Exploiting the Paradox of Language
“I can imagine no greater compliment than that people tell me that they like my music without really being able to explain why. Many people tell me they initially thought SWOON was an awful record, but they came to appreciate it after listening to it several times. Which is as it should be: listening to music is work, hard work. A record is only interesting to me if you can discover new things time and time again. I mean, how often does it happen that an album which sounded good the first time starts annoying you because there is nothing added to your first listening experience? Music should be something exciting, something mysterious about to happen. We don’t deal in catchy tunes, we make music you have to listen to several times.”
Paddy McAloon, leader of the hot new group Prefab Sprout, hailing from the North of England, Newcastle, knows exactly how to put into words why it is his music – now including the new single WHEN LOVE BREAKS DOWN – is interesting. If a cursory first listen can lead to a not very flattering description of “clinical supermarket music”, a rematch brings plenty of pleasant surprises from the Sprouts, consisting along with Paddy McAloon of his brother Martin on bass and singer Wendy Smith. Thrilling transitions and extremely odd tempo changes constantly put the listener off balance. There are even more pleasant surprises if you examine the lyrics. Paddy McAloon, word juggler, shows himself from his lyrics to be a songwriter of great class.”Subversive MOR” was the striking label BBC veteran John Peel assigned to Prefab Sprout, one of the leading lights of the new and promising indie label Kitchenware Records.
Paddy McAloon conforms fully to the expectations raised by the evidence of his music and lyrics, an intellectual of the wacky kind. It takes him only a few minutes to drop the names of his favourite authors: Knut Hamsun, James Joyce and Anthony Burgess. Not the reading material to be found on the bedside table of a typical musician. McAloon’s intellectual image is emphatically completed by having perched on his nose the kind of ornamented glasses used by old Hollywood movies and comic books to indicate a Professor.
So the plan to become a priest quickly goes off track as Paddy McAloon (although he has remained a member of the Roman Catholic Church) is taught to play guitar by one of the priests at the seminary at which he is being trained. Young Paddy launches himself diligently into learning the instrument and discovers that it’s much more fun to write his own songs than to play the songs of other people. Having nothing better to do after finishing at the seminary, he turns up to enroll as a student of History and English at the University of Newcastle. His great wish was to find work as a librarian (“It seemed lovely. The whole day with my nose in all those books”) unfortunately came to nothing, and perforce he accepts a job in a garage.
Paddy gains focus in ’77 as one of his friends finally gets enough money together for a drum kit and they form a group. The storm of punk, currently in full force, largely passes Paddy by, as he would rather listen to “old fashioned” groups such as the Beatles. Steely Dan and the Beach Boys.
“I was literally in hiding at the time. We practised all day in an old basement and what was happening outside hardly penetrated through to us. Certain aspects of that punk attitude spoke to me. For example you no longer had to listen to at least twenty-minute multi layered songs in which 35-year-old millionaires whined about their failed love affairs. But otherwise you could easily lose the whole punk and new wave movement. There were no real songwriters between them. And that’s what it’s about: songs “.
“For a really long time I was obsessed by experimental music. Random strikes on a large gong, tables thrown out of the window, horrible sounds escaping from saxophones, nothing was crazy enough for me. All of a sudden my attitude towards music changed completely. I began to distrust experiments. Something changed, yes, but it can happen to anyone. Since then I find it more interesting to play around with traditional song structures. Turning the normal verse-chorus pattern on its head, or including all sorts of strange transitions and tempo changes in an apparently quite normal song. That sort of thing appeals to me far more than that pretentious plink-plonk music. The weird transitions actually originated from the days when we still played in pubs. I was sick to death of the audience who were just there to drink, but our bookings increased as long as we did the same rhythms as the Chuck Berry songs spewing out of the jukebox. To make them really listen I included small shock elements built into my songs.”
“For me a song the lyrics and music are equally important. However, when I listen to a song. I really only pay attention to the words. I have a hatred of stupid or simple lyrics unless they ‘have soul’. For soul lyrics the feeling comes first. Someone like James Brown can afford to take a simple sentence and then repeat it endlessly. For example, in that last big hit, BRING IT ON. BRING IT ON, BRING IT ON, and again about a hundred times in a row. That’s not the kind of lyric where you go straight to look for the words. It is very simple, but only when he does it. For me it would be something that absolutely wouldn’t work. From my background. I’m more a ‘word person’. I’m attracted to the more detached approach of guys like Donald Fagen or Elvis Costello. They do not really move out of their minds in their lyrics. They do assume a certain feeling but they try to analyze. They go in search of an explanation.”
“My lyrics mostly come from playing around with a certain word. For example, the song GREEN ISAAC. I was fooling around with the word ‘green’. I don’t know how it is in Dutch, but in English “green” means innocent. Then I came across the biblical figure Isaac, the epitome of innocence and immediately I had a great song title: GREEN ISAAC. Especially since in most pop lyrics rock ‘n’ roll names are something like James or Joey or for girls Marilyn or Suzy and Isaac is completely at odds with that. As soon as I have a title like that then rest comes by itself. GREEN ISAAC: I saw him at once: a very innocent guy who wants to make it big, but every time his mouth lets him down. To shine like Joan of Arc you must be prepared to burn.”
“Oh, words are trains for moving past what really has no name”, sings Paddy in “I COULDN’T BEAR TO BE SPECIAL. Does he see language as a flawed communication medium?
“Yes, exactly. It so often happens to me that I’m trying to make something clear to someone and it appears the other person has understood my words totally wrong. Then you have to go all the way back to explain that you didn’t mean that, and you discover language doesn’t always work as a way to convey your thoughts to another. You’re trying to describe something that is really not describable, for example the concept of love, and before you know it, you throw a whole bunch of words at them which only make it less clear. Your mind works so much faster than the words you have available to you. At the same time you’ve stumbled on another interesting paradox: I’m making it clear that language doesn’t work by using the same language… Very fascinating!”
The laudatory liner notes for SWOON are written by Emma Welles, who also wrote some articles about Prefab Sprout included in the promotional material provided by the record company. When I ask who Emma Welles is. Paddy falls into a mysterious silence. Kitchenware boss Keith Armstrong, also present, comes to the rescue: “Emma Welles is an excellent journalist from Newcastle. If she wasn’t married with small children she could be a second Julie Burchill.”
Paddy: “She’d like to be a famous music writer, however her problem is she’s only interested in Prefab Sprout, when there are already have loads of articles about us. So we just asked her to write sleeve notes.”
Keith and Paddy look at each other conspiratorially and almost roll on the floor laughing. It doesn’t mean much to me until I read a few days later in an English magazine that Emma Welles doesn’t exist – the liner note and articles are written by Paddy himself.