Prefab Sprout sold millions of records in the 80s, but singer Paddy McAloon always made music for himself rather than the masses. Now he's back breaking silence with a new album
Thursday 5 September 2013
Paddy McAloon wants to set the record straight. The driving force behind Prefab Sprout once did an interview in which he declared that he was too "reasonable", too un-extraordinary, to be classified alongside his favourites: the Brian Wilsons and Michael Jacksons, those visionary dreamers from the US with a glint of the divine and a hint of the insane. He decided he belonged to a rather more modest and sensible British songwriter tradition that included Elvis Costello and Morrissey.
Well, it's 2013 and McAloon has revised his opinion. For one thing, Costello and Morrissey aren't so sensible. And he, McAloon, is not so modest. "That statement was a lie," he starts, in the genteel surrounds of a hotel lounge in his home city of Durham. "It was a lie because I'm more unreasonable than you might guess. I'm well-disguised. I don't come from any modest tradition, and I don't think Morrissey does either. His lyrics are some sort of monument to disgruntlement at the universe. Maybe it was a lack of self-knowledge on my part back then that made me say what I did. I clearly didn't realise what a megalomaniac I am."
There was a time when McAloon was as feted as Morrissey and he did threaten to take over, if not the world, then at least the music press. "For a while it's seemed as though the entire future of civilised songwriting hinged on his pen nib," wrote Barney Hoskyns in NME in March 1984, around the time of the release of Prefab Sprout's debut album, Swoon. Over the past two decades, he may have withdrawn somewhat from the fray, with health issues – he has tinnitus and a detached retina – ruling out touring. But he still talks about "lyrical gorgeousness" and "sonic excellence" in a way that befits someone who, with Prefab and producer Thomas Dolby, created some of the most beautiful and intelligent records of their era, from Steve McQueen (1985) to Jordan: the Comeback (1990), via From Langley Park to Memphis (1988).
They were, arguably, rivalled in the sophisticated pop stakes only by the output of Scritti Politti and the Blue Nile, although McAloon had more vaulting ambitions than that: "We thought that for all the intricate twists and turns of the music, even a record like Swoon would be as big as Thriller," he says, toying with his beard and smiling. "The '80s, right?"
He still makes music with a vague intention of reaching as wide an audience as possible, despite an insistence on doing what suits him, which invariably means staying in the north-east of England. "It's vulgar to talk about," he says, in the same breathy, lilting Durham register that he sings in, "but we sold a lot of records – not as many as Madonna or Dire Straits, but millions. But I won't move towards the listener first, not before I please myself. And I'm prepared to be bloody-minded about it, even to do without an audience to make the music I want. I'm not interested in the Laters … He's a nice man, Jools Holland, but it's not for me. My manager says: 'Oh, but you'll reach so many more people and sell more records.' But I'd rather not, frankly."
He laughs, loud enough to draw the attention of the hotel guests. "It is a very radical step because it can lead to penury. But that's my take. I will withdraw if I don't think I'll be able to do something to my satisfaction."
There is a line on The Best Jewel Thief in the World, the fabulous lead single from Prefab's new album, Crimson/Red, that goes: "Watch the legend grow." It's about the titular larcenist, but there is a temptation to see it as McAloon revelling in his latter-day reputation as the quasi-mythic recluse.
These days McAloon looks every inch the eccentric hermit. Dressed in a white linen suit and white shirt, and with a head of silver hair and matching long, flowing beard, he resembles psychedelic casualty Roky Erickson more than he does the purveyor of elaborate, literate 80s pop. But then, in his mind, Prefab Sprout were always more of a 70s band. Swoon was considered by some critics to be a throwback to the tuneful, jangling indie of the Postcard label, but to McAloon and his bassist brother Martin, with its songs about chess grandmasters and difficult time signatures, it had the lush sweep of George Gershwin and complex musicality of Stephen Sondheim, only played with the awkward angularity of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.
"We called it Sprout Mask Replica," he laughs again, marvelling at his own youthful audacity. "Swoon was a strange record, and why would I do that? I'll tell you exactly why: I thought if I've only got the chance to do one record, I'd like it to be something unusual. I was big on unusual then. Maybe too much so."
Although Prefab were seen as peers of the Smiths, McAloon had the idea for the band back in the early 70s when he was in thrall to Syd Barrett, David Bowie and T Rex and he and his pals would bash about in his parents' garage. "Not to diss anybody [from the 80s lineup], but my version of Prefab Sprout as the Platonic ideal would be the incarnation from about 1975," he says.
McAloon is renowned among Sprout enthusiasts for having a trove of unfinished albums at his house in the village of Consett, including Earth: the Story So Far, Zorro the Fox and Zero Attention Span. The holy grail for collectors, however, are his earliest recordings. He came across a Tupperware box full of quarter-inch tapes recently. He also found a letter that he had written to Brian Eno in 1976.
"I'd read that he was forming a label," he recalls, "so I've got this rejection slip from Obscure Records. It was written by Eno: 'Dear Patrick, I've listened to your tape, it's not really what I've been looking for, but thanks anyway. Sorry I've taken so long in getting back to you, but I've been very busy.' I didn't know it then, of course, but he must have been working on [Bowie's] Low. So fair dos, really." In 2001, McAloon got Tony Visconti to produce the Prefab's album The Gunman and Other Stories. "So when I say we were a 70s band, I'm not kidding."
Even Steve McQueen featured songs that he had written in 1977-78. But with its modern, spacious production and McAloon the post-feminist songwriter – he documented love and lust on tracks such as Appetite without resorting to the decade's leering sexism – it belonged to a newer age. That and the follow-up also brought Prefab a degree of commercial success with hits such as When Love Breaks Down, Cars and Girls and The King of Rock'n'Roll.
"I remember going through Rome airport and the guys were supposed to be frisking me but they were too busy asking for my autograph," he says, "and I've seen the Top of the Pops 2 re-runs where they write [straplines] like 'all the girls loved Paddy McAloon's hair', but I must have missed that. I feel as if I moved like a ghost through it all. I was always thinking about something else. There was no thrill in it for me – it was too angsty a process to rest on my laurels."
After The Gunman, he recorded a solo album, 2003's I Trawl the Megahertz. Its title track comprised 22 minutes of cinematic strings and a female voiceover reciting heartbreaking extracts from a phone-in to a radio show by a divorced 49-year-old father. It was torn from McAloon's soul and it was all but ignored.
"That record was so important to me," he sighs. "I was disappointed – extremely – that the Guardian never even reviewed it. That stayed with me. I kept waiting week after week: 'Come on, if you're thinking they don't make records like they used to, if you're looking for personal vision, something unusual – I'm your guy!' But it never came."
He dusted himself down to re-record and release, in 2009, an album of 1992 demos (Let's Change the World With Music, which was reviewed by this paper). And now he's done something similar with Crimson/Red, which comprises worked-up versions of tracks from the vaults, this time from between 1997 and 2012. Although it's credited to Prefab Sprout, McAloon played everything – guitar, bass, drums, keyboards – only handing the recordings over to engineer Calum Malcolm for polishing and editing. Even the highly self-critical McAloon is happy with the results.
"I look on it as a grail quest – to do whatever is humanly possible to make it work," he says, heading back out into the sunshine of Durham where the locals either give a wide berth to the strange bearded man in the white suit or presume he's "just flown in from the fantastic hyper-reality world of Los Angeles".
"I was 28 when Steve McQueen came out, you know? I'm double that age now." He pauses, then laughs one final time. "Every 28 years I come up with a good 'un."
Watch the legend grow.