IN THE beginning, I wasn’t convinced. With a name like that they just had to be jokers, or terminally dour, or both, and cursory (I stress cursory) snatches of the first two singles did nothing to prompt any further investigation.
Bigwigs, however, just kept on ablowin’ their trumpets and applauding, lauding these north country strangers — dropping that name, swollen with ﬁrst- come pride.
So I went and took a look. And even then, I wasn’t convinced.
The Kitchenware night at London’s ‘art space‘ the ICA was essentially a music biz fat-cat get together, the ‘checkin’ ‘em out’ crew out in force, the crowd stunned into silence at its own immaculate taste. Hurrah strummed, the Daintees crooned, and Prefab Sprout bombed. There was a lot of muttering and shaking of heads that night – the bubble was set to burst. . .
But then I heard ‘Swoon’, their debut long player. And finally, I was convinced.
Now how can I discuss ‘Swoon’ without sounding a spluttering, gibbering idiot in the sole pay of Kitchenware’s Keith Armstrong? Not easy. Sufﬁce to say ‘Swoon’ is. . . slightly magniﬁcent, a touch glorious, a little bit heavenly. In the age of the hit single and cash-in album of fillers, ‘Swoon’ simply soars. ‘Swoon’ is the best record since ‘Imperial Bedroom’ and it is the bouncing baby of one Patrick McAloon.
Paddy, you’re not making things easy for yourself, are you? Bad gigs. . . ‘difficult’ songs. . . literary allusions. Come on, explain yourself. . .
“I just like to do things that aren’t obvious. . . things you might not get away with.”
People might say you haven’t got away with them. . .
“Yes, I know. Like at the ICA. I knew we’d been bad. . . that everyone had rumbled us and that hurt more than any personal attack in the press because live performance is vital to us. I never go to gigs myself, it doesn’t interest me, but we do it because when it sounds right it’s great — to cut it as a three piece is brilliant! When we used to play at the local hotel years back we were a really good live unit, playing two hour sets, but at the ICA we weren’t really like a band at all.”
Why not augment the sound, then? Try to emulate that easy melodicism with piano and synth, like on the LP?
“Yes. . . sometimes l think, ‘My God, we shouldn’t go out like this’. Certainly something is lost. But when we’re good we can make up for that with a certain. . . excitement. It’s a fear of working with others I suppose.”
“The other reason we play live is because when you go into the studio it shows — there’s nothing worse than that Steely Dan (who we’ve been compared with) syndrome when the band is only together for the two months of making the album.”
But while the ‘to play or not to play‘ question might be considered merely one of style, the accusation of deliberate obtuseness in the form of the songwriting is an attack that McAloon is obviously frustrated at having to fend off.
“This completely passes me by! I know why people look funnily at us — they’re just not familiar with the songs. If you listen to them three or four times they make perfect sense. lt is true I’ve a phobia about using obvious chord progressions and rhythms. If I could write something with C F and G7 and make it a telling sort of melody and ally that to a good lyric I’d do it. I’m just not very good at that so I have to seek a more elaborate way.”
Paddy McAloon, a good Catholic boy, was sent to a County Durham seminary at the age of eleven, with the aim of becoming a priest.
“It was a boarding school and I was very taken by the image. . . I thought it must be great to have a tuck box!”
But then the priests taught him to play the guitar. . .
‘Yes. . . the best thing about the place was that they fostered this musical idea – So when I was 13 I decided I wanted to be a songwriter. All the people I admired wrote their own songs so that was what I had to do. I used to cut a piece of paper In the shape of an LP and write ‘poetry’ which was real? ‘gibberish on this disc an I’d imagine that was my LP!”
Now you’ve spent half a lifetime learning your trade are you still prepared to steal from your heroes?
“I’d never steal a melody. . . . but what I would steal is an attitude. I like a lot of classical music — Stravinsky, Havel. Debussy — they’re me favourites!
STEPHEN SONDHEIM’S name has often cropped up when Sprouts spout. . . tell me more.
“About six years ago l saw a TV programme with Andre Previn talking to Sondheim. They had piano players and a couple of singers and he just talked his way through his songs. And I was just so immensely impressed by someone who would tackle emotions that are really very complex.”
Are there any contemporary songwriters of that calibre?
“l just don’t detect the melodic inventiveness now that there was in the past, and a lot of it’s down to laziness. People are suspicious of the craft. . . ‘craftsman’ is used in a derogatory sense. Bands like the Alarm can’t wait to be elevated beyond having to write songs — they’d rather be at the front of an army of followers. You shouldn’t have to have heroes in that sense – don’t get hooked on the myth. There reallyaren’t any writers now — the nearest one is probably Roddy Frame — he’s good, a natural talent.”
“Well. . . it’s embarrassing — I haven’t really been a fan. l admire him but I’ve listened to a lot of the people he’s listened to and I’d rather go straight to them. The giant writers are people like Bacharach, Hal David and Richard Rogers – the last two may have he a businesslike attitude to songwriting but they still produced much more worthwhile stuff than things by Weller.”
Prefab Sprout are: the McAloon brothers, Patrick and Martin (bass), joint vocalist Wendy Smith. and Aztec Camera drummer Dave Ruffy.
Paddy McAloon had done a few telling things. He started this group. He didn’t become a priest, although he’s still devout. He went to university and got a degree in English and History. He tried to write a novel but ‘wasn’t up to it‘. And now he’s written some songs and given them to you by way of an LP called ‘Swoon’.
Listen to ‘Swoon’. It’s convincing.