Mal Armstrong, Helter Skelter – February 1981

Occasionally, although it seems to happen less and less these days, you can be sitting in a pub watching a band or listening to the jukebox and suddenly you’ll hear a song that so completely transcends anything else you’ve heard for ages that it makes you want to get up and buy everyone in the place a pint. The first time I heard Prefab Sprout perform ‘Cherry Tree’ was one such occasion. As guitarist/lead vocalist Paddy McAloon wrapped a sinuous guitar phrase around his brother Martin’s acidic bass line, and cautiously revealed a lyric of undeniable potency, I felt an emotional response akin to that which I experienced on first hearing of Lennon’s ‘Gold Turkey’ or Weller’s ‘Private Hell’: a gut-feeling that here was a composer anxious – nay, desperate – to communicate his passion and pain to anyone willing to listen.

It’s SO difficult to talk about that song,” explains Paddy, shyly. “It’s just that it’s so very VERY personal. I wouldn’t like to say something that would incriminate other people, do you know what I mean? How embarrassing!” he nervously laughs. “Basically, it’s a whole jumble of elements, but I really did want to get away from writing songs that were ‘messages’. Anyway, there was this cherry tree in my back garden which, in a certain way, seemed to sum up my feelings about various things – like my feelings towards my girlfriend for example – and I wrote a song about the way I felt. Yeah, that’s it, I wrote a song about the way I FELT!”

Despite his reluctance to pin down the specifics of his inspiration, on-stage, towards the end of the song, Paddy abandons any attempt to contain his emotions as he belts out the bathos—brimming “But I can’t touch her / I’m not the gardener” climatic lines.

Does he ever feel embarrassed performing ‘Cherry Tree’?

“No. Not at all. I’m PROUD to sing it. It’s because you can, in a song like that, communicate some- thing. You can communicate the ESSENCE of what made you feel like that in the first place without having to make any unnecessary admissions.”

Although an evocative vocalist and a dexterous guitarist, Paddy is firstly and formostly a songwriter, and The Sprouts a ‘song’ band. Good songs, we agree, are the single most important factor in the make-up of any” successful band. Van Dyke Parks, John Lennon and The Beach Boys are quoted as Paddy’s favourite listening. Surprisingly, New Wave songwriters such as Weller, Costello and Pete Shelley aren’t rated very highly in his view, and shares little empathy with them.

“Costello, I dislike intensely. I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. I thought ‘New Amsterdam’ was good, I really liked that a lot, but nothing else. I wrote a letter to Melody Maker saying ‘Why don’t you send someone to review us because if you think that people like Costello, Nick Lowe and Any Trouble are songwriters, then you’ve got another thing coming’. It just leaves me speechless to think of the accolades that are piled up at the doors of these people. Paul Weller, he’s another one.”

What about the New wave scene as a whole? After all, Prefab Sprout were formed in 1977 when gobbing was just catching on up-here. Did that particular holocaust have much influence on the early Sprouts?

“I admired the attitude of people like Lydon, and whole-heartedly supported the notion that all the Rock Stars of the time should be done down, but not a lot of the music impressed me. I thought Television were very good. Tom Verlaine’s songs were very crafted; I mean, I didn’t like everything they did, but Verlaine is a guy who constructs things instead of just blurts of passion.”

As already mentioned, . Prefab Sprout first saw light of day in 1977, originally under the moniker of The Dick Diver Band. Paddy and Martin decided to find a drummer to complement their duo, convinced that Paddy’s songs deserved a wider audience than just the two of them. Long-time friend and would-be guitarist, Mick Salmon, was recruited once he’d learned the basics on the kit, and the band set out playing a set of 50% cover versions and 50% originals. A small but loyal following developed, a pub residency emerged, and a prestige support spot at Dunelm college with the Revillos put the band truly on the map. Although yet to grace the pubs of Newcastle with their sound, the Sprouts intend to correct that oversight henceforth, so keep your eyes and ears open for them.

Onstage, their main strength is the uncanny interplay between the instruments, the almost telepathic communication between the musicians which enables them to take a song to the brink of self-indulgence and back again without so much as a raising of the eyes. Paddy’s emotionally expressive nerve-end vocal and his aloof stage presence make a pleasing contrast, too one minute he’s becoming frustrated and chiding himself for not being able to get his guitar in perfect tune, the next he’s spilling out secrets from his own personal diary.

“I feel very self-conscious when I’m onstage,” confesses Paddy. “If I know a gig’s going well, I get very heated if little things – which nobody notices anyway – start going wrong. Like getting my guitar in tune: I can’t BEAR it if the damn thing is even slightly out of tune. That’s one thing that I do get embarrassed about.”

‘Cherry Tree’ is by no means the only song Prefab Sprout feature in their current set that is worthy of note. ‘Faron Young’, a song which questions the values of contemporary US country music ‘Ghost Town Blues’, which features the exquisite line ‘Find an answer / While I leave the room’; and ‘Radio Love’, Paddy’s confession of his relationship with pop music, are all worthy of mention. The latter, in particular, is a telling indication of Paddy’s ability in the field of pop-chewn composition.

“’Radio Love’ is a celebration of pop music,” Paddy tells me with much gesturing and enthusiasm. “when you’re told as a Kid to stop wasting so much of your time listening to pop music on the radio – that there are ‘better’ things to do – I was trying to communicate the fact that no matter how many people tell you that there’s no hope of you ‘making it’, no matter how many rational, reasonable arguments you hear for NOT playing, what can you do when your own personal feelings get hooked on pop music?”

He shakes his head, smiling, certain that the solution to that problem won’t be found in a hurry.

Prefab Sprout are confident without being cocky serious without being morose, and absolutely certain of success sooner or later. Just how successful they become depends on their ability to grow as a musical unit, and on Paddy’s endeavours to develop his song-writing. Neither of these obstacles should provide much of a problem for a band whose commitment is total and whose talent is obvious; It’s time for them to spread their wings, and they know it; Paddy spoke of a toughening-up policy currently active in The Sprout camp, and of recording a representative demo tape in the very near future in an effort to entice record companies out of their cosy office blocks in London. In fact, if the record companies have any sense at all, they’ll have someone on the next train northbound to check out this potentially lucrative outfit from the coal-seams of Durham, who’re just waiting to be snapped up.

If the companies don’t tune in to Prefab Sprout their excuse will be – as usual – that they are too too dumb and too out of touch; don’t let that be your excuse too.