Prefab Sprouts Paddy McAloon fancies himself as a metaphysical Michael Jackson. Not only does he pride himself on his ability to mix musical genres, he also crafts clever lyrics which touch playfully on spiritual concerns
Most 14-year-olds regard pop stars as a projection of themselves. Paddy McAloon saw them as opposition. At least, that’s what he says. The singer and songwriter of Prefab Sprout is 33 now and quite grown up. We meet in a restaurant and enact a lumbagoed square dance around the barn of his reputation. It’s an outbuilding of unnecessarily large volume to house a few grains of truth, but then this is pop music.
He is mannerly to the point where you think it’s a front, and modest until he can’t take it any more. He’ll persevere with disclaimers like: ‘It bothers me that people might think I’m so in love with what I do’, until. with a kind of inward gasp, he blurts out what he really feels: ‘Yes, I’m a fan of what l do because I talk about true things, real things’; and ‘“One Of The Broken?” It’s so simple and true that if Presley were around he might think it’s a hell of a song.’ No, this isn’t immodesty; it’s those grains of truth swelling fit to bust with dew. This is, after all, a man who has been in competition with Paul McCartney for nearly 20 years.
McAloon is a gawky specimen. His body is a broad, flat paddle of flesh and bone, valanced at the top with a centre-parted curtain of hair. He walks with doubt, as if not confident of his brogues’ purchase on the asphalt, and his arms rise and fall with the suddenness of railway signals. This is all quite endearing stuff. Cartoony, perhaps, but nevertheless pleasant to observe in one so great and good; on a par, for instance, with the life-affirming discovery that Keith Richards is a short-arse and Al Green is barking happy. Get this folks: Paddy McAloon is probably shite at football.
Yet Prefab Sprout are as despised as they are loved. The consequence of being too good too soon. perhaps – their first album, ‘Swoon’, came out to such a hyperbolic fanfare in 1984 that you had to hate them but also as a direct result of McAloon’s contempt for rock’s current orthodoxy, which scorns detached literary ‘authorship’ in pop manufacture almost as much as it once scorned the unacceptably mechanistic idea of pop manufacture itself. McAloon bangs the table with his spoon and pauses, hand to his forehead, as if lobotomised by the thought. It had come out of nowhere. We had been talking about singing.
‘I just don’t want to jump into bed with whoever’s interviewing me and join them on a trip into the rock context, because that’s not how I write. When I write, I’m a writer and the whole thing is as pure as it can be. And in a perfect world it would be Ray Charles singing the song or Barbara Streisand.’
‘It’s the lift they give you. If you’re Robert Towne or William Goldman, and you’re doing something for a movie, you must say to yourself, “When Redford delivers this or Warren delivers that, this script is going to have some weight; weight that I haven’t got!”
‘We tried desperately to get Isaac Hayes to sing “Hey Manhattan” on “Langley Park”, because if you look at the lyric it pretends to a certain experience. I’m in love with the idea of writing something for a specific cinematic or dramatic purpose. And to really see it through, if you’ve set the location and you’ve set the style of the music and the lyric, then you’ve got to get the right man for the job. On “From Langley Park To Memphis” I didn’t get the man for the job. I wrote the songs, and I sang them.’
Would he like to be covered?
‘I’d love to be covered. It’s a great ambition. “I Remember That” by Ray Charles. Barbara Streisand to do “Nightingales”. Glen Campbell, “Nancy (Let Your Hair Down For Me)”. Robert Palmer, “Appetite”. Frankie-boy [Sinatra, presumably], “All The World Loves Lovers”. Who do you think?’
This is another alarming habit. He always wants to know What you think, and quickly, and he nudges at your reply with frantic ‘uh-huhs’ and nods, the curtain of hair rippling like baleen, as if to hoover up the plankton of your opinions in one massive suck and gulp.
Feeling like Jonah I say, ‘One Of The Broken’ by Al Green.
Prefab Sprout were conceived at home in Durham by Paddy and younger brother Martin when Paddy was 14 and Martin eight. The name ‘was a kid’s response to the mystery of grownup names’.
‘Swoon’ came out 13 years later, a convoluted, precious, over-worked jewel of everyday metaphysical observation. It was detailed to the point where you couldn’t hear the trees for the rustling of leaves and it twanged with the cleverness of lines like ‘Words are trains for moving past what really has no name’. Rock orthodoxy still likes the idea that words are trains for getting from station to station.
‘I can listen to “Bad” all day,’ he says, sitting up straight and arranging his fingers along the edge of the table like sausages. ‘My anticipation for it, following “Thriller” and “Off The Wall”, was so great that it went way beyond anything anyone could possibly come up with. I had dreams about it, and when I heard it I was so disappointed that I started listening to it for hidden things. Like, I’d tell myself there’s a damn good reason why “Dirty Diana” is on this record, and I’m still reading things into it.’ He laughs. ‘You know, I’ve never been sure whether to admit to anyone that I can listen to a record with the object of filling in gaps that aren’t even there.’ He leans closer, makes a bulb with forefinger and thumb. ‘When you’re listening to “Machine Gun Ibiza” on the new album [slender Sly Stone-style funk in day-glo shorts on the Costa Del Boy, done sibilantly] there’s a whole world that exists in the gaps between your knowledge of Prefab Sprout and what the lyrics themselves are saying.’
‘But Michael Jackson,’ he says, returning to his original theme, ‘the fact that I know how obsessed he is with making a perfect statement and that that is all he has in his world, and he is always competing. . . well, I love that and identify with it. It might not be very good for your life as a life, but it’s an incredible spur to work. It’s like you’re a racehorse; not only do people perceive you as a racehorse but you become your own trainer, and that’s wonderful.’ One arm goes up, as if someone jerked a lever in the signal box down the line.
‘I can understand how someone can get so far into what they do that there is no other avenue available to them. I don’t think it’s a good thing – I mean it’s going to be an Albert Goldman job eventually, isn’t it? — but if you’re thrilled by the notion of writing something that moves people, if you can keep very pure about it. . . I mean the Bambi thing about Michael Jackson, the wanting something so much that it comes true, well I can really get into that. In that sense he’s a better model for me than someone who reads lots of books and has a large vocabulary and, because of that, thinks that they’re armed with something Little Richard didn’t have. I mean, in terms of other English writers, I’m compared to people like Elvis Costello and Scritti Politti, which I absolutely hate.’
McAloon was a day boy at a Catholic seminary, where he ‘entertained the thought’ of becoming a priest, and where his father taught briefly as a supply maths teacher. He is the only English songwriter to have written with sympathetic involvement about those twin pop anathemas: parents and religion.
‘Jordan: The Comeback’, the group’s fifth album, is laced with biblical allusions, shadowed by the presence of McAloon’s late father. A spectral Elvis Presley shifts uneasily in the thematic foreground, as if uncomfortable with his symbolic value in this context. Contrary to popular belief, Prefab Sprout are not a literary group. Not in the rock literary sense at any rate.
‘I like The Blue Nile – they’re miniaturists. They want to capture the tone of light in a city at five o’clock one Friday afternoon, and they do it brilliantly. But it’s not the same as what I do. I see myself as at greater liberty to flit from style to style and in the rock world it’s still slightly dodgy to do that. Rock orthodoxy says you sing it like you mean it, you tell it like it is. That’s authenticity,’ he says, without sneering. ‘Now, I don’t have the talent to make a rhythm and blues record but what I have got is a big sense of liking a lot of different things that I can blend in different ways.
‘Look at the song “Jordan”. It’s a good example of a number of things that I’ve done and it’s a good example of music that’s written to a particular purpose.’ It’s a song that documents Presley’s restless thoughts on making a comeback. ‘Most pop musicians you talk to, they write the music they write because they write it. They can’t write in another style. But I can sit down and say, this is a futuristic Vegas showband, Presley’s still alive and he’s coming back, and here’s the band playing the rhythm: dvv-dvvv dvvvv dvvv-dvvv d-dvvv. . .’
McAloon can only imagine not doing it if that meant not doing it at all. Just deciding one day to stop. ‘I mean, I can imagine not wanting to be in Guns ‘n’ Roses any more, preferably yesterday, but it’s not the same with the Sprouts.’ He always calls them ‘the Sprouts’. ‘I certainly wouldn’t decide to stop because it wasn’t dignified anymore, to go off and do soundtracks or something. I don’t compete on the level where I’m young and I’m sexy and I’m exciting. Even when I was young and exciting and sexy I used to think that I’d have to make music you can live with.’ He sighs, without apparent rancour. ‘The name Prefab Sprout hasn’t seemed like a good name for a group for 20 years, but we started so we’ll finish.’