A little while back I obtained a Japanese article for translation for the site, but sadly the cost of professional translation is such that it’s not really economic to do. So I’ve folded back onto something I can do myself: one of my lesser known skills was that I’m a qualified French to English translator.
I have a number of French articles, but for the first stab I thought I’d take on an unusual one. This is from a French soft porn mag of all things, “Club Pour Hommes” who had featured the band previously in 1988. And yes, it had pages stuck together.
It’s a nice interview from the Jordan era and has a few insights into Deacon Blue amongst other things.
Prefab Sprout have made a bit of a splash with the release of “Jordan: The Comeback”. So it’s an ideal opportunity for a chat between Pierre Perrone, the resident aesthete of our editorial team, and Paddy McAloon, figurehead of this old school English group… Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, night clubs: nothing escapes the eye and pen of this observer as he constantly searches for inspiration.
No, you’re not seeing things! Prefab Sprout were indeed the subject of an in-depth article in this magazine thirty or so editions ago, but we love the group so much we’ve decided to dedicate a few more pages to them. That will allow us to take stock of the last three years of Paddy McAloon’s career and those of his colleagues, before having a look at what appears to be a promising future.
Prefab Sprout’s leader is all smiles when I meet him in the London offices of CBS, the multinational responsible for release and distribution of the quartet’s records. Taking advantage of the absence of his press minders, Paddy can’t prevent himself from joking that he’s sitting at the desk of the general manager and that having just fired the other artists on the label, Prefab Sprout is now the priority. This sort of comment is completely typical of this genuinely nice guy who expresses regret that “people often take me too seriously. People are convinced that I’m intensely introspective, which is true to a point but nonetheless I do also have a deadpan sense of humour.”
There are also those who suggest that modesty isn’t likely to hold Mr McAloon back. In his defence he explains: “It’s true it’s sounds a bit megalomaniac to say I love my own records, but in my case it’s unfortunately true: our records are made well and haven’t really aged. I love to listen to ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ which gathers together my favourite songs. Apart from ‘The Golden Calf’ which is a bit of a rocker, most of the songs are verging on showtunes, with violins and syrupy arrangements. I really love ‘I Remember That’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, ‘Cars & Girls’. I really enjoyed myself making this record, when I allow myself freedom I tend to get bogged down. Our new record is more of a group effort”, he explains.
In 1988, I’d discussed with Paddy the eventual release of “Protest Songs”: “The mysterious album that nearly never appeared”, Paddy interrupts me to explain. “We recorded it quickly in 1985, and then I chickened out and the album made a fortune for the bootleggers. Eventually, last year, we decided to release it without a single, without making a video, without advertising. The critics were for once unanimous: for the first time they all sang our praises.”
McAloon is used to plaudits, but what does he think of groups like Deacon Blue (coincidentally also on CBS) who seem to take their inspiration from Prefab Sprout? He smiles knowingly at me before saying that he doesn’t know how to react exactly: “I’m flattered when people copy me, but I’m also surprised that people dare to compare what I do with other groups. Deacon Blue have a harder rock edge than us: they rely more on an epic style, a little like Springsteen. Having said that, Ricky Ross, the leader of the group has never hidden his admiration for my songs. Some others I could name have borrowed without mentioning me. Deacon Blue even wanted me to sing on one of their songs, ‘Chocolate Girl’, but I turned down the invitation. All the same I laughed when an American told me that ‘Steve McQueen’, released in 1985, was like Deacon Blue: I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning that Deacon Blue had sung one of the songs from our first LP ‘Swoon’, ‘Cruel’ in the past.”
Deacon Blue’s success in the UK was to some extent due to the long tours the band took on. I pointed out to the leader of Prefab Sprout that for five years his band had existed without giving concerts. He pleads guilty as charged: “Touring has never been my strong suit. I’m in my element in the studio or when I’m composing. But we’re going to return to treading the boards. Neil (Conti, the drummer), has dug up three musicians (guitar, keyboards and percussion) who are going to augment our line-up. They’re already rehearsing with Martin (bass). They’re experimenting with and rehearsing the arrangements. All we have to do is to add my vocals and Wendy’s… By the way I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity to underline that Prefab Sprout is a group, and even if I produce all the songs, the others all put something of themselves in during the recording.”
Paddy doesn’t like playing live, and cordially detests night clubs just as much: “I admire Prince, and things with a great groove like Chic’s ‘Good Times’. But what I love doing is to make varied records which don’t age. I think Prince has been producing music that is of its time but which will last, but that’s not true of most of the things you hear in the clubs”.
All the same, “Machine Gun Ibiza”, one of the songs on Jordan, does play the funk card, poking fun at the regulars in trendy nightclubs. The singer explains that “it’s the exception that proves the rule. I wanted to create a caricature of what goes on in Ibiza by inventing a character who’s into that. The idea came to me when I was in a pub, I heard two bits of conversation which made up the title. It was too good an opportunity to miss even if when I sat down at the piano the next day I nearly dropped it. And then, like ‘The King of Rock N Roll’, I said to myself that maybe some other artist would record the song”, confides our eternal procrastinator.
I confide that I’m a little disappointed that no-one has so far dared to cover one of his songs, and he affirms that I’m not the only person to dream of a Frank Sinatra interpretation of “When Love Breaks Down”. But we agree to continue by examining “Jordan: The Comeback” more closely, an album that lasts more than an hour and gathers together nineteen songs. With Prefab Sprout you get value for money!
McAloon gloatingly explains that “we had almost no failures. We sketched out a thing called ‘Who Intrigues You Now?’ which ended up being left out. Fortunately too, because we already had enough material to fill a CD. It’s a long record, but depending on your mood you can start where you like because the songs are organised into four sections. Firstly there are five commercial songs, followed by four songs about Presley. Then there are five love songs, and the final section deals with fundamental questions about God and death. The ambience and style varies, and different people can have their own favourite songs. I prefer to paint with a broad palette rather than to work like Bowie and put everything onto a single style”, Paddy elaborates.
Organising an album according to themes seems a little bit like falling into concept album territory. The singer is wary of that but defuses the accusations of pomposity by pointing out that in one of the songs, “Paris Smith” he makes fun of his image as a serious songwriter with words like “I try to be the Fred Astaire of words… It should be taken tongue in cheek”.
But why combine “Paris” and “Smith”? “Because Wendy is always telling me she’s sick of having a common name like ‘Smith’. She swears that if she has children she will give them out of the ordinary first names: Rock for a boy, and Paris for a girl. I think it’s a lovely name for a girl, even if in the song I point out that just because you have an extraordinary name you shouldn’t take on airs and graces.”
McAloon is conscious of the problems of linguistic barriers but hopes the French audience will grasp the importance of nuances. “When I put myself in Elvis’ shoes in the title song of the record, I do my best to use the expressions the King would himself use. And I even try to imitate his drawl”, he admits mischievously. He continues his point: “’Jordan: the Comeback’ is a title heavily loaded with meanings. Some will see a reference to what is happening in the Middle-East, others will detect the influence of the stories of Jesus’ life, and let’s not forget that the Jordanaires were Elvis’ backing band. I approach my songs like a novelist or a playwright who isn’t afraid to take risks. In ‘Jordan’, Presley isn’t dead. He’s alive, holed up in a hotel room in Las Vegas. The curtains are closed: he’s waiting for the perfect song for his comeback. He’s given everything up because he’s sick of the people who are only interested in his swaying hips. I wanted to restore the balance a little after Albert Goldman’s book which dragged Elvis a bit through the dirt.”
Even if he denies it, Paddy continues to look towards the US: “The American myths are the myths of our time. Another character which fascinates me is Howard Hughes, the rich eccentric”, he volunteers.
Warren Beatty is supposed to be planning a film about this curious subject, and McAloon would love to provide “a few songs for the original soundtrack. But that hasn’t started well: Beatty was in London for a conference and agreed to answer some questions from fans. He compared some films to ‘hamburgers’ because he made them only to generate cash to make other films. And I wasn’t able to resist asking him if ‘Dick Tracy’ was one of these hamburgers and if the work on Hughes would be for those of more refined tastes. He had no idea how to reply”, sighed the singer.
And with that, my interviewee seems to have provided me with the perfect analogy to describe the sophisticated music of Prefab Sprout. Rock music produces more and more “hamburgers” that leave you hungry, while the music of the Newcastle quartet should satisfy even the most demanding of palettes.
Paddy would love to sell more records in the US but hasn’t the slightest intention of adapting what he does to achieve this aim. He declares laconically that “the group will continue to play on its strengths. We have a unique sound, which is very rare these days.”
However what really drives him is not the search for eventual success across the Atlantic, but rather the desire to compose. “When I’m not in the studio, I spend one or two hours a day at the piano. I’ve a little too much of a tendency to turn inwards on myself and forget what is around me”, he concedes. “’Looking for Atlantis’, the first single taken from Jordan, is about this, and also the people who spend their lives dreaming of the exotic and ignoring the day to day reality”, explains McAloon, who has his feet firmly on the ground.
Prefab Sprout albums don’t jump out in your face, but insinuate themselves into your subconscious. The figurehead of the quartet remains a fascinating character. The quest for this intangible Grail only adds to “Jordan’s” charms…
Pierre Perrone, 1990