Graeme Thomson, Word Magazine – September 2009

word magazine 2009

Erase And Rewind

Paddy McAloon’s lost folly has just been released after 17 years. Many and complex were the obstacles in its path, as he tells GRAEME THOMSON

MY, BUT WE’RE WAIST DEEP IN choppy waters here. “It haunts me,” says Paddy McAloon in his lovely, lilting north-east accent, as he emerges “blinking into the daylight” for an hour long tussle during which he repeatedly tries to “square the circle” of writing hundreds of songs and yet releasing almost none of them. “It haunts me, it really does. I look at all the boxes, and inside some of them I know are good songs but I can’t remember them. I’ll write a new song with the same title sometimes because I can’t be bothered to look for the old one. It’s reached that stage. That’s terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. Some days I’ll get up and think, ‘I want to write another song!’ But I don’t need to write another song, I need to record the old ones. It sounds comic, but it’s a psychological problem and I battle with it daily.”

McAloon — you really shouldn’t need reminding but possibly do, given that he has the kind of public profile that makes Scott Walker look like a Heat-whore — is one of Britain’s truly treasurable songwriters. A Catholic seminary boy from County Durham, he modelled himself on Sondheim and Berlin back when all the cool kids were aping Strummer and Bowie, creating mini pop symphonies in which his ambition sometimes outstretched his reach, but which equally often were poised, funny and very beautiful. Heathens mocked the preciousness; the rest of us swooned.

His band, Prefab Sprout, were never quite proper pop stars. Atypical songs like The King Of Rock ’n’Roll and When Love Breaks Down slipped under the fence, but McAloon’s vision was too arch and idiosyncratic for mass consumption. He fought on the fringes of the pop battlefield, but it transpires even those skirmishes made him feel deeply uncomfortable. He looks at old photos of himself from back then — hair bobbed, slim, shaking hands with Minnie Mouse on Portuguese TV — and sees someone else. Playing live, which the Sprouts did only rarely, he had the overwhelming sense that he “had been sent along to a wedding in place of the groom”. What’s this all about? “I don’t quite know,” he says. “Perhaps because the records mark time so clearly, which is a dreadful thing, I just think, ‘What a waste.’ I really wish I could feel more philosophical about it and tell myself I had a good time, but for some unfathomable reason I get very melancholy about it.”

He’s rather dismissive, too, of the music. “I’m not sure the second side is up to much, personally,” is his summation of the wonderful Steve McQueen. When he agreed — reluctantly — to record new acoustic versions of those songs for the album’s recent deluxe reissue, it was “torture. I couldn’t face it. It’s a carefully constructed illusion that it’s one man and his guitar recorded over a couple of days. It isn’t. It’s me struggling for the best part of a year.” He sighs as I express a mixture of impatience and sympathy. Good God, man, I almost shout, this really sh0uldn’t be such a problem. “I know, I know…”

It’s nearly two decades since McAloon’s masterwork, Jordan: The Comeback, a dazzlingly ambitious, 19-track almost-concept album co-starring Elvis, God and Jesse James, though mercifully pre-dating Katie Price. Afterwards, he set to work on an album celebrating the power and mystery of melody entitled Let’s Change The World With Music. Inspired by Quincy Jones, Prince and gospel themes, “it was gonna be brilliant!”

Enter The Man, charging headlong into McAloon’s private Idaho. In 1993 Sony listened to his detailed demos and, to McAloon’s ears, displayed only muted enthusiasm. “It was work in progress, and I discussed with him ways he could tighten things up,” says former A&R executive Muff Winwood. “Paddy was no trouble, very ‘easy to communicate with, but What normally happens is the artist goes away, tops and tails the demos, and the record gets delivered. This one just never got delivered! We wanted it delivered, he’s such a beautiful songwriter, but it slipped through everybody’s hands, including his own.”

McAloon recalls Winwood told him: “‘You have so many ideas, Why don’t you take one or two, like the song Earth: The Story So Far, and expand on them?’ Well, that was a foolish thing to say to a man like myself!” he laughs. He rushed home and turned the five-minute Earth: The Story So Far into a full-blown concept album: there were songs about Adam and Eve, songs about Neil Armstrong… “Before I knew it I had 30 songs and I’d been working on it for a year-and-a-half,” he recalls. “I woke up one morning and thought, ‘This isn’t what they meant. It’s not what they meant at all.’”

Confidence rattled “I’d Worked so hard on these songs, I was so unswerving, that to turn around and doubt it all shook me” — McAloon abandoned the Earth project and also set aside Let’s Change The World I With Music. “I don’t think he ran away and hid under a bushel because someone questioned him,” says Winwood. “I just think he was searching for something that I didn’t understand. And actually, I think he was trying to understand it himself.”

Almost as a distraction, McAloon knocked out corny country songs for Jimmy Nail — some of which appeared on the last Sprout album, 2001’s creaky The Gunman And Other Tales — and assembled a suite of sugary astral love songs for 1997’s Andromeda Heights. He also toiled on more as—yet-unreleased projects, among them Behind The Veil, a concept album about Michael Jackson.

“I wrote all that stuff in the ’90s, locked it in a box and never revisited it,” he says. “I still have vague ideas about doing something with the Jackson stuff.”

Might be best to strike while the iron is hot on that one.

“Yeah! Should have had it ready! But you see, a commitment to making any one of these projects happen is at least a year of my life, and I find that difficult to come to terms with as I get older. I’m torn between making it happen and seeing my life measured out in reels of tape. It’s probably just something I’m going to have to get over.”

Health problems haven’t helped. In 1999 McAloon suffered detached retinas in both eyes — commonly caused by a boxing injury, though it can be congenital — and almost went blind. Unable to read, he would lie on a mattress all day dosing himself with eye drops, listening to non-music radio, letting talk-show tales of sadness and disillusion seep in. It inspired the largely spoken-word album I Trawl The Megahertz, a quietly hallucinatory and very moving piece of musical therapy, released in 2003 under his own name to avoid “bamboozling” people expecting “proper” Prefab Sprout.

Three operations later his eyesight is — “touch wood” — functional, but in 2006 McAloon was afflicted by “major tinnitus and blockage” in his right ear, which now detects nothing but what he describes as “a vague unease”. He can no longer discern bass frequencies nor deal with loud instruments. There will be no more rock tours, not least because Prefab Sprout — always intended as “the label I wanted to slap on any work I did” — hasn’t existed as a band in any meaningful sense for years: co-vocalist Wendy Smith and bassist (and Paddy’s brother) Martin McAloon work full-time; drummer Neil Conti lives in France.

None of them appear on the new record, which is in fact the old record. Seventeen years overdue, Let’s Change The World with Music is finally coming out almost exactly as it was recorded in demo form back in 1992, save for some technical enhancement from engineer Calum Malcolm.

Why now? McAloon says his manager talked him into it, but it’s also about tying up at least one loose end. “This album was the white elephant in the room…” He corrects himself. “Not the white elephant. Well, it is a white elephant — ha ha! That’s exactly what it is!” He also needs to earn a living. He relies primarily on airplay revenue — “I’m popular on Radio 2” — but it’s hardly a fortune for a man with a singular lifestyle to maintain.

AT 52, HE LIKES “TO POTTER,” TAKING PLEASURE IN “nice little things” like smoking a cigar in the garden, or wandering around Consett — his home town, ten miles south-west of Newcastle — in his tartan trews, dodging the odd obsessive fan (“These two very polite Danish gentlemen leapt out of a car…”). No longer the skinny prodigal, latterly he has preferred the extravagantly bearded, rumpled guise of the English eccentric. His daughters, aged 11, nine and six, regard his past with bemusement. “We were talking about this last night: ‘People used to pay good money to come and see Dad, you know!’” Lately there’s been “much whispering” among his daughters about Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl.

And still he writes and writes, seeing “how much pleasure I can squeeze out of the day”. He outlines a project he’s been working on since 2003 called England In Aspic A Polaroid Taken By A Sozzled Brit Stumbling Out Of A Nightclub. He quickly wrote the songs (sample titles: Downmarket; Davina; Zero Attention Span) but six years later it remains unrecorded and “the topicality is draining out of the project day by day”.

It sounds suspiciously like the old Peter Cook Conundrum, the endlessly creative brain tiring of its own ideas before they ever reach fruition. Nothing ever quite lives up to the possibilities, so it becomes all about the next idea. McAloon talks about I Trawl The Megahertz, listening to disembodied voices on the radio until “it became hypnotic. You stopped hearing the pathos and began hearing the musicality. I could do that every day. I heard a great phrase from the wedding of Prince Edward. The newsreader said, ‘Here come the royal Daimlers.’ And I thought, ‘There’s something in there.”’ He pauses, before audibly shaking himself free from the clutches of another song, another detour, and says with absolute, heartbreaking sincerity. “But life is short. So, you know, I’ve left that one…”

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