LET’S NOT beat about the bush here. Whatever the various picks of the year, critics‘ charts or chart points polls tell you over the next couple of weeks, the best LP of l988 is Prefab Sprouts ‘From Langley Park To Memphis‘. Yes, the one with that ‘love it or hate it‘ “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” line from ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘. It’s also the LP that includes the singles ‘Cars And Girls‘. ‘Hey Manhattan’ and the newie ‘Nightingales’, but you’d be forgiven for not realising it.
How on earth can ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll‘ have reached number seven, and yet it’s equally excellent, and some would argue more commercial follow-ups, be virtually ignored? We‘re not talking freaky sounding one hit wonder stuff here. Prefab Sprout make records that should be on our radio non-stop. Paddy McAloon’s songs are the stuff that pop was invented for — intelligent, melodic, sumptuous, catchy affairs. A sort of Lennon and McCartney rolled into one slight ﬁgure of the Eighties.
Paddy‘s currently doing nothing to quash this image. His ‘now you see it, now you don’t‘ beard is straight out of immediate post Beatles McCartney era, and the affable young man admits that the Beatles‘ ‘White’ album is currently stuck fast to his CD player. No other act has released such an accomplished string of non-dance pop singles this year and it says a lot for the current plight of our singles chart that we have only taken one of them to our hearts — so far.
“I don’t know what to expect from the charts,” says Paddy sipping a can of American beer in a deserted yuppie cafe in his native Newcastle. “People say to me ‘oh well, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N‘ Roll’, that was really, really catchy‘, but l honesty don’t see such a big difference between that and, say, ‘Cars And Girls‘. OK, the video was a commercial video, it was my idea to have a frog serve me a drink and to have hot dogs dancing about, l take the blame or the credit, but it was a striking image, it was funny and people remember us for that.
“I introduced myself to Paul McCartney at one of his Buddy Holly dos and he said ‘that hot dog jumping frog is going to be your ‘Ding-A-Ling’. I don’t know why we have certain records that are deemed unplayable, which is what we‘re talking about and I wouldn’t know how to set out to make a radio record, but to me our records sound like they should be playable. Anyway, I don’t know about the charts, I’m trying not to worry about the new one.”
The new one, as he puts it, probably won‘t be the Christmas number one. A lush orchestrated ballad, with a veritable meander of a tune, ‘Nightingales’ seemed a strange choice for the single until we heard the newly prominent sleigh bells at the beginning.
“When l wrote it, it was the one that everyone liked the most. The philosophy behind it has paled somewhat in the light of our lack of chart success, but two years ago when I wrote it. I thought ‘sod all this worrying about whether people play your records or whether this is a top 40 sound as deﬁned this week by whoever’. I thought ‘forget all that and just make the kind of single that you’d like to hear yourself”.
“The record company went along with it. It’s just a great song. rather old fashioned in its wandering tune and the orchestra. We thought let’s be brave, plus it’s got the sleigh bells in the background. It cashes in if you like on this time of year, but l wrote it in March ’86 when l was writing my Christmas album.”
IF YOU have heard ‘Nightingales’ on the radio and wondered – yes, that is Stevie Wonder playing harmonica. How did that come about?
“We tried everything else ﬁrst, a synth solo, a horn solo, but there was still something missing and we realised it needed to be a harmonica. I said to Keith (Armstrong. head of Kitchenware Records) ‘do you know any great harmonica players?’ and it turned out he knows Stevie Wonder’s manager and he told us he was coming over and that if we personally gave him a tape of the song and he liked it, he’d do it.
“When he agreed to do it we were so shocked but he arrived at the studio and he was so brilliant it was frightening. Have you ever contemplated what it’s like to talk down a talkback microphone in the studio to Stevie Wonder and say ‘could you do it again please’? When he left, we realised we should have got him to put a part over the end but l didn’t really want to push my luck. Anyway, l ran out and grabbed him and asked him if he’d come back and he said ‘yeah, no bother’. We were absolutely terriﬁed.
“Then, when he’d done that, my brother Martin (the Sprout’s bass player) said ‘can I play ‘Alﬁe’ with you?’ and we were sitting their squirming and thinking ‘how far can you push your luck?’, but he said ‘sure’ and Martin played the piano and Stevie played ‘Alﬁe’. It was unbelievable, like we’d been beamed down to his studio or something. We got some great photos of it all.”
One theory behind the Sprouts lack of chart proﬁle, as they say, this year has been Paddy’s unwillingness to play live with the band. It’s his decision and while Martin. Neil Conti (drums) and Wendy Smith on (backing vocals and keyboards) don’t necessarily agree with their leader, they’re willing to bow to his wishes.
“Just saying we won’t play live, it’s amazing what it does for you. The main reason behind it is that your memory tends to smooth over what it’s actually like when you do it. How long and boring the days are. Most people don’t like to hear me say that because they think ‘oh, you ought to try working in a factory’ and l understand that, but given the choice between driving round the country in a bus on the way to an hour and a half of music, or sitting at home and writing a new song or making a record — well, it’s obvious which one a writer will choose.
“I’m very insecure about what l do and when I’m out on the road and l hear people who’ve got new records out l think l should be doing that instead of doing something I’m not convinced works so well live. Even if I enjoy it there’s always someone who will come up to me and say ‘well, my impression of Prefab Sprout is a much more delicate thing’, so l can’t win really. Maybe l shouldn’t give a damn what people say and think but I’m afraid l do, so I’ll just not play. I’m not saying we’ll never play live though because we can actually play very well together.”
AND MAKE no mistake, in place of all that on-the-road rock ‘n’ roll. Paddy is working his guts out writing. He has a whole host of ‘projects’ on his plate at the moment, including the soundtrack for a ﬁlm of his favourite cartoon character Zorro the Fox. I’m surprised he’s got time for another beer.
“I haven’t relaxed in ﬁve years.” he says. “Because I’ve always thought ‘you’ve got to write something better than you’ve just done. I’m not only working on the new Prefab Sprout album, I’m also working on the three after that and I’m doing a solo record with Wendy. Then there’s the film album and the Christmas album which is written, but l want to get other singers in to sing them. We’re also trying to get Barbra Streisand to record a version of ‘Nightingales’. These aren’t the actions of someone who isn’t working to get a whole load of stuff out.
“See with me it’s all complicated by the fact that I’m so insecure about what l write, and l might be proliﬁc or l might not be. Sometimes l write a lot of things that l don’t like or that I’m frightened to play to anyone because they’re too weird or whatever.”