Ridiculous, but never arrogant
Text WIM VAN SINDEREN Photography FRAN VAN DER HOEVEN…
“Sweet talk like candy rots teeth” Paddy McAloon sings on Prefab Sprout’s latest album Steve McQueen. And sweet talking is indeed anathema to McAloon. Without a hint of shame, he expresses his hope that the Sprouts will lay down a template of quality to those lesser people in pop, unable to deliver a decent album.
“I want to shape this time with our music.” says McAloon.
The impossible beard, the wrong glasses, the unfashionable suit worn by Prefab Sprout’s singer, Paddy McAloon all give no reason to suspect he wants to compete stylistically with George Michael of Wham or David Bowie. All the same, McAloon has ambitions to achieve megastar status. Obviously not through a slick image, but by means of pure musical and lyrical quality, this former seminary student is trying to force himself to a fame comparable to that of Paul McCartney, Donald Fagen, or none other than Burt Bacharach, earned as songwriters a decade or two ago. It’s still just talk, we have still to see it happen, but the fact is that Prefab Sprout’s second album, “Steve McQueen” is worthy of being added to the “pop classic” locker. Admittedly the eleven songs on “Steve McQueen” only really get through to you after you’ve heard them twenty times, but you can be sure your effort will be rewarded.
“Listening to music should be hard work. We don’t deal in catchy tunes”, McAloon explained last year in Vinyl Magazine. The remarkable thing about this album is that initially it seems to be in contradiction to that (smoothly produced, sentimental in tone, pretty vocals, obscure lyrics), but that in the end the compact pop songs reveal a wealth of depth and intelligent content that reduce producer Thomas Dolby’s electronic beeps and blips to the level of subtle accents and transform the apparently one dimensional flowers into beneficial weeds. McAloon shows himself to be a songsmith of the more inventive kind, in the process raising quite a number of rhythmic and lyrical obstacles that are smoothed away – or at least are accepted as pleasant bumps in the road – only after the total surrender of the listener. With references in the lyrics to well-known and less well-known people and situations (Steve McQueen, Faron Young, Marvin Gaye, Hayley Mills and George Gershwin) McAloon despatches you in all directions, only to ultimately return to the writer’s own universe.
To prepare for Prefab Sprout’s European tour (they are booked for the Pandora’s Box Festival), McAloon and his girlfriend Wendy made a short visit to Amsterdam. While Wendy silently struggles through a novel in the lounge, McAloon sits upstairs to chat to the press, effervescent with a cold beer and a bubbling stream of words. Just as in his music, McAloon communicates on two levels. He can be astonishingly assertive and seems to have an opinion about everything, but at the same time he possesses such an endearing and childish enthusiasm such that his strong words barely grate.
My first burning question: why is there no lyric sheet included with “Steve McQueen”? Was it to make it even more obscure than it already is?
“Oh, this question has embarrassed me right from the moment I first spoke to a foreign journalist. Can I explain why we didn’t print the lyrics? Firstly, Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ is one of my favourite LPs. There aren’t any lyrics with the album. If you listen to the lyric, it goes: ‘…’ (Paddy sings a line this journalist can’t follow). Then you think: ‘what the hell is it about?’. Even if you had a lyric sheet in front of you, you still don’t understand what it’s about. Something like that intrigues me, you know what I mean? Secondly when our first album ‘Swoon’ was out, it received a lot of attention. But the reaction of the critics was polarized. There was a separation into two camps of those who detested the record and those who loved it. Many of the reviews made me suspect they weren’t listening properly to ‘Swoon’. I often thought ‘that guy has just read the words and hardly listened to the record!’ So understandably I thought: ‘get rid of those printed blocks of text that grab your attention as soon as you open the sleeve.’ And also I don’t think of my words as poetry. As soon as a lyric is quoted in an article or a review it has to stand alone, I have to confess this isn’t really possible. There are some nice phrases but you really have to hear them with the music. But anyway, what I never realised was that there are also foreigners for whom a lyric sheet isn’t a pretentious affectation but a service. Sorry, we won’t make this mistake again.”
You’re sometimes described as a philosopher, too intellectual. What do you make of such labels?
“Complete nonsense. Bands like 10CC were supposedly smart. Those childish word games in their lyrics, horrible! But I admit that some of the things I’ve written are too wordy, and don’t take much account of the fact I have to sing them. On ‘Swoon’ I sing the song ‘Cue Fanfare’ (sic, should be ‘Don’t Sing’): ‘That’s the feast the whiskey priest may yet have to forego…’, that’s too many words for one short breath. Stupid. So on the other hand I’d like to start writing simple lyrics. I find a bit of biting humour in a lyric is very important, that is often overlooked. If the stream of words I produce sometimes does come across as ‘smart little boyish’ it’s only that as a writer I desperately want to bring some adventure back into music. A lot of pop music is boring, so boring. Take Bruce Springsteen for example, a lovely bloke, good guy to the core, but what he presents us with musically and lyrically is the rock’n’roll equivalent of a diet, you can eat it but it doesn’t leave your stomach satisfied.”
Let’s say Springsteen supplies the staple food to which Prefab Sprout adds all kinds of little delicacies. Gourmet music.
“Yes, but now you’re giving the impression the Sprouts are targeting an exclusive group of listeners. To stick with the culinary imagery, Prefab Sprout’s music can be called a mixed stew for the masses. Just that really. I’m sure we can reach a larger audience, at least if our records were played a little more.”
All your singles so far have flopped. Wouldn’t it be better to position yourself as an album band?
“If you remain an album band, you’ll undoubtedly be able to attract an audience that believes in you unconditionally. We’re at that stage now I think. A top forty band obviously has a much larger audience but it’s also more erratic; they may have forgotten you the following month. Still, I really want a hit, because I know we make good songs that deserve a greater reach. Of course it takes time, even Springsteen has had to fight hard for his current popularity. But to make albums for years for a small number of gourmets? That seems very frustrating to me. I want to shape this time, the present, in part through our music. I want Prefab Sprout to be an inspiration to others. Journalists often ask: ‘All those difficult phrases, all those obscure references? Don’t you think this will be beyond your audience, doesn’t it go way over the kids’ baseball caps?’ I’d much rather be in a position where journalists are asking other bands why they don’t have half the power Prefab Sprout has. It’s an impossible situation of course but secretly I hope it’ll come to that. Look, as soon as you’re part of the pop world, you have to let go of all your false modesty. People write about you anyway, so the best thing to do is to steer the press a little bit by being self-assured. You also have to do a lot of interviews, play live shows, and travel. These investments should, just as a matter of course, ensure we can compete with Wham. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I don’t mean to be arrogant. Bands who only have two good songs on their album and fill the rest with mediocre junk are arrogant. You can say what you want, but ‘Steve McQueen has eleven top quality numbers.”
You even said you were the best songwriter on the planet.
“Sorry, but it makes no sense to be too shy to say something you know to be true. I recently made that statement (I think it’s even in our CBS press folder? Yes? Oh, that’s a killer!) when I was asked by a journalist if I knew that some people hated our music. And then I thought ‘it’d be crazy to dismiss that with a stupid little laugh’. So I said, ‘So what if they’ve missed the boat! Life is short and I’m a brilliant songwriter. Their bad luck because I’m writing the best music at the moment.”
I think Steve McQueen is a beautiful album. What particularly appeals to me is its intimate atmosphere.
“Thanks. ‘Intimate’, that was the very word I had in mind for journalists who told me our music was aloof, abstract, smart. A song such as ‘Cue Fanfare’, which we’ve already discussed, seems abstract with all those allusions to America, but in fact it’s a very personal song. My character is that I don’t want to express my feelings directly, yet I think it’s important to communicate honestly. So that’s my problem: I’d like to tell you everything, but I can’t tell you everything.”
In the song “Faron Young”, which opens “Steve McQueen”, you are obviously referring to American culture. It’s a country song.
“Faron Young actually deals with the mixed feelings that you can have with regard to country music. It’s good music because it sings about human emotions in a simple, straightforward way, but because country music in England is so popular, it also seems a little ridiculous to me. An industrialized British society that listens to music about cowboys! It’s all antiques, as I sing. “
At first I thought “Faron Young” was your contribution to the country revival. Upon closer inspection, the number appears to have been written in 1978.
“Yes, that’s the biggest laugh I’ve had since ‘Steve McQueen’ came out. People think that we’re following the cowpunk trend. One journalist even dared to suggest this song was ahead of its time. Imagine, a 1978 song that is still ahead of its time in 1985! I’ll tell you why I wrote it at the time. I think I’d just bought Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ and the whole trend was that whites made black music. White soul. The Average White Band, you remember it? So we said a little cynically: ‘when will someone make country music trendy again?’ A few days later I came upon a certain rhythm and it was crystal clear to me that I was writing a country song!”
Thomas Dolby has made no small contribution to “Steve McQueen”. How did you find each other?
“I heard Dolby on the radio when our record, ‘Swoon’ was being discussed by a panel of experts. Some of the panel members were making the usual silly jokes, Brussels sprouts and so on. Very boring. When Dolby was allowed to say something about ‘Swoon’ he gave a five minute monologue about what was exactly right about our album. Then later I heard him again on the radio listing his all time favourites: the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, the Beach Boys, the Band… Nine of his ten favourites are also on my list and so it was clear that Thomas Dolby and Prefab Sprout shouldn’t miss each other. I didn’t even have to make contact, Dolby’s management had already asked CBS who was going to produce our second album. I then played Dolby about thirty songs on my guitar. Rough versions of old and new numbers. I wanted a producer with the qualities of an arranger. If you make demos on which the whole band has already selected and worked out all the songs, you might as well be producing it yourself. I wanted to keep everything open and leave the initiative to Dolby, because his enthusiasm was worth a lot to me. While I was playing those rough versions like a troubadour, Dolby was noting his preferences on the back of a packet of cigarettes. So he made a selection, and to be honest, there were a few songs, ‘Faron Young’, ‘Lucille’ and ‘Bonny’ which we hadn’t looked at for a few years. But Dolby has polished them to the point where we can hardly wait to play them live.”
What is your brother Martin and your girlfriend Wendys’ role in the creation of the music?
“Martin plays bass. I might be able to find a better bass player but then you would destroy the balance. I write the songs, give the interviews, but Martin and Wendy operate very subtly in the background. We never talk extensively about our music. I provide guidelines and Martin and Wendy slowly grow into the concept. It’s a family business where everyone has their own place and is in fact irreplaceable.”
This family aspect and your way of songwriting sometimes reminds me of Paul and Linda McCartneys’ Wings.
“Very flattering, thanks. I still think McCartney is an incredible talent. His qualities are always underestimated because John Lennon is considered the true working class rock’n’roll kid. Of course Lennon was a giant, but he had much more pretensions than McCartney. For me, McCartney is the pure rock ‘n’ roll boy who still makes music with the same intentions as when he first picked up a guitar. Of course Wings always had to stand the comparison with The Beatles, but what’s often forgotten is that McCartney still works with the same integrity as when he formed The Beatles with his friends. When he met Linda, McCartney thought in a rather naive way: ‘I’ll do the same again. I’ll get a complete innocent in.’ McCartney has been an example to many, including me, and no matter how far we go, Paul is always there, the long shadow cast by those brilliant Beatle years …”