Music often ages badly as time goes by, but Prefab Sprout’s music still retains its vigour. It is absolutely tenacious. Their Greatest Hits album which has now been released with 2 brand new songs included, is a testament to this legend. They might be seen as slow workers, as they have only released 5 original albums despite having a recording career stretching over nearly 10 years; however, listening to this Greatest Hits album you will undoubtedly understand why. You will find, that their songs have been hand polished to a perfect finish, and that this quest for perfection has been extended to even the most finest of details; it is no wonder that they take their time. Their leader, Paddy McAloon, is said to have been influenced by the Fatima Mansions – who come from the same town – in these recent years, but currently he appears to be immersed in composing songs for a new record scheduled for release early next year
– First of all, why did you decide to publish a “best of” album at this time?
“Well, firstly it’s been ten years since we released our first single, and having had five albums, there were enough songs. There was also a suggestion from Sony Records who said: ‘The problem with Prefab Sprout is that you disappear for three years after releasing each record. While you’re working on your next album, why not release a “best of” in the meantime?’ So, it was a good opportunity for people who didn’t know about us to get to know us. Some bands do “best of” compilations to quickly fulfil their contract with the record company, but this isn’t that sort of album. It’s just that the timing is right.
– Is that right? I was thinking it might have been put out on to counteract the current vogue for noisy music, because people no longer seem able to enjoy music that has subtlety and depth.
“Yeah yeah, that’s right. We’ve been trying not to do what is fashionable so far, and we’ve faithfully done what we wanted to do. I think I’ve been very lucky that was possible in a world where competition for survival is so intense.
– What criteria did you use to decide on the selection of music and the order of the songs?
“It was forced on me, because I didn’t want to do an album that just gathered the singles together. For us some of our best songs didn’t even become singles in the way that ‘When Love Breaks Down’, ‘Cars and Girls’, and ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ did. I tried mixing things up, but it wasn’t decided by myself alone, we discussed between the band and the record company and also took the opinions of the fans into account.”
– When you create a work like this, you can see how you wrote songs that can withstand the passage of time? Did you find something new for yourself?
“All I can see are the faults, there are loads of things that could be better and I want to re-record them, but everyone reassures me and tells me ‘you can’t rewrite the past’. I like most of the songs, but I want to add things here and there, it’s painful. (laughs)”
– Well then, let’s talk a little about the old days. It seems you were born in an industrial city – Newcastle – and attended a Catholic seminary. But what kind of family environment did you grow up in, and how did you awaken to music?
“I still live in Newcastle, and my parents are Catholic, but not Irish. McAloon is an Irish family surname, and my relatives also have Irish surnames. Probably there are some Irish things in my background. As for music, I saw my parents playing the guitar and I thought I wanted to do it too, so at the age of 11 I started by learning guitar and then I learned keyboards for a while. My father has passed away now, but he could play the piano, and so did my mother. They couldn’t read music of course, but played by ear. So that why I naturally came to love music. The neighbourhood had something of an Irish ethnicity around it.”
What kind of music were you singing or playing?
“I think you get influenced by any music, including things you don’t like. It’s too much to just say you were influenced by the Beatles, Beach Boys, David Bowie… There are things you don’t like yourself that come onto the radio, and that provides a space where you can learn to be critical I think. So I often said to myself while I was listening to other peoples’ songs ‘I won’t do that in that that way… The choice of words isn’t right, this part of the melody isn’t good.’ So I would include songs I didn’t like, they helped shape my musicality. Anyway, when I started playing musical instruments, the pop songs I heard touched me in all sorts of ways. From Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ to T-Rex, whatever rock or folk came into the top 40 charts in the UK, I played everything without discrimination.
“There are things I like in current music, but as you said, recent sounds are really noisy with lots of rocking guitars for example in Gangsta music. That kind of music may be very different from Prefab Sprout but it also affects me. For example I started to think: ‘let’s try and tighten the sound up a little more.’ So I try to listen to everything from the Beach Boys, Beatles Jimmy Webb to Prince and Michael Jackson.”
– I understand you were already drafting the concept of Prefab Sprout in 1974?
“No, 1971 is the correct date… I was thinking then that I would have a group some day. I was influenced by the fashions at that time and thinking it would be better to have a group name that was different. So I had already chosen this “Prefab” name in 1971. There’s no particular meaning to the strange name, at that time there were loads of strange bands around so it was no problem for my younger self to think up such a name. I was doing “pop group” things and making songs on a mono cassette recorder with an acoustic guitar.”
– That means you were playing original songs. Why didn’t you end up copying? Why did you stick to originals?
“Because everyone I liked was writing original songs. I thought the Beatles’ songs were good, and when I looked at the record credits I saw ‘Lennon/McCartney’. I mean I was impressed to find that to play cool music I had to write songs and lyrics on my own and I had to sing (laughs). The songs were such terrible things that I couldn’t bear to listen to them, but everyone starts from zero, so we shouldn’t judge peoples’ first attempts. But at the time I’m pretty sure I had confidence. Well actually even if they weren’t very good songs after all, as I tried harder I was gradually understanding how to write songs at a reasonable speed.”
– In 1979 you took on a friend as a drummer and first took to the stage in the local area. What was the performance like at that time?
“Many of the songs I did at the time are on ‘Steve McQueen’: ‘Faron Young’, ‘Goodbye Lucille #1’, ‘Bonny’, ‘Lions in My Own Garden’, all of them came from that time. There was no Wendy Smith and the sound was quite rough, three members, myself, my brother and drummer Michael Salmon. I think it sounded like a mixture of the Clash and Steely Dan.
“I remember having bought a really cheap electric guitar because the acoustic guitar didn’t mesh at all with the drums. I didn’t record the songs from that time on the début album because I’d played them live so much. I decided to write new songs. However for the second album which I made with Thomas Dolby he asked me what kinds of songs I had. I told him I didn’t really like some of the new songs but I had some old ones. When I told him that, he wanted to listen to the older songs, and I decided to mix the old and new songs. Even though we had formed the band in the 1970s I had no idea how to make records and how to manage the band’s activities.”
– In 1982 you finally made your debut on the independent “Candle” label with the single “Lions In My Own Garden”. It’s a memorable song, why didn’t you include it on the album now?
“I wanted to include it but there were some many candidate songs that I couldn’t fit all of them on. People at the record company meeting also said that fans wouldn’t know ‘Lions’ very well. At that time 14 of the songs had already been decided on, and I’d also have liked to have included something else like ‘Bonny’, ‘Jesse James Bolero’, or ‘One of the Broken’. Especially ‘One of the Broken’, which is also one of my favourites…
“But in the end I think the song selection was a group decision and I guess it would be a nice introduction for everyone.”
– Without wanting to nag, do you think you could re-record or remix “Lions” at some point in the future?
“Well a remix is impossible. At that time we had no money, we went to a friend’s studio to record a tape – I got the engineer to create a master. I mixed the tapes but the engineer erased the master, damn it! After all we were completely unknown. I didn’t have the money to buy the master tape. I regret that. However I still love the song and it’s a good idea to make a recording and sneak it onto a CD with a couple of other songs (laughs).”
– You should do that. By the way I heard that John Peel played it over and over and it changed your destiny, but what do you think about that?
“When I was listening to the song coming out of the radio I was really proud of our achievement. My brother was shouting ‘Come and listen, come and listen! John Peel is playing our song!’. It certainly wasn’t a top grade product, but it was a great feeling.”
– Elvis Costello heard this song and knew the existence of the group, and later covered “Cruel” on the stage to support you…
“I was impressed – I just heard the tape of him playing it at a live gig in America. Well I was really happy. There can be no greater compliment from Elvis Costello who’s written hundreds of songs that he featured our song. When he played in London we served as a support act for the evening, and we got along well with him and became good friends.”
– “Cruel” is the only selection from your Kitchenware debut album, “Swoon”, from 1984?
“Because I don’t care for my singing on Swoon. I also don’t like the arrangements. Or… I mean… I don’t like my own voice in the first place. If I get a chance it might be good to re-record 2 or 3 songs from this album. ‘Cruel’ – it’s hard to explain but this was a very important song for us. Because everyone was listening to this song, Prefab Sprout got a repuation as a ‘band that’s about to happen’. The song is singing about the way men handle women in the UK, where modern women want to be treated equally to men. I wrote from the perspective of a man who is trying to balance gender equality, but the manner in which things worked in the past is quite different, and he can’t do it easily… In other words, how difficult is it to become a different person? It’s a song you have to confront.”
– What about the 4 songs chosen from the 1985 second album “Steve McQueen”?
“This is the album that people from all over the world have come to know us by. It’s an album that even if they don’t buy it, people say is typical of great British Pop music. In fact there are a lot of songs we can ourselves be proud of. and we could have picked more from this album.”
– Can we talk about the reasons for choosing each selection, the motivation for including it. Stories and so on. First of all, one of the well-known songs, “When Love Breaks Down”.
“I remember when I started writing this wanting to make something very simple. The melody came very quickly. Sometimes – very often – it takes time to create melodies and songs, but this song came out in the blink of an eye. It’s a song about passionate love, but it wasn’t written from my own experience alone, it was written objectively as a writer. It’s like looking through my own eyes if I were to experience that situation.”
– Faron Young
“It’s a song from 1978, it’s really old. I think it was a side-swipe at the American music that was popular in the UK. It was very much influenced by the New Wave bands of that time. I didn’t like much about New Wave though. Faron Young is a Country and Western star, so why was I talking about C&W? There are a lot of C&W enthusiasts where I come from, and I think I wrote the song as a reaction against that.”
– Goodbye Lucille #1
“When I met Iggy Pop he said “Johnny Johnny… I’m using it!” Maybe he and I are as different as the Sun and Moon but I was very happy when he told me that. The song was a ballad as I wrote it in 1979, but at that time there were three people playing it badly and fast. Thomas Dolby asked me to return it to the original tempo.”
“I wrote this in 1984, one of a number of songs on a keyboard for the first time. I was in awe of Thomas’ arrangements. But he said that he couldn’t improve on what I’d done.”
– From “Protest Songs” there is one song, “Life of Surprises”.
“This is a song we thought should have been a single, but we didn’t do it because we’d just made ‘Steve McQueen’ and it was too soon after. So really it should have been on ‘Langley Park’ but when I made that I’d lost my taste for rock, I was disgusted with the guitar sound. It was recorded separately from ‘Langley’ so it wasn’t quite right. Then after a while I listened to the tape again and I changed my impression completely and stopped worrying about it.”
– There are four songs from “Langley Park”…
“’King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is a simple pop song about an old pop singer. After releasing ‘Steve McQueen’ we wanted to do a song that was more humorous and jokey because people had decided we were a serious serious group. ‘Cars and Girls’ was also a parody about Bruce Springsteen based on the same way of thinking. It was a bit of a mistake because he was on the same label, but I wanted everyone to sing along, and throw him a curve ball.”
– “I Remember That”
“’Do you remember those times?’ It’s a lighter number than a love song. ‘I Love You’ is a difficult thing for a human being to say as it is, but if someone says, ‘Let’s talk about that time… Do you remember?’ you can always say it with a lightness of feeling. I tried to sing that kind of feeling.”
– “Hey! Manhattan”
“This was supposed to be a song written for someone in America, but at the last minute the person couldn’t sing it. Because it was made assuming an American singer I think it would be better if an American sang it.”
– There are four songs from “Jordan: The Comeback”.
“Yeah. ‘Carnival 2000′ is a song that celebrates the turn of the century. Perhaps I won’t be alive, but it’s about celebrating the existence of human life on the last day of 1999.
“’We Let the Stars Go’ is a very simple song, but a good one. I think it’s one of Thomas’ best mixes.
“’Wild Horses’ is plain but one of the best songs on the album.
“Steve Lipson (the producer of one of the new songs” came to me and told me ‘All the World Loves Lovers’ should definitely be included, because people are interested in my pretty songs. It may be a single.”
– There are two new songs produced by Steve…
“’The Sound of Crying’ is singing about the bad news in the newspapers and asking why the world is a situation that can’t be saved.
“’If You Don’t Love Me’ aims to be a love song that anyone can sing, regardless of gender, and there aren’t many words. I am very satisfied that this was quite simple.”
– Is there a deep reason to change producer from Thomas to Steve?
“The point was that we had to work with a different producer to start a new thing with a fresh feeling. Of course I would like to do something with Thomas again, but I don’t know when it will be, because even the new record is a blank page at the moment.”