MUSIC: TUNES, LYRICS AND OTHER LOST TREASURES; PREFAB SPROUT’S PADDY MCALOON IS BACK AFTER MORE THAN A DECADE IN THE WILDERNESS. HE TALKS TO JOHN HARRIS
If making your mark on the national consciousness means coming out of building site radios, or being played at weddings or on the Queen Vic juke-box down in Albert Square, then it’s happened to Prefab Sprout only once. That was in the summer of 1988, when “The King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll” arrived in the Top 10. The synergy between intent and outcome was perfect: the song was created as a send-up of pop music’s more crass aspects, and its thrillingly silly chorus became a minor national anthem. “Hot dog, jumpin’ frog, Albuquer-que,” it went, energised by the fact that a lifetime on “Solid Gold” radio stations was its natural birthright.
Eleven years on, Paddy McAloon, the band’s songwriter and chief, is living in Co Durham, and preparing for their first tour for a decade. Given the time that has elapsed since his last collision with the charts, he has precious few delusions of grandeur: “Prefab Sprout are a minority taste beat group,” he laughs.
But his humility is ill-founded. Despite the fact that the aforementioned single was their last big hit, his group have just added an extra London show, meaning that they’ll be playing to close to 5,000 people. McAloon, however, is more preoccupied with the task of relearning his own work. “I’m just trying to remember all the chords and lyrics to things I thought I might never see again,” he says. “To be honest, that’s one of the reasons for doing the tour. A lot of the songs are on the very edge of memory. I figured that if I made an effort now, I could retrieve them.”
His best-known songs – to be found on Steve McQueen (1985), From Langley Park To Memphis (1988) and Jordan: The Comeback (1990) – may have been created in an increasingly far-flung era, but they wear their age well. McAloon was always blessed by his singularity, maintaining a quiet detachment while pop music entered into its usual short-lived frenzies. His lyrical vocabulary and musical depth placed him a different orbit entirely – which also explains the loyalty of his public. Prefab Sprout, throughout their 18-year existence, have been a rare break in an ever-more moronic current. Once you find them, you tend to hold on.
The patience of his public, however, was sorely tested by McAloon’s seven- year retreat between 1990 and 1997. After the release of Jordan, he disconnected himself from the demands of the music industry and began work on a series of conceptual song-cycles that rapidly amounted to a vast mountain of unrealised material. The ideas from this period provide instant proof of McAloon’s giant musical ambition, and his love of wide-screen romance. It’s probably some indication of music’s current inch-high ambition that when he’s describing them, he can easily sound like a goggle-eyed innocent.
On the backburner since 1985, and added to ever since, he breathlessly explains, has been a Christmas album called Total Snow. In the late 1980s, he began work on a tribute to the simple power of songs entitled Let’s Change The World With Music. Soon after that came Behind The Veil, a fictitious musical biography of Michael Jackson. And in 1991, he commenced the writing of his grandest conceit so far: a 30-song invention entitled Earth: The Story So Far, intended to be exactly that.
None of the projects has ever been dragged into a recording studio, let alone released. “There are well over a hundred songs,” he laments. “It sounds precious, because there are worse things in the world to worry about, but I am awake at night sometimes, thinking that it’s immensely frustrating that some of my best material isn’t out there. I’ve got to do something about it, but it’s hard to know what – because a part of me only wants to record these things when they get the financial backing they deserve. We’re not a cheap ride. ” He laughs. “The aesthetic behind these things is kind of posh.”
During his effective disappearance, McAloon was buoyed financially by a steady stream of income from Prefab Sprout’s back catalogue, and songs he wrote for Jimmy Nail and Cher. The rest of the band – drummer Neil Conti, McAloon’s bassist brother Martin, and his co-vocalist and ex-girlfriend Wendy Smith – took the musicians’ equivalent of day jobs. Conti did session work; McAloon Jnr and Smith worked with children as music therapists. (Smith, though still a nominal member of the band won’t be on the tour: she recently had a baby).
In 1997, the group resurfaced with a relatively modest assemblage of songs entitled Andromeda Heights. In its slipstream, McAloon came up with yet more projects. There’s a set of “secular gospel” songs called The Atomic Hymnbook, an instrumental-cum-spoken-word album called I Trawl The Megahertz that should come out this year, and 20th Century Magic, intended to soundtrack the millennial mindset.
It contains songs about Princess Diana and – contrary to the idea that McAloon’s disappearance from the pop life might have uncoupled him from the zeitgeist – the Dome. “That song’s called ‘Twilight Of The Pimps’,” he explains. “It’s about it being a fabulous symbol of the age: ‘Dear Tony, It’s a bold idea/We could use an unloved dome round here.’ It’s a compendium of images that are very 20th century. I regret it not being out at the moment.”
Two years ago, McAloon got married. He and his wife Victoria, whom he met in the classical department of a Newcastle music shop, have two daughters, and McAloon’s routine has changed accordingly. As has his appearance: “I’ve got the longest beard you’ve ever seen. And I’m a big bloke now. I’m not a little waif any more. There might be a shock when people see me.”
The concerts, he says, hold out out the prospect of an invigorating reconnection with his audience – which should dispel the idea that his reclusiveness would inevitably lead to his commercial demise. But does he ever wonder whether his dazzling records – let alone the unreleased backlog – ever attracted the mass audience for which they were seemingly designed?
McAloon’s melodic gift, his incisive grasp of love and loss and his predilection for expansive musical designs hardly indicate a mind that would be happy with cultdom. “That’s a fascinating subject,” he considers. “It’s something I think about quite a lot. They had all those polls about the greatest songs of the 20th century at the end of last year, and everything was concentrated in the last 20 years. Irving Berlin wasn’t even mentioned.
“It seems that nothing lasts that long – even the most massive success is provisional. When we were making a video for “If You Don’t Love Me” in 1993, I was playing the piano on the set, and we got these young women in to dance, who were all about 19 or 20. I was playing ‘Hey Jude’, and one of them said ‘Play something we all know’. I took a kind of solace from that. Massive public acceptance, for anybody, is finite. I thought, if McCartney isn’t famous for ‘Hey Jude’, then I’m not going to be famous for anything – so I shouldn’t even worry about it.
“I have this theory about the sort of category I’m in,” he concludes. “It’s like jazz — not musically, but in that people acknowledge that it has definite merit, it’s quite moving, it’s beautiful, it might have great spiritual value to some people, but then …”
He laughs. “It’s not popular music as defined by ‘popularity’“.