Robert Yates, the Observer – April 27th 1997

King Sprout

Paddy McAloon trained to be a priest, but ended up in pop music. An unexpected move, and one that might explain why, after 15 years, he has still to grasp the basics of his ‘new’ job. He has not yet squired a model, nor has he ever raised hell; and he has never, knowingly swung his hips. ‘Though when I was slinkier, ‘ he protests, ‘I was known to shuffle my feet a bit…’

Think of McAloon as the anti-Michael Hutchence. Hutchence, rock excess made flesh, carries a lighter that bears the legend, ‘You’re perfect; please f*** me’. McAloon prefers an unadorned box of Swan Vestas.

What’s the matter, Paddy, don’t you know the game? Tunes are meant to be just the pretext. It’s, the extra-curricular business that counts: the flight from the provinces, photos in the paper, living large…

‘I plead guilty to being abnormal then,’ he says in his gentle Geordie accent.

McAloon is that rarity – a pop musician interested only in the music. The 40-year-old lives in Newcastle, with his mother, and works in his home studio every day including Christmas and new year, ‘It’s a regular routine: I get up, write songs, then go for a walk.’

There is an advantage to all this endeavour – McAloon is just about the best songwriter of his generation. Not much of an advantage recently, though, since the music he makes has gone unheard for so long. His band, Prefab Sprout (McAloon with the assistance of his brother Martin and vocalist Wendy Smith) is about to release an album, Andromeda Heights, their first in seven years. At his record company, Sony, in London’s West End, everybody is delighted by his visit. (The Hermit Genius from the North. He lives! He breathes!) Many of the staff were not around for the last release, 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback, but most know the shorthand.

Regularly, McAloon is tagged with the back-handed compliment of ‘literate songwriter’- ie he writes songs that you can’t dance to. McAloon does not care for the label. Those who overburden their tunes with lyrical conceits, he figures, are often trying to tell the world that they’re too good for this song-writing lark.

He, by contrast, has no wish to be embraced as a poet – which is just as well. ‘What you see in me I’ll never know/ That’s the mystery of love,’ he sings on the new album. ‘Sure, I use cliché. A lot of my lyrics would be banal outside of their setting.’ The banal is redeemed, he argues, by the right musical setting. His sound draws on the Beatles and saloon songs, soft rock and gospel. The result is an elegant argument for tradition. Others, however, persist in looking for enlightenment in the words: a recent newspaper article portrayed McAloon via his song lyrics; the couplets celebrated as newly minted aphorisms. ‘The studenty thing,’ he sighs When Prefab Sprout released their 1984 debut album,’ Swoon, they became the love of sensitive, young men everywhere. And Mc Aloon didn’t like it one bit. He aspired to be associated with the ‘Big Boys – Gershwin, Berlin Motown, Chic’ not lumped in with scruffy ‘indie’ wailers. He envies the way soul can get away with being sexy and spiritual: ‘Marvin Gaye sings about God and sex in the same breath.’ In ‘whiter’ pop, however ‘There’s a problem, people think you just got religion’.

McAloon attended a seminary in Lancashire between the ages of 11 and 18, intending to don the cloth, until his reading strayed into the secular side and he opted for an English degree instead ‘Because I’m nice, I tend not to tell people it’s not their business when they ask about my beliefs.’ Ouch. ‘But, to be honest, it’s all doubt.’

It would be very easy to make a link between his cloistered commitment to song-writing and his time at the seminary . So let’s make it. ‘It’s more a case of therapy; though I don’t like using the word. Making music is what gets me through the hours.’ And McAloon is very happy that way. Thankfully, there’s nothing of the tortured artist about him.

If you’re wondering, since McAloon works non-stop and there’s been only one collection of songs in seven years, what happens to the rest, the answer lies in the ‘works in progress’. His favourite is Earth: The Story So Far, a song cycle dealing with the whole of human history, no less. All the main players are there: ‘Adam and Eve; Elvis, Neil Armstrong…’ Then there’s a cartoon soundtrack, and a musical based on the life of Michael Jackson…

Mention of Jackson reminds you that some people think McAloon is himself an oddball, doodling forever in his den. Yet the more he details his life, the more attractive it appears. He does what he wants to do, and when. He’s hardly lost to the world, enjoys a drink, a night out with his girlfriend, ‘though part of me thinks I should be a father, married by now’.

He can afford to live on royalties, and is worldly enough to take on lucrative briefs. Over the past few years, he has written songs for Jimmy Nail and Cher and also knocked out the theme tune to the homely ITV series, Where The Heart Is. ‘The one with Raquel from Coronation Street’ he tells me.

‘If only he wanted to be a star,’ says Muff Winwood of Sony, his main contact with the outside business world. ‘But he doesn’t want to push himself.’

‘Pushing would be to tour and to do all those visual things that make me realise I am not very glamorous,’ quips McAloon, who did his bit for the company by appearing on last week’s National Lottery Live, a sheepish grown-up grinning in the kindergarten.

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he insists, ‘I hate those who go on about pop having a seriousness of purpose. It’s probably when it’s at its worst. It’s the lightness of touch I like. But look at me.’ He gives himself the once over, cuddly, handsome enough. ‘Ah, you can be polite. But we both know I’m not as slinky as I might once have been.’

It’s “best for him, he reckons, to stay at home and do his work, and avoid the parties. ‘The Spice Girls, I’m sure, will get over not meeting me.’