As Prefab Sprout follow up their acclaimed ‘Cars And Girls’ with ‘King Of Rock ’N’ Roll’ Ian Dickson talks to Paddy McAloon about Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen – and the death of rock music as we know it .
“Rock music is not the music of rebellion any more. Those old images of turned-up jeans and leather jacket with James Dean and Marlon Brando were brilliant tor ’56 and ’57 and they led Elvis Presley and they fed John Lennon and Bob Dylan but things have changed”
“I’m probably the greatest songwriter in the world,” announced Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon some three years ago. He’d just finished recording the highly acclaimed ‘Steve McQueen’ album and was understandably full of beans. But then what did he do? He vanished without a trace until the recent release of the near- blasphemous ‘Cars And Girls’, a single which digs at the very heart of the music biz by mocking the hackneyed rock images of Bruce ‘Middle Name God’ Springsteen. And now he wants to release a single which shouts, “I’m the king of rock ’n’ roll, completely!”
Is Paddy McAloon a genius or is he seriously deluded? And why is he trying to demystify the rock ’n’ roll process? After all, don’t we all thrive on the myth?
“The only people who’re really on the defensive about that are the fellers who donned their satin tour jackets in 1973,” asserts Paddy. “And for them, rock music hasn’t changed since then. I know it’s different now. People have a wider choice of what they listen to
“Rock music is not the music of rebellion any more. Those old images of turned-up jeans and leather jackets with James Dean and Marlon Brando . . . They were brilliant for ’56 and ’57 and they fed Elvis Presley and they fed John Lennon and Bob Dylan but things have changed. I’m sure that now, kids think the idea of rebellion is childish.
“I don’t know because I’m too old and I haven’t got a 15-year-old brother, but what’s so cool about hating your parents and what’s so unhip about caring for people?”
The Sprouts have just released their third album, ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’, from which the current single ‘King Of Rock ’N’ Roll’ comes. It’s been three years in the making and the McAloon quality control has evidently been on constant overtime.
Like ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘Swoon’ before it, ‘Langley Park . . .’ contains no fillers; every song is invested with such an affection that you cannot fail to give it a good hearing. Bearing in mind that McAloon is his own biggest critic, is he proud of his latest offering?
“I am, yeah,” answers Paddy. “It’s not perfect; there are certain things which could be better. I’ve felt reluctant to say how much I like it because people think ‘Oh, there he goes again’. I am proud but I always think I can do better. I don’t know what I’ll say in the future. I thought ‘Swoon’ was great and now I’d re-do everything.”
So what has Paddy McAloon been doing during the past three years?
“I just sat around writing songs,” he explains. “I don’t write that many. Some people can write as required; finish their world tour and write their album in six weeks. I can’t do that. I can write about 12 songs a year and that’s my whack!
“But I’ve done other stuff also . . . like my Christmas record. I wanted to make a Christmas record because these are doubting times and I wanted to do something that reﬂects a positive attitude.”
Prefab Sprout have never seemed to approach a new album as just another step in their career. All Sprout vinyl has an air of completeness about it; like a project that has been successful. Does Paddy treat each album as a project?
“The interesting thing is that if you put 10 songs together, people automatically think you’ve got a theme which is intentional,” explains Paddy. “But the truth is that if one song didn’t work you’d have stuck something else in.
“I suppose I do think in terms of projects because I need something to get me off the ground. If I’ve just finished a record I need a pick-me-up. I can’t think ‘Oh, there’s 10 random songs bunched together, let’s start work on another 10 random songs.’
“I do hate the idea of a concept album, but ‘Langley Park . . .’ was going to be a fun LP, a bit cheeky like ‘Cars and Girls’. I don’t know what happened; I must have lost my nerve because I started getting into my more complicated ideas again.”
Is Paddy unashamed about the amount of time he spends working on an album?
“Yeah, I’m completely unashamed,” states Paddy. There are too many records around_ that no-one ever remembers. When people ask why I take so long to write songs, there’s a simple answer. I really couldn’t write any quicker. That’s a fact.
“Also, you’ve got to be sure that what you do is good. Especially in our position. We’d be finished if we came out with a sub-standard record because we don’t have hit singles.”
Prefab Sprout have an advantage over most bands in their mother label, the Newcastle-based Kitchenware organisation, which also looks after such notables as Hurrah!, the Kane Gang and Martin Stephenson And The Daintees. Does the label and the band both residing in the North East mean that they are dislocated from the music business?
“That is a problem,“ admits Paddy. “We should maintain more of a consistent presence: Although I like being isolated, the overtone of it is that we’re snobbish about things. Well it’s not like I think everyone in London is crap because they don’t live in Newcastle and do what I do. But if I go home and write songs, there’s no reason for me to be in London. I don’t want to hang around London pretending to be in a pop group.”
One of the biggest surprises that ‘Langley Park . . .’ has to offer is the guest appearance by Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder. Why?
“Dead simple,“ interrupts Paddy. “He likes us, does Pete Townshend. He’s a fan. Otherwise I wouldn’t have dared ask him because it’s a posey rock ‘n’ roll thing to do.
“The track ‘Hey Manhattan’ was being mixed at his studio and I was ill so I went to bed. I said to Wendy and Martin, ‘Look, can you ask Pete Townshend to put this guitar piece on’, and he bloody did it out of the goodness of his heart.
“But I know what you mean. I blush to think of the idea of phoning Keith Richards up. I was being interviewed by this guy in Germany. I should have kicked his arse really ‘cause he said, ‘Ah yes. Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder are on your record; you are doing this to get more sales . . . Yes?’.
“I thought God, do you think it’s as easy as that? Get Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Quincy Jones on the record and I’m set for life? What a joke.” ‘Cars And Girls was one of the most commercially accessible Prefab Sprout singles to date. It was tuneful, poppy and contained all the right production credits to impress Radio l. It ﬂopped.
Is Prefab Sprout’s music too rich for the charts? “Maybe it is, I don’t really know,“ muses a perplexed Paddy. “I’m absolutely at a loss to find an attitude on this subject. I wish I could say I’m philosophical or I’m livid or I think we’re an albums band, but in my heart I don’t feel like that. I think the charts stink. I don’t even like saying that because I’m not in there.
“I think people take a while to settle in to what we do. With ‘Cars And Girls‘ it came and went before people had a chance to cotton on to it, as happened with ‘When Love Breaks Down‘, hence the embarrassing thing of re-releasing it 600 times.”
Did that really embarrass the band? “
Well, not in the sense that I felt I had to apologise for it,” says Paddy. “It was more of an annoyance in that when I have a record in the charts I wish everyone would buy it at the same time. When they re-release ‘Cars And Girls’ — which they shall no doubt do — the fans who bought it first time won’t buy it again, so a lot of the focus is lost. It will also lose some of its topicality.
“I dunno, maybe they’ll release it when Springsteen’s over here . . . But l don‘t think so somehow.“
Paddy McAloon lives to write classic pop songs. Yet not one of his babies has yet reached full fruition among the cut and thrust of the pop world. This is an imbalance which cannot survive much longer.
Listen to the crap spewed out on every Walkman from Langley Park to Memphis, and you‘ll realise that the pop world needs Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout much more than they need it.