PADDY McALOON is alive and well and living in other people’s bodies, more of which later. He’s also voraciously taking on all challengers in the war of interpretation that continues to surround his musical masque – Prefab Sprout.
The almost mythical northern quartet are out on the shop counter again and this is known to all if only by virtue of the weight of critical acclaim which justifiably follows the release of any new Prefab Sprout material. If Paddy, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and keyboard player is surprised by the praise, he makes an excellent job of hiding it.
“It’s flattering”, he explains, but no matter how moving it is you have to treat it as irrelevant. If I sat around thinking I was God’s gift I’d never write another song”.
Perhaps not God’s donation to popular music (though inevitably and reasonably many would disagree) but the NME rarely dishes out accolades like ‘The most innovative songwriter of the decade’. “I’ll tell you what balances that definition out”, he begins in one of the bursts of laughter which are to dominate the interview. “The techno journal, International Musician, called us – when we first appeared – ‘the most important band since Kenny’. That has always stuck in my mind and tempered any temptation I’ve ever had to take the kind things to heart. Kenny, those tank tops…
Released in May 1985, ‘Steve McQueen’ was the album that started the stampede of the journalistic appreciation society. In droves they flocked to lay praise at the McAloon altar. No small burden to bear, image to fulfil, act to follow. Have his efforts since then been an attempt to distance the band from this history? “Most of the songs on ‘Steve McQueen’ were pretty old when we recorded them”, he reveals, “so we were already significantly distant from them which I believe sometimes helps in the translation. After we’d finished it I knew we could do better whereas with ‘Jordan’ these are the things we’ve been doing over the past year and while I think we can do better I don’t really know ’cause I haven’t written a good deal since”.
Bizarrely ‘Jordan’ is better, and at nineteen songs – long. A conscious effort to hide ‘McQueen’ behind a wealth of material? Or was ‘Protest Songs’ the instant reaction?
“‘Steve McQueen’ was the first professional record we’d ever made and there was a lot of praise for it”, he recalls (modestly). “So we were due to go out on tour and I thought I could diffuse the follow-up scenario by putting something out straight away that was modestly recorded but that sort of backfired because we then didn’t release it for four years in true Sprout fashion”. The irony brings out laughter, though one is forced to wonder at the initial chaos the recording created at CBS HQ. “In answer to your question on hiding ‘Steve'”, he continues, “I would prefer it that there were a few records out there and people would have their own favourite album”.
At risk of labouring a point and an obviously well trodden path, the spectre of ‘Steve’ still seems to drift through the corridors of Paddy’s mind. Has it become a masterpiece monster out of control in the way that ‘Pet Sounds’ was to the Beach Boys?
“It’s weird”, he ponders. “Obviously it’s better to have one record about which people will say ‘that was a great record’, but by the same token it means you’re being hit over the head by something that you recorded five years ago or, in Brian Wilson’s case twenty-three years ago! It’s great to be remembered. but you a like to think that what you do now is as good”.
Unnecessarily – and one might add that only the changing tastes of the media dictate these things – it has the Citizen Kane scenario about it…
“Yeah, the things you did when you were younger are better than the things you do now. It’s started to worry me”, he adds in a concerned fashion. “It never used to but eventually you’ve got to reach a day where your best work is in the past”.
At least it didn’t send you the way of Brian Wilson, you didn’t stay in bed taking drugs for ten years.
“Or at least no-one found out about it”, he laughs.
By virtue of its title and the sleeve’s separation of songs into four segments, parts or serials, the word ‘concept’ has cropped up in reference to ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. Did the songs occur over a particular period or was Paddy McAloon attempting to join Rush and Iron Maiden writing specifically for epic themes?
“They happened to be on the same theme”, he confesses. “At least two or three were about Elvis Presley so when I saw that happening I thought I might as well make something of it, make it a little chunk of the record. Similarly I found that there were songs about God and the Devil. Eventually I got to thinking that rather than burden everyone with Paddy’s little ideas that you’ve got to go along with, I could pad the record with different things that depending on your mood you could tune into lighter moments. That’s why it’s nineteen songs long so I could couch the serious songs between lighter tracks. It also gives variety and value for money. I’d love to be able to go out and buy an album today that had nineteen songs on it”.
I’m sold even with producer Thomas Dolby’s suggestion that the album should have been called ‘Sex, Death and Elvis’ though this would have left out the constant theme of ‘the comeback’ – the Devil asking for a comeback to heaven, Elvis out in the desert waiting for that one great song so he can re-emerge and a so-far unreleased track ‘Meet The New Mozart’ which is about Mozart re-incarnated to make some money. Does Paddy see Prefab Sprout as re-emerging?
“It certainly doesn’t hinder us on any crass level of publicity to say this is the comeback. When we go away we really do disappear off the face of the earth; we’re not in the gossip columns with Matt and Luke”.
Like many authors who, some might say lazily, use a writer as their main character, ‘Jordan’ sees Paddy singing about, or in the guise of, other rock stars. Unusually though these seem to be totally opposite to his own personality or at least it would be safe to assume the excesses of Elvis are far from Paddy McAloon.
“Well, I’m fond of the odd cheeseburger”, he professes – straight-faced enough to shatter any myth of him being humourless. “If you hang a song on a character like Elvis you get the chance to do a lot of things you don’t find in pop music. You get a chance to be funny, whereas serious songwriters are serious songwriters and they wear that very heavily on their sleeves. You can also write about things like compassion. By making a song about another character you deflect the weight of seriousness”, he adds, thoughtfully (not seriously). “If I was writing a song about compassion and it was called ‘Compassion’ you might move onto something else. In these songs with Jesse James and Elvis Presley, it’s there but it’s underneath the surface”.
Sadly the simple notion of pop dictates that whoever sings the song is personally associated with it, even if it’s Paddy McAloon singing in the guise of Elvis…
“I find the idea of it having to be about yourself somewhat irrelevant”, he contradicts. “If you’ve written it, of course it’s about you. Even if it’s about Elvis Presley it tells you that Paddy McAloon views the world through other eyes and would like to have you think it was about others when really… (conspiratorial pause)… You can read all of these things into it”.
Though I would hardly dare to enter PMcA in the same sentence as Marlon Brando, Mickey Rourke and (video star) Rob Lowe, is he not writing about himself but actually painting his personality into a role much like a method actor? “You’re hiding the fact of what you’re really like”, he admits. “But although I tell you this you don’t know how much is in the character and how much is in me. I like the mess, the confusion of that. The fact that you have to puzzle it out, fans like that, they like something to work on. I would use ‘Steve McQueen’ as an example because it’s been out five years and people still talk to me about it; I presume they still listen to it and read thinqs in – it gets tied up in their lives. That’s good”.
The Comeback is also a tour, the first Prefab Sprout live dates for five years! Why has live work been avoided, was it too rock ‘n’ roll?
“I’ve avoided it because it’s repetitive, it’s seductive in the wrong ways and it feeds your ego”, he states giving a new slant on the live performance. “It doesn’t help you write the next song – it maybe suggests that you should write in a vein which pleases audiences. If you hear that ‘Faron Young’ gets the most applause out of all the songs or ‘Cruel’ gets all the cheers you might be tempted to write more songs like that”.
My theory was that too many people treat Prefab Sprout like a personal experience and that the live interpretation in some way ruins that…
“I don’t think so, I think a lot of people who’ve seen us have been quite surprised – we’re more virile live – I don’t know whether people listen to the records with the volume down, I’ve got a soft voice n’all, I turn them up and I listen to them as if I were listening to Michael Jackson or Prince; I don’t listen to it as if it were for me Grandma”.
Finally on a topical note, two songs on ‘Jordan’ cover the life and times of Jesse James (through the eyes of Elvis, just to confuse matters) but who are the modern cowboys?
“Jon Bon Jovi” , he screams in horror. “He’s a modern cowboy. I remember this absolutely brilliant quote from him where he was talking about touring and he said (adopts a Texan drawl) ‘It’s great man, it’s just like being a cowboy (laughs)… You ride into town (pauses)… fraternize… with the local girls and then you split’ and I had visions of him actually splitting in two, this complete idiot”.
So it’s safe to assume Paddy McAloon won’t be Riding Into Town, Fraternizing With The Local Girls And Splitting?
“I certainly won’t be splitting”.