Myth has always had a greater pull on Paddy McAloon than reality.
Infatuated with the surreal names of psychedelic bands such as Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Grateful Dead, McAloon was 13 years old when he dreamed up the name Prefab Sprout for the band he aspired to lead.
Twenty years later, McAloon is still saddled with the name, though he accepts that its connotations are less than hip.
Prefab Sprout is one of Britain’s most critically acclaimed bands – an accolade that usually goes hand in hand with limited commercial success. And McAloon, who says in one song that “I tried to be the Fred Astaire of Words,” is often very hard to understand.
The group’s latest album, “Jordan: The Comeback,” is one of its finest. The title is meant to be obscure, but Jordan is the river of the gospel songs, and the Comeback is Elvis Presley’s.
“I like Elvis as a myth. I do like some of his music, but that’s got nothing to with it. I like people you don’t know anything about. I’m a sucker for Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo,” says McAloon.
He revels in paradox. He shuns the glitz of the music scenes in London and Hollywood. Yet he yearns for the days when song writers were kings in Tin Pan Alley and tunes were simple enough to whistle.
McAloon admits the influences of the Beatles, Prince, Chic, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson. But he prefers to talk about Barbra Streisand, Steven Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
He loves it when a 16-year-old can recite the line, “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” from his pop pastiche song “The King of Rock and Roll.”
“I could do this from anywhere,” says this slight man with graying ginger beard, who is wholly unlike the clean-cut face in his publicity shots.
“It’s only my imagination, I could do it living in a cardboard box, and I get a good thrill from that. I don’t have show biz friends, I don’t kid myself I’m anything I’m not. You’ve got to stay like a terrorist.”
His hideaway is in the countryside outside the deeply unfashionable former steel town of Consett, near Newcastle in northeastern England.
McAloon hates what contemporary singer-songwriters take for granted – that they should confess their innermost feelings.
“My songs are packed with feelings. I think that they are quite intimate. … I just try to flesh them out in a more exciting way than ‘here I am today with my guitar, what can I tell you, my heart is broken.’
“If I want to say there are no good songs left in the world, I’ll give it to Elvis to sing.”
“Jesse James Bolero,” a song from the new album, was written as if Elvis were alive and could sing it.
“I got into the idea of thinking of Presley sitting there on the top floor of a hotel in Vegas and he’s got this complaint against the world, that the songs aren’t written anymore,” McAloon said..
“I like to write things that tease a little bit. On one level, Elvis was a bit of a tacky individual who let himself go to pieces. He could have had a better life than being a multimillionaire hamburger addict. That’s one way of looking at it, and another is a sort of beauty that seeps through all that. They’re both true at the same time, and I like that.”
Why Jesse James? “Because he was similar to Elvis, a bad boy who was very glamorous, but he ended up with a bullet in his back, a guy who had everything and he throws it away. And the fact that Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth was also called Jesse.”
The plot thickens, but the beauty of Prefab Sprout is that you don’t have to follow the cunning weavings of McAloon’s mind to enjoy the tunes. He creates a gentle, highly melodic rock-based sound that drifts in and out of a range of influences from gospel and country to jazz.
McAloon formed Prefab Sprout after leaving school at 18, with his brother, Martin, on bass, Neil Conti (“the only real musician in the band”) on drums and his girlfriend at the time, Wendy Smith, on backing vocals.
They have had two British Top 10 singles and their albums usually go straight into the Top 10 on release.
Ever the dreamer, McAloon writes songs for singers he does not know. He wrote a song called “Boy, Let Love Take Over” for Dusty Springfield. She hasn’t recorded it, and McAloon thinks he may do it himself: “It was just perfect,” he said.
He just finished his most ambitious song for a heroine: “Avenue of Stars,” for Streisand. He also has written a song about the superstar called “Let’s Change the World With Music,” inspired by her campaigns for the environment.
McAloon has written 25 songs for a film project called “Zorro the Fox.” He also has 15 songs for a Christmas album, and enough songs for an album of three-minute cuts in the spirit of Phil Spector, which he thinks may be the next Prefab Sprout LP.
“I want someone to think I’m best at something,” McAloon said. “I want people to say, if you’re looking for a songwriter, that’s about as good as you get these days.”