Prefab Sprout: Old Age and Youth
Prefab Sprout have returned! Mastermind Paddy McAloon recently received the press at his Durham retreat, and talked of adolescence, restlessness, and Bob Dylan.
He has snow-white hair, professorial glasses and a flowing beard. Anyone unknowingly seeing Paddy McAloon, 56, would never believe that such a prematurely aged man can make such beautiful, evergreen music, radiating a sense of youth.
But he can. In the mid-eighties, he had been one of the most promising pop composers of his generation. With the band he founded in 1978, Prefab Sprout, he aspired to a rich and sumptuous sound, the sort previously known only in the most daring pop orchestrations of Scott Walker and Van Dyke Parks. The albums ” Steve McQueen ” (1985) and “From Langley Park To Memphis ” (1988) sold millions of copies. There was a hit single, but he didn’t follow a path to mainstream success, and McAloon withdrew more and more into a hermit’s life. Even by 1990, the album “Jordan: the Comeback” was making reference to this reclusiveness in the title song.
Every few years since, he has opened the drawers in his home studio and pulled out a few songs. Under pressure from his record company he has just done this again: “Crimson/Red” is the beautiful result. McAloon doesn’t suffer from inertia. He composes perpetually. He’s just not very interested in exposing himself to the activities associated with releasing material. So it was all the more surprising he agreed to do a series of in-person interviews with the press in a hotel in Durham.
One question comes up: Is the way he looks a kind of protest against the cult of youth in pop music?
“In a way, yes,” admits McAloon. “The affectation of being cool was never my thing. At some point I stopped looking in the mirror, simply because nothing I saw there was getting any better.”
And why has he such a youthful voice? “Well, I certainly don’t gargle with the blood of twelve virgins,” he mutters, laconically, “it’s more that I don’t use the voice too much, that’s to say I avoid touring.”
One of the songs is called “Adolescence”. Why? “You know, people of my age often make the mistake of only seeing the good things in retrospect. I remember my restlessness far too well. It was a time of uncertainty.” In this song, McAloon finds fascinating imagery to represent the mood of 15 year-olds. “It’s like a psychedelic motor bike/ you smash it up ten times a day/ then you walk away.. It’s pure hormonal agony, bad poetry.”
Far too often he was praised for his lyrics, he says. He would rather be praised as a good tunesmith. McAloon can put his songs aside, then return to look at them and make changes if necessary. “Composing doesn’t necessarily begin with an idea, a melody or a word. You feel an inner restlessness. Your enemies are the blank page; the feeling of having used a chord before.”
Does his perfectionism not have a destructive side? “Yes. But you have to learn to live with your limitations. That’s the nature of the universe.”
McAloon likes to observe the methods of the competition, and he likes to write about fellow-songwriters. “You roar right out of Nowheresville, to find the beating heart, cryptic, elusive, smart, mysterious from the start” he sings with crystal clarity about the young Bob Dylan in “Mysterious”. And in “The Songs of Danny Galway” he attempts to tell the story of the songwriter Jimmy Webb. “It was exciting to try to approach these two giant characters in such a condensed format”. The fact that Webb, a fan, has posted McAloon’s lyrics on his own website, animates him: “Do you really think that’s Jimmy Webb’s real site?” he asks dubiously.
McAloon suffers not only from perfectionism, but also from self doubt, even if he is often referred to as the “Gershwin of Geordieland”. “That’s sweet, but it has nothing to do with reality,” he offers, “In my lyrics I give impressions of a direction in the same way as a painter might. I think Mallarmé said that you can never paint an object itself, but only what it triggers emotionally in you.” He had the good fortune to uncover in “The Best Jewel Thief in the World” and “The Dreamer” two of his very best songs.
His paraphrase of the Faust legend in “The Devil Came a Calling” is beautiful too. Did he enter the world of pop as the result of a pact with the Devil? “Ultimately you never really know,” he says hesitantly. And he adds “My mother, who unfortunately is no longer with us, used to say, ‘Paddy, you never really got over T. Rex.’ I think she was right.