Is PADDY MCALOON God’s gift to literate pop or a big girl’s blouse? The jury may still be out, but with their new single ‘Golden Calf’ (the third to he lifted from the best-selling ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ LP) getting widely herd (geddit?), STUART MACONIE gives the case for the defence. Pictures: KEVIN CUMMINS
“Paddy McAloon has the least sincere voice in pop music. ” Ian McCulloch, circa 1985
“Paddy McAloon really irritates me. It’s like people who are intelligent and educated and don’t use it for anything at all. (He’s) just clever and it’s completely pointless. It makes me want to vomit.” Malcolm, McCarthy, 1989
Ordinarily I have nothing against Mr McCulloch and the young folk from McCarthy. In their differing ways, each has made fine contributions to the world of the contemporary arts. For this I applaud them. But to the remarks cited above there is really only one considered response:
Piss off and come back when you know a thing or two about pop music.
Paddy McAloon has been a close personal friend of mine since 1983. Okay, so I only actually met him a week ago buts let’s not get bogged down in pedantry From my point of view I’ve known Paddy since the day I heard The Sprouts“ first single ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ on a borrowed Dansette in a freezing seaside student hovel. Paddy and I never looked back. Those were good days for erudite pop johnnies. Aztec Camera and The Commotions were both in the ascendant and ‘This Charming Man’ confirmed that something almost scarily brilliant was coming out of Manchester.
In the years that followed all the aforesaid were to become part of the fabric of pop. The sensitive, articulate young pinups of the kind of girl who preferred Bronowski to Bronson. Forty thousand lovelorn polytechnic students couldn’t be wrong. The guys as well. This night might open your eyes but Stephen and Roddy and Lloyd and Paddy would respect you afterwards.
“’Paddy McAloon is a big jessie!’ That’s one line isn’t it. I love it, it really amuses me no end. That and the idea that all Sprouts fans are bespectacled creatures in velvet and kaftans. I don’t know who they’re talking about but it isn’t me. Still, I can be guilty of that. Of slagging people off and then secretly buying their records.”
Paddy runs a hand through the second most famous fringe in pop and takes a swig of his Budweiser. He looks to be In a good mood.
It’s many a month since the release of their last new product yet the media circus of interviews and kids’ TV is under way again; chiefly because of the glittering twelve bar blues of ‘The Golden Calf‘ is shaping up to be their biggest hit to date. A bar-room boogie closer in spirit to Status Quo than Stephen Sondheim that has hopefully already confounded the standard dickhead preconceptions about The Sprouts.
“Precious that’s what we’ re supposed to be isn’t it? That bloody word ‘What does it mean?’ And it they don’t say that they say ‘Oh you’re a perfectionist‘, and they say it in this pejorative sense of mild censure. If it means wanting my stuff to sound good, to sound right then I agree. But that’s not what they mean, is it?”
No, I don’t think it is, Paddy lad. What they mean (they being the boy scout mullahs of fake modernism, water pistols at the ready) is that you’re a classicist, unashamedly part of a grand tradition of ‘intelligent pop’. You’re a hugely successful songwriter and you’re smart. And they hate you for it.
“Yeah, I don’t want to know about ‘the new sound of New York’. I want to be the sound of New York. Posterity does appeal to me, though I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as I’d like to be But they’d better get used to me because I’m going to be around for a very long time yet.
Is it music for ‘big jessies‘? For the kind of fragile young thing too straightlaced for Spacemen 3? Or is it the other stereotype; that all Prefab Sprout fans have a CD, a Volvo, and a nice job with the Halifax?
“When I do in-store signings I’m always amazed at the diversity of the crowd we get. And other strange things happen.
“I was accosted in a pub by a young ‘lager lad’ with an arm in plaster He literally cornered me and demanded to know when we were going to release ‘Basketball’ as a single. Then in some record shop, this coloured guy recognised me (which I thought was pretty amazing in itself) and said ‘I love your stuff… and Public Enemy. Wait till I tell my mates!”
Sell a few records and somebody, somewhere will canonise you, put you inside an exercise book or on a bedroom wall. Sell a few records like ‘Bonny or ‘Cruel’ which come dripping with swish lines and elegant sensitivity and large sections of the community will make you the poet laureate of medium cool. How does it feel to know that complete strangers make a big emotional investment in what you do?
“All false modesty aside, I really don’t think about it I don’t think I have the correct mystique to really intrigue people. Like if I was Prince I’m sure you wouldn’t be here having a drink with me. The record company would see to it that it was much more theatrical, much more imposing. ‘An audience with Prince!’
“But I understand that fascination with myth and mystique. In fact it’s becoming more apparent in my songwriting. As a kid I bought ‘Station To Station’ and thought ‘I wonder what Bowie‘s doing this minute?’ and sometimes I’ll think to myself ‘I wonder what Warren Beatty’s up to right now?’”
The last five years have seen Prefab Sprout move from the clique cool status established by the quirky genius of the early Kitchenware singles to the rarefied strata of the ‘successful international band‘. The transition from underground appeal to adverts on the tube is Where the first, ‘Swoon‘. is almost wilfully oblique, intriguing but barely penetrable; the latest ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ is a supremely confident pop tour de force, tricky without pretension, suave without Ferryesque smarm. Has Paddy McAloon grown up in public?
“I don’t want to do a dis-service to my earlier self since I feel that there are some very strong songs on ‘Swoon’ but back then I couldn’t give a toss about communicating with people. It’s very dense and personal. Then on ‘Steve McQueen’ you begin to see the change, in the difference between the old and new songs. ‘Bonny’ and ‘Faron Young’ are still quite vague to the listener whereas ‘When Love Breaks Down’ is a fairly clear straightforward lyric.
“But now it‘s more important that I get through to people. I want to completely floor people, to get them to think ‘What a great sound!’, not in a prissy’ listen to those high frequencies’ way but In the sense of ‘these songs sound terrific!’ I really believe I‘ve improved. Still, some people probably think ‘you had it when you were 18 mate, but you’ve lost it now’.”
Look again at the crass, bonehead McCarthy quote above. What really irks about it is the assumption that we all share their world view, where indie pop is a mighty force in the righting of all social wrongs. It apparently doesn‘t occur to them that not everyone shares their perspective on the bad old world. As things are going so swimmingly I see if I can get Paddy’s hackles up by reading him the quote. It nearly works.
“I don’t understand. What do they mean I don‘t do anything?”
Presumably because you aren’t saving the world along McCarthyist lines.
“What arrogance. . .and how stupid. this assumption that it you’re good at writing songs you can do other, miraculous things. I don‘t want to become a worthy bore. I can’t do all that Pete Gabriel, Jim Kerr ‘Concerts for Kampuchea’ stuff. I respect them and I‘m sure they’re very sincere but I can’t do it.”
“I did a Red Wedge concert once purely out of peer pressure. They were in Newcastle and Jerry Dammers persuaded me, against my better judgement to do it. So now I’ve got a ‘thank you’ letter from Neil Kinnock for doing something I don‘t believe in.
“In some ways I’ d like to do something really irresponsible and un-right-on just to get people like this guy (Malcolm from McCarthy) worked up a bit. Look at the ’60s, all those ‘Eve Of Destruction style political anthems but the best record I’ve ever heard about the climate of that era is ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’. This bloke you’re on about probably hates Neil Tennant more than me actually ‘cos Pet Shop Boys’ (affects whining student voice) ‘they’re a bloody disco band’.”
The problem is, of course that some people don’t like pop music. They may like drugs, or the Town & Country club, or Thurston Moore‘s haircut but they don’t love pop per se. It’s as if it isn‘t wonderful enough in itself.
“Exactly. If you like I could claim that my songs were clearly political on an elemental level since they deal with people’s neuroses and dreams. ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’ is about insecurity, ‘Hey Manhattan’ contrasts the Hollywood myth against the lives of the poor. But do I have to be so bold and spell it out for people?”
Pretty animated stuff from ‘the least sincere voice in pop music’. Which brings us to the other stock criticism of the Sprouts, the one usually voiced by the ‘real ale’ purists amongst us. Namely that Prefab Sprout are a contrivance, a smart-alec, inauthentic bunch of rock ‘n’ rollers.
“It’s interesting that if you‘ve got the pipes, if you‘ve got a good set of tubes like Mick Hucknall or Terence Trent D‘Arby, you can get away with singing any old mumbo jumbo. You’re automatically grabbed by the voice, almost against your will. Like when you stare at a beautiful girl in the street, even though you don‘t want to, simply because it’s the way God made you.
“But we are authentic. What’s wrong with having fabulous production and arrangements? The current mood seems to be that if you stand on your own with an acoustic guitar then you’re somehow purer and more worthy. It passes for clever when really it’s just boring and stupid.”
I think you just did the un-right-on thing you were threatening earlier. Which leaves us with ‘The Golden Calf‘, the tongue-In-cheek rocker that has led Prefab Sprout to Phillip Schofield’s door and finds Paddy looking down the barrel of the Top 40. McAloon has confirmed that he loves the idea of hit singles and wants to have lots more. Still, a multitude of ironies abound.
“’Golden Calf’ is 13 years old, it was written when I was a teenager in a style I wouldn’t dream of now. But we were looking for B-sides so I decided to try it. Basically I chopped out the verses I could no longer to bear to sing and then did it in a disguised voice. That’s the point of the gruff rap in the middle. ‘I sound so different these days… if I didn’t know better I’d swear I was someone else’. It’s a joke that we left in because it sounded good.”
I find it ironic that you should record a song like ‘Cars And Girls’ — an answer song to the Bruce Springsteen rock myth — and then have a hit with a song that sounds like Broocie‘s best.
“I suppose so, yes. Though ‘Cars And Girls’ isn’t an anti-rock song. It’s simply saying to Bruce Springsteen that his metaphor for everything (‘life’s a highway) just isn’t big enough to include all the complexity and sadness in the world.”
But Paddy’s is. As one of the most stylish and inventive pop writers of his generation he can afford a good-natured laugh at his ‘big girl’s blouse“ school of detractor. He’s the business the dog’s bollocks and as for being a softy… you wouldn’t have said that if you‘d seen him after seven pints of Drambuie up on the-table singing “Ride my love turbine, baby, to rock’n’roll Valhalla.”
And I thought “Hotdog Jumping Frog! Albuquerque