At the precise moment that in Antwerp oversized epileptic Barbie Dolls are being handed, for no obvious reason, Diamond Award Records, a brilliant songwriter sits in Amsterdam puffing out his chest after a brilliant concert. Paddy McAloon is in the dressing room, somewhat embarrassed to be holding a rose a fan slipped into his hands in the closing moments. “I feel like Morrissey,” he says, laughing, and then, whispering: “Morrissey is jealous of our success, I’m afraid. Since we started selling more records than him he says unpleasant things about me everywhere.” Lloyd Cole is indeed a blood brother: “As he very fashionably now lives in New York, his manager begged me to teach him an American accent.”
Paddy has other fans. Marc Mijlemans, a man who chooses his words carefully spoke in this magazine of “perfect songs”, “totally unique” and “a masterpiece”. Elvis Costello recognizes McAloon as a kindred songwriter. Pete Townsend and Stevie Wonder never play on other people’s records, except for those of Prefab Sprout. Michael Jackson is considering a collaboration. It was no accident that Bowie borrowed Sprout drummer Neil Conti for Live Aid, and producer Thomas Dolby put his own career on ice to work on “Jordan: the Comeback” for seven months.
Prefab Sprout remains a family business. Paddy has struck gold. His muse Wendy Smith purifies with her angelic voice all the dirt and grime from rock’n’roll. And brother Martin McAloon growls and grumbles. He is the archetypal level headed Northerner. If you ask him what the main activity is in their home village of Consett in County Durham, he says dryly: “dying.” And the greatest sin? “Art”. He reflects on the early Sprout days when they performed for an audience all of the members they knew personally. The nearest town was Newcastle, where Bryan Ferry and Sting were born before leaving the region. Mother McAloon was a cleaner in the local church; her colleague was Grandma Sting.
Typically, the Sprouts didn’t leave. Paddy still lives there, looking after his parents.
Anyone wanting a free songwriting course will now find themselves being waited on hand and foot…
Humo: One of the finest qualities in your songs is that you manage to say “I love you” or “You’re the one for me” without using clichés.
McAloon: “Yes, it takes more effort, but the result is much better. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the new single from Whitney Houston, where she combines concepts of fantasy and reality. Jesus! Every pop song from the seventies pairs fantasy and reality. They’re well-worn ideas. Unless you use them ironically. And then you’re not writing songs but comedy sketches. (Laughs suddenly) I just thought of Griff Rhys-Jones of the British comedy duo, Smith & Jones. I was on a radio panel with him discussing new records. Griff knows nothing about music so I wrote him a little pile of notes, trivia, which he then read out sounding knowledgeable as if he’d conceived them on the spot… (Mimics) ‘Well personally I’ve always found Aerosmith too idiosyncratic…’ Anyway I often search for metaphors that exude more passion and yet don’t sound too far-fetched. If you sing: ;You should be loving someone… and you’ll never find Atlantis ’til you make that someone me’, you’re evoking not just the love affair in the song but also the seventh heaven on Earth that Atlantis was. ‘We Let the Stars Go’ is a sentimental yet original way to describe a total surrender: ‘fan the embers long enough/ I’ll sometimes catch her flame’ is much more compelling than ‘I sometimes remember her”.
“I’ve written a song called “I’m a Plumber”, just as an exercise, because it seemed difficult to me to create a sensitive love song whose main character is a boring plumber. As a songwriter in the nineties I love battling with fifty years of clichés and hollowed out variations on the theme of ‘I love you’. But you can overcome these hurdles: if ‘passion’ is a hackneyed word you have to sing about shoelaces… with passion! Take ‘When Love Breaks Down’: the first phrase is ‘My Love and I, we work well together.. but often we’re apart.’ The biggest cliché would then be to follow with ‘And if it goes on like that, she’ll break my heart.’ It took me a full week to avoid that trap and come up with something that in my humble opinion is much better ‘… but absence makes the heart lose weight… ’til love breaks down.” Or in other words it’s much more poetic. It’s like saying ‘I’ve got six things on my mind… you’re no longer one of them.’
Humo: You also use words that aren’t easy to sing, such as “overawed” and “nitroglycerine” and “blood-group rhesus”, for example.
McAloon: “Yes, those words have to the best of my knowledge never been used in chart music, and that in itself is a good reason for me to use them. There’s another reason why I like to use a lot of words, which is that you can’t build a beautiful melody around short sentences. If you have a chorus of two words, you also have a chorus of two chords. Take ‘Good Times’ by Chic: cool groove, a classic, but very staccato, very monotonous and limited.”
Humo: You’re very sentimental, but sometimes afraid to be too sentimental. In the beautiful “We Let the Stars Go” you say, four times ”Long ago one gorgeous night” and then the last time “Stupid Night”…
McAloon: “It’s the song version of the boy who opens his heart first, then at the end gets knocked back by the girl, so quickly turns his declaration of love into a sarcastic joke. ‘We Let the Stars Go’ is about a past relationship, and you always think in retrospect ‘what could have been?’ You always have the thought that all the doors were wide open to you, but you’ve wasted the opportunity. I’m a shameless romantic but I’m also quite clear-headed. I relativise everything immediately, even though I might have tears in my eyes. ‘One of the Broken” opens with a bombastic monology by the ‘Voice of God’. I put it in because the rest of the song was so reverent and pure. Imitating the voice of God is disrespectful, and that irreverence gives the song more of a punch, it undermines the bombast. I relativise the romance because my other songs have a sort of evening quality and I don’t want Prefab Sprout only to be played by candlelight.”
HUMO: Was the seventeen year old Paddy McAloon equally romantic and eloquent as he is now in his love songs?
McAloon : (painful grimace) “Oh, no… I was a dreamer and very much one of the boys. I was at a Catholic seminary, that’s probably all you need to know. I was already determined to be a songwriter, but it wasn’t working yet. Girls were beings from another planet, walking mysteries; I was certain even God didn’t understand them. Even now… In the songs I’m confident, but in real life I’m still the blushing boy scout of yesteryear. My friends always tease me, “Paddy, as a rock star you must attract them by the dozen, right?” No way, Jose. The only song that comes close to how I really am is “Wild Horses”, about a boy who is transfixed by the beauty of an angelic girl. ”
Humo: You have a remarkable preference for complex arrangements. Anyone playing your “Jesse James Bolero” rather than Ravel’s Bolero will end up with their arms in a tangle…
McAloon: (laughs) “Yes, but for me it’s a challenge to say more in three minutes than you hear from others in a whole album. If you want to criticise the fakery and plastic of modern society, you shouldn’t need lengthy critical monologues. I wrote: ‘You give me infra-red instead of sun’, and that says all that’s needed.
Humo: What is for you the value of classic British understatement with regard to songwriting?
McAloon: “Ah! I’ve been conflicted about that for years. There are two Paddy McAloons: one of the stripped down, ultra-austere songs like ‘Mercy’, and the other of the richly arranged epics like ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’. Most of the songs in the charts are painted in bright primary reds and yellows, where we are pastel shades and autumnal colours. Sometimes I regret that though, sometimes I wish I could write directly and without detours, like Michael Jackson. He doesn’t think for a moment whether a word like ‘baby’ is possible, or whether a melody might be too simple or too clichéd. It’s a limitation, but it’s also a strength, because he hasn’t got detail getting in the way of his vision.
“I use understatement when the core of the song is so intense and simple that you can only increase the effect by keeping the arrangement quite bare and austere, for example ‘Mercy’ or ‘One of the Broken’. But songs like ‘Jordan: the Comeback’ will evoke a whole world, from Las Vegas to Memphis to Elvis… You have to do that musically, and that song is a kind of mini-musical where the pumping bass is both Elvis’ hip work and the throbbing of convertibles on endless highways and both need to be heard. And the narrative voice that is reading Elvis’ mind.
“Another example: when in ‘Jesse James Bolero’ I’m telling a dramatic story about a pseudo-hero, the rhythm of the song also has to convey that drama, hence the bolero. A simple guitar part would be hopelessly inadequate. I use Thomas Dolby more as an arranger than a producer, I let him propose arrangements that fit the idea of each song. In short, I love understatement, but I’m also a bigTrevor Horn fan (laughs).”
Humo: You’re apparently also a fan of coitus interruptus.
McAloon: “I beg your pardon?”
Humo: The chorus of “Jesse James” stops abruptly. The end of “Moon Dog” goes for choral singing.
McAloon: “Oh, that’s what you mean! Well, these are musical devices, technical tricks to get out of the maze you’ve put yourself in. You see, sometimes you box yourself into a corner, sometimes you write a melody like a whirlpool; a downward spiral. Then the chorus continues to sound nice, but you can’t get out of it and there’s no end to the tangle. So I let ‘Moon Dog’ fall silent like a broken engine that’s overheated.
HUMO: And classical music? In “Jesse James” you quote Bach. and several songs use counterpoint, one of the pillars of classical music.
McAloon: “I’m passionate about studying classical music, because that skill will help me compose better pop songs. It enriches my work, like painters who can sculpt are better than those who don’t. I know it’s not hip to be a pop star who says he likes classical music, but I still treasure the day I realised I didn’t need to be hip any more. When I was eighteen I thought musicals were for grannies, grandma music. Now I see their worth.”
HUMO: Can you give an example of how you as a songwriter can learn from bad music?
McAloon: “Oh Yeah! I constantly listen to music that I hate. Not only schmaltz and James Last, but… Oh boy, turn on MTV and you hear in one hour more rubbish than there are holes in a hole. But I don’t listen to rubbish only to learn something, but also to draw energy from it. All those robotic rhythms, that lack of imagination, the melodic poverty … oh dear! If I hear a bad record I think that I can do better, and a lot of songs are born out of those reflexes. I immediately ask myself whether that subject could have used rhythm better? Would I have curtailed the chorus, or mixed it with a second hidden chorus? Could I not turn these clichés round? What if I made the chorus into the verse or vice versa? How does the melody sound when the tape is reversed… Sometimes I hear a slimeball song and I love it anyway, like “On My Own” by Burt Bacharach in the version by Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald: that lyric is one big cliché… and yet irresistible.”
Humo: What are the advantages and disadvantages of typecasting in a song?
McAloon: “Well… I use typecasting like it’s used in the movies: an actor with a mug that looks like a psychopath’s in the role of a psychopath, as I don’t want to preach some great philosophy but simply want to construct a picture that fits the mode of a song, and more specifically to the rhythm. In ‘The Ice Maiden’, I had Wendy sing the lead, because her frail voice can melt ice. The Machine Gun Ibiza character in the song is a caricature based on Jimi Hendrix, but the sound of his name as well as its rhythm gives the song more punch. It’s also a trick to catch the attention: an opening line like “This is a song about a killer still on the loose” sells more records than “I loved her, etc.”. It comes down to giving the listener something to hold onto, starting from the first note and the first word.”
Humo: How shocking: you used ‘Ibiza’ in a song.
McAloon: (laughs) “After ‘Steve McQueen’ and ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ I was criticized because I dropped so many American names: Albuquerque, chess player Bobby Fischer, Memphis, country singer Faron Young … I used American place names mainly because there are no English places with the same mythic sound, well maybe Liverpool and London. But I thought: ‘I’ll show you bastards!’ But look at Jordan’s references to Paris – not only the city but also the Greek lover – Ibiza, bolero… all European name-dropping.
“The key words for Prefab Sprout for me are: passion, sentiment, elegance, intimacy, craftsmanship. That’s what the house is built from. All the names and references are just interior decoration.”
HUMO: I wonder: does a pretty successful songwriter as you ever achieve his objectives?
McAloon: “Almost. The detail comes later. The reality is never what you dreamed of. To use the name ‘Steve McQueen’, we had to ask his widow’s permission. Her lawyers refused, so we had to call that record ‘Two Wheels Good’ in America. And now I’m on tour, which isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I’m still singing thirty songs many of which I wrote when I was a nineteen year old. The mistake many young people make is to think that real life is going on somewhere else; they need necessarily to be in New York to be at the centre of things. That’s a mistake that has already destroyed many young lives. The myth of New York is a lie, the myth of its artists that is. A young musician grabs a syringe because the great Lou Reed does, but he forgets Lou Reed has enough money to change his blood every month. But a young junkie in Brussels or Newcastle gets no second chance.
Humo: In “Jesse James Symphony” you sing: “Well the ZIP code may read Vegas, but the heart beats Tupelo” and “medication” and “looking for the right song” in “Jordan: The Comeback . Are these references to Elvis Presley?
McAloon: “Yes. America is buzzing with rumors that Elvis is still alive. Not a day passes without people alerting the press that they’ve seen Elvis order a hamburger at McDonalds, or pills from the pharmacy. All baloney, of course… I think. But as a songwriter I saw something in the romantic idea that Elvis, like former billionaire Howard Hughes, is now playing the recluse in a hotel in the desert around Las Vegas, waiting for the one song that will enable his comeback. I heard a while ago that Frank Sinatra said that he no longer made records because there are simply no more songs that will be written for his voice. My starting point was that I was going to write a song where Elvis has spent thirteen years with his life on hold. And then I thought: what subject is grand and mythical enough to be sung by Elvis? Jesse James: the pathetic story of a young life wasted. But it was too pathetic, so I included phrases like ‘the gene that cursed his blood group rhesus bad’ sounding ponderous and funny. Also, the applause at the end of ‘Moon Dog’ samples a live concert by Elvis.”
HUMO: I suspect you also use words just because they sound good?
McAloon: Sure. Some words sound terribly sexy. The sound of Jesse James (tries words and licks his lips). I have a theory that people like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe became so famous partly because their names sound so sensual. I’m annoyed by my old songs in which the words were too harsh and angular, also because I used too many words (rattles off): ‘That’s a feast that the whiskey priest may yet have to… (from ‘Don’t sing’) …’ oh dear!”
Humo: You toyed with the idea of sending “King of Rock ‘n Roll” to Bowie?
McAloon: “Yes, I do that all the time. I mean, I regularly write songs with different voices in mind. ‘Nightingales’ is my Barbra Streisand pastiche, which why I said yesterday after singing the song ‘There you go, Barbra!’ But I mean it too… It’s not a joke, on the contrary, I’m convinced she would have a huge hit with that song. ‘Doo wop in Harlem’ would be perfect for Ray Charles.”
Humo: You have a contract for eight LPs. Such a long-term contract is very rare in these times of instant success and disposable hits. Do you remember your first contact with the A & R men, the talent scouts from the big record labels?
McAloon: “Whoops! The irony is I was so naive I started by sending all the record companies a tape of a live performance. It’s funny if you know how much I hate doing concerts. I got a pile of rejections from that tape of the kind ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’. So we made a professional demo, which also made no impression. And six months later suddenly four labels wanted to sign us. We chose CBS because of the big money, I confess honestly, as a contract creates long term confidence and especially since the chief executive of CBS’ Artist & Repertoire department gave us really good advice. That’s Muff Winwood, Steve Winwood’s brother, who said for example ‘Why not try putting the song title in the lyrics for once?’ Very simple but effective advice and a justified criticism because previously I’d confused the listener too much. The words ‘Don’t Sing’ in the title don’t appear in the song. Warner Brothers were interested but they saw me only as a songwriter, not a group, let alone a singer. They now regret it a little.”
Humo: Incidentally how is the career of your producer, arranger, the rather fantastic Thomas Dolby, going?
McAloon: “Well. He’s recording a new album at the moment. He’s just become a father. And he’s big in Hollywood: film and television producers offer him phenomenal sums to provide soundtracks for their products. Also this year he spent seven months of his precious time on ‘Jordan: the Comeback’…”
(Manager Keith Armstrong kindly but firmly points out that he has to sing tonight, and bearing that in mind it’s time to shut his big mouth please).
Humo: One final thing: I found yesterday a British review of your debut album, in which some woman described you as like “mushy rotten vegetables sounding like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Nick Heyward … after their death.”
Paddy McAloon: (reads grinning) “And in one part she explains the pop group Freur has a great future! Freur! Ever heard of them? The best review of ‘Swoon’ was in the NME. The scumbags said the record company should attach an axe to ‘Swoon’ so people come immediately smash it to pieces. I thought that was a compliment. If someone makes the effort to put an axe through your record, you’ve achieved something, right?”