After seven silent years, the star of Prefab Sprout, Paddy McAloon returns. For many of us it’s something more than just a record release. A thousand Freudian twists and a session of psychoanalysis. Are you ready to once again rediscover the prisoners of the past?
You can’t deny he’s grown a little older. There’s a streak of grey in the middle of his brown, London solicitor haircut. Thin square metal rimmed glasses, a slight double chin hanging over his Korean collar done up to the last button. All the same, he’s here, right in front of me.
“Would you like something to drink?” I’m carrying a bottle of still water. And how can I tell him? How can I explain he was present on that night of impossible starlight, down by the sea, while my love and I kissed? How can I have the courage to tell him he was with me in the cafe with old friends one frozen Appenine evening, and then again on a sweltering afternoon skipping stones across the Po (something of a rite of initiation for the prisoners of the past)? Things that are seemingly sculpted from nothing, which all at once you discover are everything, the best part in life. Paddy McAloon was in every one of thise moments. A local radio station broadcasting in the background, music from a parked car, or simply songs playing in my own head. As Proust said, only a small part of memory is voluntary.
More often we’re helpless victims of memory. Just a smell, a taste, a sound, and details re-emerge of things our mind has stored away in otherwise inaccessible places. Well, now the custodian of my subsconcious’ historical archive is in front of me. He tolerates my bewildered look, though not without some embarrasament. There’s an inexplicable and as yet unearned familiarity in his clean shaven face. Enough for me to ask, somewhat pathetically, How are you, Paddy Joe?
“Not bad, not bad at all. I’m still a soul in pain, though. In the last seven years I’ve worked on seven different albums, all of which are now put away in a drawer. Personal reasons, financial, record company. It’s been seven years of total isolation for me. I haven’t bought a single record, I know things only by hearsay. To be honest I don’t like at all what’s happening in music. Basically I’m starting to get old, I sound like someone’s dad. And I’m passing a little more of my time at home. In fact I think my isolation is a very healthy therapy, it conserves me.
Maybe, who knows? Meanwhile Neil Conti, tired of waiting, has left. Martin McAloon and Wendy Smith, the other members of the band, both had to find a job. Paddy Joe was too busy building Andromeda Heights, the recording studio housed in the basement of his birthplace, in the countryside between Durham and Newcastle. A small planetarium of pop, the temperature-controlled greenhouse in which the Prefab Sprout will try to survive the rigours of the nineties.
“I wish I had a different spirit. I wanted to understand the music business and make my own rules. Maybe I should be more down-to-earth, look around more. The fact is that when I write music, I have no sense of the audience. I’m selfish, I write music for myself, and myself alone. Perhaps that’s a good thing.”
Maybe not. Paddy McAloon approaches his fortieth birthday as if it was an eviction. As he begins to come to terms with it, he feels terribly transient. Success, perhaps, has entered the list of the things that has gone forever, like playing basketball, fencing or wooing beautiful and unknown girls. An unfinished list, the one he began to make in 1984, in ‘l Never Play Basketball Now’, that sweet sliver of savage cruelty.
“Yes, the list of things I miss. Let me think…”.
For a few seconds he pauses, staring into space. Of every thought that is caressing his mind, I am sure, he could make a song. And what a song.
“Sometimes I think I lost the audience. I could have made different choices after Jordan The Comeback. I got lost in my project in the history of the world told through pop songs. The record company was initially enthusiastic. I realized that the people wouldn’t have heard anything from me for too long. So that it may have been a mistake. For the rest, however, I don’t have many regrets, despite what my music might suggest. I feel the time passing, yes. When I was thirty, I had big plans. I knew I wasn’t immortal, but I was also aware that time was on my side. Today the fears of four decades are beginning to surface. That I’ll lose my energy or my voice sooner or later creates a far more dramatic awareness. The voice, the voice, that’s what worries me most. I should record my voice in many more songs. Today I find myself with a handful of recordings and I still want people to listen to me.”
What’s the problem, Paddy Joe? Did you not sing Donna Summer, years ago? What of the words you put into Paul McCartney’s mouth in ‘Electric Guitars’? Pop’s middle age is still far away, you still have time. But then for those like him, time is always short. It was only recently, in 1984, when at the age of 27 he first entered a recording studio. And maybe it’s a chocolate-box commonplace, a romantic myth, but for those who live, love and create, time is subject to different laws than apply to ordinary mortals. Infinitely more cruel.
“Sure, you tell yourself you have time. But each song takes years of reflection, inner battles. And money. And political support from the record company. People don’t know this. I can’t create music on impulse, writing sucks part of my life into a four minute song. They’re a black hole, my songs. I never wasted time, not really. And in those fourteen years I’ve been thinking of a song every day. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t enjoy the time between Swoon and Steve McQueen most. I was young, I should have savoured those moments. Yet I was in the grip of a sort of creative frenzy. Do you understand why I’m anxious about being forty now? The days are slipping through my fingers and I’ve not done a fifth of the things I wanted to do.”
He thinks back, once again, to the old gas station between Durham and Newcastle. Paddy and his brother check the oil, test the tyre pressures, clean the windscreens. Their father, the manager, is a stout and silent type, but basically he’s a good man. During work breaks they strum the guitar sitting by the pumps. At seven in the evening, when the station closes, they take possession of the garage and play at being pop stars.
“Swoon was a unique album. It included the results of ten years of rehearsals in the garage. We started to record it without even having signed a contract, having thought that we’d never set foot in a recording studio. I felt compelled to include in the album all the more complicated things that I’d written. I wanted to show I was good at playing with harmonies and words. At that time I’d already written songs like ‘Faron Young’, ‘Goodbye Lucille’, ‘Appetite’. But they were too simple, the songs of Sprout had to be different from anything else around”.
And the beginning of my long love story with Prefab Sprout: one year, only one, and there was Steve McQueen. A miracle of equilibrium and poetry perhaps still unsurpassed.
“And a special disc for me. For the first time we worked under the guidance of a real producer. Thomas Dolby made Steve McQueen the sole purpose of his life. I remember him making us spend hours rehearsing the songs. ‘How can we make this even better?’ He wondered. But we were young and enthusiastic, and we grumbled ‘Hey, we played this song twenty times today. When do we move on to something else? ‘. The truth is that Thomas brought us to excellence. Some time ago I read in an interview he considers Steve McQueen the best record in the history of pop. While we were recording it he was obsessed. It’s odd though. It gives me a lot of pleasure now that I don’t consider that record completely mine. Thomas’ contribution was so decisive that I’ve come to love Steve McQueen not only as a composer but also as a listener. “
Protest Songs should have followed six months later.
“Yeah. But the record company said that this would confuse the public, and that it was better to continue to promote Steve McQueen. Maybe they were right. The main idea behind Protest Songs was the deconstruction of pop in its entirety. It had to be an album gaunt, humble, essential, something similar to what Springsteen did with ‘Nebraska’. An approach that, in retrospect, I think was wrong. By working a bit on songs like’ Horse Chimes’ you could pull off a lot more. The problem was then deciding when to release Protest Songs, which was the worthy heir of Steve McQueen. “
And From Langley Park To Memphis was released before it, in 1988. “Thomas Dolby was busy working with George Lucas, and couldn’t look after us as I wanted. At that moment I was terrified and thrilled in equal measure at the prospect of working without him. However, ‘I Remember That’ is the best song I’ve ever written.”
He had rather more success with ‘Cars And Girls’, dedicated to Bruce Springsteen.
“Perhaps it is time to clarify the misunderstanding. Everyone thought I was teasing him. The truth was exactly the opposite, the aim was to be ironic about the way the British public reacted to his music. Springsteen has a poetry that an Englishman can’t understand. He makes literature out of talking about poverty, loneliness, run down sad towns. And ‘Born in the USA’ was completely misunderstood. It was symbolic of Reagan’s hedonism, there was something about him that was extraordinarily decadent and tormented. I think the breakthrough of the accoustic arrangement used in The Ghost of Tom Joad shows Springsteen was watching the reactions of his audience.”
We’ve reached the summer of ’90. The recordings for Jordan The Comeback have just been completed. The two brothers McAloon approach the car, recline the seats one half turn and light up a cigar. “If this was the last thing we ever did” – Paddy whispers looking at the tip of Cuban, “well then we could be happy. And we’ve reached the limit of what I know.”
“It was just like that. We were damn proud of ourselves. It was ambitious, presumptuous, perhaps. I wanted to show people what you could do with pop. Something they had never heard before. Not an ordinary disk, which could be listened to from beginning to end. It had to be an encyclopedia, an anthology of pop. What makes me think we hit the target is the fact it isn’t possible to separate any of the songs that make up Jordan. They make no sense without the others. It was and is something out of this world. Outside time. Because you see, nothing transient will ever come into my songs.* People often reproach me for not writing political lyrics, but life is infinitely greater than politics. The major limitation of punk and new wave was their very close connection with the times. The phenomena was doomed to extinction from the beginning “.
We now come to Andromeda Heights, a sparkling rhapsody of love and immortality.
“Andromeda Heights is my first recording studio. I built it in recent years with the money from Jimmy Nail.”
For a moment Paddy Joe loses his composure, and throws back his head in laughter.
“Not releasing anything for seven years also means you have to dig deep into your pockets for money. Writing songs for Cher and Jimmy Nail was a breath of fresh air. Of course, it’s a strange effect hearing your words coming from other people’s mouths. At first, when I listened to Nail singing my songs, I felt like shouting ‘Hey, come on, what the hell are you doing? Don’t do it like that… ‘. Then I gave myself a slap and calmed down. ‘That song is not your property’, I thought. ‘You’ve sold it. In return you’ve got your studio, Andromeda Heights!’. Without Andromeda Heights, Prefab Sprout would never have survived. It’s a way of working far from any pressure. Also to spend a lot less money, and the record company leaves you in peace. And then Thomas Dolby is gone now. He has his own life. If I have to do everything myself, I might as well do it in my own house”.
Here we are at the end of the story. Andromeda Heights the studio, Andromeda Heights the album.
“Where is pop heading? Drum & bass? Well, I thought, I’m going in the opposite direction. I want a lot of tools to emphasize harmony and melody.”
Any doubt, even the slightest, that Paddy McAloon the producer went too far?
“Are you talking about overproduction? No, no, I wanted to do it the hard way. Which version of pop should you take as a reference point? In the 50’s an album like this would have been the norm. Who said that pop should always start from the last thing that was invented? I’ve distanced my albums even from myself. Jordan was an album filled to the brim with me. ln Andromeda Heights I discovered the pleasures of mimicry. I’d already tried that with the single ‘If You Do not Love Me’, which sounded like a Pet Shop Boys song”.
There’s no doubt in his words. But the seven-years of seclusion weren’t as rosy as Paddy Joe wants me to think. His gaze continually darts around the room, his childish impatience is at the same time manic-depressive and anxious. Isolation has returned as a millenium full of doubts and fears ends.
“The truth is that it wasn’t easy. I’d never produced on my own. This time I didn’t have Thomas sitting in front of me saying ‘No, no, don’t do this’. We’ll see, but as things are, Andromeda Heights is the only record I was able to make”.
Time is up. Farewells. Robust handshake. Take a deep breath… ‘You know Paddy Joe, that you were there, that time …’. He didn’t even let me finish.
“I know, I know. The same thing has been happening to me all my life. With Stevie Wonder, with Ravel, with Marvin Gaye. Poor us, blessed us. Prisoners of the past.”