The perfect pop song combines simple musicality and plain catchiness. A Prefab Sprout tune requires one further element: elegance, as Paddy McAloon explained to Neville Marten
Paddy McAloon’s lust for writing intelligent, musical and witty pop songs verges on the diarrhoeic. He just can’t stop going. And he feels, quite rightly in the critics’ view, absolutely no need to.
With the Prefab’s recent album, ‘Andromeda Heights’ receiving the kind of acclaim Paddy couldn’t have dreamt he’d be getting I4 years after the Sprouts ﬁrst charted with Faron Young, our soft-spoken hero is in buoyant musical mood. In these days, when packaged bands, repackaged Beatle songs and television puppets pervade our charts, the leader of this true British pop group tells Guitarist why they’re sticking around.
“I think we’ve entered an unusual time where, just because a band gets older, it isn’t necessarily going to get more conservative,” explains Paddy. “You’ve got two kinds of music now; that which is popular because 15 and 16 year olds buy a single, and then other stuff, which isn’t jazz or classical, but not necessarily Top 40 material either. I always wanted Prefab Sprout to be in the charts, but perhaps we should concentrate on selling albums, because that’s what we’re good at.”
Melody: the big challenge
McAloon’s musical tastes range from the obscure and avant garde, to plain, simple songs. He’s also happier with his writing today because, “I’m just strumming C major chords instead of looking for something that someone else hasn’t already used”.
Believe it or not, this most musical of writers doesn’t feel musical at all. “I feel it’s something I’ve just latched on to,” he confesses, “but I’ve done it for such a long time now that it’s rather like riding a bicycle, so I just get on and do it. The thing is, people only hear your records, they don’t hear you fumbling about beforehand.
“When I was younger, I had no time for the songwriters that my parents liked. I thought things like musicals, for instance, were wishy- washy and old fashioned. It’s only later that you begin to see what’s good about them. If you were into strings, for example, and based your whole musical taste around Wagner, then you listened to Jimi Hendrix, it’d be a whole sound world that was alien to you, and you’d have to acclimatise yourself to the beauty of Voodoo Chile. If you write things, then you can only write from that bed of your “own inﬂuences and interests.
“I’ve got all the technology to do something very different from a Prefab Sprout record, but years ago I decided it’d be closer to my own talents to do what I’m doing now. Melody, in the end, was so much more of a challenge than anything else.”
Back to basics
Paddy has a passion for composing, but in recent years he’s forsaken the guitar as his principle writing tool, in preference for keys and sequencers.
“It’s true — over the last I0 years I’ve written 90 per cent on keyboards. That was because I felt jaded with the guitar. I’ve been playing since I was 13, so I’ve had 22 years of guitar and now, because I can’t be bothered going through doing the next LP in exactly the same way as ‘Andromeda Heights’, I’m back to writing on the guitar; thinking about arranging it in a room with people and keeping it sparse.
“I’m more conﬁdent about working with people now, too. Having worked with computers I’ve got a bit more of a sense of musicality —I didn’t even know what a bar of music was in 1984!”
History of the world
McAloon has a drawer full of songs which have never seen the light of day, although that’s not to say they never will. As well as a whole album about Michael Jackson, there’s Paddy’s History Of The World. He explains:
“From the time of Adam and Eve to Neil Armstrong, nothing much has really changed, and I thought it would make an interesting concept for a piece of music. So I wrote one song as a cycle of chords; each verse and chorus was 24 bars long and I was going to make it last for twenty minutes, with a build-up from a simple piano part into this highly arranged piece of music.
“The song went through the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, right up to the 20th century. I realised it was a cute idea, but not going to be quite interesting enough, so I whittled it down to three minutes. Then, when Sony heard it, our A&R manager Muff Winwood said ‘Expand it, it’ll be a great album’. But I don’t think he knew what he was letting himself in for. I came away and tried to write these extended pieces and thought, my heart’s not in this; I’ve got to break the subject matter up into individual songs. So I did. I wrote one tiny little song about Adam and Eve; a song about the man who invented the wheel; Jesus and his mother; Adolf Hitler and his mother, and as I got into it, I thought, ‘this is great: this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life’.”
Unfortunately, not everything went exactly according to plan. “I ended up with 30 songs, started to arrange them on my Atari, and set up this method of working where I simply wore myself out. I realised I was just facing more and more problems. When I was trying to record it, it was like being a one-man orchestra. I knew that if I demoed it, it’d take me at least a year, then I’d have to submit it to Sony to get approval to turn it into an album. And let’s face it, what record company is going to wait years for you to do all this – and then grant you the money to record a double album? We’d already pushed the limits on ‘Jordan’, a single album with 19 songs on it, so there were technical problems and problems with time.
“Yet he adds, “You write for the sake of writing. You write because you like to do it. But the time isn’t quite right for some songs or albums. Sometimes, you have to ask yourself, does the world really need an album like this just now?
“But I have all these projects on the go. I try to go where inspiration will take me. And it’s my favourite hobby. I suppose I’m almost obsessive about it, but I like to feel productive and I like what I do to have an elegance about it. And by that I don’t just mean ‘clever’. It’s true that the things you read affect your writing, and if you read good things, your writing will absorb that; you breathe it in and that’s entirely different from trying to be clever. I just want to be elegant. Simplicity is so much sweeter.”
Less of a big mouth
Paddy’s present modesty is endearing, given the praise that’s been heaped upon him throughout his career. But he admits it wasn’t always like that.
“Well, when you’re 20 or 21 you use your instinct; you get by on youthful exuberance and you have that attitude. But you get a bit older, you’re less of a big mouth and you’re suddenly ashamed because you see what other people actually know. I deﬁnitely went through that phase. I thought I was great, then all of a sudden I realised that certain other people were quieter, more talented and didn’t boast about it. They also had a proper grounding in it. I mean, look at Oasis; if Noel thinks he’s better than God and The Beatles then wonderful, but he’ll change when he’s 35. The last few years for me have been trying to learn from that.”
The Sprouts’ most recent record is ‘Andromeda Heights’, from which Guitarist plundered the track Electric Guitars, a song written about The Beatles, but from The Fabs’ own perspective. Paddy actually plays very little guitar on the album. Instead, Dave Brewis, a good friend of the band and proud owner of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic Flying V handled the lion’s share. (See Guitarist Christmas 97 issue for the Hendrix feature and Electric Guitars.)
“Dave’s liked us since we started,” states Paddy. “He was our first audience and didn’t have any problem with my guitar playing. He just thought, ‘well, you have these weird shapes and your timing’s strange, but it’s you’. It’s a view I’ve come to appreciate slightly more now, but I’ve been through terrible insecurity over the last 15 years, after meeting people who dedicate themselves to a particular instrument. But as long as you can play elegantly and in time…
“Dave approaches my guitar playing by trying to preserve what he thinks is decent about it in the ﬁrst place. He says, ‘Okay, so your rhythm playing’s not so hot and you’re not really interested in how to get a sound out of an amp, but I can do those things for you’.
“I’m quite particular about chord voicings, but as long as I show him the voicings, he’ll play cleanly for me and that’s fantastic. Also, I don’t have to think, ‘Will I upset him if I tell him he’s played a voicing I don’t like?’ Basically, I know how to play, but I can’t play to the level that, as a producer, I require. So I thought, I know what I want and if I can’t do it, I’ll get someone who can. So I got Dave in for the record. He knows about the songs and he’s great about criticism.
Someone else’s turn
“The album has been received fantastically. There’s been one or two dissenting voices, but I think we got the best reviews with this one that anyone could ever have. It didn’t sell as many as I’d have liked, but the thing is that critical acclaim goes in a kind of wave, partly to do with the age of people who like you. For example, when you’re in your twenties, the young writers on magazines are your contemporaries, so they tend to like you. They may put in a good word for you when they’re the editors, but in between time you’re going to become unfashionable. I remember back in 1977 seeing a review of Steely Dan’s ‘Asia’; this was in the heyday of punk and the guy who reviewed them slammed the album as complete crap. It must’ve gone to the wrong guy — obviously some Generation X fan. But that’s got to happen to you.
“Critical acclaim is all very nice, and if someone likes what you do then that’s fantastic. But I try not to pin all my dreams on it because I know it’s all to do with vogue and fashion. And at some point in time, it has to become someone else’s turn.”