As Prefab Sprout release their own basement tapes, “Protest Songs”, let’s ask their pop guru Paddy McAloon about the great songs that echo around his head.
A group isn’t credible if they don’t play live. Not an absolutely golden rule, but it’s more or less what everyone thinks. Curiously, Prefab Sprout are one of the exceptions to this rule. Despite playing almost no concerts, the group’s fans have accepted the situation. Well, almost. Last January, there were rumours that Prefab would play the Bobino and fans rushed there in the hope of finally seeing them in action. Sadly this was a misunderstanding, there was no concert, just a party. Those who made the trip were at least able to exchange a few words with Paddy McAloon who was able to tell them why he refuses to put himself into the limelight. Which is because makes him terribly uncomfortable.
In 1985, however, following the release of the album “Steve McQueen” The Newcastle singer had taken the plunge and gone on tour with his band. He had even conceived an album that should have been released as a limited edition especially for this “Two Wheels Good” tour. However, Prefab Sprout abandoned this project after their record company explained to them it might affect sales of “Steve McQueen”. But finally, after having been circulated secretively by bootleggers and collectors, the album, called “Protest Songs” is officially being released in early summer 1989.
“Songs”, whether they “Protest” or not, well they’re a key to the Paddy McAloon universe, a devoted adept of the pop song, a keen admirer of pop structure, an aesthete, theologian, and a practicing Catholic. So, as it’s a time when lost relics are being revealed, let’s go a little further and ask Paddy to reveal his inner pantheon of the greatest songs ever written (for others…)
The following list is not exhaustive, it could be much longer because Paddy became so hooked on it that once started, he couldn’t stop. He punctuated the entire chat with enthusiastic comments: “Oh, do you know it? Wait, I’ll write the title on paper for you!”
“Summertime” (George Gershwin)
“This is the kind of song we’re all familiar with since we were children. When I was a kid, it did nothing for me, it belonged to my parents’ generation. But later my brother played it on the piano and I remember that it moved me. I liked the simplicity of the melody, it expressed feelings of a mother talking to her baby. I wouldn’t have liked the simplicity previously. When I started writing songs, I didn’t know enough to appreciate a good song. Now I know enough to recognize that “Summertime” is a fabulous song. It has the same effect on me as watching a beautiful picture, a Madonna and child.”
“She Loves You” (LennonMcCartney)
“It’s probably not the best Beatles song, but it’s the one I like most, because it had an enormous effect on me the first time I heard it. I was a kid and I immediately loved it because of his fast pace, it’s speed, perhaps because of the “Ooooo”s in the chorus.
I recently met Paul McCartney at a party he gave in honour of Buddy Holly’s group the Crickets. He’s really fabulous, very friendly. I went to introduce myself to him. “Hello, I’m Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout.” And the first thing he said to me was:” Oh, I didn’t recognize you with your beard. “McCartney didn’t recognize me?! That made me laugh. He was funny, he began to explain to the Crickets drummer who I was, and told him I was the writer of the hit “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Then we talked a little and I told him “King” was a hit, but it hadn’t really helped the sales of the album “From Langley Park to Memphis” because the album was too much of a departure. It appealed to young people, but not to those who had bought our records before. McCartney replied that he could understand that this was our “My Ding-a-Ling” and he told me a story about it. Once when a reporter asked him who his favourite artists were, he replied Chuck Berry. The reporter exclaimed “Ah yes,” My Ding-a-Ling “. And McCartney said, “No, that’s not why I like Chuck Berry! ”
“Hot Love” (Marc Bolan)
“I love Marc Bolan simply because at the age of thirteen, T. Rex meant to me what Bros, Kylie Minogue or I don’t know who else mean to today’s kids. I loved his look. When you’re a kid, when you have straight hair like me, and you see someone like Bolan, you want to have curly hair like him. I loved “Hot Love” because it’s a song that I could sing along to. Tyrannosaurus Rex was pretentious, but when you’re young, you don’t realize that. We thought they were making “great music”, it was full of meaning. It is because of them that we’re called Prefab Sprout, because of the pretentiousness and mystery surrounding this group.”
“Prince, I find absolutely brilliant. He has an extraordinary imagination. He’s one of the best. People often have trouble understanding that I admire those who are my opposites. But I’d love be able to write a song like “1999” with such simple words, “Let’s party like it’s 1999” with such strong music. We envy what we have don’t have. That’s why I like popstars. Prince, Bowie are popstars. David Leonard, our sound engineer, and his wife Peggy Mac often worked with him. So Thomas Dolby (who produced “From Langley Park To Memphis”) suggested David should ask Prince if he could produce “Enchanted,” one of the songs of our album. David agreed. He went to the studio Sunset Sound Records where he thought he’d see Prince. Unfortunately, he’d already returned to Minneapolis to rehearse for his tour. Prince did not even know we were looking for him! ”
“God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson)
“I discovered the Beach Boys in 76 by reading articles that told me that supposedly Brian Wilson was awesome. Me, all I knew of the Beach Boys, was “Barbara Ann” and “Sloop John B.,” and I didn’t believe they were brilliant. Then I heard “Good Vibrations” and I told myself that if they had more songs like that, then yes, they were great. I bought a copy of “Pet Sounds” which wasn’t to be found in Newcastle, but a friend brought it to me from Manchester. I listened and I thought it was like Phil Spector, it was a unique record, it was like nothing else, not even “Revolver” or the Rolling Stones, it was superb. The harmonies are … (he utters a deep sigh). ”
“Wichita Lineman” (Jimmy Webb)
“This is one of the most beautiful songs ever written (he starts humming). The best version is Glenn Campbell’s. Jimmy Webb is an American songwriter who is still living. He never had much success as a performer, but he’s a multimillionaire thanks to writer’s royalties. He’s the son of a Baptist church pastor, he had an ordinary childhood in Kansas. He landed a contract with Motown when he was very young. He had to write them a song a day. Glenn Campbell grabbed one of them, “By The Time l Get To Phoenix”. He recorded it and it was a big hit. Very quickly Jimmy Webb became extremely popular. He made a lot of money by writing his best songs by the age of twenty-one. Then people lost interest in him, but his compositions have not dated. ”
“Tinseltown ln The Rain” (Blue Nile)
“The first time I heard this song on the radio, I found it very original. There are lots of violins in it, but they’re not romantic or voluptuous like my song “Nancy, Let Your Hair Down”, they are very rhythmic. The song’s lyrics are beautiful, very simple. I think it speaks of Glasgow, where the group originated, but it could take place anywhere. It’s about the feeling of well-being that you can have sometimes, when you walk in a familiar place. This is something you can feel anywhere, but which is even more intense in a place we know. At one point, the character of the song says: “Is there a place in this city, a place to always feel this way?” He feels so good that he wants it to last forever. It’s so well observed. It’s really a beautiful song.”
“Maria” (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim)
“I’d seen “West Side Story” as a child, with my parents and the film hadn’t made an impression on me. I didn’t really like musicals. Around 80-81, I bought the record and I found it not bad, I bought it especially for “Maria” which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful songs of all time. On repeated listens, I realized all the pieces had the same spacings, all almost the same harmonies and I found it beautiful, it’s really special. It’s a perfect album, an album like “Station to Station” by Bowie or “Blonde On Blonde” by Dylan. We don’t imagine a musical can have the same intensity as a rock record, you think it’s just music to entertain families. But “West Side Story” gives you the impression you’re diving into a complete universe all of its own. ”