There’s always a lot of discussion, and not a small measure of agreement, on what Paddy’s best work might be. Usually people who like Prefab Sprout fix on “Bonny”. Personally I usually make a strong case for “Venus of the Soup Kitchen”. Mick Lynch played “Nightingales” as his wedding song, and Paddy later played it for Mick Lynch, and that song will always be up there. Those who were eight year old kids in 1988 love “King of Rock’n’Roll”, believing it to be about wanting cookies. And so on.
But we’re all wrong. My God, we’re all wrong. How can we have missed this?
I listened properly to “Sleeping Rough” on the flight over. Repeatedly. And it’s been going round my head constantly as I pass a languid, melancholy and rather pleasantly solitary weekend in a wooded and sweet September rainswept Boston suburb.
“Sleeping Rough” is Paddy’s best song. I’m certain of it.
“I Trawl the Megahertz” splits the fan-base, but from my perspective it is a brilliant piece. The density, yet grace, of the arrangements is breathtaking. The second “side” (I always think of “Megahertz” as if it were a vinyl album) is often overshadowed by the poetry and emotional majesty of side one. It’s the story of a successful industrialist who gives it all up to be left in peace, and in doing so, inherits the Earth, and was originally entitled “Sleeping Rough” as a whole.
Not an insignificant factor behind the album, I suspect, was the ending of the Prefab Sprout contract with Sony/CBS. Paddy described a feeling of enormous release and freedom leaving the Sony building, knowing he was no longer bound to anything. He could do what he wanted.
And one of the things he wanted to do was “I Trawl the Megahertz”, Paddy’s mid-life crisis album. Where “Jordan” deals with the desire to retrace and correct the mistakes of youth, “Megahertz” deals head on with the retrospection and fear of mortality that descends mercilessly as you age. And above all, with the overwhelming wish to escape the obligations that nail you to the spot as the last flickers of youth die away inside you. So where “Side one” tells the story of a woman who has lost her love, and with it everything she held precious from her youth, and of her memories and regrets, “Side two” is about the sequence of events that led a man to give up everything he had for freedom and happiness. There are fewer words, granted. But that’s how men are.
Two sides of the same story.
And the Guardian, shamefully, didn’t even review it. The fans searched in vain for “Cars and Girls II” and many hated the album and said so. Until quite recently you could barely give copies of it away. Paddy, having done precisely what he wanted, and given us the most consistently beautiful of all his works, lovingly crafted, presumably gave a big sigh and vowed inwardly never to bother offering something similar to the ungrateful world ever again.
Which is a shame, because it’s now become very sought after as people have rediscovered it. In the last few years, the price has settled on around thirty quid for a CD – sadly the rumoured re-release by Sony doesn’t seem to have come to anything, so if you want a copy you’re going to have to search for one at the best price you can get.
As for me I remember sobbing my way uncontrollably through the first listen and a few subsequent ones too. I was right in the middle of an acrimonious break-up, and the line “Your Daddy loves you…” completely set me off. Ever since then, it’s an album I try not to listen to too much, because I want always to allow it the possibility of catching me a little off guard.
But there I was, at thirty eight thousand feet, a couple of mini wine bottles to the good, and I thought I’d give it a go. And I came to “Sleeping Rough” in exactly the right state of relaxed attention.
A warm thrumb of acoustic guitar is extended by a long, sustained chord on the strings. A clarinet comes in slowly, the chord rises and is rejoined by the guitar. Somewhere in the languid dew drenched moonlight of a wooded early morning, random percussive elements wash in and out of focus, snare, cymbals, triangle, xylophone.
And then Paddy comes in with the vocal, around which are woven violins, xylophone, percussion: “I’m lost… Yes I am lost…I’ll grow a long and silver beard…”
The effect is breathtakingly beautiful. Mesmeric and poignant. It perfectly describes the state of mind of a man who has given everything up to start afresh.
There’s a youtube link below. Put some good headphones on, close your eyes, and listen to it, carefully. The arrangement is beautifully judged, complex but not showy, every note and accent falling in exactly the right place. We know the mechanics of how it was done: someone who could barely see placed notes painstakingly onto the staves of an Atari ST midi program until it sounded like the music playing in his head, but somehow knowing that is like looking for chalk marks on Michelangelo’s David: the result is transcendent, the method superfluous.
“I’m lost… Yes, I am lost… and duty will not track me down… asleep amongst the trees”.
His best song. From his best album. The world needs its dreamers.