(Alternative Rhythms was a free fanzine style magazine based in Florida.)
By Sam Rosenthal. Quote collector – Marc Whinston
PREFAB SPROUT (the British 4 piece fronted by 28 year old singer/ songwriter Paddy McAloon) made a “perverse choice” when they decided to have Thomas Dolby produce their second (and latest EPIC) album Two Wheels Good. The band had garnered high critical acclaim in England, with the guitar-flavored pop on their first album Swoon (which hit the Top 20 in the UK); with critics placing them in the same category as EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL, AZTEC CAMERA, and Elvis Costello. So when the band chose to have Dolby produce them, it turned quite a few heads.
“When I told people that I was working with Thomas,” Paddy recalls, “you could see the look of panic in their eyes: that he wouldn’t be a traditional choice for a band like ours. But I heard Tom on a British Talk Show, reviewing “Don’t Sing” off Swoon. It was a frivolous radio program, with some cretin on there who said: ’well, I like vegetables, so I’m well disposed towards PREFAB SPROUT.’ Then Thomas came out and discussed THE RECORD. So he endeared himself to me straightaway.
“I heard him on another program, where he discussed his ten favorite records. I had this image of him as a professor of pop, because he tends to be gimmicky; but his taste in music was impeccable. He liked Marvin Gaye, and he picked a BEACH BOYS number, and THE BEATLES, and Joni Mitchell… And I thought: here’s a guy who is not exactly from the same kind of tradition I am, and I liked that idea. You know, he was from a different world altogether; but he is a brilliant arranger.”
PREFAB SPROUT (made up of Paddy, his brother Martin. Wendy Smith and Neil Conti) recorded a fine release with Dolby at the helms. Paddy expected Dolby to be a technician of sorts, inflicting overbearing equipment upon the band. Instead, Dolby dug into what the band was all about.
“He is a man who is very, very intent on getting a performance out of you. It surprised me. Thomas was more of an encourager. He’d suggest something, and very tactfully (you hope), you say ‘well, I don’t like that kind of piano introductions on my songs.’ And you hope you weren’t saying it too violently. And then he will say to you ‘that’s a bit naff, isn’t it?’ on the guitar sound that you’ve got; or ‘it’s a bit wimpy, isn’t it?’ or ‘you’re trying too hard.’ He’s a man geared to performance.”
Critics have perceived a difference in tone between the two albums, and they postulate that Paddy wrote different sorts of songs for the new album. However the question is quickly proven moot when Paddy reminds that some of the songs on Two Wheels Good are from 1978, while some from Swoon are as new as 1983 vintage. A song is not chosen because it is the newest thing; but rather it is plucked from Paddy’s vast backlog of material when it seems to be appropriate.
Although Paddy clearly sees a unity between the two albums, he feels that the different studio setting attributed to the difference in sound. “Swoon was recorded and mixed for approximately eight thousand dollars, which isn‘t gonna buy you a record company lunch today. So yeah, it was more densely done. It has a charm in that once you penetrate it, you think ‘wow!’ I’m very proud of Swoon. I still am. But at the same time, it has its faults.”
Paddy sees himself as a songwriter first, and anticipates the day when someone records a cover version of one of his songs. For the time being, however, he will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that Elvis Costello performed “Cruel” (off Swoon) throughout his American tour. “People are timid about recording songs unless the guy who wrote it has had massive success. Caution creeps in.”
Elvis’ name pops up often, when critics discuss PREFAB SPROUT; and one wonders if there are any plans for the two to work together. “I don’t like his song- writing at all, and l don’t like his singing.” Paddy says quickly clearing up any doubts. “‘That immediately puts up a barrier for me. I’ve toured with him, he’s very gracious; but I think Elvis thinks Two Wheels Good is a pile of junk. That’s what I have heard. I think he thinks it in rubbish. And the guy you get as a producer – I always look at it this way – has to be sympathetic to what I’m singing about.
“I am happy with the songs I have written; but I do not make good records. I need to rely on someone who is good with arrangements.” Thoughts of Elvis quickly fade, and we begin to realize that Thomas Dolby was not such a weird choice after all. “I think there is a lot of strength in admitting your weaknesses. I like to think I‘m man enough to say that. I can’t be the best producer if I’m also writing and singing.”