Every morning of the week Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout enters the small studio in his parents’ home in Consett and attempts to write a song. Often he will ﬁnd himself writing songs for albums that he has imagined, albums that may eventually surface or albums that Paddy will hoard in the overﬂowing store of his imagination.
Prefab Sprout have released three albums so far, Swoon, Steve McQueen and this year’s From Langley Park To Memphis, each more successful than the last with the latest opus providing their first bona ﬁde hit single in the Number 7 smash, The King Of Rock And Roll. Yet none of these albums can ever equal the riches in McAloon’s store and often he will sit upon his latest composition, secure in the knowledge that he has better songs than any of those bought or sold in the marketplace. Paddy’s hoarding is one of his oldest vices as a songwriter, one that he has practised since he came up with the name “Prefab Sprout” in 1973. He knows that it is a defensive habit and yet it’s one he chooses not to break, knowing how often the world will cheapen and betray the fruits of the imagination.
Many of the songs that McAloon writes take popular legends as their subject, whether they be Bruce Springsteen on Cars & Girls, Zorro on his current project, Zorro The Fox, a soundtrack for an unwritten film, or even Elvis Presley. Paddy’s soft Geordie brogue almost trips over itself when he discusses his Presley songs. There’s The Jesse James Symphony, a song in the style of American Trilogy in which Elvis the singer gets to reﬂect on his long journey from his mother’s floor to Las Vegas. Then there’s Moondog in which Elvis finds himself on the moon and Jordan — The Comeback. Jordan has Presley sitting in the desert where he has escaped after faking his death and where he’s holed out in the hope of finally getting some decent songs. His spoken monologue laments the books that have been written about him since his “death” and their lack of love and then finally breaks into a gospel chorus — “At the end of the road I’m travelling, I will see Jordan beckoning.”
Paddy McAloon knows he will never be Elvis Presley and doesn’t find this a matter for regret. Instead he practises his craft by taking the likes of Elvis for his subject matter and probably discovers a little more about himself in the process. Ask him about Paul Simon and he finds himself explaining his own predicament.
“Simon has that problem of distance which he knows he has but he still wishes he was Elvis Presley on occasion — look at songs like Keep the Customer Satisfied. I have that too; I sometimes wish I was like Elvis. But then I think, No, I’m a 1980s writer. We romanticise the songs he did in the ’50s but if you listen to them now, they’re nothing, just bits of ﬂuff without his presence. If you don’t have that kind of presence — which I don’t have and Paul Simon doesn’t have and most writers don’t — you’ve got to take a different tack. If you can’t make pale songs glow about something else.”
That “something else” has led McAloon into all kinds of speculative waters since he first conceived Prefab Sprout in his teens. Even then, he conceived songwriting as a profession in which he could mature gracefully, a belief which has led him away from many of the clichéd routes to stardom and which makes him distrustful of the weighty personas carried by the likes of Springsteen. Prefab Sprout haven’t played live since a tour of Japan in 1986 and their last British appearance was a solitary Hammersmith Odeon date in February of that year.
“I didn’t enjoy it, not after the ‘early years’ when we played Durham pubs as a three-piece band,” Paddy explains. “It’s death to the imagination, all the travelling and the four o’clock sound-checks. I detest it. You see what certain songs do to your audience and you start writing to please them. You see it happening to the big names, they see which songs are the winners and then they write more like the winners.”
Such success spawns clichés for Paddy who prefers never to see his heroes in the ﬂesh. “I’ve never been to see anyone I couldn’t have lived without seeing even if I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. I can just put a record on and they live in my imagination! The air of mystery of never having seen Michael Jackson! I’d rather imagine him in Encino, wandering around with his animals and watching Fantasia in his private cinema. That’s better than anything I could ever see on stage.”
Even the group Prefab Sprout barely exists outside the records and Paddy’s restless imagination. Singer Wendy Smith, drummer Neil Conti and Paddy’s bass-playing brother Martin must have a slow time of it waiting for the next LP or the occasional promotional chore yet Paddy insists that Martin is almost equally wary that live performances might diminish the band. “I have a very broad concept of what a group can be,” explains Paddy. “One week we could be making a soundtrack to a film like Zorro The Fox and if the next week it’s an acoustic album, so be it.”
Paddy McAloon first conceived Prefab Sprout while attending a seminary school. He still has the contract he drew up for the band at the time, signed by himself, brother Martin and the band’s first drummer, Mick Salmon. The young McAloon began with the usual dreams of wishing to emulate T.Rex and cut his teeth playing All The Young Dudes and Eleanor Rigby with a few other boys at old people’s homes and mental hospitals. The name Prefab Sprout originates from the impressionable Paddy’s sense of mystery upon seeing names like Tyrannosaurus Rex or even Grand Central Station clutched under the arms of the older schoolboys.
“When you haven’t been used to these sort of names, there’s a real mystery to them. I fell under the mystery of the names and their intangible and wilful obscurity. I still believe in the necessity of that mystery. Have you ever heard of a classical record that anybody ‘gets’ the ﬁrst time through? So I put two words together that didn’t mean anything because people would say, What does it mean? I had other names at the time like Chrysalis Cognosci. I wouldn’t pick Prefab Sprout now because it would strike the wrong note. At the same time I’m glad I didn’t pick anything like The Ethereal Fair Roses because I know the people who’ve heard of us associate us with a certain aestheticism and lack of grit and the name Prefab Sprout is a counter-balance to that.”
Once Paddy left the seminary for Newcastle Polytechnic to read English, Prefab Sprout approximated into a three-piece, practising in his father’s garage in Witton Gilbert and playing the pubs of Durham. The early Sprouts were a far more raucous affair than the sweet-toothed affair of the last two LPs and Paddy, now certain of his vocation, began the secret life of the songwriter. History gets murky here, but there was the plan to write an entire album with the same title for each song, the completely different tunes and subjects to be differentiated by numbers. The only worthwhile result was Goodbye Lucille No. 1 which later appeared on Steve McQueen.
There was the period when Paddy decided to write about sport and came up with two songs, I Never Play Basketball Now and And Chess Is Beyond Me. Originally the pair were intended to open and close an album but the chess song was “crap” so Paddy wrote Cue Fanfare, a song that parallels the drive of a chess grandmaster like Bobby Fischer to the passion which Paddy the songwriter attaches to phrases from others’ songs, phrases like the “hair of gold”, “ “Sweet Mary” or “running to me”. Both “sports” songs appeared on the group’s ﬁrst LP, Swoon, released in March, 1984.
Swoon’s genesis was midwifed by Keith Armstrong, now supremo of Kitchenware Records and then running a shop in Newcastle. The live demos that Paddy had sent out had earned him rejection slips from every major record company, including CBS, while the occasional A&R interest from the likes of Warners’ Rob Dickins went away bafﬂed by Paddy’s fecund and sophisticated imagination. Eventually Martin and Paddy pressed up 1,000 copies of the single Lions and put it out on their own label Candle Records, complete with such slogans as “The Wax That Won’t Get On Your Wick”. Armstrong heard Lions in his shop and promptly set about signing Prefab Sprout to Kitchenware, licensing the band to CBS and ensuring that Paddy translated some of his ideas on to vinyl.
Swoon was produced by fellow Kitchenware artist David Brewis of The Kane Gang and immediately earned critical plaudits that established Paddy as a songwriter of merit and Prefab Sprout as a group with strong ties to the jangly independent ‘school of rock/pop. Little did the critics know that Swoon was a perverse exercise in which Paddy deliberately avoided the material that his band had been playing live for years for more complex material he had in his store at home.
“Keith would say, Bonny’s great (Bonny later appeared on Steve McQueen), and we’d snarl and curse because we’d been playing it for years. So Swoon became where I go in and do my Brian Wilson bit and do all those songs you can’t do live and that only work on tape. When The Beatles appeared, they did their 12-songs-in-a-day records and then went on to their studio albums: you wouldn’t expect to hear Sgt. Pepper before you hear Love Me Do. But we got it all out of kilter, we started with our decadent, late-period Prefab Sprout. Most of those songs were more recent than the ones that appeared on the next record, Steve McQueen.”
Steve McQueen appeared in May, 1985, preceded by the single When Love Breaks Down which finally reached the dizzy heights of Number 25 upon its third release in autumn 1985, just in time to block the release of Protest Songs, a new collection of McAloon material recorded with more urgency and less obsessive attention to detail than Steve McQueen. Protest Songs still languishes in the tape store but Steve McQueen established Prefab Sprout as the ultimate “intelligent young man’s group” , beloved by the discerning but perhaps a little too “adult” for popular taste.
Such discriminations make McAloon squirm, and the notion that Prefab Sprout helped launch the wave of Steely Dan-inspired groups that resulted in the likes of Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue would probably upset him. Certainly the arrival of producer Thomas Dolby found him “learning not to screech for the first time” as Dolby contrasted the sweetness in the voices of Paddy and Wendy and gave the songs the kind of imaginative settings they deserved. Almost three years later, Prefab Sprout returned with From Langley Park To Memphis, doubled their record sales in Britain and much of Europe, enjoyed a major hit with Paddy’s celebration of a minor rock has-been, The King Of Rock And Roll, and proved that McAloon’s elaborate wordplay was ﬁnally attaining the kind of simplicity that bypasses words like “intelligent”.
Much of From Langley Park To Memphis celebrates the value of enchantment, of perpetual wonder, and the golden glow of memory. “A song like Enchanted on the record is about finding something to be excited about year after year. I understand Michael Jackson wanting to sit in his house and watch Disney films with his Pirates Of The Caribbean in the backyard, wanting to stay in touch with wonder. Nothing ever hits you again with the force that it did at 18. I’ve turned 30 and that’s only just dawned on me. A lot of it is just nostalgia, I suppose, but you don’t know then that you can’t achieve everything you set out for yourself.”
Paddy McAloon is a 1980s writer who doesn’t care for categorisation. He dislikes Bruce Springsteen’s “myth of the blue collar worker” because it’s become a cliché and yet cringes at the thought that he himself is a detached ironist, doomed to write in quotes. He knows his white suit and gabbling enthusiasm make him look “like Peter O’Toole in My Favourite Year” on television and would prefer to remain unknown, a songwriter whose interests are wider than either self-revelation or self promotion. Ask him how he expects to become a rock star if he keeps shaving his beard off and then growing it back and he’ll shrug.
“I don’t have a persona. I’m not well known enough and I think the notion of the authentic rock persona ended when Bowie came along and said the obvious. I don’t really want to be known because look what it does to the imagination. As soon as everybody knows about you, you become the ‘decent guy’ and I’m not sure that does you or the group a lot of good. I like finding people through their records. If you don’t know too much about people, their charisma stays intact. Then it doesn’t spill out when you’re off-duty. There’s only so much of it, after all.”