PADDY McALOON is a thirty-year-old, practising Catholic who lives with his parents in Durham. The instigator of Prefab Sprout, he is credited with a songwriting genius rarely heard this decade. But ironically, Paddy claims he has been almost totally misunderstood from the outset of his career. Interviewed by Billy Smith, he finally reveals the truth behind the pre-conceptions. Photographs by Gavin Evans.
PADDY McALOON enters the room, hooked nose peeping through a well-cut, stage-curtain fringe, aromatic cigar fixed firmly in hand. In spite of such unconscious hints of affluence, our man is ill at ease. He doesn’t particularly enjoy interviews, preferring to play the endless enigma to the reveal-all rock star; choosing to keep the cards guardedly close to his chest rather than splaying them all over the deck.
Behaviour patterns such as these will come as no great surprise to McAloon fans of course; hints of an over-cautious attitude towards life have littered his songs for the last eleven years. Remember the proclamation ”We have all been burned!” for example? It was splashed across recent adverts for the single Cars And Girls. An isolated line in a stunning song, yet McAloon chose to nail it to every billboard in town. The proximity of such semi-paranoid sentiments to the bleeding McAloon heart are gradually revealed tonight as our talk together develops and the only British songwriter of the last decade who might conceivably be possessed of genius finally opens up.
HE’S NOT just out promoting a single though, there’s also the third Prefab Sprout album to be released in March, a work which takes McAloon out into the far territories of craftsmanship as a song-writer, into lands where only a few will dare to follow. If the debut LP Swoon was fatally flawed through a combination of exaggerated sentiments and limited budgets and the second, Steve McQueen just missed as The 1985 Album Of The Year through a slightly inconsistent second side, then the third, From Langley Park to Memphis, scores the hat-trick. It’s an album you’ll boast to your grandchildren about. A perfect summary of our time.
Yet this article will for many be an introduction to the band, outlining the progress of an group who, in spite of a career spanning a decade or more, the latter half of which has been fixed permanently in the light of critical acclaim, still fail to tease the singles charts. But Paddy still doesn’t feel under pressure to write hits.
”Well, no-one at CBS (the record company) has ever said specifically that Prefab Sprout need a hit single, and I feel I’m respected within that corporation as a song-writer of some merit. You really do have to trust your instincts in this game and compromising can be fatal I learned that at an early stage when we were recording the B side of our first single somewhere in Durham. A call came through on behalf of Elvis Costello. He wanted us to support him at Hammersmith Odeon and, instinctively, I knew it was wrong. But at the time I believed you couldn’t ever afford to turn down such an opportunity. We played and, on a personal level, it was a disaster. Our first ever show in London and we were on stage at Hammersmith Odeon. Crazy. You learn a lot from experiences like that in your early days.”
The late seventies origins of Prefab Sprout are still very much uncharted territories, a great irony in view of the large number of songs composed during that period which are now acknowledged as classics. McAloon is eager to talk he recognises an opportunity to put the record straight.
”Those early days were crucially important to where we stand today, but they’re also significant in that they mark the time when Prefab Sprout first began to be misunderstood in general terms. I’d go as far as to say that I’m now jaundiced with the idea of playing in a group in the restrictive way ’groups’ are defined today because I thrashed all the garage band sort of existence out of me between 1977 and 1982.
“We were widely regarded in those days as ’new wave’ but that was just lazy journalistic pigeon-holing. Quite frankly, we loathed the whole movement in spite of what has been said since. We found it unforgivably patronising that groups should be told they had to play with energy we assumed that was taken as read by everyone.
”What we did share with the new wave was an attitude that the essence of the affair was a shock. I was at Newcastle Polytechnic at the time becoming increasingly more interested in figures such as Picasso and. James Joyce, people who’d gripped the twentieth century by the throat and redefined it in a new perspective. I was interested in doing something revolutionary too but I kept the sentiment to myself because I soon learned there are very few things which are both revolutionary and good.
”The essential task as far as I saw it was to break pop out of the format of standard 4/4 time and move it somewhere else. Also, I couldn’t understand why people sat in pubs listening to covers of Top 40 material all night. I accept it now because since those heady days I’ve come to learn what a hard day’s work involves and why most people prefer to listen to Lionel Ritchie rather than anything weightier at night, but at the time I became very frustrated.
”The press completely misunderstood what we were about so we just allowed them to meander on. The crucial misunderstanding has always been that volume, speed and a metallic guitar can somehow be equated with passion, commitment and strength. It’s ludicrous.
“If you listen to the song Nightingales on our’ new album or Cruel on Swoon you’ll notice that the sentiments expressed in both are unswerving and direct, feelings achieved through a quiet power.
”It’s an ideal I’ve held since those very early days, something I’m only now beginning to achieve. It’s also a new departure for us, an attempt to do something in a slightly different way. When you’re trying to be different you can fall into all sorts of traps and to a certain extent I suppose that has sometimes happened to me I’ve often been accused of being pretentious but I’ve not been pretentious at all, merely misunderstood and there’s a major difference.”
PADDY McALOON has been burned, and the misguided interpretations of his work, his attitudes and personality form a subject he’s keen to pursue with some vigour.
”If I see something really vicious about us in the press I just laugh and recognise it for what it is very often an opinion with no real substance. When Melody Maker reviewed Cars And Girls it was vilified by someone who hadn’t even heard the record! We have been relatively lucky however in that we appear to have generated a large body of support amongst the various music media, though there’s always going to be those who will dismiss us out of hand.
”There’s another side to all this as well. I often find myself laughing at the failure of a great many people to get the point of my songs. However patronising it might sound, the fact is that often they are just too subtle for certain individuals who can’t even be bothered to make the slightest effort to understand. Too bad for them I say, but there are better songwriters than me receiving similar treatment.”
His mixture of a steadfast confidence in his own ability and a quiet humility relative to some of his songwriting peers proves endearing but there’s little time to reflect as McAloon steams on with the revelations.
”A part of me wants to be violent when I’m confronted with ill-informed criticism. I suspect certain people would be very shocked, particularly if they caught me on a bad day. Very un-Prefab Sproutish relative to how we’re popularly perceived.”
Are you telling me you’re a fighting man?
”Oh yes, in the correct circumstances. I’m not going to get into giving examples and I’m certainly not suggesting that I’m going to put a nail in the next journalist’s ear but people can lull themselves into a certain perception of someone simply through what they’ve told themselves about that person. Let me tell you, they’d be very, very wrong to make any impulsive assumptions about me. Some people will only ever understand a fist in the eye.”
There is a very definite steeliness about McAloon which lends his fighting talk credence. It doesn’t sound at all like the ravings of a wimp. Did this same man really write the lush-like Venus Of The Soup Kitchen on the new album, complete with a radio Two singalong refrain? So what about other alleged acts of violence? A practising Catholic, Paddy has strong feelings on the recent Abortion Bill.
”I can’t understand how anyone contemplates abortion. I can hear the comments now about not everyone having the benefit of my education and the perils of being unmarried, sixteen and pregnant but I honestly can’t understand why the world sees it as anything other than killing. ’It’s A Woman’s Right To Choose’? I don’t see how anyone has any jurisdiction over an unborn child. We don’t even have jurisdiction over our own bodies. If, you mutilate yourself, you’re put away, that’s that.”
This forceful, uncompromising side of McAloon is clearly evident on the new album. Cars And Girls for example is a particularly vitriolic swipe at the Springsteen legend.
”More tongue-in-cheek than vitriolic,” he qualifies. ”Let’s face it, Springsteen’s been exploiting the standard rock ‘n’ roll images of the road and the good-time girls since he recorded Born To Run. His music’s like pieces of chrome with messages on. You’ll never hear strings on Springsteen records because they’re too uncompromising, too limited in their viewpoint. Springsteen’s dress, his instruments, his appeal as a man of the people it’s all just so forced.
”That’s what I’m laughing at in the song, pretending to be one who doesn’t understand all the metaphorical language Springsteen delights in exploiting. I’m supposed to be someone who leads the life of a car thief, someone who can’t understand where Bruce is getting his unfailing optimism from. ”
The whole song was instigated one day when I was fooling around with my guitar and I got the line ’Brucie dreams life’s a highway’ there was only one way I could go after that, I had no choice but to opt for a bitter-sweet song. It might all appear a little too cynical but I just can’t stand people buying large quantities of music which merely seeks to re-affirm their own view of life. Acts like Springsteen and U2 have this very clear-cut vision which I sometimes wish I could share perhaps I’m envious after all, but what I attempt to do is far more ambiguous. What I try to do is to look at the world from all points of view.”
AND WHAT about a perspective on Paddy McAloon and the Prefab Sprout of a decade hence?
”It’s a difficult one because we stand against such a peculiar background. I began writing seriously when I was thirteen and because I started so young my critical faculties were that much more developed when my contemporaries finally got around to picking up a guitar.
”I’ve always felt somewhat ahead of the game. I mean, if you considered our first album Swoon in terms of a Beatles chronology, it would fit in somewhere between Revolver or Rubber Soul that’s how far we had developed before we even had the opportunity to record an album.
”I suppose I should also consider just how much longer I can keep this up. Since finishing the recording of the album in September I’ve been spending virtually every day writing new material at home in Durham. Nothing new about that I suppose but it can be very demanding. I don’t go on holiday, I don’t ever sit around reading, I just like to work on my writing all the time.
”A typical day begins with me getting up at eight, switching on the keyboards before my Weetabix and then embarking upon a tight work schedule through until six, seven, maybe even eleven at night. I don’t think a lot of people understand the sheer graft that goes into song-writing, particularly when you’re striving to be different, seeking to be unique.
”Prefab Sprout are working in an area where, more than ever before, relative value is assessed in terms of the number of records sold. Just about every other yard-stick is ignored. The single medium employed to woo the record-buying public is the one based on an implied assumption that because a record sells a million copies, it must be good. I’m not saying that such a system is necessarily wrong – it’s a fact of modern business isn’t it? – but I personally don’t want to be judged strictly on those criteria. Prefab Sprout have a lot more to offer than that and I view this whole affair as a long-term commitment; it’s not just a passing fling.
”The fashions in pop last, on average, for about six months they’re there largely to mark time during adolescence. Rick Astley occupies very much the same position that Mud occupied twelve years ago and that’s fine by me I’m certainly not saying that people should stop buying Rick Astley records and should start buying mine. But I just don’t want to address myself to issues like fashion and image it’s inappropriate to what Prefab Sprout are all about, and if we don’t sell mega-numbers of records as a result so be it.”
It’s obvious from our talk that few people understand the genius and the contradictions that are Paddy McAloon. He’s open and he’s shut, he’s vulnerable and he’s guarded, a cosmopolitan and a homebird, one who casually refers to recent spells of recording in Hollywood and sessions with Stevie Wonder and then reveals that at thirty years of age he stills lives with his parents.
He’s the bloke you instinctively invite on the trip to the Cup Final. He’s opinionated, he’s brash and he’s bloody good fun. The only thing that really separates him from you and me is that he’s making the best albums of the decade.