RETURNING IN ROMANTIC MOOD
Stock, Aitken and Waterman were still the dominant force in British pop when Prefab Sprout wrote their last album, 1990’s Jordan – The Comeback.
“Seven years is an astonishingly long time in pop terms,” acknowledges 39- year-old songwriter Paddy McAloon. “It’s almost the same length of time from Elvis going into the army and The Beatles giving us Sgt Pepper. Just think of the changes in pop culture in that period.”
In fact, The Beatles would have been and gone while McAloon walled himself in his home studio, Andromeda Heights, which he has taken for the name of the band’s “comeback” album, scheduled for May 5.
But, Sony’s managing director Muff Winwood, who originally signed Prefab Sprout to Columbia and remains McAloon’s main point of contact with the label, is not worried about the time lapse. “Andromeda isn’t radically different in style to Jordan,” he says. “Despite the time it has taken to make, it sounds like a natural follow-up. Artists like Prefab Sprout don’t have to change too much. They have their own sound. People flick back through the old albums and after such a long time away, everyone’s gagging for a new one.”
However McAloon didn’t actually sit down and write Andromeda Heights. Instead, he compiled it from songs he’d written over the past 10 years, some of which were intended for other projects. The first single from the album, Prisoner Of The Past, due for release on April 21, was actually part of an album of songs which McAloon imagined he was writing for Sixties producer Phil Spector.
“I gave myself the brief to write material which observed all the niceties of Sixties pop music but with a more modern lyrical twist.” he says, explaining the Scott Walker stylings of the track. Another song, Swans is taken from a semi-aborted cartoon musical called Zorro The Fox. “I didn’t want to go out of the house so I was trying to think of ways of presenting songs which didn’t actually involve me promoting them,” says the personable reclusive.
Oddly, Andromeda Heights doesn’t sound like a bits and pieces record at all with most of the songs probing the nature of love and relationships, “It’s a very romantic record in a modern style,” says the singer.
“We think it’s a wonderful record,” says Columbia general manager and A&R head, Dave Balfe, “but it ain’t a party album. It’s not a quick grope in the kitchen, more an album you want to spend some time with at home. It makes me feel warm and cosy when I put it on.”
Although original band members Wendy Smith and Martin McAloon are still part of the set-up, drummer Neil Conti dropped out during the “quiet” years. Producer Thomas Dolby who regularly worked with the band in the Eighties, also decided he couldn’t wait on McAloon’s craftsmanship any longer, leaving the singer to self-produce for the first time.
Initially demoing the album between July and December of 1995, before taking a further seven months to record everything at Andromeda Heights, the discipline of working on a song-based album helped McAloon to simplify his approach after spending a large chunk of the past seven years on a more ambitious, experimental project, Earth: The Story So Far.
“He’s taken moments in world history and written about them,” says Winwood. “He sat down and wrote songs about Adam and Eve, Neil Armstrong and Elvis. The song Earth: The Story So Far was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard so I said, ‘Why don’t you thread that tune through the whole album’, which is what he set off to do.”
“That project relies on a collage technique,” says McAloon. “I had to master so many things, in particular the technology to actually bring the album to life. I will finish it though and hopefully it will be the next record.”
There are other options. McAloon has filed away a musical based on the life of Michael Jackson, Behind The Veil, and the former trainee priest has written an album of gospel flavoured spiritual songs, The Atomic Hymn Book.
“Ten years ago I thought I had all the time in the world,” he says “I’ve actually worked harder for the past few years than I ever have before, but I’ve realised that I have to see some of these things through rather than add more on-going projects to the list. Otherwise there’s a danger that none of it will see the light of day.”
While McAloon obviously holds some grand ambitions, he did not lose the ability to write-to-order to “earn a living for my family” during this time. He composed several songs for Jimmy Nail in 1994 including the hit single Cowboy Dreams and wrote The Gunman for Cher’s album It’s A Man’s World. “She didn’t like it,” says McAloon. “She thought it was the weirdest thing she’d ever been sent.”
McAloon’s status as one of the best songwriters in British pop will be the focus of Columbia’s campaign for Andromeda Heights. “We’ll be pushing for airplay on the radio, the usual stuff for a band who write great songs,” says Balfe. A tour isn‘t on the cards, however, as McAloon doesn’t enjoy being on stage and regards it as a distraction from his passion for writing. “A fantastic thing has happened on the way to Andromeda. I got better at writing which is far more important than being famous or being in a group,” he says.
Perhaps we won’t have to wait as long to hear the results next time around.