A satisfying whiff of glue
Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout talks to Mark Cooper about Tin Pan Alley, nostalgia and his search for enchantment
PADDY McALOON. professional songwriter, looks more like a Quaker preacher on missionary duties or a doctor bound for the tropics than the composer of three admired Prefab Sprout collections and the occasional star of the group’s solitary Top 40 hit. When Love Breaks Down. Clad in a white linen suit and accompanied by his girlfriend. Sprout vocalist Wendy Smith. McAloon is en route from his home town of Newcastle to Scandinavia and the promotional duties he has substituted for touring.
Despite his polite charm, he clearly regards such chores with mild frustration. He has four new songs on the go in his home studio, yet he is doomed to spend the next week explaining his witty and often playful lyrics to Europeans who naturally lack the grasp of linguistic nuance that is the essence of his songwriting.
Prefab Sprout dwell on the fringes of the pop world and much of their new album. From Langley Park To Memphis, produced by Thomas Dolby. is a commentary on the pop life that fascinates and frustrates McAloon. He has an unusual array of influences: from the great Broadway composers (Gershwin to Sondheim) to modern soul singers like Prince and Hall and Oates.
Those soul influences are apparent in his crooning, whose coy innocence sits wittingly against the bitter-sweet sophistication of his lyrics. Yet whether taking issue with Bruce Springsteen on Cars And Girls or writing his own version of the kid-comes-to-New-York song Hey Manhattan!, McAloon is much more than a self-conscious parodist sharpening his ventriloquist’s wit.
Thus Cars And Girls deconstructs Springsteen’s Born To Run romanticism while offering a melancholy lament for the ‘lazy teenage boasts’ of youth. “What adds up the way it did when we were young?” asks Paddy before insisting that “Some things hurt more much more than cars and girls.”
Lost youth is a theme that runs throughout his writing and probably explains the golden-voiced melancholy of much of Prefab Sprout’s music.
That melancholy has helped find the group a sizeable audience worldwide, despite the lack of hit singles, and made Prefab Sprout the precursors of the new ‘adult rock’ groups like Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue. Like these groups. McAloon loathes having his work described as ‘intelligent’ or ’arty’, regarding both terms as insults, even though he mistrusts the ’noble savagery’ of the likes of Springsteen.
Despite the knowing allusive-ness of his songwritlng, he still longs for the classic simplicity
of the Broadway era. “I’m trying now not to write songs about pop music simply because it’s the dog eating itself, and after a while, you haven’t got anywhere else to go.
“I’ve written a Christmas album called Total Snow and I’m working on songs for a movie to be called Zorro The Fox. If I get shafted in the film world. I couldn’t care less. All I’m interested in is finding some kind of pretext for writing.”
McAloon is profoundly aware of the artificial nature of his craft, yet even he continues to long for the magic song and the enchanted moment. Despite his perverse ability to see too many sides to a question and his loathing for the persona or image that binds Springsteen to the wheel of his own clichés, McAloon loves simplicity. “I’m a big fan of the songwriter who unintentionally creates the golden moment rather than the songwriter everybody expects to be clever because they’re known as a wordsmith.
“People expect something of me because they say I’m doing something unusual with songs. That’s very nice but I’m far more fascinated by the Tin Pan Alley side of it — guys who just do it and who. if you asked. ‘Well, you’re interested in songs about language, aren’t you?’ would shrug and say, ‘We’re interested in the public and the bob.’
“I’m not trying to recreate that old thing of the nine-to-five guy just doing a job who doesn’t want to be bothered about semantics. But I’d like to write something where the truth of the statement lies below the trumpeting of the lyric, and I don’t really know how you do it. That’s very difficult now because this is the Eighties and we’ve probably never been this self-conscious before.”
Paddy has no interest in building a pop persona for himself or for his band. “I’m much closer to the shopper mentality, which is liking a certain style of record one week and a different one the next. I try to incorporate that mentality in my records and writing. That doesn’t mean my records are shiftless — just unwilling to be a specific thing to anyone. Haring said that. I may indeed be the ‘bedsit king’ that some people have called me!”
McAloon is clearly hoping that From Langley Park To Memphis will be successful enough to allow him the time to pursue some of his more elaborate projects, even if he has yet to exceed his ration of 13 to 14 songs a year. He continues to take comfort from the manner in which West Side Story’s songs have acquired what he calls the ‘disembodied’ quality of classics despite their Initial rejection by Columbia.
From Langley Park To Memphis doesn’t have that sort of range because it is dominated by the wistfulness of Paddy and Wendy’s breathless vocals and their singular mood. McAloon continually returns to his memories as moments of enchantment beached back somewhere before he grew up and became an ‘adult’ songwriter. It is this obsession rather than his dexterity that makes From Langley Park a satisfying, if somewhat glutinous, collection.
“I’m not awfully fond of irony.” Paddy admits. “I think it’s probably a sign of decay. A song like Enchanted on the record is about finding something to be excited about, year after year.
“I understand Michael Jackson wanting to sit in his house and watch Disney films with his pirates of the Caribbean in the back yard, wanting to stay in touch with wonder.
“Nothing ever hits you again with the force that it did at 18. I’m 30. and that’s only just dawned on me. A lot of it is just nostalgia. I suppose, but you don’t now then that you can’t do everything you set yourself.”