A year ago, the debut album of Prefab Sprout, “Swoon” was released. At that time I worked with the group for the first time and wrote: “The lyrics are worthy of a separate discussion; often they are symbolically encrypted, full of literary allusions. The melodies are largely based on the acoustic guitar, without becoming Folksongs. Prefab Sprout don’t make commercial music, but their success might just lie in their otherness.” Now there is a new album with the confusing title” Steve McQueen”, and I can throw everything I thought about this group overboard.
Prefab Sprout still consist of leader Paddy McAloon, his brother Martin and singer Wendy Smith. But late last year, they wanted to make us believe, Prefab Sprout had lost their chief, as Martin accused his brother of being uncommercial and unceremoniously tossed him out of the band. It was merely a joke for the Press which backfired. but it’s better that Paddy explains later Prefab Sprout have not adapted their awkward name to follow fashion, and they still live in Newcastle, northern England. It seems as though everything has stayed the same… if it weren’t for that new album with the enigmatic title.
After the first listening, it’s obvious Paddy McAloon still writes songs. But where has the acoustic guitar gone? And Paddy, whatever has happened to you? Are you trying to turn yourself into a younger version of Roger Whittaker…? God save us from such music, and hopefully it’s a random illusion because the head Prefab has grown a beard and is wearing steel rimmed glasses, giving him a touch of the pseudo-intellectual. But one thing at a time. First of all, Paddy enlightens me about the past.
“’Swoon’ was recorded very quickly, and I was afraid that the record company would come and suggest changes; demand a more pleasing image, nicer arrangements and the like. And when instead they said they would publish it as it was, that was a real shock for me. What I’d heard about the big record companies wasn’t what I found to be happening. It wasn’t even a commercial album, but twelve months ago I would not have seen that. At that time I’d have said: This is a very good piece of work, so it’s also going to be a hit… Good ‘was tantamount to singles chart success for me. I was absolutely naive.” Paddy smiles his uncommonly warm, winning smile and leans forward as he continues “I am an absolute workaholic. I work every day, and I like to work. But only recently I’ve started becoming bored with the acoustic guitar, I found the music I was writing was too simple, and it is changing, that’s also why I bought a lot of new things that I never would have used in the past; a 4-track tape recorder, for example, with which I can do demo tapes, a small drum machine and keyboards. I say to myself: ‘look Paddy, people don’t just see you as a singer/songwriter, you don’t only write ballads for acoustic guitar, you’re a songwriter, and that’s something else.’ Instead of intellectualizing, I want to speak directly to the heart, the music that people really like to hear mustn’t go through too many verbal barriers as was the case with Swoon;… I see it today. You have to know too much, to really understand all the allusions in the lyrics, and then you start to analyse. But all this doesn’t mean that I reject complexity in music; it’s important. But the heart is what really counts. ”
I can’t interrupt Paddy’s flow of words. But when I hear words like these, I automatically think of those heart-rending melodies that we commonly refer to as “schmaltz”, or “Torch Songs”. Whether I like it or not, I begin to worry that Paddy’s new appearance may perhaps mean more than he wants to admit. But Paddy doesn’t know my chain of thoughts and continues unperturbed:
“In the past I put too much emphasis on the art of writing. I held the rock business to be totally conservative and I wanted to destroy it. Now I think: ‘Yes, the people are conservative,’ and I can either make fun of that and write in a very different style, or I can write the best rock songs ever “.
Well, how could I argue with that? Perhaps the similar theme: the best way to adapt is to change? I haven’t heard enough of the album yet to form an opinion. But I remember that after hearing such a diverse and exciting work as “Swoon” that I wanted to hear more like it. Where does the material for the new LP come from Paddy, and why this title?
“Oh, some of the things on it are even older than, ‘Swoon’. But I needed a producer like Thomas Dolby, he got me interested again. The new album is really so much better than the first!” Paddy goes into raptures, without being pretentious in any sense; he is simply satisfied with what he has done.”It isn’t all that different from ‘Swoon.’. Most people say that the sound is warmer and that it sounds more like a group and less like a singer.”
Scepticism is written in my face, but Paddy smiles winningly and continues: “I would tell you if I wasn’t happy, really. And the title came about as follows: I had made a series of demo tapes and, my brother, Wendy and Keith, our manager, played them to Thomas Dolby, and all said they sounded good. That was a huge relief for me, because actually I’m not very fond of recordings, and I don’t like my voice. And then we all sat eating at an Indian restaurant and thought about the title after the meal, and suddenly I said, ‘Steve McQueen’. Everyone put their head in their hands in horror, but imagine this: a DJ in the States says: ‘And now the title of the new record of Prefab Sprout, Steve McQueen’. Everyone will say: ‘Whaaaat is that ?!’ An idiotic title, but one that you won’t forget. At that level, it should work.”
l really don’t know, Paddy. The gag that you were kicked out of the band, didn’t work as it should. The story behind it is very funny: A photographer had a session with the Prefabs. While he was setting up the cameras, Paddy snipped the face of Stevie Wonder from a newspaper and stuck the photo on the forehead. The photographer played along and shot a funny little picture. The caption read: ‘The face that does not fit.’ Very ambiguous. Unfortunately, only the line appeared in the British Press and not the corresponding image. But yes, Paddy now gives interviews, he can explain the meaning of “Steve McQueen”. It’s reassuring that at least one thing has stayed the same with Prefab Sprout. Without background knowledge you’d say nothing had.