Is PREFAB SPROUT’S Paddy McAloon really too good to be true? Can “Steve McQueen” make it to the ranks of the all-time greatest top ten albums? Well, Ian Pye thinks so anyway. He took confession from the Catholic boy who put two fingers up to the sky and cursed the angels for taking Marvin Gaye from our midst. Tom Sheehan hovered close by with camera and holy water
SOME music is made for gain, some for pleasure, and some . . . because it has to be. Prefab Sprout‘s Paddy McAloon doesn’t even consider the alternatives. “I have to record these songs,” he says obsessively, “it would be criminal not to.”
Listening to the group’s remarkable second album, “Steve McQueen”, it’s impossible not to agree with him. I can’t imagine a finer pop record being released this year, or for that matter this decade. Yes, it’s that special.
Standing proudly alongside eclectic gems like The Beatles‘ “Revolver”, The Byrds’ “Notorious Byrd Brothers”, and The Beach Boys‘ “Pet Sounds”, “McQueen” is an incredible achievement. Its melodic and textural qualities are stunning enough, but the vision behind it all has produced a work that is not just consistently excellent but positively inspirational.
While “Swoon”, their debut, suffered from a self-conscious desire to impress, the follow-up is altogether consummate. The new songs have been honed to their essential elements, arranged majestically by Thomas Dolby, and performed with the conviction of a man whose talent was clearly made in heaven.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Paddy McAloon is on a winning streak — already he’s written a third album, thinking of the fourth. That’s all he wants to do, write songs and get better at singing them. He may have created something of a masterpiece but the idea of promoting it leaves him cold. A tour has been mooted, yet even that hangs in the balance. .
“I wouldn’t want to be like Morrissey,” he explained on one of his rare visits to London. “It’s as if he’s fallen into this persona. I’d hate to become a caricature of myself. I like to leave things a bit murky. Obviously that conflicts with my desire to sell lots of records, ‘cos I’m not shy of that, but I don’t want to be . . . you know, a prat! I’m rather proud of the fact that we haven’t plastered ourselves everywhere over the last year.”
It’s quite obvious that he’s an intensely private person, preferring the monastic discipline of his north country home, a wing in his parents’ house in Consett, to the vacant mania of a big city. On the other hand, when warmed up he’s endearingly garrulous. Only when it comes to questions about how his most emotive lyrics relate to his personal life does he begin to clam up.
The gratuitous attacks on the Sprout’s debut album and the commercial failure of their singles has encouraged a certain wariness, but really he’s one of the most refreshingly natural people you could wish to meet in a business full of masks and poses. How had it felt though to be heralded as the next big thing, the jewel in the Kitchenware crown, and then written off as a group too clever for their own good — as if invention were some kind of sin?
“I was disappointed, sure, who wouldn’t be? But that charge of being too clever. I think the record’s strengths outweigh any cleverness. It might be a bit precious but I like the idea of making a record that . . . I knew it wasn’t going to be terribly fashionable.
“There’s no way we were going to make a 1984 dance album or whatever the trend was. It cost £5,000 to make and CBS still put it out and offered us a long-term contract. Maybe we bit off more than we could chew but I still think it’s a great record.”
In an attempt to escape the anti-climax that followed the release of “Swoon” last year, the Sprouts embarked on a small tour of Europe. “We played an avant-garde festival in France,” he recalls wryly. “These guys were still into Gong and Frank Zappa! To them that was avant-garde! They hadn’t heard of Orange Juice — nobody. I talked to this kid, he was 18. I said who do you like‘? ‘I like Pink Floyd’, he said. An 18 year old!
“We also supported the Psychedelic Furs in a festival in Belgium. The audience was Neanderthal. These guys were 1977. They were still spitting! I said: ‘You Belgians are as boring as everybody says’. They just went furious.”
When they returned to England it was to find that their label mates The Kane Gang in the charts. “They hadn’t even played live! I thought that’s it, I’m never touring again.”
Instead, they focused their efforts on another single, “When Love Breaks a quintessential expression of loss and remorse. As an unashamed ballad it was perhaps a perverse release for a group still without a hit, and when CBS threw it into the Christmas deluge it sank without trace.
It’s a song obviously close to his heart. It was subsequently re-released and now appears again, re-mixed with a different vocal, on the new LP.
“It is a very personal song,” he admits. “It‘s not that far removed from personal experience. I’ve worked so hard, it’s been to the detriment of other things. Relationships have suffered, I don’t mind saying that. But I know if I don’t work hard I won’t get that golden moment. I know I can go even further but to do that I have to narrow down my interests.”
It’s certainly a measure of the man’s dedication that he’s prepared to sacrifice his relationships for his work, and viewed coldly you might say that one person’s loss is our gain. He remains unrepentant: “It’s true I don’t have many friends but that’s not what I’m after anyway.” The “Love Breaks Down” single not only marked a turning point in his private life but also a change in writing style. Perhaps with earlier criticisms of his work in mind and driven by an urge simply to communicate rather than engage the intellect, he embraced the more traditional virtues of songwriting.
“I knew I’d been too wordy in the past, too ambitious musically as well perhaps, so I wanted to get back to basics. Some people were shocked by the simplicity of ‘Love Breaks Down’ but I wish I could do that kind of thing more often. In fact I am getting better at being more direct because it’s the most effective music in the end.”
At the close of ’84 Paddy McAloon was, in his own words, “massively depressed”. True to form however he buried himself in another project. The Sprouts went into the studio to record their second LP with Thomas Dolby producing. As it turned out it was the perfect marriage of talents, and the results should do much to dispel the group’s image as Habitat rockers.
“I’d heard him sticking up for us on the radio,” he recalls. “I thought now that would be an unusual combination. I’m not one for repeating formulas. I want to work with people who can teach me something.”
AS might be expected, Dolby has given the group that touch of sophistication they lacked on their self-produced debut, yet ironically far from coating the music with an unpenetrable gloss, he’s actually made it more accessible.
“The image people have of him is all wrong,” he says.
“He’s known as Mr Boffin, but he’s Mr Performance to tell you the truth. He works on the basis that if the feel is right then you can excuse the odd error. He brought back some of the live dynamic we’d lost along the way.”
Though the first album took three weeks to make, the “McQueen” three months, there’s no way the technology has dwarfed the music. “The only thing that worries me,” he frets, rubbing a decidedly unfashionable beard, “is that the record’s got such a long running time it might lose some of its presence. But I thought it was a brilliant partnership — my songs and his way of producing. It was the perfect balance.”
He claims there’s no hero worship intended by calling the LP “Steve McQueen” though it’s not hard to detect a relationship between the late actor’s renowned true grit and his own quiet dignity. “It just seemed like an intriguing title for an LP he says at first, later conceding that he’s always been a big fan. “He was really good in an un-arty way. He was never hyped up. It’s that instinctive feeling I like.”
Two of the album’s most instantly likeable songs (significantly, they fade with more plays while others grow in stature) were written as far back as ’78. “Goodbye Lucille”, which features a beautifully haunting vocal from Wendy Smith, and “Faron Young”, an unusually frantic gallop through the big country.
Hopefully the latter will finally throw off that unfortunate “wimp” tag, at the same time placing Paddy’s ambiguous feelings towards America in their proper perspective. “I know that kind of vigour isn’t normally associated with us so that should surprise some people . . . as for America, I’m not preoccupied with it all. The first LP probably had too many references to it, I know, but ‘Faron Young’ is really sending up that country’s clichés.”
Another surprise is “When The Angels”, his witty tribute to Marvin Gaye in which the peeved harp players take away the singer’s voice because his sound is even sweeter than theirs.
“I wanted to talk about somebody dying young with a wonderful gift. The main thing on my mind then was Marvin Gaye. I couldn’t be sombre and serious like the ‘Nightshift’ thing, I wanted to be irreverent and put two fingers up at the sky.”
The soulful “Moving The River” which opens side two is similarly mischievous, belying his image as the over-earnest Catholic choir boy. It pokes fun at the lengths some people will go to be accepted and seems to assert his willingness to be an outsider as long as he’s convinced of his own worth.
“If some people hate us then I’m not put off — it’s something positive. To me the sombre grey coat brigade, or any other of those groups that you can lump together, are just responding to their audience on the same level as Lionel Richie appeals to the Mills & Boon set.
“There’s so many cosy groups doing the same thing over and over. It’s like U2 and Echo And The Bunnymen are the Tories of rock. I’ve never heard a more conservative music in my life. They’re so reactionary.”
Though Paddy McAloon is acutely aware of the image problems that beset the sensitive young strummer, he’s not about to adopt the latest pre-packed style in his quest for recognition. When he can make a song as powerful as “Bonny”, which imagines the death of his sick father, there is really no need to make any other statement.
“To equate excitement with colour and noise is terribly childish,” he notes. “To me there’s nothing more exciting than a genuinely emotional piece of music — whether that emotion is up or down. It’s exciting because it’s something real, something that touches you.”
He’s just about summed it up there for me. “Steve McQueen” isn’t just a brilliantly conceived collection of songs, it’s an appeal to something which runs deep below the noisy silence that passes as Eighties pop culture. Paddy McAloon is still too good to be true. He does, however, permit one conceit: “I would love to leave an immortal stamp, I really would.” I think he already has.