Prefab Sprout The imminent success of a genius English pop band, or what the hell does time mean anyway. By Kurt B. Reighley
Paddy McAloon is the first to admit that he and his mates in the British quartet Prefab Sprout haven’t pushed hard enough to conquer America. “In the past we haven’t played here,” points out the effusive blonde, in between sniffles. “We haven’t helped ourselves get past the ‘where did you get the name Prefab Sprout’ question. After ten years, I’m still at that same point, and I’m trying to do something about it.” If devoting a couple of hours to discussing his career in pop marks a small step in the right direction, then releasing The Best of Prefab Sprout: A Life of Surprises (Epic) is the corresponding giant leap.
Considering the ethereal. literate songs that McAloon releases today, it proves difficult to accept the notion that Prefab Sprout began as a three part garage band. The operative word here is “garage,” for while McAloon and his brother [bassist Martin McAloon] rehearsed at night, during the daytime McAloon was pumping petrol at a filling station. Though he’d attended university at his father‘s insistence and majored in English (of course). McAloon quickly returned to life as a gas jockey because he found it allowed him ample creative time.
As Paddy’s craft, a unique songwriting style influenced both by the singer-songwriters of the ’60s and the legends of Tin Pan Alley continued to improve the rest of the band pressured him beyond the confines of the rehearsal space and begin playing live “I had to be dragged screaming,” he confesses. “I had no interest in that I was always nervous about it and had no confidence about my singing. All I wanted to do was write.”
It was at one such gig that the final element of the Prefab lineup fell into place, in the form of vocalist Wendy Smith. Wendy came along on a date with an early Sprouts fanatic, only to leave unimpressed (“after five years of rehearsing, we were ready to bore the world with endless, endless songs.” snickers McAloon). Regardless, when McAloon approached Wendy, through her beau, in his quest to fill out the sonic palette on demos, she accepted. “I was looking for something to flesh it out,” explains McAloon, “like a keyboard texture. But we didn‘t know any people who played keyboards. And in those days… God, it sounds like ancient history! Well, sampling hadn’t been invented. We didn’t know that, as it turns out, Wendy has a classic sound. When you buy a keyboard, there’s usually a sound very like Wendy‘s voice somewhere on there.
The addition of Wendy’s vocals came as a revelation for McAloon. “That’s what I’d wanted to hear. I changed the style of the way I wrote. Not consciously, but imperceptibly. I would write thinking, “oh. I can do more delicate things now.” After a pair of independently released singles. the new sound of Prefab Spout was unleashed on the British music public in the spring of 1984 with the album Swoon [represented on the new collection by the sole cut “Cruel”]. Though the song structures sounded a bit too calculated to feel organic, and Paddy’s complex lyrics sometimes crossed the invisible line [case in point: “Cue Fanfare,” about chess champ Bobby Fischer], the band’s charming original sound launched their single “Don’t Sing” to the top of the charts. And , thus, yet another crucial stylistic element of the Prefab sound, came to be, as they caught the ear of producer/synth-wunderkind Thomas Dolby.
”I heard him on a radio program reviewing a single from Swoon, “Don‘t Sing,” in the early weeks of ‘84,” recalls McAloon. “It was Mari Wilson and some deejay, and they were all like ‘oh, what a silly record,‘ and, ‘I like sprouts,‘ so I was a little disappointed. Then he came along, with a super straight face, and said, “Well I think they’re a massive explosion of talent.” I know the words cuz I taped the program.”
Dolby’s interest in Michael, Jackson intrigued Jax-watcher McAloon, and his extensive knowledge of keyboards, an area that remained foreign to the head Sprout, didn’t hurt his appeal either. The first fruit of their labor together, Steve McQueen [released in the US as Two Wheels Good at the behest of the late actor’s estate], proved a bona fide smash. It yielded several hit singles, including Prefab‘s first brush with near-success in the States, “When Love Breaks Down” [a former #1 in the UK.]
Good luck being a finite commodity, the next few years proved less rewarding for the band. The follow-up to Steve McQueen, Protest Songs, wound up being shelved indefinitely in the phenomenal wake of its predecessor. After extensive bootlegging, the album finally saw the light of day in the summer of 1989 [though still unreleased in America, Protest Songs is represented on The Best Of by the title cut, “Life of Surprises”]. By then the band had moved on to From Langley Park to Memphis, a mish-mash of styles and producers which, despite an impressive roster of guests including Stevie Wonder and Pete Townshend, found Paddy’s songwriting finesse done a great disservice by ill-fitting arrangements.
The Sprouts returned to form in late 1990 with Jordan: The Comeback, a four-part, hour-long epic produced by Dolby that seamlessly blended elements of jazz, doo wop, and ABBA while wrestling with topics of such magnitude as God and Elvis. Three years in the making, it proved to be the record that fans and critics had been waiting for from the band. And though McAloon takes a great deal of pride in the success enjoyed by that album, its complexity played a significant role in the writing of ‘Prefab‘s two new tracks, “The Sound of Crying” and “If You Don‘t Love Me.”
“’If You Don’t Love Me’ was among a batch I wrote in frustration in autumn of last year where I thought there should be nothing in the way of understanding the lyric. No interview needs to be done to explain concepts of Elvis Presley and the desert and all that stuff. Just give it to ’em easy. If you strip away the disco-pop elements of ‘If You Don’t Love Me,‘ there’s an intimate ballad at the heart of it. When I wrote it, it was extremely personal, cuz there are only words like ‘you’ and ‘I’ – direct, but not too specific. If I’m supposed to be good, surely I can write something that doesn’t need explanation.”
Wait a minute…“disco-pop elements?” It seems that when ”If You Don’t Love Me” fell into the hands of a savvy Epic exec, the company recognized the serious crossover potential the bubbly track possessed. With McAloon’s permission, the song was turned over to British remix artists Future Sound of London, and before long the remixed version had leapt to the crown of the US dance charts. “I loved the sort of strange thing they did.” says McAIoon of the FSOL version. ”They made a tiny little melody around my voice—not a tune that we had written, but one of their own. That’s ironic. We’ve got a dance hit, and it’s got a kind of a melody, but it’s not one of mine.”
If that isn’t enough irony for you, McAloon had dance music specifically in mind when he began to write “The Sound of Crying,” shortly after George Bush’s Gulf War. “It was more a feeling that, no matter how well-regulated world affairs are, disasters are always gonna happen. Now, normally I stay away from those kind of big statements, cuz I feel uncomfortable making them, but in this case it just fell out…”
From where? “I’d been writing songs kind of about Michael Jackson. The verses were gonna list all these things that had gone wrong for him, and I was going to invent some and, in the same way Jordan was about Elvis, write a song about Michael Jackson. But the release from it all was going to be the chorus, “Only the boogie music/Will never, ever let you down.‘ Then at the last minute my nerve failed. No matter how much I loaded up the verses with disturbing images, I just wasn’t sure about the chorus.”
The resulting tune, with Gulf War lyrics and an Off the Wall pop beat, is quintessential Paddy McAloon at his honey-and-vinegar finest, and a classic example of how his skill is lost on many listeners. ”If I go to Belgium or France, some people say, “yeah, yeah, your records are really pretty,’ and they haven’t gotten the lyrical aspect to add that little bit of acid. I’m very happy if anybody likes it on any sort of level – I’m not insisting that everybody pours over the lyric sheet, but if you don’t get that, you’re kind of losing a lot.”
Considering his attention to detail, it’s no surprise that from garage bandleader to dance sensation, McAloon has always looked to master songwriters of an earlier era for inspiration. And despite a penchant for Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, he reserves his highest praise for the work of men such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Richard Rodgers. “I think to deliver your heartaches with panache is really quite moving,” he says in reference to the lyrics of Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” “To be really honest, I think the people like me who aspire to that know that we‘re talking about not the top ten percent of songwriters in the world, but the top two or three percent. That league is always out of reach to everyone else. But once you set your sights on it, and see it as a kind of beacon, you can’t be satisfied with either your own output, or this week’s Pearl Jam record.”