Matter – Will McRobb, June 1986

Prefab Sprout’s bullitt through the heart

The only song in the world that’s crueler than “Cruel” is Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” and that’s only if you can catch Glen Campbell’s hugely orchestrated sob-mix version on an AM car radio somewhere outside of Ellenville on your way away forever from some Irish eyes and whiskey lips— the aching memory of last whispers and caresses still shuddering up and down your wretched spine.

Paddy McAloon knows this. He’s well aware that his 1984 song “Cruel” from the first Prefab Sprout album, Swoon, is the song that haunts. The band’s 1985 album, Two Wheels Good (originally titled Steve McQueen), was successful financially and critically (“Two Wheels Good will ultimately rank as the finest pop album of the decade on par with the Beatles’ Revolver, the Beach Boys Pet Sounds and perhaps even Gary Glitters Greatest Hits. . .” spake NME in a moment of restraint), and even got them FM airplay with the single, “When Love Breaks Down,” but McAloon realizes that “Cruel” is still seen as the band’s masterpiece. New songs like “Bonnie” and “Appetite” can break your heart, but nothing is crueler than “Cruel.”

The legacy of that song haunts him in a different way than it haunts me, though. It’s these words: Should a love be tender or cry out loud/or be tougher than tough and prouder than proud/if I ‘m troubled by every folding of your skirt/am I guilty of every male inflicted hurt/but I don’t know how to describe the Modern Rose/when I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes/with the fever of purple prose.

They knock me out.

For McAloon though, it’s not so simple. It’s a case of being pitted against your past.

“I’ve been whipped by ‘Cruel,’ he says.

“I wonder what ‘Wichita Lineman’ means to Jimmy Webb now,” McAloon muses. “Maybe he reflects on it and says, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good,’ but at the same time it might haunt him to death to think that he hasn’t written a song as good since then.”

McAloon, the headstrong head Sprout who says he sits down to try and “astonish” himself when he writes songs, doesn’t believe for a moment it all ends with “Cruel.” He’s just concerned about his place in pop history. He wants his band (Wendy Smith, Martin McAloon, Neil Conti) to be regarded as the kind of phenomenon that reveals to both the converted and unconverted that there’s something unusual about the world, making music that reflects people’s desires, dreams and queer whimsies. Music that will last a hundred years. He wants Prefab’s tangle of cool harmonies, gentle jazz, pop polish and wide-eyed sincerity to be at least as mythic as Steve McQueen.

“Everyone talks about DeNiro,” says McAloon, “but there’s a sort of method — an intellectual thing — a consciously achieved innocence to him, while Steve McQueen had the real thing in that he wasn’t a great reader and he wasn’t a great intellectual. It was an unconscious thing. He liked bikes and he liked girls and he liked chocolate cake and he liked beer. He had presence. You look at him and you don’t know what’s going on there, but the eyes would suggest there’s a lot happening. I like that.”

As odd a choice for a hero as McQueen may seem at first, it fits the new directness and simplicity the band is moving toward lyrically and musically. Compare the economy of phrasing on “When Love Breaks Down” to “Cruel” and you’ll see what I mean. These days, McAloon says he couldn’t bear to be “precious.”

Although the album cover picture of him on a motorcycle is partly a joke, a parody of their artsy excesses, it’s also symbolic of McAloon’s renegade spirit.

“Bands should have more arrogance,” he says. “Most bands let themselves be marketed like kids being led to slaughter. Being in a band shouldn’t be a career move like being a clerk or a bank officer, there should be a sense of adventure. There should be a thrill.”

Although I’m sure McQueen wouldn’t exactly call the Sprouts’ fragile laments and ironic essays music to brawl by, he’d probably agree that McAloon’s philosophy about music is worth fighting for. “We’re not usually associated with motorbikes,” says McAloon, “but it doesn’t matter. People think image is so important in selling a band. We don’t think like that. My biggest aim is to confuse all images. I don’t believe in images. I believe in songs.”

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