He has changed, Paddy McAloon. In fact, he is unrecognizable. There’s no trace of the grim-looking, bearded minstrel from the cover of the album ‘Steve McQueen’. On the sofa in the lounge of a hotel in Amsterdam is a bespectacled hippie in a little too often worn t-shirt. Sometimes he lights a cigar. Not someone you would believe to be one of the most talented writers in contemporary pop music. But: Prefab Sprout, Paddy’s brainchild, can be considered a welcome oasis in the desert of the empty-headed. The album ‘From Langley Park to Memphis “is the latest piece of evidence. McAloon: “I choose the direction.”
His voice is soft, with a northern English accent. Newcastle is home to Paddy McAloon. There, in the bosom of the unsurpassed Kitchenware Records (also the label of The Kane Gang, Martin Stephenson & the Daintees) the man’s undeniable talents as a writer were hatched. After the debut album ‘Swoon’ Prefab Sprout earned a serious reputation with ‘Steve McQueen’, “an album of whimsical songs through which shone delightful melodies and sharp lyrics. Producer Thomas Dolby was given the enviable task of polishing the diamonds. “That’s the biggest difference in ‘From Langley Park to Memphis,” McAloon says. “Steve McQueen” was an LP which breathed a particular atmosphere, where “From Langley Park to Memphis” is not a unit. Thomas Dolby has this time only produced four of the songs. After “Steve McQueen” I wanted to give him a while so he didn’t get bored with my work. But as a songwriter it’s better to do ‘Langley Park’ than to sit listening to ‘Steve McQueen’ .
How does the new LP come across, McAloon asks, interested. It’s pretty, we answer truthfully, a bit smooth maybe. “Smooth? Surely not…! OK, OK: what’s the smoothest song on the LP?” ‘Nightingales’? Oh No .. ‘Nightingales ‘ is the purest song we’ve done since ‘ When love breaks down’. ‘Nightingales’ looks at the world from an almost childlike point of view. I saw it as the sort of thing Tom Waits does, lived in but with a brilliant melody. I wanted to give the song a richness, make it an event.”
The affable McAloon’s astonishment is not an act. He shakes his head wildly. There’s much to explain. The man is so sincere in his love of his craft that the question of what purpose all this trouble serves arises. The charts are full of empty images and vacuous tunes. Prefab Sprout have to compete with that? McAloon: “Indeed the top 40 is no longer the work of songwriters. The emphasis is increasingly on the sound and the production, for example Stock, Aitken and Waterman. That’s a frustrating idea, because many people no longer bother… no longer search for a beautiful melody. Just because no-one expects them any more. People have lost faith in pop music. But that just drives me on.”
McAloon’s perspective is, with its sharp, sometimes cynical view of the world, is not obviously strange “Who would I have predicted ten years ago that the drummer with Genesis (Phil Collins) would ever be one of the best selling artists on this earth? It’s just a big lottery.”. All the more remarkable then is the whimsy with which he explores the boundaries of pop music. In the pipeline are a Christmas-album, working title ‘Total snow’, and a sort of film soundtrack, ‘Zorro the Fox’ (yes, the masked adventurer). “The idea behind ‘Zorro the Fox’ is that the film music today is so damn conservative. You write a few songs that have a chance of getting into the Top 20 and you put them together in an album. I take the most direct route: I want to get where film and music are discovered together. I’ve written several pieces for ‘Zorro the Fox’. I don’t know how it will finally turn out… It sounds very vivid, very modern. For example I’ve written a piece created out of rhythm. It’s maybe a bit like Philip Glass.”
Speaking of big names: how the hell is it that Stevie Wonder is justified on a Prefab Sprout album? “I had to have a harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’. Stevie was in the country, and my manager knew his manager. Stevie knew our music is not really like his but he wanted to do it. He was in England to make a record. The solo was perfect immediately. ‘Is this what you were looking for?’ he asked? Wow! It was perfect. I was amazed I could be in the studio with such a man. Apart from Neil (Conti, Prefab`s drummer), who is really a complete musician, we ourselves are quite awkward when it comes to instruments. My own timing is pretty bad. That’s why it’s taken more than two years before we finished the new album.. You really wouldn’t want me to play on your record.”