Splash! Head Sprout Paddy McAloon is macarooned on a desert island with benevolent beached whale Danny Kelly. Songs and songsmiths are on the menu. Mac reveals his heroes. Big Dan cries for help. Paddy field of focus by Derek Ridgers.
THREE O’CLOCK on another cloudy Saturday afternoon in Sheffield. I’m sat forlornly in the foyer of a cosy hotel. Prefab Sprout are late.
Still, the time passes quickly, as it does when your reading matter grips. Mine is a scrap of paper on which is a list. A list of records, singers and songwriters. It’s a short, ragged roll, dictated to me over the phone the previous evening by Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon. My mission is to rendezvous with him and, with The List as conversational cattle prod, to elicit his opinions on all matters songwriterly.
Why ask McAloon? That’s simple. Prefab Sprout’s new LP ‘Steve McQueen’ has, with featherlight aplomb, confirmed Mister McAloon’s growing mastery of the arty craft, the crafty art, songwriting.
He’s an unashamed songwright and lyricist, and has joined Elvis Costello and Stephen Patrick Morrissey as the ’80s most talked about practitioners of those much maligned trades. And he’s late . . .
AN HOUR later; Paddy McAloon — thin, bearded and intense, every inch the young D. H. Lawrence — sits before me. We’ve already nattered informally. In a quiet, almost clenched way, he is passionate about songs, writers and records, sometimes allowing conversational gaps as he ransacks his mind for just the correct adjective or noun . . .
It’s high time we started. I gaze at the top of The List. It makes peculiar reading . . .
PRINCE: LITTLE RED CORVETTE it says.
Prince? Prince?!! Paddy McAloon has chosen to open the proceedings with a sequinned, pouting purveyor of bastardised, lascivious funk (a close cousin to the demon cock rock). His writing, to dignify a process that gravitates to titles like ‘I Would Die 4 U’, seems the polar opposite to everything that I perceive and find wondrous in the work of Prefab Sprout.
Prince? I’m a little puzzled. I’m more than a little shocked.
He smiles, amused at my bafflement. “It’s the song that I most wish I’d written. Basically, sex is the hardest subject about which to write with any class. How many – people do? And it’s not like he’s just lewd . . . he‘s pantomime . . . he’s Popeye. It’s cartoon sex but at the same time it’s incredibly gorgeous and funny.
“I have to use English white boy language, to trust in literacy, but the black voice, and I hope this isn’t a racist comment, is a tool of incredible value. There are few black artists – Marvin Gaye was an obvious exception – who rely on literacy for expression. Instead it’s usually a tone of voice.
“I mean, with that voice Prince can do anything he wants. I haven’t got that, so my armour is the English language. I’m forced to go for the accumulated effect of a line. Prince’s writing doesn’t seem to bother, it’s pretty slapdash, and I’m enormously envious of him . . .”
Enough. The thought of Paddy McAloon envying the Purple Pixie makes my head spin. We’d better move on.
I DREAM OF JEANNIE BY STEPHEN FOSTER.
Oh dear, I’ve been rumbled. My knowledge of this Stephen Foster could be engraved on the head of a pin and still leave room aplenty for The Ten Commandments. Don’t bluff.
Tell me about Foster. Who, where, when, why?
“I’m a little sentimental about him. Foster wrote at the turn of the century and died, in finest Hollywood fashion, destitute.
“America, like most countries, broadcasts or reveals something of itself in its music and I understand something of America’s heritage from this song. Listening to it, I can see where people like Brian Wilson and Jim Webb came from.”
Are you particularly fond of romantic songs?
“I am now. I think that no matter how hip or unsentimental you think you are, even if you think that only The Velvet Underground or Nick Cave make realistic music, you still need some romance.
“I used to adore Lou Reed when I was young. I saw how bad the world was, or could be, and convinced myself that all aspects of it boiled down to the Velvets. But now I don’t need any singer to tell me life’s a serious business . . .”
‘Jeannie’ was a dewy-eyed choice, sure, but compared to The List‘s next entry, it’s positively psychopathic hardcore.
THE BLUE NILE, the scrawled handwriting reads, ‘TINSELTOWN IN THE RAIN”.
This song, of 1984 vintage, is the very pulsing heart of romanticism, a love song of gargantuan, contradictory, universal and specific beauty.
It’s a magical five minutes worth and no mistake.
“Yeah it is. It’s one of those records that anybody understands profoundly. They’ve taken what on paper looks so obvious, so hammy — “Do I love you?/ Yes, I love you.”— and made, or imbued the song with, something . . . fantastic. No other word.”
Smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, but ‘Tinseltown’ constantly stirs mental embers.
“Certain noises, certain songs, do stir memories. We call them ‘memories’ but they’re not really part of our experience. But somehow we know they’re somewhere in someone else’s past. It’s a common language. Bowie used to be very good at it.”
SUBLIMINAL, fortuitous link. David Bowie is next up. The pencil lines trace STATION TO STATION/ HEROES.
In his time, the Thin White One has been all things to all people, including a renowned gatherer of diffuse elements into exemplary pop. Both ‘Station’ and ‘Heroes’ are brilliant but the actual songs often seemed like mere vehicles for experiments in pop formalism and Bowie’s cracked Eurofunk.
“What fascinates me about Bowie at this time is a certain awkwardness. The much vaunted iciness is there, but it’s alongside a very real longing for a warmth that eludes him.
“His lyrics seem to me intensely emotional, bursting with very human feelings. They’d be dull in other hands because often they’re very simple, classical even, but on these records they’re heartfelt and. . . well. I’ve said it, awkward.
“I must admit I find Bowie’s transition from Ziggy Stardust, or whatever, to today’s all-round-entertainer, ‘ooh look, this is the real me’, somehow rather sad. But, if I’m truthful, he’s one of my biggest influences. A lot of my songs could be sung in a David Bowie voice.”
Bowie’s long since ceased being an important writer, though he has a knack of fooling people into thinking that he still is.
“Oh I dunno. Although it was severely panned, I thought ‘Loving The Alien‘ was really beautiful.”
See what I mean? Fooled by a man in a light blue suit.
And apparently, by a man whose beat friend is a llama! After Bowie the list skips to another pop icon.
I’m surprised (again) to see THRILLER and OFF THE WALL so prominently featured.
“Yeah, me too. For a long time, when disco ruled the world, I resented and detested them. But, late as usual, I found I was fascinated by them, by the way they’re put together.
“Very simple chord structures are given immensely complex sets of melodies. Quincy Jones says that Rod Temperton, for instance, writes like Bach and that’s true. He’s got the knack of weaving melodies, of counterpointing seven or eight of them without cluttering up the song.
“It’s amazing. From a tiny, simple framework these people are at the peak of Western consciousness, all pervasive, defining the times like all great songwriters do.
“There’s another side though. They’re the most sophisticated record producers the world has ever known. Jones comes from a fabulous soul tradition— Ray Charles is one of his best friends — but still they settle for rhyming ‘reality’ with ‘fantasy’. Why isn’t the same attention lavished on the beauty, the gloss of the sound, afforded the lyric?
“So on one hand I’ve total admiration for them, but on the other . . .”
The sentence is never finished but Paddy McAloon — God, he takes music seriously, and personally — looks betrayed.
THE LIST is deserted in an effort to discover McAloon‘s attitudes to these strange song things in general.
What do you yourself use music for? Relaxation, rapture, escape, medication, trance, dance, soundtrack, fun?
“All of those really but especially relaxation, though I’m always analysing music. It’s perverse, but I listen to lots of music that I actively dislike. To inspire myself to write better I listen to the horrendous Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance.
“I listen to music for all sorts of reasons that add up to. . . fascination.”
What do you get from the experience, the very act, of writing?
“I’m like a kid, I make riches out of zero. Mentally I’ve got this huge pair of scissors — God, that sounds like Julian Cope— with which I cut and shape the world and share it with people. Usually a good songwriter’s got something to share.
And how would you like these McAloon tunes, these visions of the world, to be consumed? What use should we put them to?
“Anything really. Anything, though I must say that I did blanch when one guy at some university said to me ‘I quite see you as an after-hours jazz-bar music‘. No thank you very much.”
Many of the writers you admire are destined to be remembered. Are you interested in posterity?
“I told another journalist recently that I’d rather be immortal than write the perfect song.
“Posterity does interest me. What I’d really love to be, ten years hence, some young kid, starting to write songs, to say ‘yeah, Paddy McAloon was good’.”
The hands on the clock sweep remorselessly on and the reality of the rock ‘n’ roll world intrudes into this slightly distracted, loving chatter. The Prefab’s tour manager is making anxious noises about soundchecks. Back to that list . . .
THE NEXT name causes another surprised arching of my overworked eyebrows. PAUL McCARTNEY it says, clear as day. The case of this Liverpudlian Croesus had, I thought, long been closed.
According to the NME Ministry Of Rock ’n’ Roll Truth, and it’s quite specific, John Lennon was the genius in The Beatles, wrote all their decent songs, and died a legend, the legend. Macca, we all know, is an astute businessman, proud owner of several small republics and a lifelong pedlar of sugar-coated nursery rhymes.
Defend yourself McAloon or, better still, defend old Mr Thumbs Up.
“I’ll try. I like the man’s innocence. Of all The Beatles he was the most innocent. After the split he formed a group with his girlfriend, for God’s sake! It was exactly what he’d done with The Beatles – started a group with his mates!”
It’s worth mentioning at this juncture that Wendy Smith, Paddy’s girlfriend, is an integral part of Prefab Sprout, contributing, live at least, backing vocals and inexpert tambourine. Just thought I’d mention it. (Feel free, Ed). Back to Mac on Mac.
“You may say that he should still be aiming to fulfil the desires of 20 year olds but I wonder what us ‘young lions’ will be like when we’re 40 . . .”
That’s hardly the point. He hasn’t made a good record in over a decade.
A long, rather strained silence is tom by a whisper.
“But I still feel this enormous loyalty . . .”
Blind, misplaced loyalty.
“Yeah, but along with Dylan, he and his mate Johnny Boy drew the blueprint for what we all do, they invented it. I know respect’s not very hip in pop but. . . well, I do feel a lot of respect.”
He’s whispering again. Quietly, we move on . . .
JIM WEBB- ESPECIALLY ISAAC HAYES’ VERSION OF ‘BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX’
Now this is more like it. At the height of his powers, Webb was the best paid songwriter in history. His songs lent themselves to treatments that regarded the kitchen sink as the basic ingredient, and Hayes’ reptilian schlepp through ‘Phoenix’ is a performance of the most flatulently grotesque self-importance imaginable.
It’s an affront to civilised taste and, of course, a hell of a record. What attracts you to a man like Webb, perceived in many quarters as a creator of cheap cornball psychodramas?
“There’s a touch of pathos about him, of sadness certainly. He had all those massive hits (‘MacArthur Park’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘Phoenix’) before he was 21 . But then, in ’69 or ’70 he saw people like James Taylor and somehow his own simple, brilliant talent wasn’t enough for him.
“So this fabulous writer, adored from Burt Bacharach to Bing Crosby, goes touring with a four-piece rock band in search of some mysterious solo status. I find it incomprehensible in a man of his scope but he actually hankered after spurious singer/ songwriter success.
“He sacrificed his talent in his desperation to be hip. Unbelievable and tragic.”
Another silence clangs into place like a cell door. My eyes move down The List, from Webb to another American basket-case.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM is a former teenage genius, a current grade one nutty boy, and the recurring bête noir of the American musical.
Best known here for ‘Send In The Clowns’ and box-office-safe compilation shows of his songs like ‘Side By Side By Sondheim’, his work is wilfully intellectual and uncompromisingly intelligent. But more than once it has committed the mortal commercial sin of failing to generate the greenies.
Sondheim’s another un-rock ’n’ roll choice.
“Yeah, but like everybody else I’ve mentioned he’s fundamentally enjoyable. All the philosophising, intellectualising and pretension comes after; these people are fun.
“I first noticed him on TV, being interviewed by another clever dick, Andre Previn. Previn introduced him as ‘the greatest writer of the 20th century’, fact! Sondheim didn’t bat an eyelid.
“Look, his mother was a close friend of Oscar Hammerstein, and he spent his youth with Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. He’s got fantastically strong roots and if he’d chosen to go off in an American, sentimental Oklahoma direction he could’ve been excused. But he didn’t . . .
“The big deal is this. What he’s best at, and what interests him, is ambiguity. Ambiguity in relationships, in places, in people . . . oh hell, it’s hard to explain. . . people should just hear ‘Sorry/Grateful’ from ‘Company’ . . . I intend to cover it.”
ON AND ON. The List bears the legend MARVIN GAYE IN GENERAL and that at least gives my flagging eyebrows a rest. We’ve already talked about the power of soul music to communicate without recourse to conventional, poetic language, to cut straight to the heart through the agony or joy or passion or sorrow implied in the flicker of an extraordinary voice.
Marvin Gaye was definitively possessed of one such voice but, in a combination of gifts seldom stuffed. into one body, one psyche, he could write brilliant songs too.
Gaye was a maverick (given the endless turmoil of his life, I suppose he could hardly have been otherwise) but, when his alchemy clicked (‘What’s Going On’, ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘Midnight Love’) he made Fabulous records, the best.
“I got into him after his death really. I find him immensely enviable in that he did everything in an un-self-conscious way. He created Art without making it seem obvious that he was doing it. An astonishing trick really . . .”
The bottom line, the last words, look suspiciously like an afterthought, a concession to rock, to noise. THE CLASH it says, a band who touch the fragile universe of the Sprouts nowhere as far as I can see.
“Y’see? Not everything I like is necessarily classic or melodic. I like The Rolling Stones (when they’re good), I love Led Zeppelin, and I like The Clash singles. I bought their first LP but wasn’t particularly interested. However, a song like ‘The Call Up’ is gorgeous, especially that line about ‘wheatfields over Kiev’. Those words and that half-hearted voice . . . oooh . . .
“There’s a lightness of touch there, and they’re good songs. The Clash prove that good songs need not be quiet.”
There are no women writers on this list.
The bluntness of Paddy McAloon’s response to this innocent and obvious observation shocks me.
“I don’t rate women writers. There are no good ones.”
Stunned hack’s brain stumbles into action. Play for time.
“I don’t really know. . . there’s great women singers.”
The mist is clearing. Hit him with a biggie.
A frown. “I quite like a little of ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ but I dislike all that short story autobiographical tone that hangs ’round her.”
“Oh yeah, sorry, right. That’s a big injustice. I’m sorry, she’s a great pop writer.”
His previous certainty is crumbling. Chuck in another one.
“Yeah, right, great singles. God yes, ‘Talk Of The Town’ and ‘Back On The Chain Gang’ are really fine. Unfortunately Joni Mitchell was the model for ‘women in rock’. I’d much rather see more Chrissie Hyndes than Mitchells; more terse, concise things.”
Point made, Danny, no need to wallop him round the head with Ellie Greenwich or Patti Smith or . . .
ANOTHER glaring thing. With the possible exception of ‘What’s Going On’, none of your faves have much political content, there’s a conspicuous absence of that pop staple, polemic.
You’d think I’d put a long-dead fish under his nose.
“It drives me crackers.”
Oh come on, how can you deny, say, ‘Shipbuilding’.
“Oh hell, I’ve tried to prepare myself for this line of questioning before . . . I’m not afraid of making statements.”
So who’s driving you crackers then? Paul Weller?
Not specifically him but, yes, that sort of writing. Those sentiments, often admirable, could be put in an article, or a broadsheet.
But nobody reads broadsheets, whereas millions listen to The Style Council.
“I’m desperate not to be seen to be fudging issues; obviously some things are right and some things are wrong. But not everything’s black and white, as so many records suggest.
“Those slogan songs are dangerous. Pop music like that reinforces in 17 and 18 year olds a way of thinking that’s wrong, a black and white, blinkered way. I worry about that, and the fact that you can take the money and run. I’m not apolitical but I’m cynical about the whole politics-in-pop-music thing.
“That’s why I appreciate the Geldof approach more than that of The Redskins. Geldof deals with world as it is. I could’ve killed Jonathan King when he wrote that ‘meretricious Bowie’ stuff. Pop music for once tries to do something good — and, of course there’s massive personal publicity to be had — and out crawl the old cynics. . .”
He’s away now, warming to his task, a picture of mental animation, A lot of the thinking he does about politics is obviously not as clear as that which he does about songwriting. He needs telling but time is tight.
Having got his none-too-enamoured opinions of the fiendishly pervasive Lloyd Webber and our beloved Redskins, I’m thirsting to hear his thoughts on the writings of the wordsmiths (Morrissey and Mark E), Prince Michael Of Wham!, Barry Manilow, The Boss, Fish, Paul Simon, The Bard Of Barking, Scott Walker, Curtis Mayfield, Foetus . . .
But even as I shape to mouth the questions, the door swings open and a faceless, panicky voice mutters something about vans and amplifiers. , Paddy McAloon, lover of records, lover of songs, songwriter, has to go. Assorted penpushers with big reputations and heads to match breathe a collective sigh of relief. But there’ll be a next time. . .