‘Don’t be too worried about the truth,’ Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout gently insists. ‘Make it all up!’
All right, then. Paddy McAloon, singer and writer of some of the most enduringly beautiful songs of the last two decades, lives a tortuously slow and utterly solitary existence in a huge guarded mansion endless miles from the frenetic bustle of the capital, where he locks himself away for hours on end obsessively scrutinising Frank Sinatra videos and composing biographical celebrations of fellow eccentric loner prodigy, Michael Jackson.
To be honest, none of this actually does veer too far towards the realms of fantasy and fabrication. Paddy McAloon has bequeathed some of the most gorgeous music of all time (see: Swoon, Protest Songs, Jordan: The Comeback and, especially, Steve McQueen and From Langley Park To Memphis). He does live far away from London, all alone in a house in Consett, County Durham. He does spend hours in front of the box transfixed by old live performances of Francis Albert. And he has just completed a 12-song biographical opus based on the life and work of the skinny black/white billionaire from Indiana.
So, on the eve of the release of A Life Of Surprises: The Best Of Prefab Sprout, is Paddy McAloon going slightly mad?
‘Well, I haven’t started collecting llamas, if that’s what you’re wondering,’ smiles Paddy, peering over his aviator shades. ‘Or chimpanzees or pythons. But l can identify with his (Jackson’s) sort of lifestyle, certainly. I’ve kinda been losing myself in his weird parallel world recently. And thoroughly enjoying it, I might add!
‘You know, my enthusiasm isn’t really with this record,’ he sighs, referring to the compilation LP, ‘it’s with all the new stuff I’ve been writing. But I’m playing it cautiously because I need more commercial power before I can put all these ideas into practice. I’ve almost finished an album’s worth of material on Zorro (ancient swashbuckling hero), although Stephen Spielberg now owns all the old rights so he’ll probably make some Indiana Jones-type adventure and I’ll have to negotiate with him. And I’ve got this weird musical account of Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 which I’m incredibly proud of.
‘I do admit, some of these ideas are a little self-indulgent, even far out,’ demures the reclusive genius in his soft Geordie accent. ‘That worries me a bit. I don’t want to seem like a crazy man.’
McAloon’s isolation from the rest of the music business goes beyond the geographical. Prefab Sprout put out their debut single Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone), in 1983 to considerable acclaim. By the release of the band’s ﬁrst album, Swoon (the title was an acronym: ” Songs Written Out Of Necessity”), Paddy’s complex, enigmatic lyrics were being examined as fervently as those of Elvis Costello. The follow-up from 1985, Steve McQueen, immediately established the twentysomething former Catholic boy as perhaps the most gifted melodicist of the early to mid Eighties, above even Martin Fry (ABC), Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) and Edwyn Collins (Orange Juice).
In fact, there was a time in the middle of the last decade when McAloon was even more highly regarded than Morrissey Today, pop is all noise, grunge and Techno and the era of the brilliant songwriter appears to have been (momentarily?) consigned to history. But that doesn’t mean Paddy McAloon is about to bow out of the music business. Indeed, a track like If You Don’t Love Me, one of two new tunes on The Best Of, proves Paddy’s creative powers are as strong as ever.
‘My writing is deFInitely getting better and more focussed’ confirms McAloon. ‘And despite what I said before, I’m probably even less bothered than ever about commercial and artistic constraints. If I like the idea, I’ll follow it through, no matter how strange it is. I don’t want to turn into a boring, confessional singer-songwriter. I’m still attracted to the bizarre. It’s just a question of being crafty, so I can keep the record company happy.’
This year, apart from having his house renovated and a studio built in, something that will enable him to do programming and produce demos for future projects at home, Paddy just intends to keep writing. Along with the Michael Jackson album — which was completed in six weeks, incidentally — he hopes to realise a life-time’s ambition: to start writing song for other people.
‘I’d love to write for Sinatra, of course. Honestly, this year I genuinely intend sending songs to people. I do write with other singers in mind, you know. I’d love The Righteous Brothers to sing one, or Darryl Hall. And I’ve written a track for Madonna called Doing A Garbo. I’m serious!’
McAloon also plans to record a suite of straight romantic love songs, which ought to please those who found the stuff about God and the biographical paeans to Elvis Presley and Agnetha of Abba on Jordan: The Comeback rather inaccessible.
A follow-up to Steve McQueen? No, it’ll be even more romantic than that,’ he asserts, as whole nations spontaneously throw street parties to celebrate. ‘It will be entirely dedicated to the love song, quite unashamedly ravishing, if l can use that word.’
By all means. After all, this is the man responsible for more ravishing music than almost anyone else these past 10 years. But is this songwriting lark just an easy option for Paddy now, or will they still be Songs Written Out Of Necessity?
Well, we meant that title to be a bit tongue-in-cheek at the time, he grins, zipping up his blue windcheater and tying the laces on his chunky hiking boots. ‘But, yes, l do still have to do this. Not fiscally — physically. It’s an addiction. I wouldn’t know what else to do. I write for the thrill of writing, it’s what excites me. I feel empty if I haven’t written for a while, and unhappy. I’m always thrilled by the prospect of what next.’ He’s not the only one.