Prefab Sprout run the risk of being last year’s thing before becoming this year’s. Simon Garfield finds out the band’s Paddy McAloon is coping.
Paddy McAloon has never been one to miss an irony. Midway down Oxford Street, the lead singer and songwriter of Prefab Sprout wipes his rain-spotted NHS glasses and gives up the search for a Stephen Sondheim record. ‘The thing is,’ he says, ’we’re sort of on the same record label as he is – but no one I talk to at CBS or at any of our gigs seems to know anything about him. And he’s the best…’
There must however be many more young people who’ve heard of Prefab Sprout, one of this year’s most highly tipped bands, than of Stephen Sondheim. And in a few months, Paddy McAloon will be almost anywhere you care to look, while for a whole generation Sondheim will remain in obscurity. Which is OK, because he won’t have to suffer a similar backlash. But Sondheim is one of the greatest songwriters alive, and Paddy McAloon, a certain gleam in his eye, finds that slightly, ahem, ’amusing’.
Paddy McAloon is not one of the greatest songwriters alive. But he‘s immensely talented, and has a showcase of material both original and wholly enjoyable, He’s not a great white hope and he’s not a pretentious hypestar. He and the other two permanent members of the band have just hooked up an eight-album deal with CBS, and he’s on £60 a week and making do.
Eight albums with CBS of course sounds like the kiss of death. ’Not really. The reason we’re signed for that length of time is because they see us as a band that has a lot of developing to do – their word was “tasty”. It’s not like a fast buck thing’
Accordingly, the band have received guarantees that they won’t be sold as pop meat.
‘We told them we don’t want the first single to appear on sprout-shaped plastic.’
The band‘s first two singles on the Newcastle-based Kitchenware Records – ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ and ’The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’ – were layered with praise almost everywhere they were heard. They only sold so much. Signing with CBS, the band revived the tenet that kind words and a gun can achieve more than kind words alone.
With a name as twee and laughable as Prefab Sprout, you need all the guns you can get. Stemming from a misheard line In the Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazelwood song ‘Jackson’ (it should have been ‘pepper sprout’), McAloon already feels that it’s somewhat backfired. ‘But we’re not dropping it. It’s just that if people haven’t heard us, or find the chord changes too complex to categorise, they tend to joke about the name. We were deliberately looking for something strange – like Strawberry Alarm Clock – but it gets dangerous when it begins to detract from everything else’.
And everything else is remarkably hard to pigeonhole. There’s seldom an orthodox pattern of verse, chorus, verse, chorus; there’s very little predictable scansion; lyrics are admittedly often chosen at random, plucked out of conversation; and with a marked lack of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl scenarios, the songs cover such subjects as Lady Diana Spencer, a retired circus ringmaster (!) and, on the new single ‘Don’t Sing’, the Greene novel ‘The Power And The Glory’. Influences are Sondheim and exams and love on the Newcastle dole. And an early champion was Elvis Costello.
‘He’s going on a tour of America soon,’ says McAloon, ‘and he’s doing a version of our song “Cruel”. Before we played the ICA last night we went through the chords in the loo He was crammed up against the sink, singing the chorus ‘ it was, he says boyishly, ‘quite something’.
The Costello connections go further still. both have covered the country standard ’He’ll Have To Go’, and the first few bars of McAloon s ’Cue Fanfare’ are ‘a direct lift from ‘l Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’. So what? ‘So Elvis said last night that we’re the last band that he’s going to support so publicly. He’s frightened that next time he’s going to pick a band that aren’t going to make it, and that they’ll all blame him.’
The ICA gig itself went less than well. A new drummer and a weak mix meant that those who’d come to be bowled over went away fairly unimpressed. The next day 20-year old vocalist Wendy Smith seemed least happy, but bassist Martin McAloon stoically put it down to experience. ’Some people have suggested that we stop playing live,‘ says brother Paddy. ’Can you believe that? We’ve been doing gigs for a relatively short while, and people think we should remain a studio band.’
Prefab Sprout have already been elevated In some circles to a ridiculously unattainable creative height, inevitably, the backlash has begun before most of the record buying public have even heard of them, ‘lt’s just a logical conclusion,’ says McAloon. ’You can now become last year’s thing b fore becoming this year’s.’
But if all the hype, contracts and ‘saviour’ tags are both a fat and a hip burden to bear, then Paddy McAloon is thin and uncool and seems to bear it with delight.