In 1986, Steve McQueen by the British group Prefab Sprout was compared favourably to legendary LPs like Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys or Revolver by the Beatles. On their latest record, Jordan: The Comeback, The King of Rock’N’Roll, Paddy McAloon, delves deeper for the perfect pop song.
Five years have passed since critics worldwide picked up their pens or got behind their typewriters to lavish praise on Newcastle up-and-coming songwriter Paddy McAloon and his brainchild Prefab Sprout. The reason for this was the brilliant second Sprout album, Steve McQueen. McAloon, with help from bassist (and brother) Martin McAloon, drummer Neil Conti and singer (and spouse) Wendy Smith had succeeded in recording a sequence of songs joining adventure and accessibility into an alluring whole. The sequel, From Langley Park To Mernphis, which came out two years later, although less of a surprise, did confirm once more the talent of songwriter McAloon, who was proving to be a master of refinement. The discography, which had commenced in 1984 with the debut album Swoon, is extended with the recent LP Jordan: The Comeback. All the songs can be described as “striking”, in both textual terms and in terms of arrangements, seeming quite polished at first hearing but with a more of an edge on closer listening.
In his songs Paddy McAloon is both the anti-hero and the King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll at the same time. He is a chameleon who just as easily takes the form of rock heroes such as Elvis Presley and Bruce Springsteen as he moves towards a role in the world of the great Broadway musicals. Paddy McAloon knows better than anyone the history of popular music and is not afraid to demand left and right field elements in his songs, and to highlight and apply these in a modified form as part of the Sprout recipe.
However, part of the life of a musician is one aspect that Paddy McAloon until recently was not indulging: performance. At the time of From Langley Park To Memphis he said: “Maybe giving concerts can be fun, just not for me. I just don’t feel like it. Performance can only result in repetition. And I resent that. If your life revolves mainly around writing songs and you find that the most exciting thing there is, you can’t do anything else.” It’s now several years further down the line, and Jordan: The Comeback is in the stores. In between came the demo-like Protest Songs, a full length album with depth and intelligent lyrics, but more direct than the other Prefab Sprout records. But even more surprising than the outstanding new fifth album is McAloon’s return to the concert stage.
When I arrive at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Manchester, I almost walk past him. Ensconced in a long winter coat and with his hat pulled forward, I don’t recognize him immediately. From behind his glasses his eyes look tired and a little feverish. Being The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll is not easy, that much is clear. A slack hand: “Hi.”
However, a few hours of rest later, he was in front of me, cheerful, and talking nineteen to the dozen, with a singsong northern English accent. The topic: performance. “I still think of it in exactly the same way. I hate it. ”
“It’s an act. And that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s going well. I think it’s absolutely perfect. I even have fun. I feel I have things under control, I know I’m singing well. Yet, when I had the opportunity yesterday to go home, I went. Just because in the last few months I haven’t written any songs and it depresses me. I’m just a kid, you know, very selfish, who wants to work on his new album.”
A Hermit from a small town in the north of England?
“The word hermit isn’t quite right. I’m always out and about. What I want is to write really good songs and the best place to do that is at home. ”
Steve McQueen was critically acclaimed, and in some cases even compared to Revolver by The Beatles. Is that something that imposes a heavy burden?
“No, it is doesn’t! I thought it was an unfair comparison. The Beatles are gods and Steve McQueen is no more than a good record. And however arrogant sometimes I can be about my songwriting, I’m not the Beatles and I’m not the Beach Boys. If tomorrow I suddenly sold fifteen million records, I wouldn’t believe it at first. I always hope for the best, and I pray there is always a place for the oddball records.”
Protest songs was far from an oddball record. Apart from having no protest songs on the record.
“In the sense that it’s not a politically naive record, no, that the lyrics don’t focus on various issues in a one-sided way. I don’t write like that. I used the title amongst other reasons to show that what’s on the record isn’t the kind of work we usually do. I often feel there’s a hidden criticism of my work, that I’m not rooted in the real world.”
The main objective of your life seems to be to write the perfect song.
“I’d like to write a handful of songs that represent all the best separate elements a song can have. But at the same time I’m looking for a high standard on commercial grounds. Because I want my songs to do well. I don’t want to be the guy of whom everyone says he was successful artistically and nothing more. I want also to be a songwriter who wasn’t a commercial failure. I believe it’s possible to write popular songs which are nonetheless interesting. The King of Rock’N’Roll ultimately did become a hit.
The real name of The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll is Paddy McAloon?
“I hope not, although it’s true. The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll is someone who at nineteen wrote a number of songs he still sings when he’s forty: hot dog, jumping frog. A bit of a pathetic figure. But I wrote The Golden Calf when I was nineteen and I’ve now already passed thirty. Perhaps I’m also just as depressed. ”
“It seemed a wonderful idea to use Presley’s life as a sort of metaphor or something, a coat rack to hang the idea from, the feeling of regret that we haven’t done thing otherwise that we’ve all experienced. I saw this linled to the idea of the satisfaction that playing a sort of Albert Goldman could give me, to write a biography of Presley in a few words. And of course my biography is not true. Presley is dead. I know he is dead. I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists who think he still runs around on this earth. But I feel that there is more truth in my view of it than in a list of the drugs he used. There is a great emotional truth in my story, which hopefully everyone can relate to, whether they are Elvis fans or not, and also there is humour. It doesn’t happen very often that you find something where you can score at all levels. It’s pop culture, because thats what Elvis is. However, it touches on other things. The idea of a comeback is universal. It is the almost universal myth of Jesus Christ, of the resurrection. ”
On Jordan your God himself enters onto the scene. “Hi, this is God here. Talking to me used to be a simple affair. Moses only had to see a burning bush. And he’d pull up a chair.” Not only Jordan but also God seems to be making a comeback.
“I think you’re right. I don’t know if there is a God. But if there is one, then I can imagine that he would say: Hey guys, what’s happening? Why don’t we talk to each other any more, like we used to? I think we’ve all become a little weary in the past decades. The fierce anti-communism of America just appears naive. And we think we’ve learned something. That isn’t the case. We’ve just shifted a little. In addition, God is never far away. What I mean is that God is a concept, a relativistic factor. Many songs on Jordan could refer to God, even though this isn’t specifically mentioned. ”
Prefab Sprout seems to be a project about rock music, about rock culture.
“That’s true in a sense. I don’t know much about James Brown, but I can imagine that many people fall for the instinctive part of what he does, and there’s a certain beauty in it. However, people who are making records now work differently. Pop music has a certain cultural weight which the people in the fifties and sixties would have laughed heartily at. Really I’d love to be that bluesman, just do it, but that’s not how it works and as soon as you realize that, you just make the best of it. And more and more people do that. People like Green from Scritti Politti, who says, OK, we have a certain level of education. It would be mad to present ourselves as noble savages. And don’t be fooled by the myth of the primal scream in rock & roll that is supposed to be soulful. That was maybe once the case, but it’s now just a reflexive reaction. But on the other hand, someone like Whitney Houston has no soul. However wide her range there is no soul in her voice, because it’s been laundered out. It’s plastic.”
To what extent is Paddy McAloon’s approach to rock & roll ronic?
“I try to get my share of the cake. There’s often a certain irony in the things I do. At the same time however, I want to sell records. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. ”
You use images created by others, in ways that are sometimes unflattering. I’m thinking of “Cars And Girls” from “From Langley Park To Memphis”.
“Cars And Girls is indeed written in the language of Springsteen. Only it’s far less romantic. If you listen to Springsteen, you’ll be presented with an image that is hugely romantic, while maintaining a kind of despair lurking within. Springsteen creates an image of the twentieth century, of modern America, guys with beautiful women behind their engines. That’s fine. Springsteen writes great songs. I just write the story from the point of view of the boy who has no Harley Davidson, no girl behind and who feels a little carsick. ”
Some argue that the music of Paddy McAloon is too clever to catch on on a large scale.
“Why do people buy my records then? I get such comments more often hurled at me and I think it’s a deeply sad thing, especially in a world that is so overloaded with meaningless music. And maybe I’m smart. However, I’m certainly not calculating. I prefer to ignore this kind of criticism. What do I have to finally get past it? Write a big disco hit maybe? If I wanted, I could do that. And maybe I do still want to once in a while, even if only to be rid of this kind of complaint. ”
The next night I see him perform. In addition to the core, there is also an additional guitarist, a keyboard player and a percussionist on stage. The show runs smoothly. Paddy shows himself as a professional entertainer with a powerful voice. He jokes with the audience and is clearly having fun. Hot dog, jumping frog.
Original Article (C) Copyright Corne Evers, all rights reserved. Translation published with his kind permission