Many would say it’s an impossible task, but Paddy McAloon has dared to accept the challenge in the title: “Let’s Change the World With Music”. But it should have been called “Abyss of Deep Sadness” if only to be consistent with what it was that inspired the completely unexpected pop delight of this comeback.
In 1976, the young McAloon became fascinated by the story of “Smile”, the lost Beach Boys album. This was the year that he read an article written by Tom Nolan for Rolling Stone about that record of ‘spiritual music’, in which he described “glitter and sunshine, yet there were profound shades of blue like yawning caves or climbing through thick ivy” Since then, those “yawning caves of blue’ made their mark on McAloon’s work, as a recurring phrase that always came to his mind before composing.
Fifteen years later, McAloon started writing the album that would follow Jordan The Comeback with that phrase in mind, and what emerged was something full of spiritual metaphors: music as a comfort and source of strength, of inspiration; music as the voice of the sublime, inspired by the kind of language which is to be found in the gospels. He sought to transcend through music. But his record company didn’t think the public would be prepared to take on this challenge.
So, interestingly, once again a record of “spiritual music” – without taking “spiritual” in a literal sense – was lost in the history of rock. “Smile” hasnow been released commercially after Wilson took it up once again in 2004, and, finally, “Let’s Change the World With Music” has been released too, 17 years after being recorded. The circle has closed.
But that was not enough for Ultrasonica. Paddy McAloon wrote a piece about his new album [for the sleeve notes], but it didn’t seem enough to me. I tried to get an interview with him, insisting on talking to him, despite his poor eyesight and hearing. After a while I told his management we would ensure the person he spoke to could prove knowledge of the group and wouldn’t ask predictable questions. Finally they convinced him.
They gave me an appointment for a call, but assured me he was unpredictable (and difficult, they added). There was no stipulated duration, so if it didn’t go well it would be ended immediately. Luckily I found a receptive, friendly, funny, passionate person who didn’t mind talking for well over an hour, without rejecting any questions. At one point he told me he had a relative holding on the line, but didn’t mind hanging on to finish the conversation. These are his words.
The proposition of putting your new record out came from Keith Armstrong, the head of your label, Kitchenware Records. What did you make of the suggestion?
– Although it may seem strange, I had completely forgotten the record and had moved on to other things. It’s very difficult to explain how you feel about something you’re proud of and you forgot, but that’s what happened. I think my “new” “old” album has parts that are the best I’ve ever written. I couldn’t believe I’d put it aside. From the moment I did I started to compose new songs, because that’s the way I am… But if someone tells me “don’t do it, because we need something different”, I pay attention. In 1993 it suited me to do other things. This time the proposition was clear: the album exists and I could make money from it too. I had to listen again to check it really could be put out, and I realised that it could be released with very little work. I was surprised by Keith’s proposal, and even more by peoples’ positive reaction to this record, there seems to have been a lot of that.
Of course, it is one of the pop albums of the year and the most consistent Prefab Sprout. album
– Yes, it is very consistent. The tracks one, two, three, four, five… I’ve never written something that’s so powerful from start to finish since perhaps Steve McQueen. That’s how I feel about it. In other albums I was more concerned by the atmosphere than to thrill people with the songs.
Were the songs like family or strangers when you re-encountered them?
– There’s no way of explaining how strange it is to have written something, have lived with it for months and months, and then have forgotten it. It’s bizarre. When I listened again, it sounded familiar, but I didn’t know for sure where the next song would go. It all seemed new, but I tried to reconnect with the young man who wrote that 17 or 20 years ago. You have to understand that I’ve had health problems with my vision and hearing since then, and it was a reunion with some of the best songs “he” had. Since then I’ve composed other songs I think are very good, even one or two I think could be better, but at the time I had yet to go through everything I experienced, so it’s all good.
What was done from a technical point of view to the songs in allow them to be released now?
– With most of it we didn’t do much of anything. As an example, my engineer told me to leave “Let There Be Music” as it was. We’ve added almost imperceptible loop to one or two of them to round out the sound palette, as what we were using were the first recordings and didn’t have enough reinforcement. I’ll tell you what I did: we took fourteen songs, we left out three for various different reasons, among them that the record was too long, like “Jordan: the Comeback”, or because the subject of the song had become outdated in comparison to the others, particularly one that had to do with the Princess of Wales, we added some music under my voice to “Meet the New Mozart” so it wouldn’t seem so stripped bare, taking into account that it was just a demo of the record we were going to release, and that’s it: 90% of the record is what was done at the time.
It’s curious that the time it’s been released could not be more appropriate, It’s an album that shows music’s ability to transcend, it has an almost religious power, at a time when music has been completely devalued.
Right, It’s strange. It is strange to think that an old album sounds much more relevant than a current one. It’s sad that it has more relevance now than when I wrote it. When I saw peoples’ positive reaction, I couldn’t help but laugh. If someone had told me in 1992 that record was not going to be released until the end of the first decade of the next century, and people would seem to find it interesting and relevant, I wouldn’t have believed them. No way would I have believed they would have understood it at all.
Surely that has something to do with the fact of the democratization of recording and issuing of music today?
– You’re right. People now record at home. And that matches my own idea that a major studio isn’t for me: I wouldn’t go to one even if I was extremely rich. Not only because my hearing isn’t good, but because I think it’s an expensive way of making music. Democratization has its positives: I’ve learned over the years is that the atmosphere, the sonic environment is more important than any other aspect of the recording. If you can capture that atmosphere with your home technology, and get excited by it, maybe someone else will be excited too. We could have recorded this album with Martin, Wendy, Neil and Thomas, who are good musicians, but in the end, it would have been a different album.
On the one hand, the Internet allows all the oddities, early songs or old B-sides from a group to appear, but on the other hand, people have no patience to quietly listen to music and savouring a record after spending their money on it having waited for months.
– I guess peoples’ relationship with music has changed, it’s different. Of course, it’s good that people are discovering related music or, for example, hear our first songs, as you said. But I guess I’m an old guy, because I like the object, to hold it in my hands, and I like the fact the composer can share with the audience his experience of transcendence.
I guess that “Let’s Change the World With Music” is talking about an internal revolution rather than something generic?
– I don’t think it helps to understand the meaning that the title song isn’t on the record, heh heh. That and one other song was intended to be sung by Barbra Streisand, but I don’t think that was something I thought would ever happen. It’s not a generic call to revolution, to a fight. If I’d tried that I’d have been sunk, heh heh. It’s a call to inner transformation through a passion for music. It’s a little like the idea of “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. By the way, I re-recorded it [the title track] for the album, I reduced it into sections, I built a good sonic base, but I didn’t have the singing voice that it needed. So I left it off. I’ve written too many songs about the power of music, so maybe sometime I’ll release a volume 2 of this album on which the title song will appear.
There is a phrase in the album that says: “I have no time for religion, but maybe doubt’s a modern disease”. I would choose that as a perfect summary of the content of the album, I think it’s the verse around which everything revolves.
– Yes, exactly, I wanted to deal with it from both perspectives. Religion was and is important to many people, but in our society science has completely torn it to pieces. That’s why the content of the record probably seems up to date.
The record company feared the religious content could scare people, but I think we have to approach it differently: one person, Paddy McAloon, trying to better understand himself and taking that into the process of composing songs.
– I tried to keep my own beliefs out of the record, knowing my beliefs come and go, they change. However when composing, you need a point of view, a posture, just as as a journalist you need to create a picture of the person with whom you’re speaking. In the record there are different points of view about religion which aren’t exactly my own – if I have a clear opinion – because what I always look for is a very well defined position in the lyrics.
The sleeve notes you wrote presenting the disc and talking about Brian Wilson and Smile I think is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose ever written by a musician.
Thank you. It’s a declaration of love for Brian Wilson. At that time I felt that much of the history of Smile, the hippest aspects, had a lot in common with my own situation. I hope it doesn’t seem that I’m trying to compare myself with a genius like Brian Wilson. It’s true I felt some of the same things he certainly experienced when I was looking at my own songs, a sense of responsibility, the anguish of having to earn money with a record while you chase a wild dream… It was those analogies I was establishing in the piece. Other aspects have a certain irony, like my hearing. Someone in my family reminded me that when I was young I wanted to be like Brian Wilson, but it seems I got the wrong part of the dream, heh heh.
What isn’t clear in the text is whether the decision to park the album was only that of the record company or whether you had also something to do with the decision.
– No, these rumours about my own doubts are not true. Interestingly, I have always had doubts about everything I’ve done, but at the time, I had no doubts at all. I think there have been some misunderstandings on this issue. I’d like to explain. I met with Sony in which they made it clear they didn’t like the idea of releasing the record, because of its excessive length, while I had the feeling that what they didn’t like was the religious content. That was true, but that was mostly a reaction to the length of the preceding record, “Jordan: The Comeback”. I thought they wanted something totally different. As I abandoned it, I didn’t get to record it with Martin, Wendy, Neil and Thomas who certainly would have been delighted to do it. Even now I could have re-recorded with them, but I can no longer get the money to do that, it would be much more complicated. Also, because I can’t record with other people because of my hearing problems, I do it alone, quietly.
The song “Earth, The Story So Far” was to be the title of another of those albums that has never been released. Why is it on this album?
– That was the song that, when I had the meeting with Sony, they suggested I expand and start to composing a whole, new, different album based on the theme of that song. From that point I spent one and a half years composing and recording pieces of music for that album which I also completed. But the song was always meant to be part of “Let’s Change the World With Music”.
I wonder if it was your continuing doubts which prevented you from releasing what you were writing and recording or whether that owed more to your desire for perfection.
– No. What songs are you talking about specifically?
I mean a lot of records that were not released, titles like “20th Century Magic”, “Knights in Armour”, “Behind The Veil”, “Devil Came A-Calling”, “Billy Midnight”, “Neon Opera”, “Blue Unicorn”, “Atomic Hymnbook”, “Famous Fakes”, “Earth: The Story So Far”, “Total Snow” (also known as “A Symphony Of Snowflakes”), “Zorro The Fox”, “Digital Diva”, “Zero Attention Span”, “Goodbye Lucille”, “Witton Gilbert”, “Geoff & Isolde…”
– I’d forgotten “Famous Fakes”! I hadn’t thought about that in years! “Total Snow”, the Christmas album is completely finished. Just today I’ve been working on “Zero Attention Span”. “Earth, The Story So Far” has 32 songs finished… Almost all are fully written, but the recording hasn’t been completed. There’s another you haven’t mentioned: “Enter The Trumpets” [Ten Silver Trumpets. according to Paddy, 2013]. There are quite a lot more, as many as 20 records. I write about three a year. The problem is time: you have to do this carefully and to record all of that would take forever.
What then is its location and quality?
– There are cassettes or computer disks, some of them with some instruments, melodies, piano or guitar. Not all are ready to be released. They’re like scripts waiting to be made into films, awaiting financing and to be polished.
Will the positive reviews of the new album help you decide to finish and release any of these lost albums, or conversely do you prefer to continue to work on composing something new?
– It’s one of the most important questions. I’ll be honest, though I could hide my true intentions because I have nothing to lose. These days I’m working on “Zero Attention Span”, but the songs on it aren’t as uplifting as “Let’s Change the World With Music”, and that is I think the reason people like the last album, as well as them sympathising with my health problems. “Zero Attention Span”, on which I’ve been working for five years, focuses on fame, celebrity in the modern world which leaves little time for reflection. It’s darker, many times I’ll think that I should put it to one side and go back to one of those passionate, catchy albums. My inner conflict right now is this: should the next record be an album with positive bright feelings, ignoring what my heart tells me I should do, which is to release this record which I must complete now or else it’ll be outdated and join the list of my lost albums?
Your songs are close to pop perfection, but seem to new generations to be somewhat outdated, with a sound coming from a certain era. Do you think about that?
– Yes, of course. A 21 year old boy with his new computer will have a sound very different from mine. The reason it sounds different is I have no willpower to fully embrace the new technology, it’s difficult for my eyes and ears. I don’t want to spend money investing in a new sound library, considering also that it would be obsolete in a few weeks and you have to be completely up to date. Maybe the sound always retains the imprint of the time it was recorded, but the foundation of the group was always classical guitar, bass and drums. We added strings and keyboards in the studio, but what matters most in my view, even more than if a flute sounds like 2009 or 1989, is the idea behind the melody, chords and lyrics. Anyway, I know it sounds like a lot of people from another era.
For 12 years we haven’t heard your voice, except for the acoustic version of Steve McQueen. Have you noticed changes in it, has it matured? Do you feel more comfortable now?
– Yes, it’s rougher and deeper, as if I had smoked a lot. I feel more comfortable now than before with my voice, I don’t know if it sounds harsh, because I’ve not recorded in a while. I hope that it’s still good.
Who would you like to be able to sing like?
– Oh no… with that question you put me in a bind, and I know I wouldn’t be able to answer if I thought about it for a week or more. I’d take several days thinking about it and I’ll regret not giving you the answer I wanted to. Let me think of something to say now… I’ll tell you a name you’re likely to laugh at: I like Louis Armstrong. And Karen Carpenter, whose voice was a beautiful musical instrument. Also Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. There are other voices so expressive that other considerations hardly matter, such as Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles. McCartney and Lennon, of course, they’re very direct while not technically the most perfect.
As you said in the sleeve notes of the album, you were really thrilled by Tom Nolan’s article about “Smile” in Rolling Stone. But do you remember what record, song, artist or event drove you to become a musician?
– There are a couple. The first was seeing someone playing the first suspended chord of “Pinball Wizard” by The Who. At the time I also wanted to do it, and it was for that I started to play guitar. But although it didn’t make me decide to become a musician, seeing the Beatles sing the chorus of “She Loves You” was an absolutely fascinating moment.
And what was the last thing you learned musically?
– Good question. I have to think about that… It may be that I don’t know much about music, and that’s the mystery. It’s deceptively simple. You approach the piano, you want to make a beautiful melody, and it’s not so easy. Something I think constantly about and it sums up my experience in the world of music.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to look back and recall a few interesting things about the group
– Yes, I’m happy to.
Do you remember names like “Grappled Institution”, “Chrysalis Cognosci”, “Dry Axe” or “Village Bus”, which you conjured with for the group?
– Haha! Yes, it’s true, but they’re names I thought of when I was 11 or 12 years before forming Prefab Sprout.
Your first single was released on Candle Records, about 100 copies. Is it true that Keith Armstrong heard it and decided to create Kitchenware Records?
– That’s how it was. My brother Martin found a way of releasing it independently, and Keith, who worked in a record shop in Newcastle heard it. It went really well, thanks to that little impetus, it was like our wake-up call to the world. Although we were looking for a manager rather than a local company to release the record
Was your first Group Avalon in 1974?
– Not quite. That was a band I played guitar in as a favour for a friend. It was a covers band.
Yes, of groups like The Beatles, Eagles, Led Zeppelin …
– Things like that, yes. It really was a much easier thing than Prefab Sprout. They were good people, but you could say I wasn’t even the lead guitarist, just someone who ‘had’ a guitar. I played with them for two or three years, but I spent my time writing songs for Prefab Sprout.
So the first two Prefab Sprout records were already written before recording for the first time.
– Totally. They were written in the 70’s.
Was the cover photo on your debut album taken at a party in Utrecht?
– No, but I don’t remember exactly where it came from. It was set up by a friend of Keith Armstrong and think it’s a couple dancing. Neither Wendy nor myself are on the cover of Swoon, I’ve been asked that many times.
Is it true that Steve McQueen was supposed to be your fifth album and that you presented to Thomas Dolby about 60 songs to choose from?
– There were many songs, yes, but there was never a plan, there was no clear idea of what number it would be in our discography. It was clear that I’d parked songs from that album such as “Bonny” or “Goodbye Lucille #1” years before; firstly because I’d tired of them, and secondly because it seemed to me that they’d already been done so well I didn’t want a recording to spoil them. Keith Armstrong gave Thomas Dolby about 30 or 40 songs to choose from for the record. Thomas knew I had written a lot more, because he asked me to check my “catalogue” of songs, but I also have to say that not all of them were equally good.
Your second album came with the recommendation to “play LOUD.”
– We did this for two reasons. In principle if you put more than 40 minutes on a record, it sounds softer because you have to compress more to fit them into the grooves in the vinyl. And also we didn’t want it connected to folk-rock groups. Before Wendy joined the band, we were a rock group, and in our minds we still were. And we thought we weren’t getting the rawer sound we had live on the record.
On From Langley Park To Memphis was “The King Of Rock’n’Roll” with the banal yet catchy chorus: “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque.” Is it true that Paul McCartney said it had become your “My Ding-a-Ling” (the novelty single by Chuck Berry which reached number 1)?
– Ha ha. Yes, it was McCartney, and I think it’s brilliant, the best explanation of the song anyone has ever given. What he meant was it’s not exactly the song that best defines us, but the one that most people know. The story was that Paul McCartney did an interview in the ’70s in which a New Musical Express journalist asked him about his influences, and when he said “Chuck Berry”, the reporter said, “Yes, he did ‘My Ding-a-Ling’”. McCartney was speechless thinking that of all the songs he had done, it was that one that had stayed with the journalist, like with man other people. By the way, as an aside, the other day I discovered that Chuck Berry didn’t write it, as is often wrongly thought.”
On Protest songs, is “Tiffany’s” a continuation of “Ghost Town Blues” from Swoon?
– It’s not exactly a continuation but they are similar and were written at more or less the same time, in 1977. “Tiffany’s” is about a club in Newcastle that has now disappeared. I still love that song.
As I understand it, your favorite song from your work is “One Of The Broken” from Jordan: The Comeback.
– Yes, I still like it. It has a very conventional melody, like an old country song, but what I really like is the lyric. Interestingly, it has a lot to do with the same things on “Let’s Change the World With Music”, because the last of the four sections of “Jordan: the Comeback” talks about spirituality, the desire for peace, of growing up, and that song is feeding that part.
In “Life of Surprises” we find “The Sound of Crying”, which is connected to “Heal the World” by Michael Jackson. Originally the title was “Only the Boogie Music Will Never Let You down”?
– Yes, the chorus [sings: “Once more the sound of crying” and in its place, then sings the same tune with the phrase “Only the boogie music”] initially used that phrase. It was one of the songs I wrote about him which was going to be part of an album with Jackson as the main theme, but in the end I didn’t like it and I changed the lyrics completely. But the story is true.
Then came Andromeda Heights. In it was a thank you to Thomas Dolby for his “support and advice.”
– Yes, sometimes it’s more important that someone is there to help you with doubts and problems when you’re producing a record, as was the case.
Is it true that you met during those months the woman who would become your wife, Victoria, in the classical music section of a shop in Newcastle?
– You know everything about my life, haha. I married her around that time, although I met her some years before, yes, in a record store diving into the racks of albums of classical music.
In “The Gunman And Other Stories” there is a certain contradiction in the way you talk about American myths and your more ‘critical’ tone years ago about Bruce Springsteen in “Cars & Girls”.
– Without wanting to use it as a justification, at that time I was working differently, writing for other artists. Then I wanted to gather those songs together on a record, and also Keith Armstrong from Kitchenware thought we should perform the songs that had been released. I went with my brother to New York to record with Tony Visconti, but we worked with other musicians elsewhere so it’s a very different record to others from the group. Anyway it did seem to give the impression that at that time we were doing things differently from the past, and we certainly were. It’s also the case that “Cars and Girls” was much more of a joke than people understood, and that “Faron Young” was criticising the English obsession with American country music. That’s the song I’d choose to illustrate this contradiction.
I Trawl the MEGAHERTZ is really unlike anything else you’ve composed for an album. In fact, it appeared under your name and not with the group.
– Yes, it was written a few years before it was released when I had problems with my eyesight, and I recorded it using my computer. Interestingly, it more closely resembles my own musical tastes, more than the other things I’ve done. I totally ignored the preconceptions that people might have about me and my music. I was tired of listening to myself, so I wanted to compose an album based on a sound, so you could lose yourself in the melodies and what they express.
Have you changed the way you compose since you had your problems with sight and hearing?
– I had serious hearing problems for a year and I didn’t know how things would go afterwards. Now I can’t work with a group like I did before, I can’t listen to music at high volume and I can’t compose conventionally with other musicians playing with me simultaneously. My body can’t tolerate the sound of a loud electric guitar. It’s not too bad, but it makes things more complicated: I just have to record something and give it to Calum Malcolm, my engineer, to mix. When he’s done it I listen and give my opinion.
Why not release an album of your B Sides, some of which are remarkable, such as “Real Life”, “Dragons”, “Bearpark” “Just Because I Can”, “Girl I’m Here” or “The End Of The Affair”?
– Thanks for the idea. The truth is we’ve talked about that before, yes. But I’m not very proud of the B Sides except probably the ones you mention. Many were made at the time to include as B-Sides of singles, and I would have wanted to spend more time on them.
Is there a possibility of releasing a DVD like the concert recorded at the Alabamahalle Munich on December 2, 1985, which can be found on the Internet?
– We weren’t filmed often. There isn’t much material, probably because I never felt completely comfortable playing live. It’s a shame, because Martin, Wendy and Neil enjoyed it. From my perspective I’ve always been more interested in the writing, when I was playing live I was always somewhere else, miles away, even if the concert was going well. It may seem strange but that’s really how it was.
I don’t know if you’ve felt the influence of Prefab Sprout on other groups. For example Sondre Lerch always recognizes it.
– Yes, I don’t know many of his songs, but I heard his version of “Nightingales” and I have to admit I liked it. I haven’t heard much influence in other groups, though people tell me about it time and time again. This may be because I don’t listen to much contemporary music, and also with the fact that to put it simply these groups and myself have the same influences that come from further back. It’s sometimes the case that I hear something and think I might have written it at some point. I’ll give an example: when I heard the Coldplay song that speaks of “St Peter.”… it’s quite recent… I don’t remember the title…
“Viva la vida”, which has been accused of plagiarism by four different artists?
– That’s the song! Is it true what you say about the allegations of plagiarism? Really? Ha ha. Curious. Well, as I said, when I listened to it I felt I could have written parts of it. Well, I guess because it’s so catchy, anyone might think they’d written it, especially given what you say about plagiarism.
Finally, have you changed over the years what your songs mean, or is what has changed your way of saying things?
– I think what has happened is that I’ve grown up, so my view of things I should say has also changed. I was never sure what the songs meant, just that I wanted to write, and so it remains.