After a couple of years slogging in the wilderness for The Hit That Never Came, Prefab Sprout have at last come in to warm their feet by the fire. Chris Heath, a man who knows a good couplet when it drops on his head, meets up with Head Sprout Paddy McAloon to talk about why people would ever want to keep fish in a kettle in the first place.
It’s the only time I’ve ever really seen Paddy McAloon relax. We’re in his small room in the London hotel that houses all second-league pop stars and Paddy’s sitting next to me, his guitar on his knee and a synthesiser on the bed in front of him. I’d asked him if he remembered writing ‘When Love Breaks Down’.
“Yes vividly,” he’d replied. “I was in the front room at home after I’d come back from tour last year. It sounds a bit exact but I think I wrote it on lune l0th or anyway before lune l6th. It was Saturday night and I wrote it – a typical Sprout clever-dick trick so I probably shouldn’t be telling you this – with the guitar on my knee and the synthesiser in front of me at the same time.”
Then up he leaps, unpacks a synthesiser from a box, hurriedly throwing aside the polystyrene casing, grabs his guitar, and begins playing the opening chords. Gently, almost involuntarily, he starts breathing the first lines under his breath . . .
my love and I
we work well together
but often we’re apart . . .
And, just for a moment, I’m sure he forgets I’m even there and slips back into being a boy, much younger than his 28 years, playing songs back in his bedroom at home. And maybe, in a funny way, is a lot happier for it. “l was vying to break my ways of writing things,” he explains when he snaps back into his shell of this recently-shaven Northerner, finally with a record in the chars after years of trying to be heard. “Always before it was on the guitar, tapping my feet. This was simple, like an old hymn or folk tune.
“It all came pretty quickly in one night. I got the words simultaneously. You often get a little snatch of things, a phrase that fits – I think it’s a subconscious thing really bemuse I don’t sit round thinking ‘I want to write a song about this’. Sometimes I’ll get a title which gives me a place to start but with ‘When Love Breaks Down’ the title was last of all and I hated it because it was so obvious. l wanted to call it ‘Old Confetti’ (from the line “fall be free as old confetti’) but it would have been too difficuIt, there was no point.”
I spent most of last winter thinking it wasn’t “old confetti’ but “oak and feather”.
“‘ Oak and feather’? That sounds quite good. ‘Fall be free as oak and feather? It sounds really good – phonetically adequate and it fits the image of the line. It’s funny, Nick Heyward told someone he thought the song went “and paper towels, paper towels” instead of “and paint the town, paint the town”. He thought it was a weepy weepy job and said it was a great line.”
Yes, but then he is the man who wrote songs called ‘Lemon Fire Brigade’ and ‘Calling Captain Autumn’; who, instead of being embarrassed about writing nonsense pop songs, revelled in the joy of it.
“Yeah,” agrees Paddy. “He once said he wanted to stick all the words that had never been used into songs. I suppose, in a different way, I share that desire.”
“‘When Love Breaks Down’s” eventual success, albeit at the third try, is clearly a great relief to Paddy, some collateral at last for all the seIf- confidence (some would say arrogance) he has displayed over the last two years.
“ ‘When Love Breaks Down’ isn’t,” he says proudly, “a throwaway pop song and now it’s a hit record it proves to those who aren’t interested that Prefab Sprout don’t always write awkward melodies, that this is something for the common man.”
And now that “the common man” has been alerted, Paddy is content to let CBS resell him as much of the ‘Steve McQueen’ LP as possible – the next single will either be ‘Faron Young’ again (because it did best first time around), ‘Appetite’ again (because there’s already a video) or, just possibly, ‘Goodbye Lucille’. Though obviously glad that he doesn’t have to dirty his own ﬁngers too much in the business side of things, the Selling of the Sprouts is something that Paddy’s clearly quite happy about.
“This kid who worked in a record shop said to me a while back, ‘CBS are really behind you, they’re going to put you in the charts’. Put us in the charts?” Paddy laughs. “If they could do that they’d have done it with ‘Don’t Sing’ which had a bigger natural boost to start with. We used to ask if the sales force were giving them enough free t- shirts; “give ‘em more t-shirts!”. But their answer was ‘when people click and know about you then we can make you. We’re the biggest selling machine in the world’.”
“What do you think of ‘Swoon’?’ Paddy asks suddenly.
It’s good . . . strange . . . I don’t listen to it much.
“No, neither do l,” he admits in return. “But a lot of people you meet after the gigs still say ‘Swoon’ is their favourite LP. That’s alright . . . it’s got something to do with the things you do with most weaknesses often bringing out the strongest feelings . . .”
And of course with the fact that the early earnest fans could feel that they owned ‘Swoon’ whereas ‘Steve McQueen’ clearly belongs to everybody. They must now take their place in the front row, holding their Walkmans and mouthing along with the words alongside goggle-eyed 14 year old girls. And if they’re convinced that Paddy would rather just sing to them, then they’d better think again.
“The young ones aren’t nearly as bad,” he says, “as the earnest NME reader types who get you and think you’re really cool and say (in horribly derisory voice) ‘what d’ya think of Wham!, eh? What d’ya think of Wham!’ And I know what I’m supposed to say but I say I own a copy of ‘Last Christmas’ and ‘Everything She Wants’ and I really like them. ‘Last Christmas’ is a great song, it’s brilliant!”
Of course Paddy doesn’t particularly revel in “meeting fans” anyway, nor for that matter in any of the other public aspects of stardom. He’d rather write songs and not let the compulsory pop star duties – photo sessions, interviews, meetings, performances – eat away his time. And he’s deeply protective of his private life – whenever he lets his guard down he proceeds to pepper the conversation with “please don’t print that’s”. But he knows Fleet Street are on the way.
“There was this thing in the Daily Mail about me and Wendy, saying ‘they are inseparable and deeply in love’, a ridiculous non-piece. It’s not too bad once as we’re not that well known and all your friends go ‘oh God’ but if you let your home life become a circus I think that’s really bad.
“If you go out with someone in the group it becomes the whole centre. It’d be like the new Thompson Twins. Wendy even denies it – if somebody says to her ‘do you go out with Paddy?’ she says ‘no’. She won’t talk at all about her private life. Her perspective is totally that of the girl on the street who doesn’t even like to say what records she likes because she’s shy, and doesn’t like to talk about private things because they’re private. She’d say to the person asking the question, ‘don’t you have anything that’s private?’. Which is an obvious thing to say except that everybody else plays the game and talks about themselves.”
Nevertheless it is possible to tease out of Paddy the barest biography – the ‘petrol-pump-attendant-made-good’ as it will doubtless be portrayed in the scum press. He was born 28 years ago in a small village near Newcastle and was sent away to school when he was 11, to the seminary (priest’s training school) where his father, a lay teacher, taught Maths. There young Paddy, the smallest boy in the school, wasn’t brainwashed into the ways of the Lord, but instead had his name changed by his contemporaries from the ‘Patrick’ his parents had preferred, bugged people to teach him the guitar, formed bands with names like Grappled Institution, playing songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘All The Young Dudes’ to old ladies, and wondered why he wasn’t at home.
“I think 11 is too young to go away. Mentally you’ve got to compensate, to think mother won’t always be there and then you think, ‘maybe I’d better not get too close to anyone because they’re not always going to be around’. That’s what I used to think – that you don’t want too many close friends because in the end you just leave them anyway. Which is a sad thing to think.”
Nevertheless he coped. Apparently “not a dreamer but a bit of a playboy” at school, he did his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, excelling at English but, to his father’s displeasure, faring less well at Maths. There were few diversions, certainly not girls (“we didn’t get diverted by girls because there weren’t any, which I suppose is the biggest diversion of all”) though this thoughtful long-haired I6 year old was beginning to harbour desires to be a pop star, a germ that had been planted before when he saw the Beatles on TV and “discovered something I could do well.”
Not immediately though. After school, he went to Newcastle Poly to get a degree in English and History, moving away from home during one of his years there and into a flat in Whitley Bay. After that he moved back with his parents and has lived with them ever since.
Already he was amassing a considerable back catalogue of songs. Even Grappled Institution had had a full set of originals (one song, ‘Blue Automobile’ which he wrote when he was about I 5 may yet appear on a B- slde) and many of the songs on the first two Prefab Sprout LPs come from either his time at Poly or from the next five years spent working in his father’s garage.
“People write about us and say we’re very precious,” he says, shaking his head, “well, to me, I’ve got the most down-to-earth of any background. I wrote all the songs in a garage and I didn’t have any arty friends or anything. I come from a very sane village life. Everyone expects you to be precious . . . we were just a little pop group, you know?”
Paddy, so uninterested in his job that he never even learnt how to drive, would fill out his days reading books and playing guitar in between serving the customers, in the meantime sending the odd tape off to record companies. Perhaps that’s what he’d still be doing now if the garage hadn’t eventually fallen so badly in debt that they had to sell it, throwing Paddy and his brother Martin onto the dole. With £800 Martin got for a two month stint as a night-watchman, they recorded and released ‘Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)’ on their own Candle label and the rest is well-known. The record was picked up by Kitchenware, CBS gave them first a publishing then a record deal, they recorded the fragile, awkward ‘Swoon’ and then the more comfortable ‘Steve McQueen’ and now the village garage attendant – plainly intelligent but by his own admission wilfully naive about the role he has taken on – is nearly a pop star.
And where has it got him? He hates being stopped on the streets, preferring invisibility. He hates the rigmarole of touring: “Every day’s the same as the next.” He hasn’t written a new song since August and is undoubtedly now able to spend less time than ever before on his favourite past-time. And he says that if he had loads of money he’d spend it on revisiting the desolate Outer Hebrides where he once spent a holiday. So what makes it worthwhile? Probably just that people are at last listening to the songs, which is why he’s rush- releasing another nine after Christmas on a new LP, ‘Protest Songs’.
“It’s an unscheduled album,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t like it but that it’s not in CBS’s scheme of things. I did it in my interest. The original tactic was ‘let’s surprise everybody who’ll be expecting us to go for the big producer and deliver the killer punch, to be like Spandau Ballet’. I just thought ‘let’s go and do a bunch of songs.’ Some of them are off-the-wall and recorded cheaply, even cheaper than ‘Swoon’, just me and the guitar.”
True to these intentions they used no producer, just an engineer called Richard Digby Smith, versed in the ‘live’ tradition who’d worked with Free and Led Zeppelin and just “banged them down in the spirit of ‘The Basement Tapes’.
“People would always say to me ‘you don’t write political things, you don’t write about the world around you’. And I’ve always maintained that I have done, but not in crass terms.”
“Diana” (the original B-side of ‘When Love Breaks Down’ and the only ‘old’ – though rerecorded – song on the new LP). I wrote it in ‘82 at the height of Diana-mania and of course that’s come full circle. In any case it’s always pertinent to talk about what they stick on the covers of the newspapers.”
“I’ve also got this song about the North East which is probably my favourite of all the songs I’ve ever written, ‘Till The Cows Come Home’. It’s not in any way commercial or anything but it’s just directly talking about the North East without being Lindesfarne-ish about it or anything. I’m glad to have reached the state of comfort where I can talk about home.
“The LP’s called ‘Protest Songs’ because the songs refer more directly than ever to an external world and it’s very down-home straightforward music. It’s like appropriating that whole Billy Bragg image to our own ends – God, that sounds like a Nick Rhodes expression, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of subliminal marketing. I thought let’s just take the whole term, it’s such a corny generic term, we’ll just take it and use it. This isn’t indulgent music, it’s talking about real things.”
So is that an acknowledgement that some of the things you’ve written about in the past haven’t been “real things”?
“Good blow, that, but no, it isn’t. In fact I’ve been too defensive in the past. I write very personal things, very private songs, but even the songs on ‘Swoon’ are about people and that makes them as important as a song should be. There are no fantasy escapist things.
“It is true that I’m very private and very, very coded in things that I say – some of the language is too coded and too obscure – but at the same time that’s something I personally would forgive a band for because it’s so obvious that too many records have no barrier at all to break through. They throw themselves at you and you can’t love them because they’re too eager to please. I think songs can take a bit more weight than they’re usually given.”
‘Protest Songs’, says Paddy, will be released as soon as possible at a normal price (“we did it cheap but we don’t want it at a cheap price because it’s worth more than ‘More Music ”’). I know the song-titles as Paddy obligingly scribbles them down on the tip of his Sunday Times Business News: ‘World Awake’, ‘Wicked Things’, ‘Horse Chimes’, ‘Dublin’, ‘Tiffany’s’, ‘Talking Scarlet’, ‘Diana’, ‘Till The Cows’, ‘Pearly Gates’. I keep it as a souvenir.