When everybody else went for rhythm Paddy McAloon stuck with melody He’s got ten years of defiantly unrockist pop behind him and his next seven albums written. And his ego is still pitifully under developed…
PET SOUNDS, ASIDE FROM BEING THE TITLE of one of the greatest records ever to kiss the lips of the world, is also the name of the shop in Newcastle where Paddy McAloon likes to do his record buying. He’s here now, matter of interest, combing the racks for old Laura Nyro albums as he affably shoots Brian Wilson gossip with the manager.
Paddy seems to be living his life at a relaxed pace. He’s been through a few cans of Red Stripe, a couple of thin cigars and an anecdote or two about his ultimate songwriting hero Jimmy Webb (tunesmeister of ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Macarthur Park’ and ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’) whom he had the unspeakable honour of singing a song with on an Irish TV show last year.
Everything’s progressing smoothly, too, with the new Prefab Sprout single, ‘The Sound Of Crying’, which, in typically marvellous paradoxical Sprout style, manages to include ice-cool phraseology like “the music of the spheres” while still being catchy enough to be this week’s third mostplayed single on Radio 1.
A best of album, ‘A Life Of Surprises’, has just been released to document ten years of Sprouthood and once again punt McAloon’s proﬁle up to the towering heights of timeless songwriting expertise where it most emphatically belongs. That he is, in 1992, one of a very small number of people writing classic love songs simply means we need to hear from him more often.
“Prefab Sprout has always been a band that inspires people in a way that doesn’t make the headlines,” he says, sounding very at ease with the notion. “We’re never going to have the inﬂuence of a Guns N’Roses where people may think that Slash and what’s-his-name are really cool characters. We’re never going to have that. What we do is quite subtle. And there’s something in there that you can’t get anywhere else.
“It’s got a lot to do with the way the whole world is going,” he goes on. “People buying Nintendo games or whatever. I heard an interview with Paul Simon and he was going, Melodies are all gone, no one’s interested in that. If you want kids to buy your records, rhythm’s what you’ve got to have. And I sort of know that, but I can’t accept it, in my heart. The more people think that, the more room there is for someone like me.”
Someone like him would be a 35-year-old, quietly spoken, sweet-natured, excellent-man-to-be-locked-in-a-pub-with, kind of a songwriting perfectionist, a man so immersed in the history of his craft that he spent ages working conscientiously on a quote for the Independent On Sunday’s recent Paul McCartney 50th birthday article; so contemptuous of his lack of any decent competition that he’d far rather talk about old heroes like Jimmy Webb, Gerry Gofﬁn and Carole King, Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell; so in tune with what constitutes real throat-grabbing music that he can’t be bothered learning the name of Axel Rose; so preoccupied by the private ecstasies to be had from writing great songs that very often letting other people hear them is the last thing on his mind.
He has the next seven Prefab Sprout albums written and ready to roll: 85 songs, seven albums. Paddy can even talk you through them…
“I have a Christmas album called either ‘Total Snow’ or ‘Symphony Of Snowﬂakes’,” he begins. “And that’s kind of an agnostic Christmas album. It’s got bells on, in a big way.”
He pauses. His ﬁngers have just alighted on an old Petula Clark album. He takes it out of the rack and examines the back. He starts to sing ‘Downtown’ softly.
“And I also have ‘Zorro The Fox’, which I’ve been working on forever. It’s about the cartoon ﬁgure Zorro, it’s just kind of pure escapism from the things I write. Steven Spielberg recently bought the rights to the whole Zorro character and next year I’m going to get some demos to him, because I have just the perfect Zorro LP waiting to go.”
Which, he admits, would probably be a suicidal way of following up ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. A few people are still reeling from Jordan some 18 months later; McAloon himself, with quiet conﬁdence, reckons it’s provided him with an indelible “artistic legacy… I knew when I wrote it this is the best LP anyone’s going to hear for a long time”. Those fans may not be expecting McAloon’s next despatch to be a cute fantasy about a swashbuckling masked crusader who signs his cheques with a sword. What next?
“The next one will probably be called ‘Knights In Armour’ or ‘Billy Midnight’. I’ve not decided which. They’re just very is romantic songs, modern love songs. Elvis-free, death-free, in the way that ‘Jordan’ wasn’t. Quite classic.”
And then there’s an album “about cities”; one about Michael Jackson called ‘Behind The Veil’ that has songs titled ‘Unicorn In Trouble’ and ‘Mr Lightning Boots’; one he won’t talk about; and one called ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, which was written during the Gulf War and is about the healing powers of music.
Doesn’t he get incredibly frustrated that most of these records will take aeons to see the light of day, and that no one will know how good they are?
“Well…There’s no way you can tell people how good you are, or how unusual, or what visions you have, because you will only sound stupid. But like I was saying about ‘Zorro The Fox’ or me Christmas album, this is how I think. This is how I live my life. This is what I would like to see other bands do. I look at other groups and it’s not that I don’t like them, I just think they have petty ambitions. They have petty, puny visions.”
Can he understand people ﬁnding it hard to write songs?
“I can understand things like lack of inspiration. I can understand fear of paying the mortgage. So I’m more hardheaded than people may think. Something in me just makes me take these strange detours.”
How would he describe that something in him?
“I’m like a mole,” he smiles. “I do everything on the sly. And then I sort of present all the tapes to people. And you’ve got to be more sly the older you get. If you want to get better you’ve really got to turn the ﬂame right down and just be absolutely passionate about what I do. It’s no secret that I hate playing live. In a perfect life I would have no visible presence whatsoever. I would just write, cos that’s the bit I enjoy, writing, and I probably wouldn’t even make records.”
In which case, we should all thank our lucky stars that life is far from perfect. It would be unbearable if Paddy McAloon got his wish.