PADDY McALOON OF PREFAB SPROUT, DECLARES “IF I HADN’T BEEN A SONGWRITER, I’D HAVE BEEN THROWN ONTO THE SCRAPHEAP”
In common with many unemployed young people in England, the lead singer of the Durham band found a kind of redemption of an otherwise unfulfilling life in music; and in his case also from religion. Let’s leave Paddy to explain how it all happened.
– Why didn’t Prefab Sprout participate in Live-Aid?
– (Paddy). At the time we were rehearsing for our short summer tour. Every night Neil and Kevin would run off to play with Bowie. The idea of Live-Aid is brilliant and we’d have loved to participate as Prefab Sprout. I don’t agree with the criticisms that have been levelled at that concert, especially when it comes to some people’s opportunism in seeking free publicity. I think it was one of the most positive things that has happened in the history of modern music. It’s something that should have happened long ago. You have to give the credit to Geldof for this.
– Why was your July tour so short?
– Firstly because there wasn’t enough time to plan it. Also it was our first appearance in concert for more than a year and we wanted to see if there was still some interest in the band. Apart from the Dominion in London, we played in very small venues so as not to take risks. We were sold out everywhere and the public reaction was amazing. The idea was to go to every possible place in which we hadn’t previously played. It wasn’t possible to do that in the end, but we managed to play for the first time in Durham, our home town, where we’ve never played before.
– There’s no chance of you being mistaken for any other pop band…
– I think pop music goes wrong from the point of view of lyrics. There are no contemporary pop songs I like or think are good. That isn’t to say that every pop lyric writer is a poor politician: all song-writing is political, it expresses a point of view. Usually I don’t care about Margaret Thatcher for example, because from a song-writing point of view I’m more interested in understanding why people behave as they do. If I wasn’t able to write songs I’d feel I’d been thrown on the scrapheap, just like many people in the country feel frustrated because they can’t find the jobs they want and are unemployed. I was unemployed many years ago, supported by the state, but it didn’t traumatise me that much because I always had the ability to write songs, which is my real vocation. A couple of months ago when I was in the US I realised my enthusiasm for what I do, it opened something up inside me. I am what I do, not what the government wants me to be. That’s why I’m not interested in Margaret.
– Was it the first time that you had been to the USA?
– We haven’t toured there so it was only a promotional visit. It wasn’t so bad. I went to Toronto for a day and I was struck by how everyone was warning me about New York. Then I went there for four days – I had a very busy schedule, but it wasn’t a culture shock even though I come from a quiet town like Durham. I found the buildings in New York very attractive, full of atmosphere, regardless of whoever the people inside might be. The trip was very useful to check out Epic’s intentions as regards promoting “Steve McQueen”. They seem to have very clear ideas now, and next time we go there we’ll do a tour.
– How have you evolved between “Swoon” and “Steve McQueen”?
– It’s very difficult to say because the new album is made up of songs written over a very long period. The sound is more sophisticated now, and the production is better.
– There’s a lot of spirituality in your music.
– I believe man is a spiritual being. Anyone who has any sense of humanity must concede that a man is more than just what his body allows him to be. An old man is often more active than you might expect. Respect for life is something spiritual, beyond a belief or not in God. But at the same time I’m often very critical of the world around me. Death is an element which deeply pervades my music, although I don’t make direct references to it. The music I like from other composers is the kind which has this same intensity of feeling.
– From religion to drugs. Have you ever been tempted?
– No. They’ve always been there, available, you just have to reach out and take them. But I’ve always believed I have a strong enough personality to resist and avoid drugs. They’re about, and probably more obvious to someone averse to them than people who use them. I find drug-taking destructive and immature. I never had any sympathy for people who although having an immense talent ruined themselves with drugs. It possibly made more sense in the past when everyone was more naïve, they thought it was a good thing, but now it’s been proved to be otherwise.
– How did you re-use old songs on “Steve McQueen?
– Some of the songs really complicated the process of making the album. “When Love Breaks Down”, for example, nearly threw the whole length out. We recorded it last summer and CBS always believed in it as a potential hit single, and since it cost a lot of money to record we couldn’t throw it away. It hasn’t been a hit in England but will be released in Italy and Epic is determined to promote it properly. That’s why the first side is so long. I didn’t want to leave out any of the material we’d already decided to include on the album and which we’d recorded with Thomas Dolby. In fact it’s the maximum length we could get to without spoiling the sound quality. We finished it in January but it was released only in June, mainly because there were big problems during the pressing. The next album will be better balanced and contain material recorded, or rather written, in the years ’84-85.
– Do you find it hard to return to songs written so long before they are recorded?
– What I did with Thomas for “Steve McQueen” was that I picked up the guitar and played a number of songs without telling him what period they belonged to. In the end he chose 10, of which 6 are relatively recent and 4 from seven years ago. If he hadn’t approved them I would never have dared record them in the future because I played them live so many times I couldn’t judge them objectively. They’re all old rock’n’roll songs, that used to sound almost like the Clash. I needed someone to tell me they were good songs and that how old they were didn’t matter. If you decide to record a song six years after writing it it means you believe it might still be worth something. I’ve never recorded anything I didn’t like. That’s good because sometimes people record things they’re ashamed of two months later. I never rewrote any of those songs and “Faron Young”, “Bonnie” and “Johnny Johnny” are different only in production style.