Oh, the things I do for Sproutology… Some time ago I posted a translated interview from a French soft porn magazine, noting that the interviewer, Pierre Perrone, had also published a similar piece in 1988. A great deal of grubbing about on the metaphorical top shelves of Ebay followed, eventually yielding the 1988 piece. Which refers back to a 1985 interview we’ll also have to locate.
But here is a translation of the latest one, which if truth be told is a fairly standard Langley period interview by a journalist who clearly knows the band well (except for a drummer related howler), but has a very nice story relating to the Who and a caravan holiday which I hadn’t heard before. Perrone also recycled the piece for a later article in another French music magazine, which will also end up here via the interview section as I get to it.
Perrone is currently unwell – I discovered since translating the article he lives fairly close to me in Brighton – and so this post is especially dedicated to him with thanks and best wishes.
Prefab Sprout is one of those rare groups on which the international rock critics agree unanimously. Pierre Perrone talks to Paddy McAloon, the talkative and Francophile leader of the quartet, and discovers that being a genius requires a lot of patience…
Modesty has never been the strong suit of rock musicians. These megalomaniac loudmouths spend their time in self promotion, probably because they are afraid that their fans will forget or will tire of them after a few discs.
Yet in the case of Paddy McAloon, pride is quite justified, especially as Prefab Sprout’s leader he never really falls into vanity or pretension, but has delivered the exact opposite hundreds of times, to the point where he’s justifiably proud of the results.
It’s not for nothing that rock critics the world over sing the praises of the Newcastle group, which, if you believe the hacks already has to its credit two of the best LPs of the eighties with Swoon and Steve McQueen, and with From Langley Park to Memphis has thrown another double six on the dice.
Besides, as the singer confirmed to me when I met him recently, “it depends on the interview. I don’t really have a big mouth but I tend to exaggerate and declare I’m a genius if I see the journalist isn’t really a music lover. It’s just that music is my life. Before we got our record deal, I was already spending entire days writing songs.”
In 1981, Paddy decided to start a band with his brother Martin on bass and one of their friends, Neil Conti (sic), on drums.
“Since I was 14 I had this name in my head: Prefab Sprout,” he says in a playful tone.” At the time, the boys in my school who were older than me refused to lend me their Tyrannosaurus Rex and Moby Grape records. They thought I was too young for what they called progressive rock. So I said to my group that if we wanted to be taken seriously, I had to find a weird name. I decided to juxtapose two words and see what it looked. like That’s how I got to Prefab Sprout, a name that has no meaning and doesn’t reveal anything about our music. I wonder what the Belgians think,” adds the singer with a mischievous smile.
He then tells me how he met Wendy Smith who provides backing vocals: “When we started in 1982 we played as a trio of Newcastle in pubs and, seriously, we lacked finesse. Wendy came to see us regularly with one of her girlfriends and we decided to hire her for vocals. She has a very pure voice that colours our compositions almost like keyboards and adds to the mysterious atmosphere of our records.” And, not to beat about the bush Miss Smith has been the girlfriend of Prefab Sprout’s leader for some time.
However, it was another girl who inspired the first single by the quartet. Paddy: “The year before, I was dating a girl who left to study law in Limoges and I wrote that song to show her how much I missed her. I took the letters that made up the name of the city and, immediately, the phrase Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone) came to my mind and I instantly found a melody that stuck. By taking the initials of each of the words that form the title, it spells Limoges. Martin and Neil weren’t pulling your leg,” laughs the singer after I told him about my doubts when they had told me this story during my first interview with the group in Edinburgh in 1985.
The singer explains that it was the legendary John Peel – a disc jockey who has delighted listeners of Radio One, the national BBC radio pop channel, for over 20 years– who first played the song. “And Elvis Costello started singing our praises,” he says without breaking his flow. “We then released The Devil Has All The Best Tunes, the only song we had on tape, because we were completely broke.”
Both singles were published on Kitchenware Records, a small independent label based in Newcastle, one of the major cities of the North East of England. One of the most discerning of British record industry businessmen is to be found heading the label, Keith Armstrong, who also manages the career of Hurrah!, The Kane Gang and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, three groups from the same part of the UK as Prefab Sprout, a region devastated by unemployment.
To make things easier, Keith advises his artists to sign contracts with multinational record companies while retaining the Kitchenware label that adorns the covers of all their discs. Thus it was in 1983, that CBS took the baton of distributing recordings of Prefab Sprout worldwide. Paddy confides that the group “had already completed the sessions of the album Swoon before signing the contract.”
This disc, however, did not appear until the beginning of the following year, after the single Don’t Sing had poked its nose into the charts. With classics such as I Couldn’t Bear To Be Special and the ‘poetic’ Cruel, the first album was very well received by critics.
Yet with the benefit of four years of hindsight, Paddy the perfectionist doesn’t mince his words in his self-criticism. “When I listen to our first record, I cringe,” he says. “The lyrics are fantastic but my singing was too mannered, which is a shame because it could be a really great album,” he says without false modesty. Despite these minor faults, Swoon sold rather well and the quartet began a UK tour before going on to perform in most European capitals. The musicians then locked themselves away to concoct the next disc.
LOVE AND LOSS
In early 1985, When Love Breaks Down, a sublime and ethereal ballad, appeared in record stores and on the radio. But, to the disappointment of Mr McAloon, if failed twice to chart before finally appearing in the the charts when CBS re-released it for the third time at the end of the year.
Just for a change, the singer admits that he “likes the version that we recorded. This doesn’t prevent me, when I listen to it, to hear in my head other versions, maybe faster or funky, a bit like Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Unfortunately, this isn’t our style, I can‘t sing like that but I would be delighted if a black American singer decided to cover this composition,” he exclaims with a knowing smile which will be explained later.
IN THE NAME OF THE LAW
In the meantime, we discuss Steve McQueen, the second album which appeared in the middle of 1985. Prefab Sprout’s leader admits that once again, just before the release of the disc he wanted to “change some of it here and there. But now I agree, it’s not worth it, it’s a great record, even if it isn’t truly fantastic. Some of the chords in Hallelujah are too complicated. I’d cram in Dublin and ‘Til The Cows Come Home’, two unpublished songs – Nevertheless, I’m pretty satisfied. I was amazed when I heard the tapes Thomas Dolby had mixed.”
I point out that some artists like Joni Mitchell – talking about the producer she collaborated with on the album Dog Eat Dog, thinks that the latter added a little too much. Paddy whispers that Mitchell “even went as far as saying he used her songs simply as decoration and adornment, much like an interior designer. But in our case, Dolby is a genius who really knows how to refine and sculpt the sound of a disc. It’s to him we owe a great part of Steve McQueen’s success,” he said, almost forgetting that at that time the group was approaching greatness with a plethora of concerts all over Europe, not forgetting the string of singles taken from the album.
“Absolutely,” breathes Paddy, “these singles, Faron Young, Appetite, Goodbye Lucille (Johnny Johnny renamed for the release) extended the life of the album which continues to sell,” he said. His record label claims the the LP has sold over 750,000 copies since its release.
A COMMITED SINGER
Which brings us to the inevitable question about the long wait preceding the arrival of From Langley Park To Memphis, the band’s third album which finally appeared in record stores in March. A little bird – and the notes I had taken at their concerts in 1985 – even whispers to me that the quartet had hurriedly recorded Protest Songs, a compilation of ‘direct’ songs which should have appeared on our record decks at the end of 1985.
Unfortunately, the tapes are languishing somewhere in the CBS London offices.
For the umpteenth time, the singer tries to justify himself: “I wanted to take our fans by surprise. We had spent months polishing Steve McQueen and I thought it would be great to put another LP out quickly. We rented a studio in Newcastle and recorded a dozen titles in ten days, including two or three jewels, no frills. I wanted to get the disk out immediately but then When Love Breaks Down finally slid into the top 40 and CBS persuaded me that it was better our new fans buy Steve McQueen rather than Protest Songs which was of a more stripped down style. The weeks went by and, I must admit, I was deflated. If the record comes out eventually I’ll rework it.” concedes Paddy with a sigh. As we might have guessed.
One of the titles that should have been part of Protest Songs finally appeared as a single early this year. It‘s also found on the new album. This is Cars & Girls, which is getting a lot of FM airplay in France. Some say that this composition is a wicked parody of Bruce Springsteen but mister McAloon refutes this theory:
“No no no. I didn’t attack him, I just decided to put myself a little bit in his shoes, to use his metaphors, namely girls and cars. Also the album gives a false impression, because of the American references that are part of my style. I don’t worship the US, but it’s easier to illustrate and decorate my songs with American clichés. Hey Manhattan! for example, tells the story of an enthusiastic teenager who arrives in a big city and using Manhattan as a metaphor, I immediately created an atmosphere that works for everybody, that sticks in the mind even better than London or Paris. Yet I‘ve only spent two days in New York, and even though we recorded I Remember That and Knock On Wood in the United States, I‘ve never composed songs there.”
However, he concedes that “I love American music: Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys. I consider the Beatles as being part of this tradition. And I really appreciate ‘soul music’, I have almost all Stevie Wonder‘s records.”
STEVIE AND PETE
Not one to miss the opportunity, I ask Paddy how he managed to hire the black American singer who lights up Nightingales with a characteristic harmonica solo.
“It’s true, he doesn’t collaborate with just anyone. We just sent him a tape and he liked it. He didn’t know us but he gave us a hand at the end of the song. And The Andre Crouch Singers (‘gospel’ choir which has also accompanied Michael Jackson on Bad) came to sing on I Remember That and The Venus Of The Soup Kitchen. They put these two tracks in the can in no time at all. What’s great is that by working with these artists, we’ve proven that our music is not exclusively British and we have other strings to our bow. Especially as, curiously, they‘re on pieces that have nothing to do with Motown or Rhythm’n’Blues,” explains Prefab Sprout’s leader who once again proves tireless when I mention Pete Townshend.
The fact is that having strummed his acoustic guitar on Hey Manhattan!, the leader of the Who had some influence on me, and also, as I am about to find out, on Paddy.
“When I was a kid, I wanted at any cost to learn how to play the intro to Pinball Wizard,” says the singer. “A friend showed me where to put my fingers and I persevered. I also remember that in 1971, while our parents had taken to the South of France for caravanning, Martin and I spent hours with our acoustic guitars trying to play Won’t Get Fooled Again. I love The Who‘s singles, the vocal arrangements of I Can See For Miles, the synth on Who Are You, the simplicity of Join Together. What is amazing is that his acoustic guitar fits perfectly into Hey Manhattan!, even if some critics were convinced he actually played on The Golden Calf because of the big guitar chords. Anyway, working with him is a bit like coming full circle, “says Paddy, smiling.
KING OF ROCK’N’ROLL
It’s no surprise that Prefab Sprout’s leader is in form: From Langley Park to Memphis is still among the chart best sellers, and Cars & Girls will rock the house in our good old national charts. “It makes me really happy that our records sell well in France,” exclaims the singer. “French rock fans take their time before deciding and then when they adopt an artist, it’s for a long time. As Prefab Sprout is not really an instant product, “he points out, using the language of the marketing men, “the French market suits us perfectly. In Britain, a 45s is finished in two or three weeks,” he sighs, thinking no doubt about the relative failure of Cars & Girls in the UK.
But the British are about to repair this mistake by purchasing The King Of Rock’n’Roll, a composition in which Paddy enters “into the skin of a character who is a sort of Elvis Presley imitator. I also believe that the difference between this album and the previous ones, is that now, I try to disguise the details of my private life and to integrate them in little scenarios. However, I want to emphasize that my songs are simpler, clearer than before, without falling into banality. They retain their essence, the arrangements are luxurious but we avoid playing hide and seek with our fans. That’s why the album cover, created by Nick Knight, is simply a classic picture of the four group members. And we printed the words on the inside cover,” says the singer.
ZORRO AND CHRISTMAS
Unfortunately, fans who had not seen Prefab Sprout in concert three years ago, will have to settle for performances on TV and interviews given by the group. Paddy argues that touring depresses him.
“It’s sad,” he explains, “I prefer to talk about my songs or write new ones instead of rehashing them every night in a stage set. Perhaps I will change my mind in six months, but for now, I‘m refusing to play concerts.
“It annoys our drummer Neil Conti who last year lent his services to Level 42 in the US. He plays all the time, he backed David Bowie (for the set of Live Aid), Mick Jagger, Sandie Shaw, he’s not likely to be out of practice.” exclaims Prefab Sprout’s leader.
Instead of touring, Mister McAloon is about to leap, pen in hand, to complete a Christmas album that will be released probably next year. “We don’t want to saturate the market,” he laughs. “And in all seriousness, I’ve begun writing a kind of musical, Zorro The Fox. I hope I‘ll find a director for this project”, he adds, “I’m telling people about it now, that way it puts my back against the wall and it forces me to redouble my efforts to complete it.
In conclusion, I ask if the medium of rock music sometimes feels like a straitjacket. Paddy confesses that even if he’s written lots of songs, he’s become a little jaded. “However rock is still a vibrant form of music, full of energy. If a young artist keeps his faith he’ll manage to avoid falling into the clichés of his predecessors” proclaims Prefab Sprout’s leader without mentioning that he himself managed to do just that.
His intimate and mysterious records are the perfect antidote to the depression one too often feels when faced with the tribulations of the modern world. They possess an immortal and indestructible charm few artists manage to match. Spread the word…