The burden of a cloistered education seems to have done little to undermine PADDY McALOON’s bursting enthusiasm. The man in front of the curiously named PREFAB SPROUT declares his intentions to Ian Pye. Photography: Tom Sheehan
AS a teenager Paddy McAloon had all the reasons he needed to make his own music. During those early years locked away from the rest of the world in a Catholic boarding college he wasn’t even allowed to listen to the radio. He saw his parents twice a term, learnt to play the guitar from a priest and played a lot of sport. What’s more, he liked it.
So, Paddy, what’s a nice Catholic boy like yourself doing in the lurid world of rock ’n’ roll? Well it’s not quite as simple as that really, and it never is of course. For a start those priests weren’t all fire and brimstone men; they let him grow his hair long and didn’t bother too much when he showed more interest in strumming his guitar than cramming Latin, and anyway who believes in those terrible rock myths anymore? Surely nobody who matters.
It’s tempting to speculate that life in the seminary did more for his imagination than a possible diet of Space Invaders and junk TV. Certainly he welcomed the discipline, but the lack of girls left something to be desired. “That was what I missed most,” he recalls of his seven years of monastic rigour.
“Not mixing with girls at all leaves you with an awful problem when you leave at 18. You see, I didn’t even have a sister. So when it came to talking to girls I didn’t have a clue!’ He smiles at the memory and adds: “But I think it was a good education, a place to develop yourself — I’ve no regrets.”
It’s a tribute to Paddy McAloon’s sense of discerning optimism that he could take the most positive elements from an apparently oppressive environment and turn them to his advantage. Nothing is ignored. Everything is weighed up and intuitively assessed, the finest elements distilled through a personal alchemy that has made his music so startling and expansive in a way that most pop barely approaches.
Listening to the ethereal harmonies that grace his music it’s not hard to hear the resonant chimes of a young church choir.
PREFAB Sprout have been biding their time since the turn of the decade and only recently have they become another great white hope; which has its pros and cons, but at the end of the day the music is what counts here and that will win through against any odds.
Is there anybody now who doesn’t tilt their heads back and look down their nose at the first whiff of hype? So we’re all suspicious, which in some ways makes this new infatuation all the more exciting. Because this time the promise isn’t empty and if worldliness tells you to resist, your mind will soon consider abandon and, anyway, your heart will probably melt while you try and figure out if this is really something after all.
Try this as a starting point: the flip side of the new 12 inch single, “Don’t Sing”, has an extraordinary rewrite of a song popularised by Jim Reeves and later Elvis Costello, himself a champion of the Sprouts. “He’ll Have To Go” has been radically transformed into a gorgeous exploration of the mysterious interface between America’s bitter sweet country, blues and the compelling poise of European gothic. An unholy marriage of choral simplicity (those hymns again) and redneck bars ‘n’ jukebox croon. Its audacity is as breathtaking as its unashamed romanticism — the kind of record that can only be followed by one thing . . . more of the same.
It represents something of a consummation of the McAloon vision. A more direct, but still daring, expression of past musical ventures. In some ways Prefab Sprout are only just beginning.
ONCE Paddy McAloon gets talking it’s difficult to stop him, which is great because he has a lot to say and a lot worth hearing which is rare from a pop musician. In the course of 90 minutes he tells me all the things he’s been keeping to himself these last years without ever seeming egoistic or overblown. When he says “I just knew I could trash anybody with these songs”, it sounds more like a statement of fact than an idle boast.
A very lean 26-year-old with piercing blue eyes and a nature that demands he constantly do something even if it’s only to push his unkempt hair back out of his eyes, he generates an infectious enthusiasm. Every time he goes to take a bite from his cheese roll he hesitates, thinks of something else to say, and finally when he has to leave for rehearsals it remains behind with just one bite missing.
At the moment the Sprouts have no permanent drummer and Paddy worries that their performances will suffer after the recent disappointment at London’s ICA. That night nothing gelled for the group and Paddy admits he has never really got over the loss of original drummer Mick Salmon, featured on the first two singles “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” and “The Devil Has All The Best Tunes”.
“He wasn’t a great technical drummer,” he says, “but he had the right feel — that’s what really matters. He was like a brother to me and Mart (his real brother who plays bass with the band), so it was very hard for us when he left.”
Since then they’ve never quite attained the same peaks of live playing Paddy speaks so warmly of, when they were just another local Newcastle group doing the rounds. Not that these “legendary” gigs ever got them far. It took a pressing of “Lions” on their own Candle label (“nobody listens to demo tapes”) for them to be noticed and picked up by Keith Armstrong’s Kitchenware label. Under his careful guidance they recently signed an eight album deal with CBS, the first of which appropriately titled “Swoon” will be out in March.
Already they’ve been accused of selling out by moving from hip indie “credibility” to a major. This argument gets tedious but at least Paddy has sense to cut through all the crap.
“Look, I didn’t care whether the album came out on Kitchenware or CBS. You don’t judge a book by the name on the jacket do you? I mean, you wouldn’t get someone saying to an author: “What’s all this about you being on Penguin?”
Also it’s a good deal for the group and Kitchenware, avoiding the syndrome of a lost first album, issued an indie before the group wised up and signed to a major.
“It’s such a trendy little game”, Paddy observes in his soft Geordie voice. “You play a college and someone from the student magazine says why did you sign to CBS? ‘Yes why did I sign to a label that can put my records out in every country in the world!’”
He sees no moral dilemma here whatsoever, and CBS have endorsed the group to the point that they’ve accepted a debut album that was recorded for £5,000 in a small 24-track Edinburgh studio in under a month. This is understandable though. Amazingly there is no trace of indie ambiance about the production on “Swoon”, and while the songs were all written over a period of years it has a remarkable continuity, a distinct atmosphere of its own. Indeed it’s hard to imagine any album topping its achievements in 1984.
A PREFAB Sprout song does take time to assimilate, but it’s invariably worth persevering. The chord changes, arrangements and striking harmonies, given a special edge by Wendy Smith’s beautifully pristine vocals, are unusual but that is only the shock of the new. Besides it all adds to the mood of discovery in their music and, given time, the melodies reveal themselves to be deviously addictive.
“People are always going on about the complexities and the difficult arrangements and I imagine, for an audience up against us for the first time, those are the kind of things that will strike you. But,” he adds, “to me our music is no more complicated than a good Bacharach song. You know you might not get it the first time through but if you can’t be bothered to try — forget it.”
The point is Prefab Sprout never go out of their way to be overtly clever or tricky, although some would say they were guilty of promoting a contrived mythology. Bored with having to explain their name — Paddy thought of it in the Seventies “because everybody had weird names when I was a lad”. They pretended it came from a misheard lyric in Nancy Sinatra’s and Lee Hazelwood’s ‘Jackson” (“we got married in a fever, hotter than a peppered sprout”) and the first letters of ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” spell out the French town Limoges; once the temporary home of Paddy’s girlfriend and the name that appeared on all her letters.
These are really only incidental facets and Paddy is understandably anxious to play them down. “The last thing we want is to get into that image game which so many groups indulge in. We’d like to think that our music is good enough to stand on its own.”
He wrote his first song when fe was 12, shortly after entering the seminary. It was called “Tramp” and he describes it as “simply awful”.
Early influences were Marc Bolan and Bob Dylan. “The trouble was at first I didn’t want to play my own stuff (all written as now on a Spanish guitar) for more than a week. It took a long time to realise that it was the words — they were just totally disposable. I thought, you’ve got to write something that you can live with for a long time. How I came to this conclusion listening to Marc Bolan — ‘she’s faster than most and she lives on the coast’ – I don’t really know!”
The jazzy chords and unorthodox structures of the songs have brought a lot of comparisons to Steely Dan but that’s not a description Paddy himself would go along with wholeheartedly. If anything his music straddles the Atlantic, making definitions impossible to pin down.
“Whenever anybody asks me to list the bands I really like I always tend to come out with a load of American ones — but if you asked me what sort of tradition I was in I’d say it was resolutely English. I can see why people make the Steely Dan comparisons but I think their music has a kind of absence of involvement that you wouldn’t find in ours.
“There’s this wall of irony with Steely Dan, this distance between them and the subject matter. Even if it’s supposed to be a touching lyric you feel they’re still smirking about it. I think our music is much more personal, a bit nearer the knuckle, which is why I think it is predominantly British.”
He says he listens to a lot of “rubbish” like Michael Jackson (!) and once admired McCartney and Stevie Wonder. But the big figures in his musical sphere are songsmiths like Steven Sondheim (“Send In The Clowns”) who manage to convey a precise emotional ambiguity through lyric and sound within the shorthand of pop.
“You see,” he explains, “I hate these crude statements by bands like The Alarm. All they’re saying is ‘by God isn’t it nice not to be one of those hicks’. It’s all very lacking.”
Again he isn’t attempting to set himself above the realms of everyday pop, “I may like Stravinsky but I also have a very sweet tooth”, but he is rightly distrustful of the sloganeering and emptiness that is the sad legacy of punk. While he welcomed the overnight condemning of the dinosaur bands (how long did that last?), he also mourned the loss of feeling that went with it. Now it’s time to show a little tenderness.
“When punk happened I immediately realised that you weren’t going to be able to say things that were more true than the rantings and ravings about ‘no future’. I think a lot of groups have come to make their living out of the depression. They’re playing on it to get the best of both deals. It’s condescending. These bands aren’t even resigned to mortality. I get the impression that they think if cruise is removed they’ll all live to be 390!
“Bob Dylan gave up on finger pointing songs because he realised he was making the cause more important than the feelings behind it.”
McALOON’S lyrics deal with everything from vicarious living, to self-denial and the discovery of faith in the face of despair. Familiar themes? Well his Catholicism is as firm as ever, in spirit if not in practice, although it would be far too simple and misleading to suggest that this was the only key to his work.
Nevertheless “Don’t Sing” is a honed down version of Graham Greene’s classic tale of the anguished whisky priest coming to terms with himself in a corrupt Mexico, “The Power And The Glory”. It not only raises the spectre of McAloon’s religious preoccupations but also his long held love of literature – books frequently sharing a double date with his guitar through those cloistered seminary days.
Of this artistic incest he says: “I don’t always approve of reducing a book to song form and I don’t really like the idea of one art form feeding off the other. In fact I probably won’t do it again (it was written in 1980) but I still think it’s a good song.”
As for Catholicism he feels it’s had a terrible press. The notion of a heaven and hell is not, he asserts, the central point. “What appeals to me about it is that it never accepts the idea of failing at something. It is never the end of the story. That it can encompass imperfection I find very encouraging. To me forgiving comes before heaven and hell.”
His faith and conviction is perhaps best expressed in “Green Isaac” which begins with the image of a star moth (“Stella Mater”) and details a genuine Innocent’s attempt to make sense of a world almost too corrupt for him to conceive. “I was trying to say you could be happy admitting that you might not want what everybody else wants,” he explains.
After years living in a tiny village near Durham, writing and dreaming of things to come, Paddy McAloon is at last on the threshold of the breakthrough he knows he deserves. He’s not about to be tainted by the tacky rock circuit. Prefab Sprout may stop in the den of iniquity, the Columbia Hotel, when they come to town but that’s only because it’s cheap.
With their brilliant singles, the magnificent “Swoon” and enough songs for another album to be recorded this summer Prefab Sprout should win the kind of attention they could only fantasise about in their previous obscurity. The gauntlet has been thrown down . . . I wonder is there anybody capable of rising to the challenge?