’88’s ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ may have taken a few pot shots at some of rock’s most sacred cows, but with their new LP ‘Jordan: The Comeback’, PREFAB SPROUT have come to praise – So come on down Elvis Presley, God, Jenny Agutter and Jesse James! Concerned for the state of PADDY MCALOON’s sanity, STUART MACONIE took a train to Newcastle to discover what the vegetarian of love’s been taking in his tea. Portrait Of The Artist As A Barn Pot: TIM JARVIS
Outside Boots ‘the Chemist on a sunny July day in Newcastle. Paddy McAloon tells me a joke. I thought you might like to hear it.
“Paul Gascoigne has just been transferred from Newcastle to Spurs and he’s having his first pre-match talk with Terry Venables. Terry takes him to one side and says ‘Look, you‘re new here and you’ve got to make an impression. What I want you to do is go all out in the first half. Really let ’em have it. Run yourself into the ground. it doesn’t matter, and then I‘ll pull you off at half time.’ And Gazza says: ‘Whay aye. Boss, that’s great. I only used to get an orange at St James’ Park.”
I doubt that Gazza is a Prefab Sprout fan, though he might be. The elegant, inventive, deceptive Gascoigne that confounded opponents might be. The one that puts on the plastic breasts tor ‘the lads’ at Luton Airport definitely isn’t. Which brings me back to the point of retelling the story above.
Paddy McAloon may not thank me for opening an interview with a casually told joke but often the off-the-cuff remarks are the most illuminating. And Paddy McAloon the overwrought, introspective, faintly precious balladeer is certainly a myth worth dispelling. In the nicest way possible, Paddy McAloon has come to kick your ass.
Another off-the-cuff remark. Later that evening, over the finest curry on Tyneside. Keith Armstrong. Sprouts manager and head of the eclectic mini-empire of Kitchenware Records, tells me of a cancelled TV debate involving himself and Anthony H Wilson. “I was really sorry. I wanted to say to him, well you might have all these cool bands, you may have New Order but I’ve got all the tunes. you old bastard!”
‘Jordan: The Comeback‘, the new album by Prefab Sprout, isn‘t short of tunes either. It’s chock full of the buggers. Romantic, groovy, heart-breaking, side-splitting, homely, bizarre and all shades of in between. Nineteen songs over 60-odd minutes riding a thematic railroad from nuggets of pure pop philosophy to weighty matters of the soul; from the carefree sparkle of ‘Looking For Atlantis’ to the calm and unimpeachable grace of ‘Doowop in Harlem’.
To say it‘s the pop triumph of the year is to damn it with faint praise. It’s been a slow seven months for long players (and, boy, is this along player). Better to say that even last year, an impossibly fruitful one. With everybody from The Stone Roses to Kate Bush producing brilliant albums. it would have been in there slugging it out.
In lesser hands the sheer volume of material – its giddy diversity from funk to vaudeville – would have buried the listener. But ‘Jordan’ manages an adroitness with dizzying ambition that recalls other great pop jamborees from ‘Sign O’ The Times’ to “The White Album‘. For instance, ‘Scarlet Nights’ is. in subject matter, about as deep as a pop song gets, but that doesn’t get in the way of its potent rock ‘n‘ roll vigour. As an album, this is its abiding strength: it prays with the angels and dances with the devil. But, best of all, it jogs with Madonna.
Paddy McAloon adjusts his sunglasses and smooths out the creases from his Our Man In Havana suit.
“I’m 33. Not 18. I know roughly the shape of things around me, the map of pop. But I don’t feel compelled to stay abreast at every move. There‘s nothing as sad as someone desperately trying to stay hip or credible. I do sometimes feel like an old warrior, but I think that‘s better than walking in the room with my flares on saying ‘Hey, nice one. Have you got any ‘F‘, man?”
THE MAP of pop has been redrawn times without number since Prefab Sprout made their debut with 1983’s plaintive, intoxicating ‘Lions in My Own Garden’ and the subsequent LP, the gauche, tricky ‘Swoon‘. Trousers are wider, the charts are worse, the centre parting is back (Paddy himself sports a natty one) and ‘rave’ is no longer the most unfashionable word in rock.
The journey from there to here has involved a shift in the world’s perception of Prefab Sprout. Then, they were seen as quirky, literate trailblazers. Now you’re more likely to hear them dismissed (by those whose knuckles trail the floor anyway) as CD yuppies. The simple truth is that Prefab Sprout are that rarest of things: a group who have actually got better. Their latest, soon to be released, album is their best whilst their debut LP is their weakest moment. These are sentiments that McAloon himself agrees with. And it’s been conscious movement away from the clotted textures and alienating cleverness of ‘Swoon’ to a more simple beauty: a warmer, more human impulse.
“I still think that it‘s great to write a song that has some depth that people can get into. I like the idea of not getting it all at once. But ‘Swoon‘ was over fussy. As time has gone by, I’ve tried to become a clearer songwriter. l love clear moments of brilliance in a pop song. ‘Swoon’ was full of ”What‘s he on about?” songs. Nowadays I’d prefer to recreate moments like you might get in a, oohh, I dunno, a Willie Nelson or a Glen Campbell song.
‘I mean they’re probably not very hip as people. They‘re probably Republicans with 50 billion dollars. But no one is ever going to ask what ‘Witchita Lineman‘ is about. It just hits you. So, although I’m drawn to unusual subjects in songs, ideally I’d like to be able to move people who have no interest or understanding of the politics and fashions of pop. Ordinary People.
McAloon has never been one to court hipness by wilful or staged trendiness. In his earliest interviews he was getting himself into bother by citing Paul McCartney and Stephen Sondheim as influences rather than more officially sanctioned but lesser talented names like Jim Morrison or Captain Beefheart. And so, as a new decade dawned and Prefab Sprout prepared for the release of a long-awaited new album, how did Paddy assimilate the bewildering new palette of pop; the many and varied riches of Candy Flip and the plinkety plonk piano? He ignored it completely.
“You can only do your own thing. Do what’s good by your own lights. It would be ridiculous to go out and buy a whole load of New York remixes just to get into whatever was happening at the time. I know what’s going on loosely. I listen to the radio in the bath of a morning. I know The Charlatans and The Stone Roses. But I‘m not really drawn to cover versions of old John Kongos songs. And besides, how much radically new, different stuff do you get on the Simon Bates show?”
The result of this happy sojourn in his individual sound world, a world informed more by ‘Pet Sounds‘ and Phil Spector than punk rock or Acid House, is ‘Jordan: The Comeback‘. The general result is a tension between a love of the mainstream pop song tradition and McAloon’s own unusual musical personality. More specifically, the result on ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ is an album that sounds like nothing on earth.
“That‘s my K-Tel head. I love the idea of the listener being inundated with all these musical styles coming at them one after another. It makes for a more colourful record, a bit of dramatic tension. So, I planned the running order very carefully too, to get a definite effect.”
But there‘s more to it than that. ‘Jordan’ should raise eyebrows for more than just its wild musical diversity. There’s also the matter of the issues and themes that the record dwells upon. Like Macbeth‘s apparitions, a whole host of spectral figures are conjured up and swim into view as the drama of the album unfolds. And an odd dramatis personae it is too: Jesse James, The Archangel Michael, Jenny Agutter, Agnetha from Abba . . . but two personalities loom larger than most. And they’re best known for legendary gigs at Vegas And Bethlehem.
“When we were recording the album Thomas Dolby, the producer, said that we ought to call it ‘Death And Elvis’. Certain themes do dominate the record. If not God then I suppose it’s some kind of religious impulse. It‘s a religious record not in an ‘I believe in God’ way because I’m not sure if I do, but more in its themes. And that ties in with the Elvis thing. The pathos of someone looking back on their life and wanting to have their time all over again. I thought that Elvis was a good embodiment of that idea in a light-hearted way. There are more significant historical figures than Elvis but he’s familiar to people and it’s funny and moving to think of Elvis, in seclusion, waiting for the right song.”
Unlike most pop LPs which are (quite rightly) just collections of songs, the tracks on ‘Jordan‘ are obviously welded by some thematic and narrative thread.
“I wouldn’t want to make out that there was some great masterplan behind it all but, yes, the record does fall into arranged sections. Firstly, there‘s a collection of fairly straightforward pop songs, general songs with no great theme. Then there are the Elvis songs. Then there’s a section where I tried to write a pop medley. Just having fun in the studio with colours. I’m a big fan of Side Two of ‘Abbey Road’, although it’s dangerous to mention The Beatles. And then you’ve got the final section of songs which concern themselves with, I dunno, regret or growing old or the desire for some peace. These are the meat and potatoes of the record. I knew from the beginning that if people aren’t with us on this, then it’s bye bye. You have to accept this bit.”
It’s this final segment that casts a long shadow over the whole work. It turns ‘Jordan’ into the first agnostic Gospel album. Feelings of a religious nature have motivated certain artists to produce some of the most spectacular disasters in pop history. Mawkish and sanctimonious drivel is par for the course. It’s ironic, then, that a band who began their career by asserting that ‘The devil has all the best tunes’ should wind up producing some of the few pop songs ever to address the sticky issues of God and mortality in a moving and entertaining way.
“I tried to make it moving. I always do. Hopefully, I’ve hit the button a few times on this record. On ‘One Of The Broken’ I thought it would be nice to have God as a colloquial voice. On the intro where I go ‘Hi. This is God here’ you are supposed to smile. But it’s also meant to be truthful as well as daft. I want people to find it moving and to think ‘Old Paddy’s a bit of a card, eh ?’
“With ‘Michael’ I just thought it was such dramatic material. The idea of Lucifer banished from Heaven and trying to be let back in. The idea of him in this cold and lonely place. That’s why the song is so high-tech, to denote that. Then I followed that with ‘Mercy’ which is a much more intimate plea for forgiveness. You can read them as unconnected but they’re supposed to be a response to each other. But the subject matter is just so fantastic. Every bit as dramatic as Dick Tracy.”
SOME OF you will be very worried by this and I don’t blame you. Rock music generally heads straight down the toilet when faced with anything deeper than cars and girls. Admirably, the Sprouts have managed to make great pop sense out of this mystical minefield. But surely Paddy’s aware that it could have all gone horribly wrong, leaving him with a turkey that smelled of incense.
“Oh yes. It demands a lot of the listener. You have to give me some leeway. Like on ‘Paris Smith’ where I’m singing to a child and saying, don‘t repeat my mistakes. Well, that simply isn’t a hip or ‘happening‘ enough sentiment for some people . . . but it is for me. Right now that means more to me than the obsessions I had as a kid. Yes, it could have gone wrong but I think the whole record is rescued by being off the wall. People expect me to be so po-faced, you know. ‘Oh, he’s so serious about his songs and he’s into all these bloody musicals. I like everything. And I’m no bloody academic.”
But IS it (gulp!) a concept album?
“No. But there is a keyword. . . and it’s ‘comeback‘. In ‘Michael’ God tells the Devil “Ain’t no comeback gonna come your way”. And there‘s the stuff about Elvis’ comeback. I also had a song called ‘Meet The New Mozart“ which was about Mozart coming back as Neil Tennant and making a pile of money this time but in the end there wasn’t room for it.”
Shame. But with all this talk of Elvis and the Archangel Michael, weren’t the other Sprouts just a tad apprehensive as to how it would be received?
“Well, I look at the music papers and I think (with heavy irony) ‘Oh, the kids are going to love my new stuff!’ What do I know about raves or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? When I first heard the full mix of the new album I was in a daze. I loved it. But then you get a little shiver when you wonder what people are going to make of it. But you can’t try and stay hip. There’s nothing sadder than seeing someone desperately trying to appeal to some segment of an imagined audience. I do get told my stuff isn’t Jive Bunny or The Stone Roses but… what would you think it Bob Dylan turned up with Sonia on the Radio 1 Roadshow?”
Well, actually we‘d love it, wouldn‘t we kids? But you know what he means. Most pop music derives its impulse from the embers of repressed adolescence. Nothing wrong with that. But, as he says, Paddy McAloon is 33 and even with a 14-year-old’s enthusiasm for pop, other issues have started to occupy him.
“I hesitate to say it because I know it’ll sound off-putting but it’s a grown-up record. I don’t make any attempt to satisfy any demographic categories. Maybe no one does. Maybe Phil Collins writes the way he does ‘cos he just loves that sound. But the closest most rock bands get to an adult issue is something like unemployment, ’cos that’s the kind of issue you can sing about in your rock ‘n’ roll clothes. Even at my most frivolous, I couldn’t write a song about nothing.”
When I tell Paddy McAloon that he’s one name guaranteed never to make it into Public NME, he laughs and tells me that I should have been at The Guardian Film lecture where he had a stand up row with Warren Beatty. He is more than a little wry about his public perception.
“The trouble is being called a singer/songwriter. It makes you sound like a young Leonard Cohen. Or Joni Mitchell… ‘my songs are my diary’, you know. I can’t be bothered with all that. As for our fans I haven’t got a clue who likes us. I don’t know whether the people who bought ‘Swoon’ stuck it as long as ‘Steve McQueen’. They probably like T-Rex and House music. And we get little girls who say I saw you on Top Of The Pops. Your hair’s mint.’”
And with that we called it a day and ran through some old Vic Reeves’ sketches. One of the most cherished pieces of Prefab Sprout folklore concerns the letter they wrote to NMEs wicked cynic of the ’70s, Julie Burchill. She wrote back castigating them for their presumption that she’d ever stoop to pop journalism again and made fun of their ‘dreadful’ name. But then she added that she thought they were fantastic and deserved to be stars.
She was right. Prefab Sprout are pop stars. And if you’d care to take it up with my newsagent, then that’s up to you.