Paddy has changed. That fallen angel face with wiry beard on the misty cover of “Steve McQueen” has been abandoned, straddling as he had the ancient frame of a Triumph Bonneville on its stand, gazing eagle-eyed towards his destination; Wendy, very much the feline blonde coiled snugly against him, enveloped in her coarsely knitted sweater, spreading her hair around his neck like some loving jellyfish. There was something fresh about him, provincial, sentimental, in this photo. A rock look, faded denims, crumpled leather jacket, and an angular pop music; an absurd name chucked like a spiny sea urchin into the sleeping bag where English music’s passion was slumbering. And he produced a thorn bearing the name “When Love Breaks Down” whose delicious venom seeped into our hearts like Amazonian curare. But it’s only rarely that prodigious output is a positive facet of delicate organisms, and Paddy took three years to give us a follow-up to the romantic “Steve McQueen” and bring once more to light the mysterious voice of Prefab Sprout.
He has changed. The hair is longer, disco style, making him look like an unarmed pageboy, fresh faced and provincial, but whose politeness and apparent concern for other people only partially masks his eccentric inclinations and tics of impatience. This boy is subject to almost seismic emotions on a scale that no human has yet dared to measure. He snorts like a Zebra in the evening next to the water hole, stutters and bends his neck, and then from nowhere stream passionate arguments that leave the corner of his mouth flecked with foam.
Paddy McAloon: “For me a piece of music must create its own world. In this sense my concept is rather close to escapism. Yes the music should take you away from the burdens of daily life. My music has nothing do with what’s on the news. And yet I could take my songs one after the other and show you how they fit into reality. “Hey Manhattan” on the new album is a song about ambition, about a Golden Boy who hit the headlines. Many people say I’m dazzled by America, mostly because of “Cars and Girls”, but that’s because America remains an inexhaustible source of myths and the extreme”.
All the same, you might get impression that to stay as impervious to the tides of life and musical fashion as his songs show him to be, Paddy has adopted the life of a hermit .
“The Howard Hughes of rock and roll? Very glamorous but not really accurate. Firstly I come from a region, a part of northern England that has its feet firmly planted in reality. With so much unemployment, it’s difficult to abstract yourself. Personally I’m not nostalgic, I don’t regret not having lived in the fifties, I feel quite comfortable in the eighties, I love technology and I feel that all inheritances, whether musical, literary or cinematographic are there to be used, to be played with.”
All the same, it’s difficult to argue that Prefab Sprout reflect the sound, or the feel, of the eighties.
“I don’t take that as a criticism but as a great compliment. That would mean that my music is timeless.”
His music. His songs. They are always in his thoughts, he finds comfort in the good reception they receive. He’s like a doting father talking of his daughters, a miser counting the contents of his cash box.
“From Langley Park To Memphis”, the latest album, might just as well have been entitled “The Many Moods Of Paddy McAloon” like some 1950s jazz album, as it excels in richness and variety:
“Langley Park is a village not far from where I grew up, near Newcastle. A very anonymous place that was once a mining settlement. This title is a good device to suggest my feelings about what I have learned through my dreams, my travels, my imagination, my experiences. You know, there’s an old adage that says, “Your neighbour’s grass is always greener.” We always feel that things are better on the other side. This is obvious when comparing an everyday place like Langley Park with a mythical city like Memphis, with Graceland and everything. In fact the joys and sorrows of individuals rarely have anything to do with the prestige of their city.
“But this title also works in terms of unsettled aspect of the record, the changes of style throughout. This was simply a result of the factors that led to its realisation. Why should I have to impose a single shape, a colour on myself? You need to understand that four producers, Thomas Dolby, John Kelly, Andy Richard and myself, worked on it. The previous two albums were definitely more homogeneous but personally I prefer this eclecticism. One day maybe I’ll want to record something as musically coherent as “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys or ‘What’s Going On “by Marvin Gaye.”
But not just anything. This strange bird has taste, savoir-faire, and doesn’t take offense if you try to read him like a book. Paddy isn’t his real name. “Paddy” is the diminutive form of Patrick in Ireland. P. McAloon and his brother Martin are of Irish descent, like John Lennon and Elvis Costello. In England, people like to tell Irish stories, much as in France we enjoy making fun of the Belgians. Paddy and Mick, are the names of the poor peasant wretches who left the Emerald Isle to transcend their humble origins in the perfidious Albion. When someone wants to tell an Irish story -which usually harbors a strong paternalistic and racist streak – it begins: “Mick and Paddy walk down the street and Paddy says to Mick …”
“My parents gave me this nickname when I was a kid. When used in a family it’s a rather affectionate name, something sentimental. I’ve kept it now I’m in the band a little bit to poke fun at myself, and as an ironic reference to our provincial nature.”
We can be excused for discussing the slow drift of semantics, because nothing defines Prefab Sprout better than this curious mixture of sentimentality and irony. While melodies bathe the bottom of your soul with caramel, the lyrics send jets of vinegar into your eyes.
Tell me about “King Of Rock’n’Roll”?
“Your dreams and your childhoood ambitions determine the rest of your life. When you start a career in rock, it’s difficult to imagine that in 40 or 50 years you’ll still have to be singing the same things as when you were a kid, with the same conviction. It’s an ironic song, but it anticipates.”
Perhaps the kind of problem that Pete “Hope I die before I get old” Townshend, a surprise guest on “Hey Manhattan” has solved better than some of his contemporaries (Mick “I can’t get no satisfaction” Jagger for example).
Paddy: You sense Pete has a kind of detachment that is in no way a rejection but is more like a form of wisdom that requires respect.
And Bruce Springsteen, whom Paddy nails in “Cars and Girls”? :
“Some people thought I was attacking the Boss. That’s absurd. I just think he has a tendency to use a rock’n’roll jargon. He uses metaphors like the road and cars, and creates from a very dark reality a romantic universe which I think sounds a bit wrong. There are things more hurtful than girls and cars right? And if life is a journey by car, it’s often on a foggy and steep road, and many of us end up being carsick. ”
Prefab Sprout chose to play in the “mainstream” (not muzak, which is exactly the opposite, denuded as it is of all dignity and emotionally impotent). And no one, provided they are endowed with a little taste, would compare the Sprout with Wet Wet Wet or Pet Shop Boys or other bland white soulboys. But in a field where it’s essential to communicate with the largest number, where it is desirable and necessary to magnify the effects to the maximum Paddy McAloon prefers a solitary juggling of nuances, of ulterior motives and ironies, and risks closing off the seductive angles that his music, insidiously charming, has the capability of holding open. Making an aesthetic music, without superfluous intellectualism, which is intended for the mass market is certainly not the most comfortable of paradoxes, but a braggart like him is equal to the challenge.
“Many of the songs on this album are written around the subject of pop music,” King Of Rock’n’Roll, “” Cars and Girls “,” I Remember That “. Today we can no longer have an unaffected attitude, as direct as that of the blues, BB King and Muddy Waters and others. We’re too knowing. I’m too much aware of the history of pop. That’s why groups such as Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout give the impression of acting with premeditation. That’s why today we write songs about songs. Because that’s our experience.”
We’re all Prefab buddies