“You know they’ve started rehearsals without me and I walked in when they were playing ‘Jordan’ and it was wonderful. I just loved it.”
On the occasion of the release of their already critically acclaimed new album “Jordan: The Comeback”, Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout takes Hot Press on a trip through his back catalogue.
PADDY McALOON is a happy man – but then as lead singer and songwriter with Newcastle wonders Prefab Sprout he’s got a lot to be happy about.
Hailed as probably the best band to come out of England over the last decade, Prefab Sprout have managed to carve out a niche, a style, a sound that is unmistakeably their own, over the course of five sublime and near-flawless albums, from the early experimental “Swoon”, through the majestic threesome of “Steve McQueen”, “From Langley Park To Memphis”, and “Protest Songs”, to the recently released magnum opus “Jordan: The Comeback”.
With McAloon in buoyant, expansive mood, it seems timely to take him on a trip through his back-catalogue beginning with that idiosyncratic début “Swoon”.
“Weird shit, innit?” its creator laughs. “I loved it at the time. I just loved the atmosphere of some of the things like ‘Cue Fanfare’. It was just all about atmosphere. It’s not gothic, but it’s not like any other record. We loved that, and I still like it, but really, you know, I’m disappointed in myself that I could have thought that it was so good. And now I know it’s not! I mean, I love ‘Cruel’, and I love ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’, and I like certain bits of other things, but on a songwriting level it’s not as close to the mark as later things.
“Which is actually a bit of a contradiction when I think about it, because a lot of ‘Steve McQueen’ is actually older than ‘Swoon’. ‘Bonny’ and ‘Faron Young’, they were all before the first album, but we’d played them to death in the pubs and I didn’t want to record them. So on ‘Swoon’ I did me weird stuff.
“I thought ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in the studio, I want to make a record like The Beach Boys!’. I got it all the wrong way round.”
’85’s “Steve McQueen” is regarded by many as a modern pop classic, and McAloon’s personal best. Is it something he feels he must always try to live up to, an album by which all his other work will be judged?
“It’s something I really don’t think about, honest to God, because I’ve always felt I can make a better album than ‘Steve McQueen’, write better songs than on ‘Steve McQueen’. In fact I remember, the NME review of ‘Steve McQueen’ opened with the line, ‘There isn’t one song here as good as ‘Cruel’… and then it got better and better and better. And I saw the recent Q review of ‘Jordan’: ‘There isn’t one song here as good as ‘Hey Manhattan’… and I thought, you know, ‘come off it!’. There’s a million songs on this album better than ‘Hey Manhattan’!
“I guess I do worry about the critical plaudits sometimes though. But Jordan’ is going to be the big one now, I promise you. ‘Steve McQueen’ is five years old now, and people still talk about it, but I know that when all’s been said and done the big one will be ‘Jordan’.”
McAloon had hoped to release “Protest Songs”, the follow-up album to “Steve McQueen”, quietly, late in ’85, without any announcements or publicity, but, amidst much speculation and rumour, it was held back, eventually seeing the light of day in June of last year, four years later than planned. What exactly happened?
“I didn’t want to hold onto ‘Protest Songs’”, he explains. “I had planned for it to come out in December of ’85. But then ‘When Love Breaks Down’ became a hit and CBS said you can’t have two albums out because you’re going to sell more copies of ‘Steve McQueen’. There shouldn’t have been an announcement about it — it was meant to appear out of the blue after ‘Steve McQueen’. By slipping it out it would have defused the whole thing of the big follow-up. “Anyway. I had a month off in ’85, August of ’85, and I thought, why not record an LP in a month!’, and the rest are going ‘come on, you must be joking!’. But I felt, yeah, we’ll bang it down, an LP, and by virtue of the fact that it’s got some good songs on it, and it’s different to ‘Steve McQueen’, we’ll appear a great group. At the end of 1985 we’d have had two great LPs out, and people would’ve gone ‘Those Prefab Sprout guys — whew!’.
“But then the months went by and it was like, ‘What happened to ‘Protest Songs’? — I can’t wait to hear it!’, and there was just too much expectation! So in the end we just dropped it in the racks!”
Bootlegged versions of the album started to turn up regularly; is that your reason for releasing it last year?
“Not specifically, that wasn’t the main reason. But yeah, if someone’s making money out of it, and you’ve made it, it’s a shame for you, you know! But it was more because we basically, just wanted to close the door on ‘Whatever happened to “Protest Songs”?’. So we put it out!
“I actually thought we’d be panned for it so it was good that the reviews were like ‘There’s some good songs here!’ I didn’t think it would get a good response!”
In 1987 Prefab Sprout released the highly-polished but somewhat mixed ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’! As well as regular collaborator Thomas Dolby who worked of four tracks McAloon used numerous other producers in recording the album. Why this unusual strategy?
“Several different reasons really,” he answers. “Thomas was busy at the time working on the music to ‘Howard The Duck’. When I met him I gave him 16 songs — I’d wanted to make a double-album then — and he said things to me like: ‘Cars And Girls’ — I’m sure you could get someone to do this better than me!’. I don’t know whether he didn’t have any sympathy for the subject, whether it bothered him that it was about Springsteen implicably, or whether he just didn’t like the tune. It’s possible that he just didn’t get away on this new idea of mine. So I thought ‘Oh, alright, he’s not keen on it — I’ll get ten different producers for the tracks and I’ll do a bizarre experiment!’
“But I suddenly realised that after I’d worked with Andy Richards on ‘Hey Manhattan’, brilliant, brilliant man that he is, it was a bit of a heartache for me because he didn’t know me, and he didn’t know the lyrical side of things in the way that I did. I was having to explain things to him, and I was worried all the way along that since I hadn’t worked with him before it wasn’t going to turn out the way I wanted it to! In the end I absolutely loved what he did, but for that one week that we took to record ‘Hey Manhattan’ I was a complete nervous wreck.
“Now, in fairness, that happens on all records, even with Thomas. But I’m just worried to death that I’ve got this notion that no-one else can share. I always want us to be different. I want Prefab Sprout to be wildly different from record to record. That’s one on my little bug-bears, right? And I realised after we’d finished ‘Hey Manhattan’ with Andy that I was in the state to maybe do another song with him, and here we were moving on to make a track with somebody else. You can’t do that ten times, you’d be a mental case, a basket case! You’d have gotten all the hardship over, all the teething problems over, and yet have none of the benefits of ‘Right, now I can speak frankly with you!’.
“Thomas I can speak frankly with, now; but when we did ‘Langley Park’ he was out of the picture for a while. Then he phoned me up one day and said, ‘Look, I’ve these four songs that I can’t get out of my head. I’ve got to do ‘I Remember That’, ‘The Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘The King Of Rock’n’Roll’’ — he got that one straight away! I write funny songs which sometimes he doesn’t get. I’ve got one called ‘Snowy Rents A Dog’, which I love. I’ve had it six or seven years and I’ve tried to get it on every album that we’ve ever made. And Thomas will listen to it and he’ll go (shakes head slowly), ‘Uh-uhl No way!. It’s basically a pretty stupid song, a dumb song — but I love it!’.
“But one thing I’ve learnt is that you must go with what people like. You’ve got to feed on their enthusiasm. Thomas liked those songs and we did them; we did the rest elsewhere. This time, for ‘Jordan’, I said: ‘Look, 19 songs, this is what we do. No backsliding, I want you to do the lot. No cowardly ‘Well, we can only fit in so many!’ — this has got to be (clicks fingers!). We do this because people don’t do things like this any more. And he went along with it, which is amazing!
“And then CBS wouldn’t give us the money to do it! They said ‘You get the money to do a single album, and people who go into a shop and see 19 tracks’ — listen to this — ‘they’ll see 19 tracks on one album sleeve and decide to buy something else!’ (laughs). And I just thought, ‘No, people will go into a record shop and if the record’s good, word-of-mouth, they’ll thank Christ somebody’s giving them value for money!’. That’s how it works. It’s how it works for me. If I go into a shop and see 20 Burt Bacharach songs that I like on one LP, I’ll think ‘Better than 10!’, you know. It’s common sense.”
“Jordan: The Comeback” falls into four very definite categories: pop songs, songs about Elvis, a group of Phil Spector-ish/soundscape songs, and finally a batch of creations relating to the man above (God), and the man below (the Devil). With such a wealth of themes, and styles allied to a generous running time of over sixty minutes, one presumes it was a monumental undertaking.
“It all took shape pretty much in the demoing stage,” McAloon explains. “I’d written everything and we’d started to demo them and I saw what belonged together, and I bunched them pretty much as we recorded them for the album. So we had something to aim for in the studio, but definitely not ‘Here’s a concept album’, or any of that business. I was thinking about it dramatically really. I just like playing around with colours and textures within a song, creating what I like to call ‘sound worlds’!
“With the religious songs I just wanted to tune into all those stories about the Devil and God, and feel some little stories of my own. I like the weight that you get when you talk about spiritual things. It’s not that it’s a big issue, it’s just that it’s a basic thing with everybody, whether you believe in God or not. With these sort of songs you can perceive things that maybe aren’t supposed to be there, you know, as some people do. Which is great, I love that in records!’’
Even the title of the album leaves itself open to a multitude of interpretations too, doesn’t it?
“Oh, yes, definitely! That’s why. I love it so much. It’s just so open-ended. The fact that you can read so many things into it. And the fact that it’s coming out now, with all the recent events in the Middle East, is bizarre! People have even asked me if we’ve only just thought it up. Sort of, ‘better get it out quick before Jordan’s not there any more!”
Regarding Wendy Smith’s oft-belittled role in Prefab Sprout, McAloon is quick to stress her vital contribution.
“A lot of people don’t really pick up on the fact that Wendy’s role tends to be less lyrical, it’s more like you had a keyboard or something. She’s texture there, like a horn part or whatever. I tell ya, and this is no ‘Gee, all the guys in the band are great!’, but there might not be a Prefab Sprout if there wasn’t Wendy Smith. And, by the way. I don’t go out with Wendy Smith, she’s not my girlfriend. I haven’t gone out with her for two years.
“It’s to do with when you’re making a record, you’ve got to go into the studio like you’re never going to go in again. It’s always your big moment — you should never feel ‘Hey, it’s just another track!’. And Wendy has that approach, which is great! She has the attitude of ‘I couldn’t care less how many chords are in the song, or how many notes are in it — why is this version boring?’. It has a special weight coming from Wendy. I’m the writer, Thomas is the producer, and Wendy is the fan if you like, the listener. And if it wasn’t for what Wendy puts into the band spiritually — well, I don’t think I’d be bothered otherwise!”
Was the split between yourself and Wendy amicable?
“Oh God, I could never tell you because she’s more private than Warren Beatty, believe me. And I am as well, but I couldn’t tell you because she’d probably come over and kneecap you! (laughs).”
Later this year you head out on the road on what will be Prefab Sprout’s first appearance for over five years. Why such a gap?
“The first gig we ever did really as Prefab Sprout, just after the release of “Swoon’, was actually in Dublin. Trinity College was our first professional gig, May ’84. We were as primitive as could be but there was a good spirit. I wasn’t used to the routine then, I wasn’t used to the fact that you brought out an album, you did a tour, and then you brought the next album out. I was so naive. I didn’t understand the cycle! And then I got wise to it all. I thought ‘Oh well, at least I’ve got most of the songs written already for ‘Steve McQueen’. It was only after that album, when I saw the same thing beginning to repeat itself, that I thought ‘Forget it’ and I disappeared for the next five years in terms of live performances.”
Are you looking forward to this tour?
“Oh yeah, sure! You know they’ve started rehearsals without me and I walked in when they were playing ‘Jordan’, and it was wonderful! I just loved it. Generally, I don’t like to tour, I make no bones about it, but I’m a little happier about it this time because I’ve got so many songs that I like — we’ve got a killer of a set-list when we actually have to drop good songs, we just can’t fit them all in! But this time I think it’ll be great! This time we’re prepared!”
Paddy McAloon is a happy man – he’s also calm, collected, sharp, witty and impulsive. And although he may be portrayed by the music press as a sensitive soft-spoken singer/songwriter (“which is funny, because I’m really one of the most foul-mouthed people I know!”) and on one occasion, dubbed ‘the most innovative songwriter of the decade’, Paddy McAloon harbours no false delusions of grandeur.
“I’m going around talking about 19 songs as if I’d wilfully written them all over the last week! It fosters the illusion that you know more than you do, that you’re more knowing than you are. And you begin to believe it as well. You go home and you sit down at the keyboard and you do (clicks fingers) ‘I’m a hell of a guy!’.
“Then you think ‘I wrote all those songs — now what am I going to write?’. And you find you have nothing to write about, you’ve nothing to say, and you think ‘Wow, I feel terrible!’.
“But after a few weeks off the circuit of talking about ‘you’, you’re back to normal. Thankfully!”