Lay aside your Sub Pop records and nasty rock ’n’ roll attitude for a while and come with us on a trip to worldly-wise, irony-reeking melody heaven . . . Newcastle, actually. There, fop pop king PADDY McALOON takes time off from writing albums never to be released, to give a guided tour of the best of PREFAB SPROUT to NME’s swooning ponce twins, ANDREW COLLINS and STUART MACONIE. Prefab – The Comeback: AJ BARRATT
“Prefab Sprout — the most important band since Kenny.” International Musician
They call him a recluse. Been in the desert so long. Lying on his back, biding his time, just waiting for the right song… and he’s COMING BACK.
Things are getting bad up here. As is now legend, during the NME Punk Years. hip young gunslingers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill erected the so-called Kinderbunker, a no-go area for the papers’ old guard, a self-styled ghetto marked out with barbed wire wherein the revolution could be plotted away from the dinosaur pretensions of the ofﬁce’s more seasoned patrons. Oh, we can laugh about it now…
But things are getting bad. As another balmy summer rolls around, and another influx of those nasty, reassuringly matey bands (whom only a miserable churl could hold anything seriously against) take over the charts and the hearts of a beleaguered Britain with their buzzing guitars, gruelling tour itineraries, jolly swear-word tops and rather too long shorts, it is surely to life’s finer listening pleasures that we must turn for relief. It seems senseless not to. And yet, while the inventive ’80s fell foul of dozy indie-dance, brain-fried Acid House and heartless grunge from Stallion Tackle Arkansas. it seems that A Nice Tune went out of fashion. Hang on, we must’ve missed that meeting.
Which is precisely why we write to you from the newly constructed Ponceteria. or Tunes And Melody Bunker, a section of the NME office now cordoned off with guitar strings and ivy, a sacred retreat where intelligent, thoughtful. and immaculately constructed pop is not a sign of questionable sexuality, where Prefab Sprout are king.
Though it is de rigeur among self-styled rock pigs to feign hatred and contempt for Prefab Sprout, the truth is everybody likes them. Oh yes. And it’s high time our trendy colleagues and your hard mates came out of the cupboard. This month we begin our own ‘Sprouting’ campaign – a series of public exposés in which mock philistines are dragged into the open. This is timed to coincide with the release of ‘A Life Of Surprises: The Best Of Prefab Sprout’. a 16-track cavalcade of choc box production, idiosyncratic songwriterly virtues and fab hooks that spans ten years in the pursuit of excellence.
Which is why we find ourselves sipping Pimm’s in a Newcastle cocktail lounge with Paddy McAloon. dissecting this ponce-tastic portfolio. track by track . . .
‘KING OF ROCK‘N’ROLL’ ( 1988)
The commercial axis around which this greatest hits collection hurtles. the Sprouts’ biggest hit (Number Seven!)
“When ‘Steve McQueen’ came out it was all very much serious artistes. And I always try and find some opposite point of view from the last thing I did, just because I think it would be fun. So after ‘Steve McQueen’ I did ‘King Of Rock‘n’Roll‘, as a companion piece to ‘Cars And Girls’.
“But what really inspired me to write it was New Musical Express (Still only 65p – Ed). February 1985. There was a news item. Edwyn Collins had packed in Orange Juice, who I didn’t even know that much about but I knew he was a fun guy, a smart-ass – and I saw that he’d done a live gig and he sang ‘Rock’n’Roll I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life’. I looked at that and I thought it was sooo good. I loved it. I also hate songs with ‘rock‘n’roll’ in the title, you can ’t do it, it’s the worst crime you can do! When I’d finished it, it was so catchy, I thought, so what if it’s a hit, you can always relish the irony that you ’ve written better songs.
“We actually get letters from people that say ‘We like you hovering around the 40 mark’. They don’t want it any higher.”
‘WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN’ (1985)
Their first hit, this sounded soooo poor on TOTP, what an anti-climax. It sounded weak, insipid and girly.
“I don’t think I’d washed my hair that day, which is unforgiveable. But circumstances did literally conspire against us that day, the guy who did the staging, he stuck us on the top corner of a stage, and there is something psychologically disturbing about a corner. He made a triangle out of me, Wendy and Martin, and that appearance was so horrible. If you thought it sounded a bit weedy, it probably had something to do with the fact that we looked like aliens from the planet No Conditioner. Which we were.”
‘THE SOUND OF CRYING’ (1992)
The current ‘taster’ single, straight in at 38 with a pellet.
“I’ve written an entire album about Michael Jackson, called ‘Behind the Veil’ (Warning: Paddy McAloon writes entire albums the way other people write shopping lists). I’ve been trying to do this for ages, and it’s like a portrait of him. I was going to call this tune ‘Only The Boogie Music Will Never Ever Let You Down’ – and I thought that was such a crap title!”
How recently did you record it?
“I recorded it in August last year, and I wrote it last April, because it was close to the Gulf War. I actually wrote a Gulf War album (see what we mean?) called ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, and I’ve got a couple of beauties, but there are right and wrong times to do things. and it came after another album I wrote which is much lighter— I can’t even remember what It’s called . . . it’s called ‘Billy Midnight‘. very romantic. So the Gulf War album was a more serious response to that. I keep junking things all the time.”
‘FARON YOUNG’ (1985)
“March 1978 I wrote that And one that I don’t have any great personal involvement with now. This shows you how stupid I am – it’s a song wondering why people like Country & Western music when they live in the industrial north. I thought ‘why do they listen to all these things about cowboys and farmers and grain?’ and then 20 years later. I suddenly think ‘It’s because C & W deals with real emotions’. Take that!”
And right wing politics, of course.
“That was from the time when the Sprouts were more of a thrash three-piece. And all the vocals I would scream. ‘Johnny Johnny‘ sounded like The Clash ‘Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh Johnny-Johnny-Johnny-Johnny)’. I’m not joking. We had a two-hour set, we were the anti-Ramones really.”
‘CARNIVAL 2000’ (1990)
“This was originally a piano piece, a two-and-a-half minute throwaway, like ‘Doo Wop In Harlem’, but Thomas Dolby (‘Jordan’s producer) insisted ‘You’ve gotta make more of it, you could actually make it more carnival like!’ And I didn’t like it when we’d finished it. But with the passing of time, I now love it.”
‘JOHNNY JOHNNY’ (1985)
“This is actually in the same key as ‘Carnival 2000′ so the track listing works for me. We did them both together live, And yet they‘re years apart. ‘Johnny Johnny’ was written at the same time as The Police‘s ‘Walking On The Moon’, when was that? (An argument ensues. Andrew loses £5 with a bet of 1980. It was December I979.) I was ill in bed. and I heard ‘Walking On The Moon’ and it was really simple. I thought ‘I’ve got to get simple’. And Johnny has got to be the most clichéd rock’n’roll word ever used. So I thought I’d fill the verses up with stuff you don‘t normally say to someone, like ‘Are you still in love with Hayley Mills?’”
Accusations of Lloyd Cole-ism ﬂy at this point.
“Ah yes, but that pre-dates the appearance of old Lloyd by about three years! I was into name-dropping first! In the ’70: when I was a student I thought I’d make an LP called ‘Famous Fakes‘ and the songs were gonna be ‘Donna Summer’. ‘Faron Young’, like portraits. biographies. And most of ’em were crap. I still have that habit, subconsciously trying to get people’s attention, but I try not to do it now.”
The lyric of ‘Johnny’ isn’t so far removed from the lyric of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – it’s saying to young people why don’t you pull yourself together (“Why don’t you give it a rest?”). Its saying that teen spirit is apathy and nonsense.
“Really? Ah, you can never hear the words on the radio.”
Paddy McAloon is the only person in Britain who doesn’t like Nirvana. Yet.
‘I REMEMBER THAT’ (1988)
“That phrase gets close to romanticism without actually being sloppy, and that’s what I wanted.”
It’s got one of pop’s great sighs, that track.
“We did the vocals in Stevie Wonder’s studio, he wasn’t there, we just happened to hire his studio with the Andre Crouch Singers who we’d had on ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen‘, which they’d found extremely weird. And while we were playing ‘I Remember That’, Andre Crouch came over and sat next to me and said ‘You’re bad, aren’t you’. And it was at the time when I didn’t know if he meant we were f—ing awful or not!”
‘Cruel’ stands out a bit on this record.
“Yeah, it sounds like a Rudi Valli 78. It’s got this weird voice, like Frank Sinatra meets Frank Sidebottom. I was deeply embarrassed by it when I listened to it the other day, we never listen to ‘Swoon’, it’s one of those things I can’t do any more without blushing. I know I always go on about this, but it looms so large on what I do, we had played songs like ‘Faron Young’ and ‘Bonny’ live, we could never play ‘Cue Fanfare’, ‘Elegance’ and a whole host of other things I’d written live. You couldn‘t stand up in a hard pub in Durham and play ’em. So when we got a chance to record an album, we didn’t simply do the songs that worked well live, we did the weird ones. ‘Swoon’ is the weird set. And it’s my least favourite LP.”
‘CARS AND GIRLS’ (1988)
Will forever be known as ‘That Bruce Springsteen Song’.
“The point of the parody is this: not that I think Bruce Springsteen is crap, it’s that I think a lot of his audience get into him on a patriotic level that he doesn’t intend. They misinterpret him, their enjoyment of him is inaccurate, all very imperialist American. I wanted to write a song about someone who was thick white trash, listening to Springsteen, and saying ‘But our lives aren’t like that’. If you think rock music is about rebellion, you’ve only got to speak to rock critics to find how conservative the nature of the beast is.”
‘WE LET THE STARS GO’ (1990)
“Written in August I988. Does it unnerve you that I actually know dates?”
No. no. is ‘We Let The Stars Go’ as personal as it sounds?
“Might be. Sometimes I’ll stick personal things in to add to your enjoyment of the song. But you can only drop your own name into a song once. It was such a corny title… I had tickets to see Michael Jackson in Leeds and I got up that morning and I swear to God, I hit the piano and I thought ‘that’s great; and I ended up not going to see him. I was more proud of it at the time than I am now – at the time I thought it was fan-tastic!”
‘LIFE OF SURPRISES’ (1989)
Dave Lee Travis played it on a Sunday morning, said it was the new Prefab Sprout single. It’s actually a demo from ‘From Langley Park…,’ that got included on ‘Protest Songs’.
“It was done in the same studio as ‘Protest Songs’, under the same conditions. When DLT played it, I thought ‘It should be a single!’ And they wouldn’t put the bloody thing out. I wrote it in January 1985 and it is extremely personal (Too personal and sad, in fact, for the details to be relayed here).”
From ‘Steve McQueen’.
“It was a song about a girl who got pregnant, and the idea of her calling the kid after her lust for life. Thomas Dolby never thought he did justice to that song.”
‘IF YOU DON’T LOVE ME’ (1992)
Will be released on the next single.
“When I wrote this, it sounded like a Willie Nelson song, it worked very well on acoustic guitar- but I wanted to do something that was bright, something that goes a bit. For the lyrics I tried to be as invisible as possible. I do aspire to be simple! I’ve built my hopes up too much in the past about our relationship with Chartland that I’ve almost given up worrying about it now, yet I’ve got more single-orientated in my writing. What the hell!”
‘WILD HORSES’ (1990)
From ‘Jordan’, as at one time going to be a single. Paddy is bitter that it isn’t included on the compilation. Except it is.
“Oh, is ‘ Wild Horses’ on there?”
“You’ve now embarrassed me because I don’t know what’s on it. Rewind! As for our cover version of ‘Music Was My First Love’, I think that’ll be the best track on the album – oh, it’s not on! Sorry about that, lads. Oh good, I like ‘Wild Horses’, it’s a sex song. Daryl Hall, that’s who we were going to send that to.”
‘HEY MANHATTAN!’ (1988)
“Speaking of reviews, I always remember one saying this sounds like an airline commercial. And I kinda see his point. It’s the one song I’m dissatisfied with the way we realised it – I should’ve had someone else singing it, an American. Isaac Hayes was the idea, we tried to get him, they said no. I love city songs, you know, ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clarke. I’ve written ‘Hey Manhattan!’, I’m from Newcastle, it’s actually a bit embarrassing singing it! As a track. It’s pretty. but it‘s a failure.”
‘ALL THE WORLD LOVES LOVERS’ (1990)
Again overlooked as a single. Is it important that it’s the last track?
“On a crassly commercial level it’s there because it’s pretty, and it might make you want to start again. It’s not too solemn. This version is slightly remixed for the ‘Best Of’ by Steven Lipson (Trevor Horn’s engineer during the Frankie period), who thought it ought to have a more sprightly rhythm track. It’s the only thing that is remixed because none of us have much time for that phenomenon – in the field we’re in. If you’ve got it right, what exactly do you think you’re doing by dicking around with the elements? If it’s right, it’s right.”
COME MIDNIGHT, Paddy has eaten a curry, drunk a shitload of Bud, dismissed Steven Wells as a “a dickless wonder” and promised to listen to ‘Nevermind’ properly. The ace concierge at our hotel unlocks the cocktail bar for us where the grand piano now lies idle. As generous brandies are ‘set up’, we find ourselves grouped around the piano, accompanying Paddy as he sashays through the Prefab Sprout songbook. A young woman literally squeals with delight and rushes over to sit on his knee, saying, ‘You’re that bloke from Prefab Sprout. aren’t you?’ It is a delightful end to the night. And then we both got sacked. It’s been a lot of fun. Goodbye.
NME’s Alternative Best of Prefab Sprout
- LIONS IN MY OWN GARDEN (EXIT SOMEONE) (1982)
- PEARLY GATES (1989)
- THE YEARNING LOINS (1985)
- I NEVER PLAY BASKETBALL NOW (1984)
- JORDAN THE COMEBACK (1990)
- WICKED THINGS (1989)
- MOVING THE RIVER (1985)
- NANCY LET YOUR HAIR DOWN FOR ME (1988)
- ONE OF THE BROKEN (1990)
- ELEGANCE (1984)