Full of surprises, the Newcastle Sprouts pop up again. Tim Nicholson reports.
As long-time heroes of the independent music scene, Prefab Sprout are now edging their way into the mainstream charts. Their recent single, Cars and Girls, took a tongue-in-cheek view of life on the road (as portrayed by Springsteen et al), and reached number 25 in the charts. In retrospect they’re not mad about their first album released nearly four years ago, Swoon, but now they are bursting with confidence. Ask Paddy McAloon, the voice, the words and the music behind Prefab Sprout, and he’ll tell you that there is no group to equal his own. Ask Wendy Smith, the source of the female voice in their lush sound, and she will stubbornly agree. As far as rival bands are concerned, she says, ‘There is nobody good enough to compete.‘
Arrogance above their station, or could it be they have cause for such pride? After a much-acclaimed second album, Steve McQueen, which was a quirky masterpiece of understatement (helped along by the production know-how of Thomas Dolby), the Sprouts have come up trumps again. Their new album, From Langley Park to Memphis (reviewed here last month), is a euphoric combination of laments, perfect pop and witty observations. It’s surprisingly funny, but then again lots of things about them have changed.
Newcastle’s favourite sons and daughter (clockwise from top: Martin McAloon, brother Paddy, Neil Conti and Wendy Smith) are now more careful about the way they look. ‘In the past we’d all wear the clothes we’d like to wear,’ says Smith. ‘In the boys’ case that tended to be leather jackets and in my case it was girlie dresses, which was a mistake. When you’re the only girl in the band and you’re not playing an instrument, you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb.’
Paddy McAloon, too, dropped his American look of short hair, beard and Top Gun shades for a clean-shaven, more natural style. The American references, however, remain. The song Hey, Manhattan! from the album is a statement of intent, with McAloon warning: Hey, Manhattan, here I come! As he goes on to explain, ‘Yes, I’ve been to New York, walked down Fifth Avenue and seen the Carlyle. But the song itself shows an imagined New York. To people in the north of England especially, America is the home of glamour it gives you the opportunity to do the most and lose the most. Whether you’ve been there or not, you have your own personal vision of what it’s like.’
The Sprouts‘ new single, out now, King Of Rock ‘n’ Roll, also focuses on glamour and failure and is bound to stir up interest and speculation among the pop world and general public alike. I’d heard it was written about Gary Glitter true or false?
‘Neither,’ says McAloon. ‘It’s not actually about Gary Glitter. I had in mind a slightly camp pop star who’d come along in the seventies and made a few bob. Now he’s ageing and all he has left of those bygone days are his press cuttings and his blue suede shoes.
‘I toyed with sending it to Bowie. It would be very near the knuckle, but being the kind of person he is I would hope he’d appreciate the irony.‘ So what stopped him? ‘I enjoyed singing it myself too much.’