After 17 years, the “lost album” of the British group that started with the dubious ambition of becoming the “new Beatles” emerges. But is “Let’s Change the World With Music” really the epitaph of Prefab Sprout? Simone Sacco asked Paddy McAloon.
Pop (the right kind) is a terribly dangerous business. Dangerous, because it’s easy to imagine that a seemingly harmless genre can make you sick with nostalgia, or, as Paddy McAloon puts it, makes you suddenly “A Prisoner of the Past” in a miserable state of melancholy. Basically that’s how love works, right? That being established, I’ve no problem revealing that years ago I fell hopelessly in love with a band I would never have believed I would like so much or find so poignant. Just imagine: a provincial Italian teenager, someone who had like so many been brought up on Nirvana or Oasis’ heavy metal choruses, came across a record like Prefab Sprout’s “Protest Songs”, a bleaker, convoluted work. Then again for the 1985 album “Steve McQueen” (produced by Thomas Dolby, who has always been for Prefab Sprout what George Martin was for the Beatles), which was too good to be true: a pure yankee mythology that had spent 50 years growing in the petit-bourgeois suburbs of Newcastle by mistake and turned into a music worthy in equal measure of Burt Bacharach, Steely Dan, Cole Porter and Brian Wilson.
But Prefab Sprout became a losing battle within just a few years, especially in light of their lavish albums such as “Jordan: The Comeback” (God, Elvis Presley and McAloon’s existential disillusionment compressed into a single record), and Andromeda Heights (a remake of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in a coarser age, the age of the paparazzi and the death of Princess Diana). Purely by dint of pursuing “perfect pop” McAloon and his co-members ensured that the world would resoundingly forget them.
Just a couple of months ago, McAloon decided to pull out of a drawer an album, “Let’s Change the World With Music”, recorded clandestinely in 1993. It’s the first sign of life since a “difficult” instrumental solo album in 2003 (“I Trawl the Megahertz”) released to an even more disheartening silence. The new album sadly marks the end credits on the Sprout saga as the good Paddy confirmed when JAM called him in his home-recording studio near Newcastle
“Prefab Sprout no longer exists. I had this album in a drawer for about seventeen years and, when Sony came knocking on my door with a contractual requirement, I preferred to give them “Let’s Change The World With Music” instead of the usual pointless compilation.”
Paddy himself writes in the CD booklet about a mysterious “poor move”, which took place in the late spring of 1993. And that “unfortunate choice” was the beginning of a Wilsonian (Brian) period comprising an identity crisis, and various albums (Zorro The Fox, a Christmas album, a pop opera about Michael Jackson, etc.) completely written but then never released because of some sort of, um…, inner insecurity.
“It was a really confusing period. At the time, neither Kitchenware nor Sony wanted a spiritual record with explicit references to God along the lines of Jordan: The Comeback. To cut a long story short, “Let’s Change the World With Music” was vetoed without even being listened to (sigh). Then when in the booklet I talk about a “poor move”, I don’t mean the relationship with others in the band, that’s always been great, but a state of tension between myself and the record label. Although it’s water under the bridge now.”
And so from the dusty drawers of the past emerged this work with such an optimistic and utopian title, but is it still possible to “change the world with music” in this era of the iPod, groups that promote themselves on MySpace, X Factor, and legalised theft on the Internet?
“No, absolutely not. Perhaps at this point I should have called the album ‘Give Your Music Away For Free’ (laughs). But the title is a song that doesn’t appear in the track listing because I finished writing it just a couple of months ago. Of course that particular phrase has to be read in an ironic sense, or at least as change on the level of individual people: in fact music now only saves those who really want to listen and understand it, not the masses.”
And nostalgically, but in what way? Well, because the magic of songs like “Let There Be Music” and “Ride”, the brace opening the work, takes us back exactly to the Prefab Sprout of the early 1990s.
“Hmmm, to be honest I don’t consider myself terribly nostalgic. My music goes on and I go with it. Of course these are songs composed in 1992 and subsequently mixed by Callum Malcolm, my sound engineer, in 2009.”
It wouldn’t be wrong to see “Let’s Change the World With Music” as Prefab Sprout’s “Smile”…
“Yes, there may be that comparison, just that you shouldn’t think of comparing me to an absolute genius like Brian Wilson (chuckles). Until proven otherwise I’m not a songwriter up to his level, and I’ve never written masterpieces like “Good Vibrations”, “God Only Knows”, or “Surf’s Up”, although I must say I enjoyed the mental training Brian did five years ago, when he felt like gathering together, rearranging and putting out a record as legendary as “Smile.”
And you, Paddy, how many Smiles (or Smiley Smiles at least) still remain in the vaults?
“Well, the first album that I wrote after the failure of “Let’s Change” wasn’t “Andromeda Heights” as everyone thinks, but “Earth: The Story So Far” which was my perspective on the history of humanity from the origins of Adam and Eve up to John and Jackie Kennedy and beyond. A huge project that sits on thirteen reels of tape I’ve got stored in my home studio. I listened to it recently and said to myself I could release it once and for all.”
So, all things considered, maybe Prefab Sprout aren’t completely dead, at least in the category of lost albums. But there’s a cold shower on the way when we discuss touring:
“Sorry, but in the future there will never be any more tours with me on stage. You know, I suffered terribly hearing loss lately, to say nothing of my eye problems (both of Paddy’s retinas were operated on, author’s note), and playing live would be like condemning my right ear to death. Perhaps the BBC, just to please the fans, will put out some of our old live radio concerts sooner or later, but the subject doesn’t concern me anymore. It’s a closed story forever. Perhaps there’ll be some other record recorded by Prefab Sprout, but not necessarily… In fact I’d like to make a little album of acoustic songs, something light and delicate like certain Louis Armstrong pieces. You know, with the state my ear is in, I don’t want to be hearing bass and drums pumping for hours and hours in the studio.”
And so, after twenty-six years of traveling, it’s really time to pull the car over and stand on the side of the highway. To lower the reclining seats, air the car, pull on a nice cigar and finally take a look back. The Sprout have travelled a long road from the rawness of Swoon. And there have been successes, epoch making events, too: For example Bruce Springsteen no longer just sings of “Cars and Girls”. Or the case of Michael Jackson, the invincible superstar delivered to the commercial vultures by a sad and sudden death.
“Let me say however that the Single “Cars and Girls” was a joke that got completely out of hand in the 1980s, Springsteen also wrote very serious kinds of songs like Nebraska that I tried not to want to listen to. Jackson’s death was a disaster though and an infinite punishment at the same time. He was a great artist who had already grasped everything. That collaborating with a team such as Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton would lead to excellence. You know I have a record inspired by Michael metaphorically (the protagonist is called St Michael Jacques, author’s note) exactly as “Jordan: the Comeback” was by Elvis Presley, but it doesn’t seem right to release it now. It would be like dancing on Jacko’s grave for marketing reasons, as too many have been doing in recent months.”
Paddy, if you were on top of a tower who would you choose to throw off? Paul McCartney (the godfather of British pop), Irving Berlin (the father of American music) and Thomas Dolby (the perfect producer)? A belly laugh preceded the answer
A belly laugh anticipates the answer and clever skirts the question.
“Seriously? I’d rather check carefully that the foundations of the tower are solid: those three are a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.
Just like those who wrote things like “I Remember That”, “One Of The Broken”, “Johnny Johnny” and “A Prisoner Of The Past?” And, just to be clear, I am talking of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard in my entire life…
“Thanks for an exceedingly gratifying compliment”, dismisses Paddy, “but may be you should listen to records of certain Barons known as the Beatles. There, yes, you’ll find timeless masterpieces!”
God bless you Patrick McAloon. And also bless your modesty. Yeah, pop mays be a risky business but sometimes it speaks with the soothing voice of the eternal…