Paddy McAloon, the allure of the long format
The master craftsman behind the success of the English 1980s and 1990s pop group, Prefab Sprout, recently re-released the singular and ambitious “I Trawl the Megahertz”.
Paddy McAloon started work on “I Trawl the Megahertz” in the Spring of 1999, eager to break away from the pop song format. From the early 1980s, his band Prefab Sprout had a career sprinkled with radio hits such as “Cars and Girls” and “The King of Rock’N’Roll”.
“I was tired of it all, exhausted. I remembered David Bowie, from the album “Low” onwards he reinvented himself completely by including instrumental pieces on his records. I wanted to try something different.” he recalls.
So much so that he preferred to release it under his own name so as not to disappoint Prefab Sprout fans. It was 2003, and the record went almost unnoticed. Now, sixteen years later, “I Trawl the Megahertz” has finally joined the official Prefab Sprout discography.
Composed at a time when he was facing serious sight problems, the album opens with a long piece paying homage to talk radio, especially the nocturnal broadcasts that had connected McAloon to the outside world. “It was from the moment I got married that my health began to get out of hand…” he says, with a touch of humour, “It’s always difficult to break the mould when you’re part of a group. But the spirit of the album bears my fingerprints, it seems to me.” He even manages a vocal part in the second part of the album, “It was to remind people it was me behind all of that.”
A more adult project, “I Trawl the Megahertz” evokes the classical sensibilities of this great admirer of French composers. His pop songs always betrayed a richer harmonic sensitivity than his peers in the pop sphere. “I love French music, the music of Ravel and Debussy, which is less heavy than German composers, for example. The vocabulary of pop and jazz comes directly from Ravel’s harmonic discoveries, the 7th and 9th chords for example. And even on our 1982 album, “Swoon”, the chords are quite complex.”
Paddy McAloon, unable to read musical notation, composed the layers of the album by trial and error. “I turned on the computer and filled the staves, guided by my hands and my ears. I’ve learned a lot about harmony since then of course… I was also influenced by the work of Stravinsky and Aaron Copland.”
Fans should be reassured that the album doesn’t bear the usual flaws of classical projects by other rockers. “I’ve always found these attempts a bit embarrassing.” he lets slip quietly, probably thinking of Paul McCartney or Elvis Costello and their pitiful experiments.
Even if he claims an inheritance from the strong pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s, citing Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young among his heroes, McAloon has more in common with the songwriters of the first half of the 20th century. “I’m very fond of the work of Gershwin and the other composers who fled Europe to work on Broadway. I have kept a fondness for the 32-bar structures and the lyrical wit of this tradition, especially Cole Porter or Sondheim, who can do all of it.”
Weakened by his faltering health, Paddy McAloon promises the next release of an album of songs by Prefab Sprout. “I’ve recorded the different parts myself but I’m not sure whether to redo them or not. I’m slower than I was, but I’m still working on this record called ‘Femmes Mythologiques”, he says, serenely.