Prefab Sprout have just come through their first decade as one of the world’s finest bands. Alan Corr talks to lead singer PADDY McALOON about a life of surprises and a career which has seen only two top forty hits
PADDY McALOON needs to nail the hit on the head. He’s written some of the great songs of the Eighties and Nineties but he still doesn’t feel he’s got it right. He wants to write the songs that the whole world sings. In short he wants a song that will be cherished and, most of all, remembered.
When he writes it, we’ll know all about it. For now he’s semi-content to look back over a decade of Prefab Sprout as embodied in A Life of Surprises, the collection of twelve Sprout songs that prove they are simply a brilliant band.
The album ranges from the roguish King of Rock ’n’ Roll wherein Paddy spikes the staple Sprout irony with dollops of flamboyance, to the meditative All the World Loves Lovers catching the spirit of the band’s bruised heart. Or the winsome and pining beauty of Wild Horses. Or Appetite about a pregnant girl so in love with her child that she wants to name it after all the good things in her life – freedom… love…
McAloon is an outstanding writer. He’s reluctant to accept it. Self-effacing, he is quick to shrug off his achievements as mere stages in his search for that song. Sitting in the offices of his record company, Kitchenware (”Home of the hit!”), Paddy looks back over a life of surprises. The time Johnny Marr of The Smiths came into studio with a demo of “William It Was Really Nothing” or the time Frank Sinatra offered them a slice of pizza on his 65th birthday or the day Paddy had to ask Stevie Wonder to re-do a harmonica solo.
“The thing is I talk a lot of rubbish,” Paddy laughs. “Because I have these impressions I’ve built up over years. So I’m not the best person to ask about our past! Funnily enough I’ve spent the past two days listening to some of our records and I’ve really enjoyed some of the bloody things I’ve put down in interviews.”
Growing up in a small town in north east England, Paddy’s love was the three-minute pop song. The simplicity that lodged in your brain and the clarity of the feeling. He cites “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” as a classic track. A song so pure and simple that changing it would be like air-brushing the Mona Lisa.
“I think the acid test is someone knowing your song. Maybe I’m stupid and old-fashioned but a good song doesn’t always appear in the Top Forty anymore. But I was brought up in the Sixties and Seventies so I have that expectation that my songs will make the charts. So I feel a bit of a failure. Listening to my songs recently I’ve said to myself I shouldn’t do them down, it’s stupid to do that.”
Paddy’s quest for perfection, or at least unmistakable genius, has produced five excellent albums. From the acoustic ornamentation on “Swoon” (’84), through brittle and edgy rock “Steve McQueen” (’85), to orchestral sweeps and grand cinematic production “From Langley Park to Memphis” (’89) right up to the conceptual wonderland of “Jordan The Comeback” in 1990, easily the band’s most adventurous album.
But Paddy‘s got a dilemma in his search for the golden calf. Cutting a fine line between art and appearing alongside the bilge that appears on Top of The Pops troubles him. “I waver on that point. I’m not trying to refine the whole thing down so we’re just like everybody else, but I just think I could have paid a little bit more attention to the Gerry Goffins, Carole Kings of this world. I have been doing that over the last year and that’s been good for me. That was my problem in the past: I was too lyrically rich so now I only have one or two ‘clever’ phrases in a simpler backdrop so they can shine out more. I don’t know where they come from and I sometimes sit there longing for them. I don’t know where my lyrics come from and I wish I could have some today.”
Since Jordan… Paddy has been writing and arranging every day. The band have seven albums of material written. One of those great unreleased masterpieces, “Unicorn in Trouble” concerns itself with Michael Jackson, while a new song, “Let’s Change the World With Music” was prompted by The Gulf War. He says it’s a work subliminally connected to the Cold War-busting Coke ad “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing”.
Paddy embraces what others see as craven sentimentality. “I’ve actually written a few things with that semi-corny title. I have two songs with the title ‘Let’s Change With Music’. I almost blush to say those titles.”
Looking back over a decade of Prefab Sprout, Paddy believes there’s never been a fallow period. “Not so much fallow periods. But I was really shocked and stunned when ‘Cars and Girls’ wasn’t a hit. I always liked that song. I thought it was really cute. I woke up then and I’ve never had such high expectations since. I think ‘Steve McQueen’ had lulled me into complacency. I thought we could bring a record out after being away for years, we needn’t tour and we could bring out a record like ‘Langley Park to Memphis’ and everybody would say ‘Oh, you’re great.’
“But I’m going through a crisis of confidence all the time. Even when I’ve written things that are perfectly fine I think that’ll be last good thing I’ve done or it wasn’t as good as the stuff I wrote when I was twenty. Even though I think I’ve moved on and genuinely like my new things, I fear that people will say you‘ve got too simple or they’ll say that’s not as good as, say, ‘I Remember That.'”
After a decade of critical fawning (“Steve McQueen” is recognised as one of the best albums ever), Paddy believes that Prefab Sprout will blossom into international success in the Nineties. They are far more durable than a mere pop band.
“I think we will come into our own. It may be a rash thing to say but I think we will have more hits and we’ll be more well known. That’s how I see it. I’m 35 and history ignores you after a certain point. I try to write every day but it doesn’t always work out. I go through periods where I don’t do much else but write, looking for that perfect song. Looking for something to happen. Then I can sit back and say: ‘Wow! That really surprised me.’ Because the best ones are the ones that are surprises.”