WITH THEIR NEW SINGLE ‘CARS AND GIRLS’ AND AN ALBUM TO FOLLOW, PREFAB SPROUT LOOK SET TO CAST OFF THE FEY, WIMPY, AND PRECIOUS MANACLES THAT’VE HELD THEM BACK. DAVID STUBBS MEETS A CLEAN-SHAVEN PADDY MACALOON WHO SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT. PHOTOS: JOE DILWORTH
THE beard has gone.
Yes, squeamish sartorial onlookers will be relieved to note that Paddy’s shrubbery has been shorn, that his shapely chin now positively exudes pop sensibility. Moreover, he’s looking rather dapper in his red polka-dot tie and Sid The Sexist trousers. And his hair, which until recently was longer and more shapeless than Phil Redmond’s, has been pruned and shaped according to the style favoured by, among others, Feargal Sharkey, Mark E. Smith and Green of Scritti Politti.
Not what I expected, Paddy.
”I get bored easily.”
Now, Prefab Sprout’s name is mud among a certain contingent here. Did I say Mud? I should have said 10cc. Curious, in some respects, since this is the same contingent who, when l and my cronies come into the office brandishing polemics in praise of the latest Pluto-shattering sonic behemoth from across the sea tend to bleat plaintively, ”Is a tune too much to ask? A melodic chord change here and there, perhaps?”
This contingent – they know who they are – nevertheless exhibit a curious tendency to turn a queasy yellow when confronted with the sculpted, elaborate melodies and achingly beautiful chord changes of ”Steve McQueen”, instead fleeing to a corner of the office where there is forever a Jack Daniels bottle.
Or perhaps it’s a supposed wimpishness that they discern in La Macaloon, a tendency to sigh softly that permeates the very grain of his voice?
BUT they’ve got it wrong. Not only was “Steve McQueen” probably the finest British album of 1985 (a year, granted, in which a genuine dearth appeared to prevail, in which it seemed momentarily like Jason & The Scorchers were about to become the Next Big Thing ), but it also heralded Prefab Sprout as one of the very last bands working in pop for “us”.
Since 1982, it has definitely seemed that pop is a terrain of which we occupy fewer and fewer acres. Gone are the times when the moguls were confused as to what stuff they were going to fill their charts with, thrashing about for ideas from the Left and letting the likes of Altered Images dance all over them.
Today, pop is self-sufficient in ideas, generates its own, spurious passion, has its own value system. It’s become almost impossible to be a part of it, let alone supplant it. Many indie bands, nevertheless, persist in the notion that their never-never bubblegum is somehow “pop”, although they will never get to go public.
Alternatively, you have the likes of Hue And Cry, Wet Wet Wet, bands who imagine themselves to be good deeds in a naughty pop world, working well in that medium although they have, in fact, been subsumed by it.
Prefab Sprout, by contrast, are one of the very few successful pop acts (the less self-conscious likes of Prince and Madonna notwithstanding) working in “soft” pop tones, who exude a correct and distinct air. Scritti Politti did it, Lloyd Cole occasionally hints at it, although he’s generally too self-absorbed. Prefab certainly do it.
THE single, ”Cars And Girls”, is out now, the album ”From Langley Park To Memphis” to follow in March. Both are less subjective than ”McQueen”, although there are similarities in the production, still that elegiac bath of colour and shade.
Musically, the new album seems less strong, but more ambitious. I will grant that there are perhaps too tender moments – there is a song called ”Nightingales”, for instance, at the end of Side 1 which, shall we say, is unlikely to be adopted as the new Oporto drinking song. But this is a mere quibble when you set against it the gorgeous ”Enchanted”, which skims along at “Billie Jean” pace, and is loaded generously with pop colours and textures that are allowed to breathe.
It’s a taste of pop before it went sour. The subject matter of “King Rock And Roll” is the ongoing plight of the yesterday’s rock hero. Musically, it exhibits Macaloon’s ability to construct weightless epics, ascending building blocks of pop noise that don’t thud at you or clot up, but waft through you ghostlike, signifiers drained of their ”content”. Even the rock-out ”Golden Calf” has a translucence, a lightness about it, Macaloon playing with ghosts of pop once again.
Then there’s ”Knock On Wood”, not, as the bunglers at Sounds would have you believe, a cover of the old soul chestnut, but another song about breakdown, how the man who jilts will himself be jilted, couched In a beautifully adhesive reggae lilt.
The album ends on a weirdly consolatory note, “Venus of the Soup Kitchen”, which employs the Andre Crouch singers for an oddly-displayed “rousing chorus” (other guest appearances by Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend on this album, fans), yet another extraneous element taken on board
As a songwriter, Macaloon’s spokesmanship for ”us” is not some direct expression of disgust. “They’re not finger-pointing songs,” he claims. ”Dylan stopped writing what he calls finger-pointing songs when he realised that people began to hide behind the cause.”
Rather, Macaloon exudes at every pore an appropriate feeling of doubt, both in the situations of his lyrics and in the surfaces of his sound. His derided ”melancholy” is certainly not twee or self-pitying but the inevitable upshot of his own position as a consumer, as well as a producer, of pop history.
The autumnal note always struck in his songs, however much he’d maybe like to get away from that, chimes appropriate because these are pop’s autumn years, in which the climate is no longer capable of yielding innocent, unselfconscious brightness – at least, not here. Things are over-ripe, the leaves are piling up, we’ve absorbed a lot.
Macaloon’s lyrics are “dense” because as a songwriter— maybe the last songwriter attempting to reproduce a common, but culturally overloaded experience — he’s at pains to avoid the cliché. His achievement is to drench his work with a wealth of cultural reference, but to levitate above those references by perceiving them as dimmed, ghostlike, inevitably of the past. In this sense, Prefab Sprout are profoundly nostalgic. None of your fatuous, headbanging, NOWness here. Macaloon knows that ”Nothing sounds as good as I Remember That’ ” …
SO. Eighteen months on and …
”I can’t see how it could have been any shorter in a way. I’ve got two more albums ready, sort of. . . but CBS are funny, they’d rather you worked harder on the good ones, which is company policy but also, they’re a large corporation, they like to deal with just one big thing at a time…”
Paddy is at pains to stress that he is not the not-quite human all too frail figure perceived to be responsible for the elegant, elegiac, “Steve McQueen”.
“Steve McQueen” was such a strange, strange experience for me. Thomas Dolby is just such an astonishing arranger of things. When I first got the record back, it was like being a punter, who likes somebody a lot, waits for it and buys it, not knowing what to expect. Well, I felt like that about my own record, even though I’d been there throughout, because of the mix.
”Afterwards, I thought, I’d better loosen the screws, lighten up a bit, so I wrote ’The King Of Rock And Roll’ in 20 minutes and thought, this is absolutely no use for the Sprouts, we don’t do things like this. Then I thought, I wanted to do a light-hearted record, I was going to do 10 songs that were funny. You know that ’Steve McQueen is a bit. . . and I’m not like that at all!”
But most of the songs do appear to lapse, sweetly and naturally, into a wistful mode. Both on ”McQueen” and the new album, the production is like a sunset, the instruments cast long shadows and the voice is reflective.
”No, no! See, I hate all that, but it people say it’s there then I’ve just got to doff me hat. Put it this way, if you were to pick a mainstream record like Madonna or Jackson, you might say, if you look at it like painting they are like primary colours, and we are like more delicate, subtle shades. But I’m not into the inverted singer-songwriter bit.
“As a bunch of people you couldn’t talk to a bunch of less self-consciously arty types, we’re just so unlike that, it’s not a real thing, it makes me laugh. I don’t even carry a notebook around with me, honest. I’ve done all that, I’ve been through that crap very early on — yet in some respects I’ve been categorised as that. So I intended to write a different kind of record but, you know how you can change your mind about things half-way through.
”Live I’d like for the songs to be simple, where there’s not as much to remember, physical like ’Cars And Girls’, whereas it I’m sitting at home I prefer something a lot more complex. I’m fascinated by melody, you see, and you can’t write many broad melodies over tiny phrases – like ’Good Times’ by Chic, which is very good, but very staccato.”
IT always seems to me that Prefab Sprout’s music is loaded , trailing swathes of reference behind it— that it’s less the dewy-eyed singer-songwriter’s personal history that’s being chronicled or reflected, rather other pop music, whose brightest moments appear to have passed, and which are just a diverse jumble of disposed symbols at your disposal.
”I’ve never really thought of myself in dealing in symbols of pop music but I suppose you’re right, I do do that. I don’t even like it but I do it. I suppose it’s like, in the Sixties, people used to whack out their songs and nobody was there to comment about where it fitted in, whereas now you tend to be questioned about the surrounds of pop, although to me, that seems a thousand miles away.”
Are you concerned with autobiography or with some more general experience?
”A song’s just a point of view, you know, I just try and be consistent to the law of that particular song, even if it isn’t how I necessarily feel”.
It seems to me that as a songwriter you’re caught between two stools, given the materials that you work with. If your songs are too personalised, then you’ll be perceived as excessively indulgent and idiosyncratic Take on too many subjects, explore too many angles or intrigues and the songs become filmic, embracing too impartially a diverse set of experiences in the manner of a literary catalogue.
”I don’t like introspective songwriting at all. It’s like, I could believe in every one of the songs I sing. It’s like, you sit down every evening and watch a film, and you watch a ’Carry On’ film, then a Woody Allen, then a Marx Brothers, all three of which are completely different, but which are generally comic which doesn’t mean you don’t feel something valid for each thing you watch, either so crass it’s great, or whatever. Or someone buying a whole load of records by different people. Nobody likes to be seen to be into one thing only. Nobody wants to be seen as just a T’Pau fan, or a goth and that is my attitude when I’m writing songs, I guess.”
Part of your constituency, I’ve always suspected, is a sort of community of culture vultures, a Camden set who pick up on your generalist approach to pop, all those references to Georgie Gershwin, “Purple Rain”, the funk echoes, the dense referentiality. The kind of people who are sufficiently non-partisan to embrace ”Carry On” camp ,Woody Allen and the subtly nostalgic appeal of The Marx Brothers (an appeal slightly above and beyond their worth as comedians).
“Are you trying to say, ever so politely, that this music has some kind of snob appeal, so that your Sharons and Garys down the disco aren’t going to be interested?”
Far from it. I’m sure that Prefab have a chance of becoming successful pop, and therefore, to most people, just more pop. I’m not suggesting that Prefab are some kind of clever-clever project of musical bric-a-brac. Just that, for those for whom meaning in pop still matters, a certain kind of cultural diversity is increasingly a part of their lives these days, which implies a breakdown of common experience, and of meaning.
”Yeah, but if you’ve got that far, it means they’ve taken you to a point where you see the world in those terms. It’s not that you’ve one beyond making a connection between all of those things. And that to me is more simple, more truthful than that kind of bread and butter reality that says that ’Coronation Street’ is what true life is about which is horseshit.
“You see, it’s getting bigger. Things like the trash aesthetic, for instance, which a few years ago would have seemed like a hopelessly intellectual pursuit but these days is quite mainstream.”
But not that mainstream, surely. Do your mum and dad deconstruct Prefab Sprout?
“Where I come from, they like you because they know you, and they’ll accept you on the same level on Buddy Holly, Madonna, Dire Straits. I don’t want to be part of any ghetto, no matter how well-heeled it is.”
THE songwriter is a figure under siege these days. Wield nought but an acoustic guitar, and far from reflecting ”credit” upon yourself for authenticity, one is justly derided as a Luddite, a fraud even.
”Yeah, but don’t forget, that guitar thing, that’s poverty; When you start out, you don’t have the choice.”
But Billy Bragg has a choice. It’s just that, for his own reasons, he’s consciously chosen to ignore some of what he has absorbed after years of exposure to pop culture. With you, your writing is drenched with what you’ve consumed.
”It’s funny, that ’Purple Rain’ reference is not even something I thought of, it’s not even conscious any more. It’s like when you develop a private language with someone, and people think, oh, what twee sods you are. It’s like the words to this song, that I was trying to teach . . . oh, God, don’t print this, it’ll look like I’m name-dropping . .. Elvis Costello. And they went, I’m a jealous boy root’ . And this was a reference to when you read in books about blues about root boys— and I tried to explain to him why I wrote this and he looked at me like you’re looking at me now. But that was dead important to me, that lyric, it was my language. You know certain things, and you can’t escape that knowledge.”
Unless, like U2, you resort to an incendiary language, use motifs like fire and the desert as a means to pretend we’re not over-burdened by significance.
”With U2 it’ s conviction, a spectacle, people believe that they’re watching and listening to people with conviction…”
Whereas in your songs, it’s like Henry James novels, nothing is resolved, reconciled.
”There’s nothing to be reconciled. Take ’The King Of Rock And Roll’, which is about when you’re 20, you’re good looking, good voice, the world is perfect. It’s the classic boy joins a rock ’n’ roll band. But what happens when you’re 40, and your hair starts to fall out and there’s still pretty boys coming up and it’s not as if you’ve been a failure all your life, you’ve been successful. And there’s this guy, singing a song when he’s 35 that he sang when he was 20. And that’s it. What is there to resolve? I can’t have him die and go to a rock ’n’ roll heaven, can I?”
Exactly. They have to CARRY ON, long after the moment as passed, which is pop’s crisis today. Even if you’re young, rock ’n’ roll is old.
”Here am I saying all this, mind you, I’m 30 singing songs that I wrote when l was 19.”
AS one of the very few bands working in pop and as pop, don’t you ever feel disenchanted at the charts in 1988 and see so few ”allies” ?
”This isn’t meant to sound snobbish, I know what you’re getting at but I’ve never felt a part of any community of like-minded spirits. I don’t even buy records like me own, I don’t go out and look for like-minded people and I’ve never found anyone on the planet who fits the bill. I think it’s because I tend to have… stranger tastes. I like ’Thriller’, Prince’s stuff. I don’t go off buying obscure hip hop things.”
Your tastes are very populist?
”I suppose I like music that’s painted in broad strokes, lots of primary colours and musicals are very often like that.”
You like musicals?
”Yeah! Yeah” do, I like musicals and I daren’t say it to you because it sounds like I’m striking a pose. I get worried when I mention Stephen Sondheim but it’s not in anticipation of that being like the next big thing, it’s not meant to be slick.”
Do you think that maybe you like musicals because, as with soul, they are about something that’s lost to us forever because of the times we live In?
”I don’t know if it’s even that, because for me, nothing is lost. If I find something that somebody’s done brilliantly, it stays with me forever Mind you, it could be right what you’ re saying there, because when they get it right it is that they’ve pictured perfectly the year 1957, or whatever”
Is there anyone in pop with whom you feel yourself to be In competition, or who annoys you?
”No, if you’re talking about that kind of proximity, no, that wouldn’t bother me. All I can say about Lloyd, it seems to me that we’re a world apart.
”No, what would bother me more… No, only if you can promise me you wouldn’t put it in, no reason why you should of course… It’s… (superannuated pop star, also a Geordie). I don’t think he’s clever, I don’t think he really has that much to say. I think he’s been acclaimed for an intelligence he doesn’t possess. Anyway, with songs it’s to do with elegance and feeling. My mother’s a good friend of his grandmother.
”From Langley Park To Memphis” eh? You wouldn’t be dreaming American dreams by any chance would you, young man?
“It’s all to do with your perceptions of things away from the little village or place where you are. Certainly, anything American always sounds glamorous. It’s your own private dreams of being somewhere else, I think it’s to do with wanting something outside your own little world that you’re in.”
But Paddy Macaloon is condemned to a kind of peripheral vision, too self-conscious to make a spectacle of himself.
“With Prince and Madonna, there’s a personal involvement in the thrill of the whole thing, that extends to the way in which they lead their life. Most of the mega- people are perceived to have that involvement, the limousine, Hollywood Boulevard, those relishable moments…”