Another translation from the French. I must say I’m enjoying doing this, not least because in this case the article itself is very literate – erudite and full of allusions and intensely florid language – and is ferociously difficult to translate. It’s a lot like a three dimensional crossword puzzle.
I hope I’ve done it justice anyway. It’s not a literal translation exactly but I think maintains the essence of the original. Apart from being an enjoyable piece in its own right, it has a few snippets I didn’t know relating to Sting and Paddy’s early history.
But who do they hope to seduce with a name like that?
Well, Francis Dordor for example,
And everyone melting or yet to melt under the delicious assault of Paddy McAloon’s songs.
I can’t say which of my taste buds it was which granted me my first taste of Sprout. Their image is horrifically provincial; a literary glaze on top of a glossy sugar coating, like plump Christmas chestnuts. Quaint expressions as obsolete in their rose tinted sentiments as the crenelated corsage of Aunt Rosalie’s antique dresses, elements joining together to form a highly distinctive whole.
Probably it was after I had succumbed to the oblique charms of “Swoon” in which “Cruel” was a secret garden for narcissists and onanists, my appreciation of the Sprouts grew proportionally with the absolute certainty I was the sole person in the world able to savour the rewards of this pearl-fishing expedition. Such reactions often determine why it is you become a fan; larger numbers dissipate the attachment.
All the same there are rare situations where millions can come to love the same song, the same group, for different reasons, relying on the bitter blade of the highest common denominator to mask the specific emotions of each individual. That was the case with the Beatles, the original pleasure dome. And with a little daring, one would willingly place a bet on Prefab Sprout, whose public is sensitive to the beauty of melody, and to the feeling of general well-being that may be found in the folding of its skirts. Or the kids revelling in the freshness and originality of the group at a time when the sort of sonic melange of the present musical landscape means concrete is more abundant than marble.
Because the overriding truth in the shimmering commune of 1985 pop is that we have little by little substituted sound for songs. Simple Minds, U2, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dire Straits: such bands construct pharonesque walls of sound at the base of which the good people genuflect and slice open their purses. Meanwhile on the other side of the river, a gallery of well-read fools run the gauntlet towards posterity, preoccupied less with quantity than quality, looking to hit the mark without destroying, putting their own selves in jeopardy, even to the point of exhausting the last resources of their own identity. And all this with the devil-may-care valour of Trojan heroes, leading us a little further onwards towards the delight of an opening into a strange and ever enchanting adventure. The current musical landscape is so disembodied, encumbered with bloodless meat and its bland secretions that the presence of a few fervent defenders of style comforts and distracts.
Paddy McAloon, like Costello and Morrissey (hearts on their sleeves but always passionate) maintain the thread of originality, which is to say the chances of renewing music. This is the preoccupation of these people, not yet 23 years of age, who have voluntarily taken refuge in the vaults of culture without despairing of attaining the universal. As pushers of boundaries and avid consumers of paradox, the only thing that interests them is that which is the hardest to understand, that which needs the most work to formulate, the greatest effort to find. Because it is the most essential and the most shared: love. Love, of which Conrad said in “Nostromo” that the “sentiment of love can enter into any subject and live ardently in remote phrases”.
And Paddy loves quotes. He loves them because they are the sugar coated pills of the soul and that the only risk of crunching them between your teeth is to pick up a cavity of pedantism. Songwriters talk of love because they have a desperate need for it, and above all they need the love of the crowds which compensates for the lack of other kinds, and buries them in the tumult of concert halls and the tidal waves of encounters. What are the charts if not fabulous thermometers of emotion, a stock exchange of passions under the gaze of which millions of solitary, battered lives live, their loves in shreds.
Paddy thinks only of that: ‘I want to write songs which everyone can love, but without sacrificing whatever makes my point of view unique. My great ambition is to make mainstream music without squandering my abilities, nor insulting peoples’ intelligence”.
An ambition which raises Paddy more or less to the level where we find Paul McCartney. And Paddy loves Paul McCartney. He places him alongside Stephen Sondheim (lyricist to ‘West Side Story’ and most of the musical comedies on Broadway having had a big hit with ‘Send in the Clowns’), Marvin Gaye and Burt Bacharach in an intimate Pantheon down whose columns flows sentiment itself.
“I’m obsessed with sentiment”, he avows. Except that Paddy, unlike McCartney, doesn’t know how to be sickly, he doesn’t possess that authentic mark of innocence that led the creator of “Eleanor Rigby” to dare such nonsense as “Mull of Kintyre”. He belongs to the generation for whom the artistic potential has been expanded by a heterogeneous musical bombardment lasting more than 20 years, placing the most baroque ideas in the minds of many of them. So you can unhesitatingly place Steve McQueen, the second Sprout album, next to “Around the World in a Day” and forget the intellectual connotations that have weighed heavy on the group’s image.
I wanted to see the Sprout. And I saw the Sprout. I took the 14.10 train from St Pancras, a London station well worthy of a trifling ditty by the Kinks, with its copper clad surfaces born of an Anglican monastery, and its dusty hall seeming in need of restoration, draughts of air included, the exact décor of “The 39 Steps”. The journey was delightful. The sun glinting through the clouds onto the gleaming golf courses on which dapper gentlemen in mohair pullovers pace nimbly. Flowered frontages of ancient cottages lined up between the telegraph poles explode onto the double glazed train windows. As the wondering eye snaps these fleeting daguerreotypes, you are suddenly introduced to the England created by Dickens, dreamed of by Huysmans, of which Ray Davies sung, far from Brixton and Toxteth.
On arriving at Leicester I took a taxi driven by a turbaned Sikh who dropped me at the Eaton Bray Hotel where the Sprout were laying over. I first made the acquaintance of Martin McAloon, Paddy’s brother and the bassist in Prefab Sprout. A big clumsy youth with blonde curls and cauliflower ears whistling words like a pressure cooker full of sarcastic steam. While we were waiting for Paddy we prepared the ground by discussing current news. More pressing than I’d thought.
“We’re releasing a new album. It was recorded in 12 days. We’re only pressing 3000 copies. We wanted to break the routine where make a record then go on tour and restart every 18 months. Psychologically speaking, releasing 2 albums this year is very reassuring. Obviously compared to ‘Steve McQueen’ which took 3 months, this one sounds almost… garage. CBS wasn’t delighted, they were worried that the work done to promote ‘Steve McQueen’ would be diminished. But in fact this record will be released on the 2nd December which anyway is commercial suicide. Coming up to Christmas the shop windows will be full of ‘Paul Young’s Greatest Hits’ and ‘ZTT Chartbusters’. It’s mostly aimed at the fans. These are the ‘Basement Tapes’ rather than ‘Blonde on Blonde’”.
I can well imagine Martin reassuring his brother, floundering in a diabolical pool of artistic self-doubt and metaphysical torpor. On the subject of this surprise album, Paddy would confide to me later that:
“The cymbals interfere with the sound of the piano, the piano tramples all over the bass. OK. But no one makes records like that any more. I aim high but I’m keen also to prove to myself that I’m not part of a machine, that I’m not just there to fulfil a contract.”
And the title?
“In England when I do interviews, the journalists often ask me why I don’t write political songs. I don’t write them explicitly but for example ‘Elegance’ from ‘Swoon’ can be considered to be political because it describes the distinction made in society like ours because of the money you have, or the accent you speak with (typically British!). In choosing ‘Protest Songs’ I wanted above all to say that I’m not trying to escape reality with my music, it’s not escapism. My music is about the real world, but I often find it more useful to relate my own experiences rather than to search for controversy or utter vaguely political statements. Personally I have some difficulty in not being cynical about musicians who earn vast sums of money and call themselves socialists”.
The good news is in any case more about Paddy McAloon’s prodigious output and the luxuriance of his inspiration which like Costello or Prince is able to provide double the output in the same year or fill B sides with precious jewels.
Martin and Paddy McAloon are originally from Newcastle, a mining town in the North East of England from which Eric Burdon and the Animals, Bryan Ferry, and Sting also hail.
Martin: “Our mother and Sting’s grandmother worked together. They cleaned and looked after churches. Me, I started playing guitar at 7 years old. We always had the ambition to put a group together. I was 12 when we decided to call it Prefab Sprout, we were more or less certain that no one else would have the same idea. We watched ‘Hard Day’s Night’ on the TV. We also loved ‘Let it Be’. A group that rehearsed on a roof on a sunny Sunday. McCartney having fun. As long as I can remember, Paddy wrote songs.”
Paddy: “At the age of nine I wrote things, very innocent and naïve. For example I remember having written an anti-war song, something which is quite a common idea when you’re a kid. ‘War is Bad’. I was fifteen years ahead of Culture Club! There were other songs without a theme, just words, a mixture of words and phrases. I’ve always loved the symphony of words, their colour, their mixture. ‘Swoon’ is an eccentric record. When it was released I was absolutely convinced of its strong commercial potential. Today I pay more attention so as to not let myself get carried away in the flood.”
Martin introduces me to Neil Conti, the drummer of the Sprout since ‘Steve McQueen’. Neil is the most rock n roll of the group. He comes from London where he’s long put his talents and his drumsticks up for hire in the studios. He’s also part of the hard funk group Lynx. Results guaranteed. Recently he accompanied David Bowie on the stage at Wembley for Band Aid. He also played on the Bowie/Jagger single. There is also Michael, the keyboard player, notable only for having played on the first Dexys Midnight Runners demos.
Paddy meets us in the hall. Slight. And clean shaven, contrary to the evidence of the more recent photos. An ordinary guy in light blue jeans and light brown checked jacket. He wears spectacles but takes them off after the sound check. Charming. Delightful. Refined. Talking quickly and almost feverishly, always fearing he might offend the interviewer (‘Ah, you like the Cramps? Oh, Right, right. I see. No, no, that’s great, fine…’), knowing how to manage a sometimes cutting humour, masked with a fur overcoat of gentleness. Engaging, just like his songs.
Those who have passed by way of ‘Cruel’ (‘If I‘m troubled by every folding of your skirt..’) will know where he’s coming from. Bathed in the drowsiness of a fake bossa nova, Paddy’s miraculous voice, augmented by the Lolitaesque sighs of Wendy Smith, manage to whet the blades of the instruments of torture, the gentle and delicious torture of sex: this precise language, sensual, giving flesh and blood to Victorian formulations. The troubling chant of jealousy. Whether or not this is your cup of team ‘Cruel’ is an eminently ‘enjoyable’ record, as Paddy puts it. And seems to have been very simply conceived, workmanlike, in the sentimentality starched environment of the bedroom of a young man suffering from serious problems of self-doubt. A record recalling the suffocating poignancy of ‘In My Room’ by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
‘Swoon’ in its entirety is a magical harvest of heady musical morsels and unusual titbits where Bobby Fischer’s plan encounters ‘Cue Fanfare’ and ‘Green Isaacs’, or where to become Joan of Arc you must be prepared to burn, and where no longer being able to play Basketball is lamented. And all of this mixed with the ‘Pa pa pa pa’ and the ‘Bobo Bee’.
Paddy: ‘The songs are utterly mad’. He aimed for the top of the charts but has found himself with the tattoo ‘File under Talking Heads/Steely Dan’ stamped on his back.
“I’m forcing myself away from this tendency. I don’t want us to be pigeon holed as a literary group anymore, because that’s a label that puts a lot of people off. I don’t like the image of the ‘Talking Heads’, even if I understand why some people put us in the same bracket. For Steely Dan it’s not so bad. I love their records, but the big difference between us and them is their cynical New Yorker side. I’m continually presented as ‘clever clever’ in the British press. I don’t deny that we can be overambitious. I’ve always worked at the intriguing side of my music. My most dear wish is to surprise those who listen to the radio. There are too many insignificant and uniform things, too much commerce and not enough adventure.”
“Thankfully I’ve had an understanding ear at CBS (Prefab Sprout are signed to the Newcastle label Kitchenware, distributed by CBS). They know the difference between George Michael and myself. They immediately saw that I represented something unusual. I love loads of things in music for millions of reasons but I’ve always been more attracted by those people who’ve managed to be both successful and original at the same time. For example when I say I like Burt Bacharach (who wrote notably for Dionne Warwick), people laugh, they take me for a precious fool. I’m not trying to do a Burt Bacharach, but I just like the idea of smashing the charts with something that’s never been heard before.”
Last spring, as the buds on the trees came out, ‘Steve McQueen’ fell to Earth with its wintery sleeve and those moving and radiant soundscapes.
Paddy: “I had a sort of vision when I was walking down the street. It was of an American DJ announcing at the microphone ‘And now, here is the new record by Prefab Sprout, ‘Steve McQueen’!’ Everyone thought the title was perfect. I couldn’t have chosen another actor. It wouldn’t have worked with Paul Newman. I love the sonority of the name ‘Steve McQueen’. I wrote to his widow to explain to her. Someone at the BBC gave me her address. I didn’t get a reply. Except a few months later his lawyers told me ‘Leave him alone. You shouldn’t have done that’. It was just for the sound of the name and also because I think it was a very romantic record. Like McQueen. In the US they haven’t released it with that title. It’s called ‘Two Wheels Good’. The photo with the motorbike is for ‘The Great Escape’ because there’s a bit too much of a tendency to consider us as a soft group.
Laying himself open to the acid comments of the press seems decidedly to amuse him!
‘Steve McQueen’ confuses some fans because of Thomas Dolby’s ‘glossy’ production, but taken as a whole spreads its net far more widely. The cool breeze of Wendy Smith’s vocals whispers its seductive effect into almost all the songs. In ‘When Love Breaks Down’ or ‘Appetite’ you sense Paddy groping in the dark, searching for and finding the point of rupture in the defensive shell of the grand public, without behaving like a vulgar and obsequious syrup seller, but rather with grace and daring.
Nonetheless, ‘Steve McQueen’ remains a complex object, a carefully closed and sealed mirror to a soul. Certainly it is one of the rare pop releases of the last few years to have sought absolute purity, and not only in the form of songs but also in placing itself in the perspective of the perfect album, the ‘Sergeant Pepper’. The greatest challenge. So, is our obsessive troubadour still making a music too difficult to isolate from his own self? What happens next will be fascinating. Pleasure isn’t measured in the charts, even if Paddy is ready to risk everything and do everything to climb them. And most notably to suffer.
The concert took place at Leicester University in a hall filled with ornate woodwork and polished parquet, a mixture of the Jeu de Paume in Paris and a Court of Law. Thick red curtains hung from the windows and from great opaque bulbs oozed a milky light, lending a dull sheen to the slats of parquet and spreading itself in a last silky tint on the girls’ cheekbones.
The shy, the slightly drunk, the Banshees and the Madonnas, were there, just like anywhere else. On the other hand the sylph figured blonde of the group, Wendy Smith, who is generally understood to be Paddy’s girlfriend, was missing. A bout of bronchitis had temporarily removed her from the stage (but she will be back before the upcoming French concerts). And so obviously we were deprived of a great part of the Sprout’s charm.
That aside, Prefab Sprout isn’t the best live group in the world. Paddy’s guitar skills are limited. But that’s quibbling. The songs are so good that they hook you in. They flow over you.
Before the set we went to eat a chicken curry with the tour manager and roadies in a building that looked a bit like a physics or chemistry lab, in the university buildings. Mostly to reinforce the idea of “rock for the unemployed”. After the set the fans, the followers and the group talked over plastic cups full of sodas or St-Emilion. A scene any rock critic has seen a thousand times, arguably it’s usually a bit more lively.
All the same it was a warmer atmosphere than usual. Maybe because of the smiles. That manner of making the banal joyous is something unique to Prefab Sprout.
It was 2am when we returned to the hotel. Sitting in the back of the coach I asked: “What do people mostly do in Leicester then?”. And Martin replied with an impish smile: “They die”.
I’d seen the Sprout.