Despite their fragile songs, Prefab Sprout’s lead singer Paddy McAloon is a fast talking loudmouth. And he trained to be a priest. Sorrel Downer takes a confession.
A cheery Paddy McAloon lumbers over and says a friendly Hello. He seems to be the complete opposite of the man you’d expect to be the writer and lead singer with Prefab Sprout and responsible for their lilting, angst-ridden songs.
“People imagine me to be sensitive, but I’m definitely not a fey character. I’m much cruder than that, I’m afraid,” he says. “And no, no, I wasn’t ever introverted. Quite the opposite. l was a loudmouth, a showoff, until I was at least 16. l remember actually sickening myself by talking too much.
It’s hard to think of him as the man behind Prefab Sprout (rest of the line up: brother Martin, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti) who, with a heavy beard and dark glasses, wrote their 1983 debut album Swoon, the soft but gritty production Steve McQueen — “which went gold and all that stuff” — and played the pop game perfectly with When Love Breaks Down. And now there’s the single Cars And Girls, from the album From Langley Park To Memphis.
Nine years after the Prefabs signed to the emergent Newcastle label Kitchenware (also the home of The Kane Gang, Hurrah and The Daintees), McAloon still lives with his parents in Consett, County Durham and, despite being a quick, witty talker, confesses to being a loner. The one thing that does match the writer with his songs is McAloon’s dry, ironic sense of humour.
“Like, when I’ve written something I’m happy with, I’ll go to Newcastle and walk around Woolworth’s,” he says. “I get a big kick out of that. I never buy anything, I just like all the bright lights!” He likes a good drink, too. But McAloon, despite confessing that he was an extrovert teenager, is loath to stand on stage being a frontman and much of the rock music bonhomie — record parties and London life – is simply another world that he wants to keep away from.
“You’d have to be sublimely stupid or a real gunslinger to want to tour,” he says. “Sometimes standing on stage can be a real nightmare. I have lapses of concentration and start thinking, ‘I really shouldn’t be here’. Sometimes I look at the audience and think, ‘I bet you think I’m having a good time’, when I’m not.”
Yet he has always felt the need to throw himself whole-heartedly into something. In his early teens he wanted to be a footballer, but he was too short. So the meditative youngster decided to become a priest instead (“a romantic notion,” he says) and enrolled at a seminary — a Roman Catholic training college. But just as he got to the brink of passing out, McAloon discovered that he had an ear for a good tune.
“That was the hilarious thing. Because for 99 per cent of my time there, rather than thinking about my priesthood, my mind was focused on writing songs,” he recalls. “The fact that my heroes, like Marc Bolan, had written their own songs interested me. I was really fascinated and I wanted to have a go, which is strange because I’d never been very good at many things and never very persistent about learning them.
“l had this idea of becoming a priest, but I didn’t have a vocation. I wish I could say that I did, but it was just the mythology of being at boarding school that attracted me with the tuck box, the football and everything. But perhaps now I’ve found my vocation after all.
“lt’s a wonderful feeling when you grasp something you can do. I’d probably be really insecure if I didn’t think that there was anything unusual that I could do well.”
Even though, with singles like the current Cars And Girls and Prefab Sprout’s 1983 hit Don’t Sing, he’s an undisputed master of simple yet subtle pop tunes, McAloon isn’t quite capable of being able to tum out material to order.
“l rely on my imagination,” he says. “But I’m’ not a very ordered person, so everything comes out in a rush. I’m atrocious with words and have to chop a song around a million times.”
His songwriting talents still remain a mystery to the rest of the band, too. According to Wendy Smith, who’s loitering around the hotel lobby: “He’ll go off for a couple of days and then reappear with a finished song. I don’t know how he does it. I wouldn’t know where to start. I mean, where do tunes come from?”
McAloon is self-effacing about it: “I’m not a real tune writer, although I’m probably rated as being able to write pop,” he says. “I work at it all the time. I should balance it up a bit more, but I’ve never found anything that I’ve enjoyed as much. “If I felt that I’d reached the point where I’d proved myself and enough people thought I was good, I’d go away and then . . He falters and his eyes glint mischievously. “I was going to give you the Miss World answer, ‘save the little children’. Sorry, being facetious. I wouldn’t do anything at all except read a lot. But I’m ambitious. Umm, yes, oh God, terrible. It’s a childish thing, but I always want more.”