GOD, A lot of people hate Prefab Sprout. A friend looked at their picture and cried, ‘Pentangle’, another, ‘hippy’, and yet another, ‘wet’. Together all three summed up their attack thus: ‘pretentious’, ‘wimpy’ and most ﬁnally, ‘music for nice young men who can’t quite get it up’. No one takes their Sprouts in half measure, me included.
Hand on my manhood I’d say Prefab Sprout have released the two finest Brit pop LPs of the last 20 months. Furthermore, the standards being set by their songwriter, Paddy McAloon, leave the crude certainties of the top 40 and the preening ﬂights of fancy of the bedsit, well and truly kippered.
With Costello and a handful of others, he is one of the few craftsmen working the ‘cowboy’ trade of pop song production. Rare, indeed.
Almost as rare as an interview with the man himself. Based in Consett, Co Durham, McAloon not only shuns the fast talk’ of London music biz circles, he positively revels in a cat and mouse game with the press.
Sure he’ll talk about his work — but in the main with prying cassette players turned off: “I think you should throw a massive silhouette over what you do,” he says. “If you go on the front cover of every paper the glare of the publicity bums out any lingering image you might give.” ” Nevertheless when brought to ground McAloon is an enthusiastic interviewee, carefully picking his way-through his work, his motivation, his obsessions (songwriting, songwriting and more songwriting). McAloon is a man of many words — most of them punctuated with great pauses — and, against the babble, very few pretensions. Polite, likeable and unshaven he takes his time and lays the word of Prefab Sprout right on the line. . .
A lot of people were surprised when you chose Thomas Dolby for the production duties on ‘Steve McQueen’. . .
It was because I don’t think you ever learn enough and if you do get to the stage where you do think you know the whole thing about arrangement and production you obviously need someone else there. Not so you’ve got a friction, but more an exchange of ideas.
When we did ’Swoon’ I thought it was an LP made by novices, it was inspired, but everyone who was involved with it was at the start of their careers. I thought next time out we had to get someone who was experienced.
I thought, ‘I’m not gonna get pushed by other people’s perception of our music and get in an acoustic producer’. My mind began to wander and I thought it might be good to get someone in who came from a totally different ﬁeld.
I figured that my strength was the songwriting and the guitar playing, but it wasn’t until after ‘Steve McQueen’ that I even owned a four track recorder. I had no opportunity to test out any of my “ideas about layers of sound. I had to get somebody who knew about that, someone up on the technical side who was also a good keyboards player — ’cos basically I’m ham fisted.
I heard Tom on a radio show treating us quite seriously on a programme that was quite frivolous. Tom just took us at face value. I heard from CBS that he was quite interested in producing us and he came up to Consett to hear my songs.
And indeed choose what songs should be on the LP. McAloon has reputedly over ﬁve albums worth of material waiting to be recorded. Many of the songs on the ‘Steve McQueen’ set were written as far back as I978.
He (Dolby) picked the songs on the LP. I’ve got such a huge back catalogue and a lot of them are so old that I couldn’t face doing them of my own volition. I wouldn’t have known what to do with them. Things like ’Faron Young’ are so old I wouldn’t have had any perspective on them. I just remember them as pub songs that we used to play in pubs. To Tom they were all fresh . .. so he didn’t have the mental burden with them that I might have had.
Your songs are very important to you. . .
I’m only really happy when I’m writing songs, even the arrangement is a labour to me. I have a tendency to over-elaboration and bizarre arrangements. I probably don’t serve my own material as well as I should. I want more experience. I want to leam. . .
This over-elaboration, does it hit your chart chances?
No. I don’t think we’re excessively complicated. I think the truth of the matter is that everybody else has been spoon fed pap. That’s the sad fact. I think the complexity of ‘Swoon’, for instance, is something to be beaten down before you reach the strength of the songs… In a way there should be more complexity. An LP you don’t get into straight away isn’t a bad LP… The emphasis today is on instant gratiﬁcation and I’m up against it. It doesn’t worry me though. I’ve got excessive energy.
The perfect song – pop cliché or possibility?
I think perfect songs have been written, but I haven’t done one yet. I think other people have done perfect songs. I think ‘Red Corvette’ is a perfect song. I think that excitement, whether it’s. in the words or whatever, the overall feel, is a big thrill. It’s nothing to do with whether ‘people think ‘this is a profound lyric’, or you’re a poet. I don’t want that. I want the overall effect to be stunning.
So you’re not a poet, Paddy?
People think I’m some sort of crossword fan compiling intricate puzzles for people. I like that to be there. I like some of the little tricks, but I hate the pun world. I hate word play -I like language that has some sort at emotional weight. I don’t think ‘is this a nicely turned phrase?’ I think ‘does that have any emotional signiﬁcance?’
Life is very complicated and I think music should reﬂect that. That doesn’t mean ‘music should have 2,000 layers of meaning. It does mean you can feel two things at once.
True. But does this explain the lack of direct political comment in your songs?
Some things can be direct surely? If you think you’ve got a direct point at view you should put it down in bald language and do it. Write your song and that’s it… But I think people should ask themselves whether those views couldn’t have been better expressed in a two page essay -— perhaps on the sleeve of an LP. I think you’ll express your case better that way, rather than in the rhyming couplets of a song.
Now it you really want to get someone interested in the way people work, get them thinking about unfairness in life and what is mean in the human spirit, I think you’re better off going at it with a song and taking a more on-the-surface circuitous route. Not because that’s more intellectual or whatever, it’s just that I think the truth is better served by insight and inspiration than by bald statement. Bald statement is great for prose. . .
Why do you make so many references to famous people in your songs?
I think if people are famous, the fame side of them becomes a commodity. Like Faron Young the idea of the fame ‘of a C&W star is the same as talking about an object. You are not really talking about them, but about what they represent. When you think about Steve McQueen, it’s not like you’re talking about anyone else you may know, but because S McQueen has public connotations his name has a certain weight to it. It’s the same as a reference to Mexico or the Baltic sea or a machine gun. It’s like an object and it just slats into the song. I can’t describe it. It has a personal weight that I hope has signiﬁcance to other people.
And finally. . .
There’s a South American writer who’s written a book about a guy who wants to rewrite Don Quixote (not the N Kershaw-version)… I’ve got this crazy idea that I’m gonna re-write ‘Thriller’. Of course mine will have to be a failed attempt, because if I just came out with Rod Temperton type songs it would just be plagiarism. I want to take the point at view that I’m rewriting it and then do something completely different. I take my ideas for working from all sorts, strange things that gee me up psychologically. I’m gonna rewrite ‘Thriller’. I’ve got the title track… I’m not gonna write an LP about spooks or ghosts, but because ‘Thriller’ in the eyes of the world is such a massive success, it’s become another object . . . l want to take hold of it and do something with it.”
P O S T S C R I P T I think of songs as objects. You’re turning the world to your shape. I’m not a very arty person; it’s just a workmanlike thing to do. It’s like making an ashtray a song. It serves that sort of function.