Talented and sensitive song purveyors sans pareil, Prefab Sprout have always missed out on the chart success that has favoured lesser artistes. Should this prevent them from releasing a Greatest Hits album? Absolutely not...
Prefab Sprout remain one of the chief enigmas in British pop, and after more than 15 years together and a decade of recording, they’re probably better-known than ever. Their lush, unhurried songs form a seamless, perfect pop strand right back to their début album, 1984’s low-budget Swoon. However, since that time they’ve had just one Top Ten record (1988‘s ironic ‘The King Of Rock’N’Roll’), and just one other Top 30 entry (‘When Love Breaks Down‘).
That doesn’t stop the critics dubbing Paddy McAloon (the Sprouts’ songwriter and leader) as the great pop craftsman of Paddy of our time. The problem is great pop craftsmen are no longer in demand. Paddy may be among the last great songwriters as a listen to Jordan: The Comeback (their last studio album in June 1990) confirms But commercial success has evaded them and sitting in the anonymous bar of a Tyneside hotel in the group’s Newcastle hometown, Paddy can wryly describe the new compilation of their old material, A Life Of Surprises: The Best Of Prefab Sprout, as: “Prefab Sprout’s Greatest Hit”.
A Life Of Surprises is an easily-absorbed introduction to a commercial band still meeting resistance from Joe Public. Offering 16 oldies and two new tracks (including current single ‘The Sound Of Crying’), it’s an effective summary of the group’s work. Reviewing the tracks over sandwiches and crisps, it is clear that these songs still mean a lot to the band. “My problem is confusing the writing of the songs with recording them,” says Paddy. “I’ve had some terrible moments listening to things when we were putting this together. The memory of some of the songs is so brilliant, but then when you listen to them you realise your memory has played tricks on you…
CARS AND GIRLS
Released: February 1988 Highest Chart Position: 7 (sic)
THE KING OF ROCK’N’ROLL Released:
April 1988 Highest Chart Position: 44 (sic)
The band’s ‘greatest hit’ and its self- conscious motorvatin’ cousin.
“l don’t know If I’m right,” says drummer Nell Conti, the only non- Geordie in the hand, “but l seem to remember that when we presented ‘The King Of Rock’n’Roll’ to CBS they didn’t think of it as a single immediately.”
“I don’t know about that,” smirks Paddy. “They would have had to think it was a single for obvious daft reasons – ‘We don’t get a lot of those coming our way, we’d better make the most of it‘.”
“There were three demos of the song, and we don’t often do that,” says Paddy. “The first one was so stiff and jerky that it aided the final version. It was so , contrary to the stuff on Steve McQueen (the band’s previous album) that it made us not seem like such a ‘moody’ group. That image was probably my fault anyway: in interviews I’d taken every question so seriously that I got a reputation for being moody and serious. ‘Cars And Girls’ was written at the same time, about February 1988.”
HEY MANHATTAN Released: July 1988 Highest chart position: 72
The lighter and darker side of New York legends contained in one song. Does Paddy write songs that he feels the group shouldn’t do?
“I write things that I think I shouldn’t sing, as opposed to things I think the group shouldn’t do. l rarely set out from the beginning to write something tor two voices, because I don’t really like duets. So when I sit down to write I try to forget the limitations of my voice or the fact that I’m writing for a group. I’ll think: ‘Write something Sinatra would cover, or something you could sing it you had a voice like Ray Charles‘. But then the cold day comes when they’re the only songs you’ve got and they have to be on your album. ‘Hey Manhattan’ was something I’d wanted to be recorded like it was for a movie, with strings and maybe…”
“Isaac Hayes,” prompts Neil.
“Yeah, someone like Isaac Hayes doing one side. I’ve got a hundred songs that might be right for someone else but I haven’t done anything about it. It’s partly that it you don’t risk anything you can’t be rejected.”
There was a plan to get Isaac Hayes on the track, but when Paddy got to meet him it turned out to be neither the time nor the place.
Since McAloon rarely attends showbiz functions of any kind, his network of business acquaintances is fairly limited. He has recorded with one hero, however: Jimmy Webb, for the film Highwayman.
FARON YOUNG Released: June 1985 Highest chart position: 74
JOHNNY JOHNNY Released: January 1986 Highest chart position: 64
The Sprouts at their most excitable.
“‘Faron Young’ was at least ten years old when it was recorded in late ‘84,” says Paddy. “The same as ‘Bonny’ (from Steve McQueen) and ‘Johnny Johnny’. ‘Faron Young’ was written at a point when I couldn’t understand how Country music could be so popular in England. I didn’t understand its universal message then. Mr Stupid! It was written during the punk era—not that I liked punk much. We started out as a three-piece and used to play ‘Faron Young’ like a heavy metal number. ‘Johnny Johnny’ was like punk. We were just completely bored with the songs when Thomas Dolby (the producer) said we should do them. I couldn’t believe it when he said we should do it like a Country song.”
“When Thomas asked us to do them,” says Martin (McAloon, Paddy’s younger brother), “we went: ‘Oh Christ, we’re gonna have to play these live again and we’ve spent five years playing them in the pubs‘.”
“We’ve got a tape of them from before I was in the band,” smiles singer Wendy Smith. “They were really raucous. Paddy used to scream all the way through ‘Johnny Johnny’. And they used to wear wellies on stage!” “Aw no!” wails Paddy. “Don’t tell him that! We thought it we played in wellies we wouldn’t get electrocuted by the National Grid. Stupid!”
CRUEL (from Swoon)
A brilliant song, in which Paddy wonders how you write a love ballad in a post-feminist era. lt‘s only marred by a two-bit production, gimmicky echo on Paddy’s voice, and a self-conscious closing line. The chief feeling from the group is best summed up by Wendy’s “We should do it again,” and Paddy saying: “I hate it, but the song is good and on a record like this you’ve got to allow things an airing.”
Recorded in one week, Swoon put the band under such pressure that they went haywire in the studio. Paddy made a crying Wendy sing two words over and over tor three hours and gained a largely unjustified reputation for being difficult to please. One consequence of Swoon was Pete Townshend hearing original drummer Michael Salmon’s playing. Salmon didn’t stay with the band because their living was precarious and he had a good job in a Newcastle shop. Townshend rang Salmon and asked him to play on his forthcoming solo album. Salmon thought someone was pulling his plonker and put the ‘phone down.
WE LET THE STARS GO (from Jordan: The Comeback)
Apparently this was a personal lyric, moving and simple in classic style, about lost love.
“Once again I was aiming for simplicity. As a record I really like it,” says Paddy. “I remember Thomas Dolby doing a really bland rough mix and I remember us having rows In the studio about it, saying: ‘We’ve gotta be careful not to make a polite record like people think Prefab Sprout sound‘. And I think he cracked it. it was a real genius job, and I don’t know how he did it. And while this is nothing to do with the title, the day I wrote it I had tickets to see Michael Jackson in Leeds. I was dying to see him, but l got so involved in writing that I didn’t go, I gave me tickets away. And I’m glad I did. It could nearly have been ‘We Let The Tickets Go’. I’d have used that title on Swoon, that’s for sure! Sometimes when you’re writing, you just put anything in a lyric to keep the flow going. ‘The Sound Of Crying’ was originally “Only the boogie music will never ever let you down (instead of “Once more the sound of crying is Number One across the earth ”)
“That was the day he did go to see Michael Jackson,” quips Martin.
WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN Released: October 1984 Highest chart position: 25
This was the band’s other Top 30 ‘smash’, the ﬁrst recording with drummer Neil Conti in 1985. It was reissued several times by Kitchenware/ Sony to minimal effect. “It was like an annual event, because Muff Winwood (then CBS A&R man) got behind it,” says Martin McAloon. “When Christmas came around they put it out. Richard Burton died when we were making it.”
“Panic made me write it,” says Paddy. “I’d always thought everything I wrote was really commercial, maybe oil- centre, but poppy. Then we did Swoon and found out for the ﬁrst time what people thought, and I started to look on what I did more coldly. I realised that Swoon was all private music, full of personal references. I panicked and thought: ‘I’ve got to write something simple’. So l wrote ‘When Love Breaks Down’ in one sitting, from top to bottom, which is unusual for me.”
Only Paddy McAloon could set out to write a simple song, devoid of personal references, and still have a line that says “paper towel, paper towel” at a moment of high drama.
“I try to keep each lyric personal to the tone of each song. You need an intimacy to make a song like ‘When Love Breaks Down’ seem personal,” he explains. “I’m not really interested in expanding the boundaries of pop music. I’d rather hear someone whistling one of my songs.”
Prefab Sprout may not yet have achieved that, but there’s still time. And anyone who doubts their ability to convey subtle ideas need look no further than A Life Of Surprises.