I’ve recently incorporated (or more accurately nicked) a couple of articles by John Morrish. Most recently one from ‘Making Music’ in 1987, and previously one from a 1985 edition of ‘One, Two, Testing’. John turns out to be a member of the Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout group on Facebook, and saw the ‘Making Music’ posting. After a little chat he revealed he had the typescript of the original 1985 interview, most of which hadn’t been used. He very kindly scanned it, and it’s presented here.
Paddy had actually contacted John directly to do the piece in the long defunct ‘One, Two, Testing’, explaining he liked his writing, which doesn’t happen very often. He has been writing about music on and off since 1979, as well as pursuing a career in sensible magazines, newspapers and books.
This is a wonderful, wide ranging piece, covering everything from the early days of Prefab Sprout and how the arrival of his baby brother Michael provided rehearsal facilities, up to and including news about the forthcoming Prefab Sprout World Tour of Australia…
I’m permanently ruined with musicians now. When we started at home in the little village knowing absolutely… I mean I could play the guitar, I knew a few chords, there was myself, my brother and a friend who was like a brother to us. He got a drum kit and we started from zero and played every night for three years. I mean it, every night, and we loved it, you know, screaming hoarse.
My dad had a petrol station in the village, and one side of it was going to be a little cafe, my brother was born just as my mother was going to run it, serving teas, so then it became just a store-room. It was just about the size of this room, but for a band, you know how essential it is. We set up in there and played played played and we thought this is great.
We were really snobby about playing in pubs, we thought we aren’t going to play in any pubs where people would really require drinking music. We’re not going to have them shouting ‘Whisky in the Jar’ when we’re just doing our things.
And we’d just got cracking and we’d just made a cheapo record and we just thought, we’ve got it all coming, and things started to go astray. You know, you’re 20, 21, 22, you’ve been together since you were 5 or 6 and you’re starting to grow apart, you know, different girlfriends, you don’t see each other socially as much, and then the equipment fails and it becomes a torture then to rehearse because the sound’s so bad. For that sort of thing it’s got to sound worthwhile, you’re in a room and you’ve got to be getting some feedback, and it went downhill.
And I thought, the day that Michael our drummer friend left, that’s it, I will never have any personal involvement with a musician, I’ll hire a drummer, I’ll make a record, I’ll make sure he’s good. And I tried doing that, but it actually doesn’t work like that. You play two or three more times and human nature comes into it, you’ve faith in people… I understand why guys get the four-tracks or whatever, and want be a one-man Human League or whatever. But they’ll never grow. The other side of the Casio boom is if you think the machine is doing it for you, you’ll never really… If you’ve got a button that will get you a diminished seventh if you play one finger, then maybe you are not going to learn yourself how it’s made up.
The thing that gets me is you are supposed to have gathered a lot of experience at quite a young age and I don’t think there are many people who have really got a lot to say anyway until they are about 40 and have got a bit of… you know.
Most people use multi-track to do what they could do just as well with a group, playing together:
I would agree with that, only the there’s the heartache of finding them. You set up a rehearsal and you find them… Some of these guys they’ve got all the moves and they’ve none of the ideals. And then you’ve got the guy who can talk all about it and be passionate and sincere and then they can’t play. I despair.
I’m the kind of bloke who doesn’t like playing live or anything like that simply because of the hassle of one more attempt for the 8,000th time of getting this song to reach people’s ears with a simultaneous performance over a naff PA when you’ve had no meals for six days and the only meals you’ve had have been hamburgers.
It’s that feeling of bugger this, I’ll get me own little Teac or Tascam 4-track and I’ll try and do the LSO by myself. You’re right, and even Trevor Horn would grant you that, it would be a lot better if people played these things together for that kind of approach to multitrack.
So there is no reason, but I think people sit at home and think oh great maybe I can have a shot at what Brian Wilson did or George Martin did.
I got a letter from him when I was 17 years old, well not a letter, that’s a lie, I got a score from Inori where it’s got lots of hand gestures on it. I wrote – this is really terrible – when I was at school, I was writing songs and I wrote this stupid letter to him. It said, Dear Mr Stockhausen, do you write your material at the piano? And anybody with any acquaintance with Stockhausen would know that Jesus, you don’t write something like Gesang der Jünglinge or whatever on a piano.
I waited a couple of months. I found his address in Who’s Who in Wigan library and I sent it to Cologne and I got this thing shortly after Christmas. It was like a photocopy of the first page of the score or the plan of the score. And he’d signed it, I think it was himself because I’ve seen his writing on other things since, cordially for Patrick McAloor. He couldn’t read me name. He’d signed it on Christmas Eve and I thought how nice to actually get a reply.
Then I actually heard some more of his records. I’d been intrigued by the fact that I’d seen it in the Sunday Times this picture of one of his scores, it had a disc that spun round. I thought, my God, this is tremendous stuff. He’s either having everybody on or he’s a complete … When you are that age you think brilliant. I didn’t know what it sounded like but I thought brilliant. And then when I heard some of the pieces I thought it was great.
The first album:
I think the songs, instead of having any particular idea about the sound of the band, it was broken down into the songs, what does the song require. There’s no point in having a house style for us if each song is different. Any failings on that record, I take the blame for because the writing’s a bit… ornate, or verbose perhaps we could say.
Too many words?
That’s true. Right, several points to clear up. They were written over a period of years and I like all the songs there, but I think I didn’t do myself any justice in some of the arrangements which I cobbled together. Dave Brewis, he’s the instrumentalist in the Kane Gang, he was the main producer on that, and he’s immensely sympathetic and has been for years to what I’m trying to do, so I could rely on time to explain what I wanted. With Thomas [Dolby] I had to verbalise everything, but with Dave it was a history thing, you sort of grew together. We knew what we wanted and worked it out. However, we were both very inexperienced, that was one of the big things. The other thing is, the way I sang some of those songs, I wasn’t feeling very well at the time. I don’t like my voice anyway, but on that especially… I once found myself described as having a forced freshness, somebody said. I don’t think it’s a forced freshness but I was desperately trying to keep in tune. People go on about our awkward melodies but I disagree with that, we just have melodies. They might not be simple, but this awkward business makes it seem like I want to include every note in the 12. This is not true.
Not 12 tone rock and roll?
No, the new Schoenberg that’s me!
I didn’t do myself any favours in the singing of that and also the voice production was unsympathetic on a few. There’s a track called ‘Here on the Eerie’ which suffers from too many words and we could have made it much nicer on that particular song if we’d had a certain kind of echo that was a bit more lazy whereas it’s very dry. Similarly ‘Don’t Sing’ has the ludicrous line ‘That’s a feast that the whiskey priest may yet have to forgo’ – too many words.
I’m defensive because I’m conscious of the mistakes but at the same time I’m proud of it because it was an unusual record. Too many people make usual records and go for that formula business. Most of the faults lie in the writing there. If I’d been a bit more spacious then we could have got away with it, with a kind of elegant, simpler production style. But also we’d no time, no time for remixes, no time for second thoughts, we did a song a day, it was just done like that, you know. It took four weeks, including mixing. We did all the backing tracks in an afternoon very quickly. The guy had a day job, the drummer we used. He had to get back to his day job, he sells clothes and that’s what he still does, that’s what he’s really interested in. I think our music was emotionally alien to him, he likes Gary Glitter and The Sweet, and he couldn’t understand: ‘There’s too many lyrics for me, too many chords’.
I’m happier with it [his singing] now, Tom choreographed that, he made me sing he said, yeah, do it like this. I’m pleased, there are very few things on it that are… on ‘Blueberry Pies’ I don’t like my singing on that. I’ve worked with two producers since doing ‘Swoon’, one was Phil Thornally and the other was Thomas. When we first did ‘Love Breaks Down’, the single, I had this fetish for James Ingram. I like his voice very much, but unfortunately I’m not even in the same league, the same time-warp as him. And I tried this kind of not throaty, more chesty, kind of a sound, you know like Mike McDonald’s singing. I love that, and I tried it. At the time I thought I was really pulling it off. I like that it’s an emotive sound. At the other extreme you’ve got the shout, or you get all whispery.
Phil liked the darker voice, whereas Thomas preferred me to use a much lighter thing. I think overall, although I would like to be able to pull off the first, that dark sound, I’m probably better equipped from the tone of voice to do the lighter more breathy thing. So I think Thomas got that and overall it’s maybe more comfortable, listening to it I don’t cringe, whereas ‘Swoon’ if I was to put that record on, my head would be under the seat with embarrassment.
The LP was recorded at Marcus Studios. Then you went to Good Earth…
We did a little bit of recording at Good Earth. I can’t remember why really, maybe our time had run out at Marcus, it’s just one of those things. We had to find another studio in a hurry. We mixed it at Farmyard in Amersham which is Rupert Hine’s studio – he does Howard Jones and somebody else – awful stuff, rubbish, rubbish.
We mixed with Mike Shipley who worked with Thomas before and who had done for his sins the Cars’ last LP. I think he co-produced some of this work with Joni Mitchell with Thomas [Dolby had just finished work on Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog album].
I play the guitar on most of the things, except on ‘Steve McQueen’ a guy from Thomas’s band called Kevin Armstrong plays on two tracks. I usually play it because I’ve written it. I’m not particularly happy about my guitar playing because I’m not as fluent as I should be. I’m a very very slow learner. If I can sit at home and work out an elaborate part, I can learn to play it no bother. But in the studios, Thomas would suggest something to me and it would take me an awful lot of time to digest it. But my brother, who’s used to having instructions through the years, will remember something quickly. I’m used to giving the orders at home.
I’m used to saying this is the song, this is how it goes, but to have somebody else say to me ‘Yes it’s your song but I think you ought to do this to make it better’ I find it very difficult so I was a bit of a slow student in the studio. And I got a bit depressed by it. On everything we’ve done…
On the first LP, on ‘Swoon’, I wrote everything at home. I couldn’t play the piano but I wrote piano parts. I memorized them and did them ham-fistedly with the aid of many drop-ins, which will make you cringe, and put it down but I would rather have a fluent keyboard player, to do that.
But it’s the old thing, if you’ve written something, you might as well do it yourself. Similarly on this LP, Thomas is a fine keyboard player, but because I’ve written a lot of the things I would certainly play the simpler chord pieces, the bones of it, the carpet, and he would do the virtuoso things, the embellishments.
If I’ve written them it’s easier for me to do them because I’ve my own notation. I’ll write down left hand: E in octaves, then right hand I’ll put all the letters under each other, little block graphs EG BD whatever. They say why don’t you put it on the stave, and they can read that really quickly, whereas me I can’t cope with a dot or a semitone apart. I just can’t read it, my eyes are bad.
The good thing about The Sprouts, as we in the North call them, is that when it comes to the mix or when it comes to recordings, there’s none of this ‘Well I played this therefore it should be louder’, or ‘I wrote this therefore I should by rights play it.’ In fact we’re so self-conscious about not being very good musicians that it’s ‘I wish someone else would come in and do this.’
How do you feel about people doing everything on the Fairlight [an early sampling computer]?
To us the idea of the Fairlight replacing us we’d all go phew, great, it would save an awful lot of sweat. No, it was quite easy going for the last album, we were all swapping roles and that. I sing, I play the guitar and I play some piano. Thomas did the main bulk of the keyboards. He even did a brilliant banjo impersonation on the opening track. He did that on Fairlight. I can play banjo but my banjo is like a £40 model… I’ve used it on other records. He’s very good. Unlike a lot of people, if he’s going to imitate it with the Fairlight, he will make it play like a banjo player would play it. The style of the picking. It’s not like, ‘I’ll try and get a banjo tone and play it like a piano’.
I write very chordal things and he’ll look at my hands spread across the piano and he’ll say ‘we can do without that, you’re duplicating that’ and he can do that with guitar parts. I would play an open chord quite high up by the 12th fret, and he would say only play the bottom three strings, I will play the top three on another instrument. It’s just a revelation to me, splitting the six strings over two or three instruments. And that was so effective. He’s had a lot of experience at that. Very tactful as well.
“The reality of it is that even more than he’s a very good keyboard player, he’s an all round… I tell you what he’s very good at, he’s brilliant with rhythms. He’s brilliant at explaining to Neil, who’s very quick on the uptake, about rhythm, so that the backing tracks are done very quickly. I’m like, until I had a Dr Rhythm I couldn’t see how the beat was broken up. I didn’t know where the bar began or where the second or third beat fell. Because Thomas was going on the downbeat, on the third…
He’s also marvellous of thinking of a rhythm track to complement the melody and interlock with the bass line. On one of the songs, ‘Appetite’, the bass and drums are underneath it locked together in a beautiful pattern and that’s mainly Thomas’s work. You’ve got a counterpoint on all the instruments, whether it’s drums or string line. He’s an all-rounder. I think he’s about 26-7. I tend to think of him as a junior Quincy Jones. I can picture him at 60 with a wealth of experience, and not snobby… He gets a lot of good offers from people but if he hears a band that he likes who have no money, I suspect Thomas would go and do that. We had CBS, but I know he really did it because he liked it, liked the idea of it.
I can imagine, if this record is a big hit, then the pressure would be, let’s get Thomas again, let’s go and work with Thomas straight away. I would love to work with Thomas Dolby any day of the year, but wouldn’t it be much more refreshing to go away, give it two or three years, do something else and then maybe, if he wanted to as well, come back and try it again. Imagine what sort of records we might make then, with a lot of experience of different fields that he’ll have had and we’ll have had.
You are not a Luddite, are you?
With synthesizers and all the machinery, you just need somebody who’s good enough to take it all on, the Brian Wilson of the synthesizer, you know. Dolby. He’s a great Beach Boys fan as well you know.
They called him Mr Science.
I think he kind of went along with that because in America it was, for God’s sake, what else are you going to do to do your Canute against the tide of Pat Benetarism. You can do something to get you on the radio. I understand that (laughs).
As an off the record thing he’s just done the new Joni Mitchell album.
Did you use the Fairlight for vocals?
We only used that on one track, but in conjunction with real voices. For ‘Appetite’ we used the keyboard thing (sings F Eb Db Eb) it’s Thomas and Wendy together.
I don’t know when we are going to have one. If ‘Faron Young’ is a hit (released 24th June) that’s going to be followed by ‘Appetite’. Why did we delay it? One was we had trouble with the cut. (remix of when ‘Love Breaks Down’).
I don’t know how it goes for anybody else, but first and foremost, Winwood, Muff Winwood’s a big fan of ours which helps of course. I came here thinking you’ve got to get hit singles to get by. It’s drummed into your head, if you don’t have a single you’re sunk. And I’ve never once had it said to me. I’ve never felt any pressure like that other than self-inflicted for my own comfort. It’s the difference between what you think is a great LP selling just a few copies and selling loads. I mean, if you make a good album, I can’t see the point of keeping it secret. You’ve got do that putting out a single… But they’ve been really decent with me.
We had a song called ‘Lions in My Own Garden’ which was a real done-in-a-day job, real low budget, which a lot of people liked because they said it had some peculiar charm, though personally I think it’s a really awful record. The vocals there are like a run through, the same with the follow-up…
Then afterwards we did an intermediary single, ‘When Love Breaks Down’, which here they’re bitterly disappointed at because they thought it was going to be a real big record. It’s got the distinction of being the only record in the history of popular music to get to number 88 twice in a six months period. We finished it in August last year and threw it out. I’ll tell you why, if I can dare say this on tape, the reason it wasn’t issued was because there was a CBS conference and that ruined the recording schedule. They organised a conference, a beanfeast, and the record couldn’t be put out then. I think that’s the reason why it wasn’t put out until nearly Christmas. It’s a ballad, we’re unknown to the Radio One daytime listener, we’re a pretty unknown quantity. It was re-released afterwards. The theory was it was a great record. In this office they said ‘You’ve done your bit, the rest is up to us’. But it didn’t do it, it got played a few times and that was it. The Americans, Epic, they said we don’t give a damn what it did here, we know it’s a hit record and we’re going to make it a hit record. It’s never been out in America. If it’s done well over there then you’re always ready for a re-release, but it’s a little bit wearing. It can be adverse publicly. ‘Is this the only tune they’ve got?’
With the album it’s going to be ‘Faron Young’ and then ‘Appetite’ which is probably the better of the songs. Everybody here wants to release ‘Appetite’, but I was a bit worried… I thought it was in the good but subtle market and I thought we haven’t really succeeded with subtlety so let’s go in with a more rockabilly rhythm, like ‘Faron Young’. People on the radio at least they might be attracted by the pretty sounds of the clavinet sounds at the end of that, the drama of the record rather than listening to a good song.
When we crack it I know we’ll do it all the way, and they are understanding about that. Their idea is look …
What about the Prefab Sprout name: maybe people are embarrassed to go into a shop and ask for it?
Well, that is quite a reasonable theory but if you say to somebody in the street there’s a band Prefab Sprout would you like to listen to them, the chances are you are going to say it’s either a very avant-garde outfit or a punk band, from extremist left-wing. Then until people are comfortable with the idea that Prefab Sprout present quite melodic material it’s just battering down any ideas… but we haven’t helped ourselves with the name I know.
I’m a bit puzzled that so much has been made of the name because I think a lot of bands have ridiculous names. I think Frankie Goes To Hollywood is quite strange as a name.
You said somewhere that craftsmanship is a millstone.
There are several things that are millstones. I wish I’d never referred to it.
I’m sure it would help if somebody could read or write music. I’m trying to learn but… Wendy can do it, she can read pretty quickly, Martin my brother, he gets a piece and he’ll spend six months on it, what’s his latest, Stardust, the Hoagie Carmichael tune, he gets it like his party piece. Also Alfie by Bacharach and Debussy’s Clair de Lune… on the piano.
That’s the whole thing, it’s entertaining. It’s like the whole muso thing that because you are interested in it… If some people who criticise it, if they picked up a guitar or looked at a piano and watched those shapes moving… If I write something and my brother Martin he plays the guitar… But maybe there is some danger in the way some guys get over-intellectual about it, but there’s a pure pleasure in the way those shapes move in a way that you perhaps think they couldn’t do to produce something pretty or … You can’t really do that but no, I look that…
Hence the guitarist who makes his guitar sing. That’s what you want.
I can’t understand it, you [in the magazine One Two Testing] do a lot of reviews on all these sequencers and what have you, and what is really needed is some sort of editorial comment on the uses to which these things are being put. It sounds a bit schoolmasterly but if you have got somebody who’s 15 years old in a band and he’s wondering what kind of effects to get it might be worth pointing out that effects in themselves … If you go into a studio… the day it comes that they actually go into a studio they’ll find plenty of people to advise them, not try and sell them this that and the other. You’d be much better off actually learning how to write a song, or working out how to criticise some of the records that you like yourself.
‘Mystery Train’ [the famous Greil Marcus book], the appreciation of Randy Newman, to me rests mainly on his wry lyricism rather than his music. Hence that’s why there’s the rise of the Paul Morley school of praise because the lyrics refer specifically to society and it’s like being at polytechnic. It’s like doing sociology. Simon Frith, there’s another one, I hate him. I know he does some interesting things, but there’s something about him, it’s those pithy reviews in the Sunday Times where they reduce them to two or three sentences. It’s kind of, he’s sitting back and there’s just something in the tone of it.
I had a doctor’s appointment this morning for insurance purposes. They sent me to a Harley Street chap and he said what do you do and all that, and just as I was going he said ‘Do you ever need any lyrics?’. I couldn’t believe it, but he was very nice and he loved music, he thought it was a great activity doing music. And I said, ‘Do you do them? Have you published or written songs? And he said ‘No, but I hope to’. And he was just so funny, he recommended that I read the book of phrases and fables. He said it’s much better than a rhyming dictionary, so maybe he has written some lyrics but he’s never given them to anybody.
You whack them on a song if you consider your song [would benefit] and the first impression somebody might get of what might be a great tune would be… Bob Dylan on the television last night, he’s gone to Tokyo and he’s got some girl coming into his hotel bedroom and she’s mouthing the lines to his song and oh God…
What are Prefab Sprout doing next?
We’re going do a probably a world tour in actual fact… sigh… I much prefer writing and obviously I much prefer to make records. But I’m quite into it because we’ve met a young lad, a keyboard player called Michael Graves. He’s a young black guy, he’s 21, he’s remarkably quick at picking things up and he likes the stuff. He plays with Real Thing at the moment; he’s doing some work with them. We’ll be playing everywhere, not so many British dates at first. We’ve had a hit record in Australia, that’s ‘When Love Breaks Down’, so we’re going out there. You don’t have to sell many records in Australia to have some sort of hit, but God, we’re grateful for anything. We’ll get out there and drink a few tinnies.
On other writers…
[Paddy had seen some film of Brian Wilson]
They had Brian in the studio and he was quite strange, you know? This guy was saying to him ‘Of course, you’ve had a lot of problems’ and he was going ‘Heck, I put on a lot of weight, I’m not going to tell you how much’ and then he goes ‘Heck, I’ll tell you how much I lost’ and it was frightening, he suddenly goes into details. But he really looked trim and healthy, he looked good you know, but it’s such a shame that he’s always surrounded by his bloody brothers.
It’s nothing to do with his crappy mystique and his illnesses and what have you, if people just look at the records…
The people who are around him, the Mike Love figures, they would probably be happier being in a band like Chicago.
[Brian famously tuned his own piano to get the sound he wanted]
I’ve tried tuning a piano. A few years ago I got a couple of really old ones cheaply. I was on the dole and I couldn’t afford a piano. I thought this is easy enough, you know… And you’ve got three strings for each hammer. I thought I had D, I thought I had F, I was making chords actually. I thought this will sound sympathetic. I got to a sharp, you know, I hit the black note and it wouldn’t fall and I was completely at sea. So it’s harder than you think. I know he’s got the ear of a genius so… it’s maybe a bit easier for him.
Bernstein, Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin, Sondheim, Stravinsky, Ravel, Mozart…
Only recently through the glorious benefits of CBS have I got myself some freebies and I’m only now learning about him. I heard West Side Story and especially Maria, the chords on that are absolutely gorgeous but I’ve heard Candide and I’m not so happy with that. So I’m checking out the various things. I mentioned one or two names at the beginning of my illustrious career and I hoped to divert people from the … people who think that history begins with … Who do people expect me to like, some ridiculous band like the Byrds or Steely Dan, who I like, but it’s a complete and utter myth… I’ve got a lot of Steely Dan albums but I’ve got all of Led Zeppelin’s albums… I thought I’d throw what I hoped would be a few spanners in the works by mentioning Steven Sondheim, hoping that other songwriters would check out someone in a different field of writing who wasn’t going to be hampered by bloody rhyming couplets of “maybe/baby”, you know the whole boring disco plodding schtick. So I mentioned these and now I’m labelled as the Tin Pan Alley man or the intellectual of musicals or something. Bernstein, yeah, but there again with a man like him I would rather go to Stravinsky and Ravel and listen to some of their records.
But it looks pretentious. I mean Wendy did a teeny mag, with a Record Mirror interview and she played it really calm and cool and said, Well, I play my piano, and she’s very quiet about her own tastes in music. She isn’t really a pop fan at all and didn’t like to say she’s rather fond of Mozart because she knew that if she said that she might look precious or pretentious … But the fact is if you are serious about it and if you like say a Trevor Horn record, you’re a kid and it’s the first thing that really got you going, and then you go a bit further back and you listen to something like the Beatles, and then you move back, where do you stop, that’s the whole point. And to me there’s nothing as entertaining as finding a page in the history that you knew nothing about. And I found that about Stravinsky and Ravel. I felt here’s a whole area, like, I know most of the Beatles LPs, there’s not much more for me to discover there. When you get a classical repertoire, it’s just unbelievable.
All these great people, the music was of worth, and had sociological relevance without them having to say ‘Look I’m a working class hero’ about it. Anybody who has to strive for that is out of the window as far as I can see.
For my birthday Wendy got me the complete Stravinsky collection through CBS, pulling all the strings and that. It’s got 52 albums — if there’s ever anything by Stravinsky you want to hear I’ll be quite happy to tape it all.
Phil Thornally says he does a Sting impression which is incredible.
There’s nothing else joining the repertoire from the last 20 years.
Dave Brewis of the Kane Gang got me a copy of ‘Try Some Buy Some’
‘The Day Before You Came’ was the most adventurous use of English language in the charts at the time. They always had a different sound world for each song.
(C) Copyright 1985-2016 John Morrish, All Rights Reserved