Walking through Newcastle on a Saturday afternoon, looking for a pub which isn’t stuffed to the rafters, Paddy McAloon stops to point out a promisingly obscure bar with a grim Victorian facade. ”We played there once,” he says, meaning his pop group, Prefab Sprout. ”The only people in the audience were the members of another band, the Kane Gang, and they were only there because we were the audience at one of their gigs in the same week.” McAloon says he’s not been in since though, and presses on up the hill to a pub with a garden. Such is fame: from some dodgy rock and beer joint near Newcastle station, all the way to the top and no going back.
Well, not quite. It’s 10 years since Paddy McAloon, then 22, formed Prefab Sprout, with his girlfriend, Wendy Smith, and his brother, Martin. (Neil Conti, the drummer, joined later.) And it’s eight years since he wrote all the songs on their debut album, Swoon – all angular melodies and strange lyrical scenarios. Praise poured in. Suddenly McAloon was Elvis Costello with a sweet tooth, or he was Paul McCartney with a degree in English and either way he was the smartest alec pop had seen in years. McAloon, who is not averse to doing himself down, reckons it was just the oddness that attracted the fuss: ”People went, ‘Wow, you must be a songwriter because your construction of songs is so bizarre.’ ” Still, there have been four albums since and the critical spotlight has never flickered.
Earlier this year, some bright spark at their record company decided it might be nice to mark the group’s career by putting out a Greatest Hits collection. One slight problem: a distinct shortage of hits. Obviously there was ”The King of Rock and Roll” – ironically enough, a bounce-along fantasy song about what it might be like to have had a lot of hit singles – which went into the Top 10 in April 1988. But before and after that . . ?
In the end, the company toned down the title: A Life of Surprises; The Best of Prefab Sprout. ”Cars and Girls” (no 44) gets in and so does ”When Love Breaks Down” (no 25, though only after it had been re-released twice). There are two new songs and one of them (”The Sound of Crying”) recently nipped into the Top 30. But the rest are favoured album tracks, lent shimmer and depth by Thomas Dolby’s production. McAloon says that as he pondered his selections, several words came to mind: ”Embarrassment. Missed opportunities. Half jobs. I feel much trumpeted as a songwriter, and I feel so little actual achievement, and that’s my dilemma: a lot has been said and little has been proved.”
What’s held Paddy McAloon back? There’s his name: it is exactly the kind of name which pop stars change. There’s his objection to touring: ”I can do it, and I will do it, and it doesn’t break my heart to do it. But it’s possible that it destroys the mystery which surrounds the records and I’d rather be at home, trying to write the big one.” And he would feel absurd behaving like a star. He’s re-styled his hair a few times – a tousled thatch and beard combination for the sleeve of Steve McQueen (1985), a hennaed bob on From Langley Park to Memphis (1988) – but it never reflected anything in the music. He wore shades during this interview but, unusually among people in the music business, only because it was sunny.
”If I sit down to write I have to fill myself full of false confidence, I have to tell myself I’m really good.” He sits down to write every day. If he gets frustrated, he wanders round Newcastle for a bit, and then goes back to it. The performers who attract him are Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder. When he talks about them, his speaking voice takes on something of his singing voice – a kind of breathy awe. (Wonder agreed to play a harmonica solo on the ballad ”Nightingales”; his first take was too ornate, and McAloon says that asking him if he’d mind having another go was one of the toughest moments of his career.)
But he’s a white boy from Consett, Durham, who studied in a Catholic seminary and thought about being a priest. He imagines his favourite stars inhabiting a ”Disneyland of the soul”; he would be turned away at the gate. So he writes about them instead, turns the wonderment of the fan into music with a glow of its own. A set of songs on Jordan the Comeback, the group’s best album, pictured Elvis in the desert plotting his return. And now he has written an entire album imagining life as Michael Jackson (”Unicorn in Trouble”, ”Mr Lightning Boots”, ”Danger and Me”), though we may never get to hear it.
On other days, it’s back to wrestling with the big one. ”The writer I used to be would have despised this, but now I feel the need to hit the nail on the head in a few simple sentiments, to write another ‘Will You Still Love me Tomorrow’. Because there must be one still out there, floating around.” For now, the Best Of. In 10 years, maybe the Greatest Hits.