Welcome to Paddy McAloon’s world. He lives at home with his mum in a place with closed-circuit television, just in case. He drinks brandy, he smokes cigars and he makes music every day of every year. “You get sidetracked,” he tells Stuart Maconie.
It’s somewhat hard to imagine the A692 being immortalised, Route 66-style, in song form. But it certainly merits a strand or two in the rich tapestry of pop. The ribbon of tarmac makes the steady pull from Newcastle to Consett, from modish Tyne And Wear to old—school County Durham, climbing all the while. Locals will tell you that when it’s a balmy spring day in the toon, there might still be fresh snow on the high ground by Leadgate, a few miles away.
If you hang a left a mile or six before Consett, you might come to Andromeda Heights. Battered by high winds and about as far from the gaudy epicentre of the rock business as it’s possible to get, this is the place where Paddy McAloon works. Andromeda Heights is the name of his studio, an adjunct to his childhood home, and here he has surrounded himself with the tools of his trade. One “fuck-off” mixing desk (on long-term loan), one Apple Mac Quadra computer (borrowed, not fully understood), a selection of hi-tech Japanese keyboards (“toys, man, y‘know”), and one Synclavier sampler keyboard module the size of a domestic tumble dryer. “Bought in 1993 . . . and, as yet, not a fucking squeak out of it.”
And, posing gorgeously in the midst of all this, one raven-black, gold-filigreed grand piano. As this scene unfolds, his fellow travellers in Prefab Sprout, Wendy Smith and Paddy’s younger brother Martin, are seated at this imposing beast, playing, rather brilliantly it must be said, an adagio from Michael Nyman’s The Piano. A kind of hushed reverence falls across the room.
“Ah, yes,” interposes Paddy, “I can just see Harvey Keitel ‘s arse now.”
This newly built studio also gives its name to the new Prefab Sprout album, their first release of any kind since 1992’s greatest hits set, A Life Of Surprises, and their first “proper” album since 1990’s ambitious, critically revered Jordan: The Comeback.
Given that Paddy McAloon turns 40 this June; that he lives with his mother in the house he grew up in; that he has closed-circuit television; that he once trained to be a priest; and that his heroes include Marvin Gaye, Stephen Sondheim, Scott Walker, Prince, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector . . . given all this, well, the counsel for the prosecution already has his thumbs behind his lapels, is striding around the courtroom in a powdered wig and is suggesting that McAloon is a reclusive, eccentric oddball in the wrong line of work. Send him down.
On the one hand, it seems like the fairest of fair cops. On the other, he drinks lager; eats curries; likes a brandy; smokes cigars; goes to see Mel Gibson movies; has a longstanding girlfriend; enjoys Shooting Stars and Chris Morris; the closed-circuit telly is really a glorified burglar alarm; and, for these past seven years, he has been working. And a great deal more regularly than your average Liverpudlian docker. Okay, then. How regularly’?
“Every day. Christmas Day. Boxing Day. New Year‘s Day. I take a few hours off in the afternoon to wander around Newcastle and waste time. But that’s battery-recharging time. I come back and I work. The nights are best . . . five till nine . . . at the piano or whatever. I do other things, but I don’t play golf or race cars or study astronomy. I write songs. That’s it, generally. As my long-suffering girlfriend will testify.”
So where does all this daily, all-consuming creativity go? It goes here, next door, into a bijou ante-chamber of Andromeda Heights. The length of one shelf is taken up with floppy discs wherein lies Earth: The Story So Far, a song cycle chronicling human history to date, with cameos for the likes of Adam, Eve, Jackie O, JFK and Neil Armstrong.
In another drawer lies Total Snow, the planned all-star Christmas album. In this foolscap ﬁle — decorated with Pritt-sticked tabloid snaps featuring a young black boy’s transition into a middle-aged white man — is the projected Michael Jackson bio-musical. In that one, Zorro The Fox, the soundtrack to an animated musical. Lurking in this filing cabinet are the songs comprising The Atomic Hymnbook, a “gospel record of sorts”. And in this one, an entire Prefab Sprout album, in demo form, Let’s Change The World With Music.
“At a conservative estimate, there are ﬁve entire Prefab Sprout albums since Jordan. Proper albums, not filler and dog-ends. Some of the best stuff I’ve written is there. I know bands always say that about stuff that hasn’t come out because, obviously, there’s no way of testing it. But I mean it. You get sidetracked, you get bogged down. You listen to the record company’s advice and you have to acknowledge the rhythm of the business. With Earth: The Story So Far, I wanted to use collage and some of the techniques used by people in the dance world. I became so enmeshed in all the arranging, it began to occur to me that if I wasn’t careful, we would never make another record.
Salvation came in the unlikely shape of Jimmy Nail. His request for McAloon songs for his Crocodile Shoes project acted like a bucket of cold water. I threw myself into writing simple songs on guitar and piano and loved doing it. It was very good for me in other ways. It’s been hard to keep our heads above water in the past seven years. Fortunately, Jimmy Nail has sold a truckload of records.”
Keeping a four-piece group a viable proposition for years on end when that band doesn’t tour and when one very un-rock’n’roll craftsman like McAloon is at the creative core is no easy task. Unsurprisingly, there have been evolutionary shifts. Drummer Neil Conti has gone. Smith and McAloon minor now teach locally (she voice movement therapy, he “music industry”) at college and uni.
“I feel the responsibility very heavily. I don’t like to make too much of it because I know they are very aware of the weight I feel. They do everything to make life easier for me. I’m selfish. I write what I want and I don’t really care for anyone else’s opinion. I just hope Wendy and Martin approve of what I’m doing. Wendy is an integral part of the sound. That coloration she brings . . . without her it doesn’t seem right. We have little tiffs because Wendy will sometimes assess her contribution in terms of how many words she’s actually singing. I don’t see it like that, I don’t think you should count the lines; it’s how good the part is that counts.
“But it pains me and it must pain them. I regard every month as having the potential for disaster. We might not have our contract renewed. I’m always being told there are a lot of people interested in Prefab Sprout, but I’m pessimistic. I get out of bed in the morning by convincing myself I’m up against it. So l say to them, You must have something else on the go, because l can guarantee you nothing.”
Prefab Sprout’s A&R man at Sony is Muff Winwood, a man McAloon respects deeply for his willingness to take a chance on them on the strength of the capricious, unsaleable proposition that was their 1984 debut, Swoon. The last time McAloon was in Winwood’s office, the executive indicated his collection of laminated tour passes saying, “It sure would be nice to have a Sprouts one up there, you know.”
“He’s got one there somewhere, anyway,” guffaws McAloon (the band performed 15 dates in the wake of Jordan: The Comeback). “But it’s not on the agenda. I hate touring. It does nothing for families and it perpetuates something I’m not interested in: band as gang. I hate being in a business where middle-aged people run around acting like teenagers. I don ’t mean that once you turn 30 you should get the pipe and slippers out, or that we have to start writing mumsy/dadsy music. You should act your age: I find it fraudulent when people lead the bohemian life and all the excess is going into their backstage life. The music is often ultraconservative. I don’t want to hear about your revolutionary credentials from the gossip columns. I want to hear it in the songs.
“I’ve got a hang-up about this I know,” he admits. “When people ask me about Oasis and The Spice Girls, part of me recoils and thinks, Why are you asking me this? You might as well ask my mother about The Prodigy. I know what irks me — the fact that I think I should have moved on, grown out of it. Somewhere inside, I feel I should have had kids at 21 and settled down.”
Between the ages of 11 and 18, McAloon trained to be a priest at Upholland Seminary in Lancashire. Abandoning that path, he returned to the North East and studied English at Newcastle University. Amateur psychologists beware — he’s ahead of you here.
“I’m obviously compensating at some deep level. I’m sure there’s a Freudian explanation for having spent so much time away from home as a kid, and now spending all my time here. I have no burning desire to move away and I have certain familial ties that keep me here right now, but I could live elsewhere. I could live in Ireland. I always found it easy to get into Los Angeles when we’ve recorded there, but it is nice to live where you feel you belong, ‘somewhere you were brought up. To walk out on the street and know instinctively what your part is on that street.”
Coincidentally, McAloon has written the theme for Where The Heart ls, a homespun tale of Yorkshire district nurses (Sarah Lancashire, Raquel from Coronation Street, and Pam Ferris, Ma Larkin from Darling Buds Of May) to be broadcast later this year. “They” are keen for it to be a single.
Returning to the seminary, the shadow of the church tower often hangs over his music. “Oh no! You can’t tell I went to a seminary, can you’? It’s only in every bloody song. Third verse, God appears, regular as clockwork.”
This is McAloon turning up the heat under his simmering self-deprecation, but it masks a serious point. Jordan: The Comeback’s ﬁnal suite of songs — a rosary of agnostic doubt and weirdly uplifting musings on death — may be the most intelligent take on spiritual matters that modern pop has produced.
“The two big engines in pop are sex and religion. They’re the motors that keep the whole thing going and black music has always understood this perfectly. But in white pop . . . well, let’s hit this head on. I have been told that songs about spiritual subjects mean you’re a religious nutter and you will frighten off the British people. I know I’m going to meet this resistance and that’s why Andromeda Heights has no songs of that nature. They’ve gone to The Atomic Hymn Book and other places. like God Watch Over Me and Ride Home To Jesus on Let’s Change The World With Music.
“They can’t stop me writing them. I’m like this about all songs, actually. I’m like a survivalist. I’m hoarding away all the precious stuff waiting for ground zero, when they’ll become my armoury. Besides, I don’t do songs about meeting girls and dancing very well. I hear Chic and think, I’ll leave it to the big boys.”
The glamour in Prefab Sprout’s music resides in the grooves, as McAloon readily admits. “I don’t personally feel very groovacious or whatever. I don’t relish the supposedly exciting life ofthe rock band. But my music’s dead glamorous.”
Thus, Andromeda Heights twinkles with references to stars and electric guitars and positively swoons in a perfumed atmosphere of adulterous love and high romance. This takes the place of more conventionally starry pursuits. McAloon shivers at the memory of Simon Bates once asking him, What does your lady do’? “What a fucking question, eh?” He also remembers with the affection lent by distance the last time the band appeared on TV, performing Carnival 2000 on Going Live in 1991.
“They promised us that it would be a very straightforward performance. With some reservations, we thought, OK. Then they said it would be outdoors, and then we noticed some very oddly dressed people about. Anyway, we started and almost immediately this whole phalanx of people came over the brow of the hill, dressed as medieval knights pretending to be riding these fake horses, like Bernie Clifton’s comedy ostrich. They started jousting among themselves and giving us the odd prod as well. I stood there, miming the words, wondering what possible relevance to Arthurian myth they might have. Martin, a normally mild mannered chap, was livid. He was about to start swinging his bass and decking a few of these people. The scent of blood was in the air.”
Back at Andromeda Heights, Martin McAloon and Smith have returned to the piano and are now strolling through Debussy’s Clair De Lune and Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust. The telephone rings and Paddy McAloon, mindful of what he has said about the band’s unglitzy connections, picks it up with a smirk. .
“Quincy! Good to hear from you, man! You like the album. Great. You think it could outsell Thriller?! Quincy, what can I say, man.”
Smith looks up from the piano and mutters deflatingly, “Sadly, it’s Quincy the pathologist not Quincy the record producer.” The wind howls and somewhere in the distance a lean-to in Consett is blown over.