PADDY McALOON ISN’T LAZY. ALTHOUGH THE SEVEN YEARS SINCE HIS PREVIOUS ALBUM SEEM LIKE A BIBLICAL ETERNITY. HE IS A TIRELESS SEEKER OF POP PERFECTION, ALWAYS AN ELUSIVE GRAIL, AND ONE THAT HE HELD IN HIS HANDS LONG AGO, AS WELL AS NEEDING TO REVIVE THE CAREER OF HIS BAND. BUT IT IS NOT LAZINESS, BUT HOPE THAT HE WILL SOMEDAY COMPLETE THAT IMPOSSIBLE QUEST. HIS LATEST ATTEMPT IS “ANDROMEDA HEIGHTS”.
Once upon a time, when colourful butterflies flew, long before the Internet, a group in Newcastle named themselves Prefab Sprout. They were the composer Paddy McAloon, his brother Martin, his girlfriend Wendy Smith, and his best friend Mick Salmon. Following a single in 1983, “Lions In My Own Garden”, Salmon quit without participating in the first album, and his job with the sticks was taken by Graham Lant. “Swoon” (Kitchenware/Columbia, 84) is a collection of breathless verses and crisp rhythms, with lively acoustic guitar strummed funk – a fluid combination – and bossa nova beats draped in symphonic keyboards, the highlights being “Cue Fanfare”, “Cruel”, “Elegance” and “Technique”. Paddy explains. “We didn’t have much budget and we wanted a sophisticated record; We also lacked technical knowledge, skill. It’s an oddly ambitious album from an ambitious group that went into the studio with the idea of working on more complex songs. We were unknown and we wanted to stand out from everyone else, show it all on a record, and above all to be original. It was an album we’d wanted to make for years but which was done very quickly. And we were also a band with problems: we sounded increasingly and deliberately accelerated. It didn’t reflect our style, we were just trying to impress with complex arrangements.”
And then having been joined by drummer Neil Conti, Prefab Sprout were put under the command of producer Thomas Dolby for “Steve McQueen” (Kitchenware-Columbia, 85), one of the most successful albums of the eighties. The first, flawless, side: “Faron Young”, “Bonny”, “Appetite”, “When Love Breaks Down” and “Goodbye Lucille”, each song outdoing the last as they progress, is complemented by the more introspective second. With a regal fluidity and luxury, every note is beautifully thought out, bordering perfection, the rhythmic changes are set aside and it engages and gets straight to the point. Paddy McAloon touched the sky, collecting a distribution contract extension with CBS (through Columbia) for eight LPs. While “Steve McQueen” was still being marvelled at, they had already recorded three months later the follow-up, “Protest Songs” (Kitchenware-Columbia, 89). “CBS didn’t want to release it. It was a stupid situation, partly because of me. I knew Steve McQueen was fantastic, and I was terrified of the expectation that would precede the next album. So we needed to reduce the tension on the street immediately by putting out a modest album so the public didn’t label us. I believed in this strategy, but they told me they couldn’t release two LPs in three months: it would confuse the consumers. Which one is new and what is our sound? They’re very sensitive to anything that affects the product. They don’t really care if one was better than another, or more commercial, at least not officially. For me, these were songs I liked and I wanted one day to see them in the stores, but they were too modest and the label froze them for four years.” True: “Protest Songs” was released in 1989, unnoticed, to break the silence between the third and fourth LPs; yes, exactly as Paddy wanted.
The third album, “From Langley Park To Memphis” (Kitchenware-Columbia, 88), took three years. Disappointing on the first encounter, some of it – the more maverick part – improves over time. Part of it uses complex chords inspired by post-war American music – “The Venus of the Soup Kitchen” – offset with songs that are more accessible, economical and similar to preceding work, such as the single “Cars and Girls”. “Those who write music manage emotions that are close to peoples’ hearts; They tell stories. And the idea of telling stories captivated me; like the stories of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, which are opinions expressed in the first person. “Hey Manhattan!” wasn’t written thinking about the United States, but about a city where both rich and poor live. The problem is that America filters much of its strengths and weaknesses into myths exported to outsiders, and you have to know how to separate myth from reality. I was also interested to learn how to write a musical; it was a sort of goal. On the technical side, Thomas didn’t want to do all the work. I don’t know if it was because I was busy with other things, or because he felt it would be too difficult to surpass “Steve McQueen”. He refused to produce “Cars and Girls”; he told me that anyone could do that as well or better than him. Deep down, I think he avoided it because it was on the subject of Bruce Springsteen and he dreamed perhaps of one day entering onto his payroll.”
However, “Jordan” became a priority for him. We are talking about “Jordan: The Comeback” (Kitchenware-Columbia, 90), nineteen songs dipped in conceptual aspic, a magnum opus for any group that hadn’t already attained the heights of “Steve McQueen”: a thoroughly crafted album, sentiments as far away from rock as its makers could wish, and so beautiful that Paddy McAloon then submerged himself into silence for seven years. We found one of the hundreds of compliments in the press at the time: “If you don’t like any of these nineteen songs, you don’t like music” (“Melody Maker” 22/12/90). And a phrase from “The Ice Maiden”: “Death is a small price for heaven”.
Seven years passed without a Prefab Sprout record, except for the 1992 compilation, “A Life of Surprises”; seven years of rumours of motley projects. “From the outside you appear lazy. I understand that and I try not to think from this perspective. I’ve written songs for several LPs.” There was talk in 1988 of a soundtrack for “Zorro”, then a Christmas album (“Total Snow”), a concept album about an artist similar to Michael Jackson (“Behind The Veil”), a romantic (“Knights ln Armour”) and a more banal (“Let ‘s Change The World With Music”). Oh, and a personal interpretation of the history of the planet (“Earth: The Story So Far”).”The problem has been working on several of them at the same time; on the one hand, it’s a relief to change focus; on the other hand, it interrupts you. Also with ‘Earth’, Sony meddled with it: they heard a song, and suggested to me I develop it in another separate album; that is, develop an idea rather than assemble a collection of different ideas as would be more usual. They told me I had talent, I could do it. It was a mistake. I don’t want to spoil a project by doing it too quickly, and then I realized it would take me years to finish it my way. They didn’t have the money; I became depressed and started writing for others.” He composed for Jimmy Nail, British comedian and for Cher. “I like the freedom that you get with a song that is one of yours but independent of you. The first person rule doesn’t apply when you write for others. You escape from yourself; you have to think about what kind of lyric you would like someone to sing. It’s an incentive: I love it. And it’s pleasing to see how one of your songs, in another voice, seems to be treated with greater benevolence for posterity.” I ask him if he likes Jimmy Webb. It excites him. I ask about Burt Bacharach. The same. I ask if he might compose a lifelong meal ticket, changing the fog on the Tyne for Malibu, and escaping to a Mexican hotel, drunk, chasing a teenage girl with plaits. He laughs, but he wants to talk about “Andromeda Heights” (Kitchenware -Columbia Sony, 97), the reason for his promotional visit.
Personally I think it’s a very decent album, even if not attaining the heights of his two great albums. It sounds a bit like it’s been made accessible as a convenience, with the classic Sprout sound primarily as a common denominator: ‘It sounds like us, do you remember us?’ A record to return to the market and from there restart the future. “I detect disappointment in your comments. It might not be as ambitious as ‘Jordan’. Psychologically it could be understood as a plan, provided that doesn’t take into account how proud I am of the disc. It’s more modest and less risky, but for my mental stability I needed something that would give me pleasure. A bunch of simple songs with a vital beauty not needing explanations or dragging conceptual ideas around with them. A pure and simple album, without cynicism. And I don’t buy the criticism of the simplicity of the lyrics. I use love songs to go further. “Swans” and “Anne Marie” don’t speak only of couples and love affairs, they speak of something higher. “Andromeda Heights” speaks of hope. They are like objects that can fly beneath the radar; I wanted them to be modest and reach their destination, without pomposity. The radar interprets them in their literal sense, but the subconscious reads between the lines.”
It sounds like trapeze acrobats frolicking on an imaginary and dangerous boundary between Steely Dan and Chris Rea (or, for that matter, Kenny G). “I wanted the perfect ‘beat’ and the jazz flavour of Steve Gadd. Therefore I used the percussionist Paul Smith. As for Calum Malcolm, I was interested because he has worked in many records that I respect, not least with Blue Nile, a group we can be associated with, we’re equally sporadic at recording.”
Still no messages of transgression though. You don’t like political songs? “Do you know ‘The Sound Of Crying’ on the compilation? It’s taken from CNN. And ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ it’s an album that was born from the Gulf War. I have more songs like that, but not in ‘Andromeda Heights’ I’m addicted to the news. Instead of being inspired by it, I compose as an escape to teach people that things could be very different. You don’t need to tell them the news”.
Although as a thirty year old, Paddy had scanned the horizon (“Liƒe’s not complete / til your heart missed a beat,” he sang in “Goodbye Lucille”), the imminent arrival of his fortieth birthday may start to eat away at him (“And if the dead could speak / I know what they would say / To you and me / Don’t waste another day”). In the house of McAloon, however, few things have changed. It’s music with no expiry date, for worse “The Fifth Horseman,” “The Mystery Of Love” or better “Whoever You Are”, “Steal Your Thunder”. Resolute, honest and devoid of avant-garde ballast, something you intend not to bother with because it seems unnecessary; but which inevitably returns to your player at the end of the day as an anaesthetic to cope with everyday life: an oasis.
“Love is an Avenue of Stars and though I’m tired and I’m lame / My will is iron and one day I will race / Down That silver highway, light on my face” (“Avenue of Stars”).