What would be a truly Christian thing to sing? Maybe it would be something like, “Don’t be looking too much at the heavens, look more at your fellow man.” A useful thing to say.
Some of that must have come from what I was taught at school. But I’m not a natural believer. In a way, I’m more the opposite. I went to a seminary, but I was what they called a lay student. I had no inkling to be a priest. No desire whatsoever. It seemed like a very strange notion to me. But some things that are good in it stay with me, like the idea of a conscience, and the power of certain records in the gospel tradition. I think this gave a tension to a lot of the music on Jordan, although this was not apparent to a lot of reviewers.
After Jordan: The Comeback you wrote Let’s Change The World With Music – which didn’t come out until 2009:16 years later.
I remember a week in January 1993, when I wrote Ride Home To Jesus, God Watch Over You and Let There Be Music. And I remember thinking, You really are going down a road here. Keith’s not going to like this. Some people will be terribly uncomfortable. People will say, “You’ve gone God on us.” But the terrible truth is, if I’m desperate I will almost write a song about anything, whether I believe it or not. That’s my dark secret. I will write something for you.
But, coming after Jordan’s gospel interests…
Yes. And that’s a connection I never really made. Maybe because I’d written stuff in between. I’d written a single for Kylie Minogue, to see if I could. That was If You Don’t Love Me [eventually, a B-side for 1994 Kylie single Confide In Me]. And in March 1991 I wrote a whole album about Michael Jackson. Some of these were songs I could possibly have sent to him… but I just wrote it and put it in a box. And that was the beginning of the era of stockpiling things in boxes and maybe finding that process a little too attractive.
But I started on Let’s Change The World With Music and I thought, This is more like it. Music as God: a nice image. I liked that. We had this fateful meeting where I’m like, thrilled about this record. Thomas was lined up and I thought, Here we are, we’re getting some big studio, real drums, nice bass, we’ll make something of it. There was no overt hostility but a bit of, “Oh you always do too many songs; can we narrow it down a bit?”
I foolishly said, “I’ll maybe expand the one thing and make it into something bigger”, and that was The Story So Far. I went away thinking, Hang on, what have I just suggested? That I dismantle this thing I’ve taken months and months to create and start something else?
So the next two years was my personal Smile period. I lost the momentum and impetus of a career, such as it was. Then it gets a bit foggy and one day I woke up and decided, Let’s do Andromeda Heights , And I spent ages doing that, too, then re-recording it.
So we’re getting close to my modern psychology. Which is: I write because of a sense of who I am. I need that. But where that converges with reality was lost a long time ago. I became just a bloke, writing material, endlessly, a compulsive habit.
And Andromeda Heights marked the end of your spell on Sony…
There was no falling out with Sony. Nothing like that. I turned 40 in June 1997; I’d just done a promo trail for Andromeda Heights and felt as if there was an expectation that I should have been playing live. Not from the record label, but kind of for your own dignity. I had a real intense sense of my own… (long sigh) I felt just a bit hollow. Like, what are you doing? You’re 40 years old, going around talking about hypothetical albums? I just thought there ought to be something else I should have been doing. And I never found what that other thing was.
Do any of these hypothetical LPs call to you? Do they chide you for not putting them out?
None of them exist in a detailed form that means you could easily finish them. That’s the tragic thing. But they exist in their boxes on their cassettes. And they are entire entities. I could do something with them… but it’s also nice to get out in the fresh air, you know? Because it’s no great fun to be sat in a boxy room by yourself trying to recreate an orchestra with these terrible old sound modules that went out of date in 1999. There’s that battle. And also, the problems with my hearing make it… How do you make a record if you struggle with sound?
When Crimson/Red came out in 2013, fans hoped that the dam had been breached.
Ha! Yes! No. Crimson/Red came about because I’d been working on something else entirely and was really close to finishing it. Then apparently I owed a record according to some deal Keith had done. Maybe I’d been told this and let it go – thinking this was down the road.
This will sound mad to you now, but it seemed an easier thing to start an album from scratch than finish the other thing I was working on – and then I did it! And was pleased with it! I like every song; they stand up against anything I’ve done. I like the weight of each track, but it’s not a great sounding record. Because I did it with toys -electronic instruments – by myself, and [producer] Calum [Malcolm] could only work with what I gave him.
He did a great job. It was the classic Prefab Sprout sound in straitened times, but I don’t think anyone expects more than that. People’s expectations for the scope of albums have changed. It’s enough to have your voice singing your songs.
I get that. And if we were talking about someone else I would accept your thesis completely. I love the smart-sounding records but I also see nothing wrong in the Robert Johnson approach – a single mike in a bedroom. And I’ve tried to do that. But what gets in the way is that on any given day I would rather write a new thing than record something I’ve written. It’s a weakness.
Is it also the case that your emotional needs are quite modest? I was thinking of that line in Life Of Surprises [off Protest Songs}: “Just say that you were happy, as happy would allow/And tell yourself that that will have to do for now…”
That’s an interesting thought. I must once have thought what a great thing it would be to be a pop star. Because everyone thinks that. I’ll be this, and that. All girls will like me! I must have had that. I assume I did. But it burnt off somewhere.
The other thing, in that song, is the idea that at some point you have to let things go. One of my favourite lines I’ve ever seen is that one by W.B. Yeats: “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/Horseman, pass by!” Maybe the scene is the horseman riding through the graveyard. But I always read it as: Have a measured response to the things that you do in your life; don’t get too caught up in their import. I sometimes think that in some of my songs I’m trying to paraphrase that sentiment. However caught up you are in all of this, one day you’re going to have to let it go.
What do you get out of writing songs?
The thrill of making something that was not there before. That’s part of it. And there’s something manic in it. Productivity, for the sake of not wanting to look back and think, Well you didn’t really do enough. But I do ask myself, “How much are you actually enjoying this?”
But there is a pleasure in putting together odd things, and trying to trick yourself. That’s what I like about it. That’s what I did last night. I’ve got this song. It’s called That’s How I Lost Marlene. There is no Marlene. I don’t know why the phrase was evocative, but I kind of liked where it was going. And most of my life has been, I don’t know where this is going, but I will find something in it. And maybe it will become part of some bigger thing.
What are your immediate plans?
I am trying to finish a record. I’ve been doing the singing, but it’s taken me six months because I’ve had such a bad year with my hearing… terrible. I started making the record in May 2013, but I left it because of the stuff with Spike Lee, then the earthing kicked in. Suddenly you’re one of those people who have been working on a record for five years! Who wants to be that person? What record could live up to that? “Dear God, is that all he came up with?!”
Coming here today, I was seriously thinking. How can I persuade Paddy McAloon to get more of his stuff out?
Ha! If you offered me a hundred thousand pounds, it wouldn’t make a difference… Someone actually did offer me a huge amount of money, a house, to hear me play. All I had to do was play for an hour, two hours… (whispers) I couldn’t do it; I could not do it. I’d rather write How I Lost Marlene than take 70 grand off someone. Because, for one, that’s obscene, and also, what’s the most valuable thing you possess? It’s your time.