1 October 2013
They remain stashed away in Paddy McAloon’s archives, the unheard products of a reclusive songwriter with an endlessly active mind. Next week, however, the 56-year-old Co Durham singer and musician emerges with a fully realised album called Crimson/Red.
It’s a record, he admits, that was driven by simple expedience. The songs themselves had been “written over years, that’s for sure” but “the gathering together of them was a bit more fraught”.
“I had been working on something else for a couple of years, writing all the songs for this other project. It still wasn’t finished for very many reasons. I thought it was shaping up very well then I got a reality check last October. I owed a record to some investors, so I went looking for the best songs I could find in a hurry.
“I’m annoyed at myself for having got into that position,” he sighs softly. “I’ve got no-one to blame but myself. I did not have time to hear it as a collection of pieces, but that often happens. I get there in the end.”
Crimson/Red is full of songs about characters such as the best jewel thief in the world and the old magician. Scratch the surface, however, and some of McAloon himself is revealed.
“I tell everyone that they are not autobiographical, it’s not a diary – my diary is full of facts,” he explains. “What I try to do in song-writing is get some collection of images that work together. [The Old Magician is about] the sad old person at the end of the pier, the fears that we all have – losing our powers of independence and ageing. I can’t pretend I’m not inside those songs. Sometimes it’s more of an imaginary reconstruction, like [the song] Adolescence, but there’s usually a bit of me lurking in there.”
Elsewhere McAloon considers two songwriters who have influenced his own craft. Mysterious is about Bob Dylan while The Songs of Danny Galway was inspired by a 1991 TV appearance with Jimmy Webb.
“I feel the Dylan one was my attempt to steal some of the ground from the Dylanologist who will happily devote a thousand pages to everything that his Bobness does. A lot of it’s warranted but I’ve sometimes thought to myself what a strange life he must have had. When he went through a door marked ‘Famous’ it was not an ordinary fame like a zillion of his contemporaries. He had no career plan as such, he had not chosen a job he thought would make him immensely rich, but he said himself he could not walk into a room without changing the temperature. I thought that was such a curse. I can see how that might drive you round the twist.
“To work outwards from that, I thought I would do a very brief sketch of his life from when he arrived in New York as an aspiring folk singer to falling off his motorbike [in 1966]. On the way I added a little bit of reflection on what it is to be a songwriter, to capture the world in images.”
The Jimmy Webb song is “a fan letter my younger self would have wanted to write to him...to me, he was a legendary figure”. He recalls how in a pre-internet age he and friend would often sit in pubs wondering what the composer of Galveston, MacArthur Park, By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman was up to at that moment. “One night I was able to tell my pal next Sunday night he’s going to be playing with me,” he says, remembering how he was invited to sing The Highwayman with Webb on Irish television.
“Now I would have passed up the opportunity but being younger and foolish then I tried to learn a lovely picking part on the guitar. When I met him it dawned on him not only had I learned the guitar part I was attempting to sing with it. The one criticism I have, and it’s a mild one, is it’s not so great when somebody you love says to you, ‘By the way, I’ve written a chorus to this song’. It didn’t have one before. [If you look at the clip on YouTube] I’m floundering around badly.”
For this release McAloon may be the only member of Prefab Sprout – tinnitus and a detached retina having made working with other musicians difficult – yet he holds out the prospect that one day he will record with his brother Martin again. “My hearing does not make that easy. I’m not very comfortable about people bashing instruments, not that he does that,” he says.
“What I can do is work with machines. Watching the volume I can put together a convincing record that way. That’s what I do. But never say die and never say never and all those other never expressions about Prefab Sprout. Never write us off.”
It’s certainly quite a different set-up now to the late 80s when Prefab Sprout sold millions of records. In the past two decades McAloon seems to have been slowly withdrawing from the limelight, releasing only a solo album (I Trawl the Megahertz) and a collection of songs (Let’s Change the World with Music).
“The mainstream decided we were not for it,” he reflects without bitterness. “I hoped that we would sell a lot of records but then you are too blind to be able to assess yourself properly.Now I have a better picture of what you would do if you wanted to write catchy music. I have boxes at home full of ditties. But pop fame, you have to have the will power to do it. You have to be at the same situation in your personal development where you’re willing to do anything else but wait around.
“My hope was that we would get into heaven on quality – and still is. With the accumulated weight of songs, at some point you hope people will realise you’ve come up with a few good ones on the way.”
"The old magician takes the stage/ His act has not improved with age/ Observe the shabby hat and gloves/ The tired act that no one loves," are the (possibly) self-referential first lines of Crimson/Red's most emphatic song, The Old Magician. Paddy McAloon – currently the only member of Prefab Sprout – has paired the lyric with a blaring country harmonica/keyboard arrangement, essentially asserting that this old-stager isn't about to go gentle into any good night. The first album of previously unheard material to be released since Andromeda Heights in 1997, Crimson/Red is a corker in more ways than one. For several years, McAloon has had impaired hearing and vision, which makes the songs' near-symphonic complexity even more impressive. Playing every instrument and lavishly layering the sounds, he has produced a kind of truculent, Geordie Pet Sounds, while the lyrics are ablaze with mordant observations that rank with some of his youthful best. "Down below, down below, what do those assholes know?" he inquires breathily on The Best Jewel Thief in the World. Clearly, "they" know nothing.
Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon: ‘I’m not cultivating mystique’
He’s wearing tinted blue shades over his usual specs not as a style statement but to protect his eyes: he’s lived with retinal detachment for years. He’s endured severe tinnitus too, so a new Prefab Sprout record is a rare treat nowadays – yet there’s familiar warmth to McAloon’s vocals on The Best Jewel Thief In The World, the opening track of his tenth studio album, Crimson/Red.
‘About ten years ago, I basically decided to pack all this in,’ admits McAloon. ‘I wanted to recreate the state we had before we made records. It’s a middle-aged man’s dream, probably, to go back to being 18, when you wouldn’t be asked about anything you wrote and it wouldn’t have financial consequences. If it didn’t work out, you could put it in a drawer and come back to it.’
Crimson/Red isn’t a conventional comeback. ‘If you’re still writing, then you’re still actively engaged with the world,’ says McAloon.
He’s retained the elegant, emotive lyricism that captured a devoted fanbase on landmark albums including 1985’s Steve McQueen and 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback. The band hit their pop peak in the mid-1980s with hits such as When Love Breaks Down, Cars And Girls and The King Of Rock’n’Roll; back then, McAloon was fondly dubbed ‘Paddy Macaroon’ by Smash Hits. These days, he remains a prolific songwriter, he’s just not inclined to share very much, at odds with an era in which we expect constant updates from artists.
‘I would sharply lose interest in someone I liked if I thought they were telling me about themselves every day,’ he says, mulling over the appeal of Twitter. ‘I’m not cultivating mystique. I don’t really play songs to anyone. Writing songs is something I need to do and I’ve been doing it since I was 13. I wouldn’t put it in the obsessive-compulsive bracket but I’m much happier if I’m making something.’
McAloon, 56, has always laced his music with personal experience (a 2003 solo project, I Trawl The Megahertz, was inspired by his sight loss); Crimson/Red was by necessity a solo work, though Sprout bandmates Martin McAloon (his brother) and Wendy Smith provided encouragement. Like 2009 ‘lost album’ Let’s Change The World With Music, these songs date back some time. ‘The most recent is two years old, which is like the blink of an eye to me,’ he admits.
There’s a characteristically romantic air to Crimson/Red’s melodies, including Billy (which swoons over a sweetheart whose ‘smile is like a fairground’) and The Songs Of Danny Galway (a tribute to McAloon’s hero, songsmith Jimmy Webb). There’s also a restless energy, possibly because its release was suddenly prompted.
‘I’d signed a contract a few years ago and had a rude awakening with a phone call that I owed this record,’ he says. ‘So I abandoned the record I had been working on for two years, which was altogether different, and I went to my drawer of songs. I keep things in tins: cassettes, lyric sheets, chord sheets, maybe some video footage of me playing it. That’s the Sprout archive.’
He describes Crimson/Red as ‘a page-turner’, and his treasure trove contains numerous other intriguing gems, such as Zero Attention Span (‘snapshots of the modern world’) and festive song collections. ‘We’ve got way too many songs for one Christmas record,’ he sighs. ‘I don’t know why I don’t get around to it. I’ve got the beard; kids stop me in the street.’
McAloon seems humbled by the enduring excitement around his music but drily stoical about fame. ‘When the fuss dies down – and it usually does very quickly – you’ll go back to anonymity,’ he says. ‘It’s not Lady Gaga, is it?’
Maybe not – and McAloon’s sartorial flair hasn’t involved meat suits yet – but he did survive the heady 1980s pop industry. ‘My memory is that we weren’t very good at it,’ he chortles. ‘We were young enough to look OK. I remember being in Japan and fans invaded the restaurant we were in – but it wasn’t for us, it was for A-Ha. Another time, we stood at a luggage carousel at Heathrow with hundreds of fans going bonkers, because Bros were on the same flight. Prefab Sprout had a great time but we had to get our own bags.’
McAloon isn’t about to stop songwriting but will we get to hear more? ‘I’m trying not to leave it too long because I’m getting older,’ he says. ‘But you do have to look at how much of any band you really need. Would you like another record?’ Yes please – and definitely that Prefab Sprout Christmas album. ‘I will try and do that,’ he promises, looking twinkly-eyed and more like Santa Claus than ever.
This jovial response is something of a relief. The question I’ve asked is an awkward one – but one that has surely crossed the minds of many Prefab Sprout fans in recent years. A preamble is required to explain it, so bear with me.
The last time this much loved British band released a new album was 12 years ago. The Gunman And Other Stories was a patchy, underpowered affair, lacking the musical or lyrical flair of their career highpoints: Swoon (their brilliant, idiosyncratic 1984 debut), Steve McQueen (from 1985, still their finest hour) or their most ambitious album, 1990’s Jordan: The Comeback, a lavish, sprawling pop symphony which included a suite of songs about Elvis Presley.
The disappointment of The Gunman was compounded by stories that McAloon, the band’s creative driving force, was building up a mind-boggling collection of fascinating half-finished albums that remained frustratingly unreleased – Earth: The Story So Far, a concept album that would tell the entire history of the world in music; Behind The Veil, a musical biography of Michael Jackson; an album of ‘secular gospel songs’ called The Atomic Hymnbook; and numerous others. The last time McAloon met the media, in 2009, he added a few more to this list (there are now around a dozen) and hinted for the first time that he was unlikely to complete, let alone release, any of them in his lifetime – partly because of the rate at which he was continuing to write (although still not release) even more new songs.
This time, the disappointment was compounded by the fact that fans had, out of the blue, just been treated to one of these numerous ‘lost’ albums. Let’s Change The World With Music was originally conceived as a follow-up to Jordan: The Comeback, rejected by the band’s record label, and finally released almost 20 years later, still in demo form, to make up for the fact that Prefab Sprout, at that point, hadn’t put out anything new in eight years. Even as a demo, it was an eccentric, inspired reminder of the wonders McAloon is capable of, and a vast improvement on The Gunman.
While McAloon’s notorious perfectionism partly explains the lack of new music in the past few years, a bigger factor has been his now well documented double whammy of health problems – first, failing eyesight, and then, around 2006, an attack of tinnitus which made the process of recording music almost unbearable. This was, clearly, a hellish period. “It wasn’t a matter of it inconveniencing my music-making,” he recalls now. “it was making me feel very frightened and upset.”
Today, at 56, he seems to be in better health, and typically good humour. “I’m a creaking gate, that’s what my in laws would say. There’s always something not quite right but you’re sort of functioning. At least I think that’s what it means. Maybe there are more unpleasant overtones I’m too vain to see.”
Still, that awkward question is nagging away in my mind and, finally, I can’t resist asking it: what will happen to all this other unfinished material if – perish the thought - he dies?
When McAloon has finished laughing, he offers something resembling an answer. “The problem is this. I recognise the issue, but I know what cassette players are like. They’re not great, so it would make a pretty fuzzy memorial. Essentially the problem with the stuff in the boxes is that if someone came to them they wouldn’t know all those little things that turn them from great ideas into great records.”
If it was beyond his control, though, how would he feel about these sketches finding their way into the world, however fuzzy – as was the case on, for example, Jeff Buckley’s posthumous album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk? More laughter. “I would be literally past caring. I don’t care. I understand that need and I sometimes have it myself, but a lot of the fun I had wondering about Brian Wilson records is the unknown. Those other projects are all still there and I do still chip away at them, but it’s become a bit of a curse. I’ve been in shops and people will say to me, how’s Earth: The Story So Far coming along Mr McAloon? I become like a school boy dragged before the headmaster.
“But the other side of this, which to me is a comforting thought, is how much is enough? I’m not trying to raise a mystery unnecessarily but sometimes it’s better to wonder about certain things. Let me be sacrilegious – how many Dylan albums are essential?”
It’s a fair point. But for those devoted Prefab Sprout fans aching to hear new music, in any form, there is finally some good news. On 7 October, Prefab Sprout will actually release a new, finished album, Crimson/Red – the first since 2001. Prefab Sprout, admittedly, is very much a solo operation these days. McAloon played all the instruments on Crimson/Red himself, assisted by Scottish sound engineer Calum Malcolm (who also worked with him on Let’s Change The World With Music). Former Sprouts Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti are all absent, as is one-time regular producer Thomas Dolby. However it is unmistakably a Prefab Sprout record, full of the lyrical and melodic flourishes familiar to those who love Jordan: the Comeback in particular. (“Adolescence, what’s it like? It’s a psychedelic motorbike, you smash it up ten times a day then you walk away,” is a typically arresting opening line). If the album never quite hits Jordan’s giddy heights, it’s the best thing Prefab Sprout have released since then.
Crimson/Red is, notably, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ collection of material from the various unfinished projects in McAloon’s vault, so at least offers a flavour of what he’s been up to all these years – although this was not the intention.
“I was working through 2010 and 2011 on another project of newly written material, but I abandoned that because I received a call from the people who were financing it, wondering where it was,” McAloon explains. Where it was, at that point, was about three years behind deadline. “I got a big bucket of cold water poured over my head,” he laughs. “I’d thought, it doesn’t matter about the deadline as long as it’s beautiful, but that doesn’t apply with lawyers.”
The fastest way to deliver an album, he decided, was to “cherrypick” songs that were already in a more finished state than the new ones he was working on, focusing on ones that seemed “reasonably simple: no endless sections, no sudden swerves”.
“If you care to mention a title I could roughly tell you when it was written,” he says. So for a while we talk through the tracklist. What about the opening track, a throwaway yet painstakingly crafted pop song called The Best Jewel Thief in the World? “I think I wrote that prior to my hearing disaster, 2005 or 2006. My BC-AD watermark, that’s how I view it. I’ll pull out cassettes and get nostalgia that both my ears were functioning.”
List of Impossible Things, track two, was written soon afterwards, and lyrically it shows, with lines such as “see what the blind man paints, abstract expressionist saints” signalling a preoccupation with the impact of ill health on creativity. The song, McAloon says, is about “making the best of what you’ve got, your voice or whatever it is. In some ways it’s an obscure song that I feel reluctant to pin down in a sentence but it seems central to my sense of what it is that I can do.”
The oldest song on the album, Grief Built The Taj Mahal, dates from around 1997, between the releases of Jordan and Andromeda Heights. Others evolved over time. Adolescence, a wonderfully vivid description of the emotional explosions of puberty, began as a song looking back on McAloon’s own teenage years, but later incorporated his feelings about being a father to two fast-growing daughters.
Among its other achievements, the album should end one of the odder rumours that had sprung up in recent years – that McAloon had found God – a rumour prompted by a rash of religious references on Let’s Change The World With Music.
“There’s something quite glorious about religious certainty as long as it doesn’t involve you calling up the inquisition and getting everyone to feel the way you do,” says McAloon. “It’s an ecstatic state of affairs. But I write counter to what I think. I was a bit bothered by one or two reviews that seemed to think it’s a religious record. It’s not. My opinions are very far removed from my records.” In fact, he says, one of the songs he had in mind for the new album included references to God, so he abandoned it because “I thought I’d already done that”.
“It’s a strange thing,” he says, warming to the theme. “I’m as easily put off by a great reception to a record as a bad one. I’m trying to record something at the moment, but when people really get keen about something it can put me off other things that I do. If you said to me that you thought all the lyrics (on this album) are particularly pointed and sharp it might make me go away and think the lyrics of the songs I’m writing aren’t quite so pointed.” He is, he readily admits, “a person entirely drenched in doubt”.
This could, ironically, mean that the more well received Crimson/Red is, the less likely it is that we’ll hear another new Prefab Sprout album in the near future.
“I try to avoid recording as much as I can,” admits McAloon, “because it’s the moment when all those hypothetical ideas have to become real. I hate to sing into a tape recorder because then I have to sing it again to see if it can get better and then I have to sing it again another 24 times. I just love to write music and write fragments of it, without me willing the connections to be there.”
And here is the great problem with being a Prefab Sprout fan. McAloon’s songs are precious, exquisite things, created from a deeply held passion for pop music. However, as you’ll have gathered, he’s not that bothered about releasing them. In the early days of Sprout, he has admitted, it was the ambition of his brother Martin, and the band’s manager Keith Armstrong, that propelled the band forwards. Now it’s just McAloon setting the timetable, it’s a wonder any music makes it out of his Durham home at all. “Eventually it will emerge as what it should be,” is how he describes the recording process to me. Which is all very poetic. But he also admits that this album is only coming out now because “I didn’t like the threat of legal action”.
Being a Prefab Sprout fan, I can anticipate what McAloon is going to say if I ask him whether he’ll play any live shows around Crimson/Red. I ask anyway, but I was right: the answer is no. He’s aware of fans’ frustration with this too, and tells me he spent a fair bit of time filming himself performing songs live in the studio, perhaps to put online.
“I thought it might be interesting, but I came up against my perfectionism,” he says ruefully. “Instead of having 40 minutes of me playing each song once, I have two hours of me playing Jewel Thief.” The footage seems likely to remain in the vaults for some time.
(Any correction is welcome!).
McAloon makes a heartfelt, hook-laden return
“The beauty of a song is when you can combine universality with particularity”, says Paddy McAloon, speaking to Uncut about his first album in four years. Crimson/Red is, like pretty much everything Durham’s finest has made these past 30-plus years, an adoring tribute to the miracle of music, and a sincere exploration of what a mysterious privilege is to be paid to make it.
But then, nothing makes a person count their blessings more throughly than the very real possibility of losing them. McAloon has suffered these past 20 years from Ménière’s disease, a condition of the inner ear which can cause tinnitus, vertigo, loss of balance and, of course, deafness. Although one hesitates to patronize someone as extravagantly gifted as mcAloon, the fact that he has overcome the affliction to such an extent that he plays every instrument on Crimson/Red isa remarkable fact in itself.
It’s a life of surprises, and the initial ones hit hard from the first wall of rich, jazzily rocking sound of opening track “The best jewel thief in the world”. Firstly, it immediately brings to mind any number of classics from Prefab Sprout’s Thomas Dolby-produced mid-80s imperial phase with its analogue strings synths layered to sound like a plastic orchestra, its trebly, textured guitars, its blue-eyed soul chord sequences established as a book long before the vocals start.
But secondly… Paddy McAloon still kings like a fresh-faced twenty something. Whinch lends all the more energetic optimism to the song’s simple metaphor about the craft of the songwriter, stealing from the masters -or from the mysterious ether- to make noise that transcends literal meaning. The song is also good advice to the budding young songsmith in the face of haters and doubters: “What do those assholes know?… Watch your legend grow”.
Lyrically, the album is rich in universality with particularity. The singer with the soft voice in the ballad “List of impossible things” could be McAloon himself, but it is realy humanity’s refusal to accept our limitations. “Devil Came a calling” sees McAloon revive the ersatz Americana of “Faron Young” and cast himself as Faust, alluding to the rock’n’n roll indulgence of his 80’s glory days but actually exploring mankind’s constant fall to temptation. And while “The songs of Danny Gallway” and “Mysterious” are specific tributes to McAloon songwriting heroes Jimmy Webb and Bob Dylan, respectively, they become poetic ruminations on McAloon’s own desire as a songwriter to “annotate the feast” that is life.
The simple-but-complex nature of Crimson/Red’s themes is best summed up by “The old magician”, which is initially a witty metaphor about the aging entertainer pedditing “the tired act that no one loves”, broaden out into a bleak rumination on failed marriage (“She’s tired of being sawn in two”) and death (“a lowly disappearing act”), but also happens to have the cheeriest country-folk backing on the whole damn album. Ingenious, weird, and quintessentially McAloonesque.
But the final triumph of Crimson/Red doesn’t lie in the usual smart artifice. It lies in the fact that it is ridiculously catchy. McAloon assembled these songs from the vaults -“The old magician” is 16 years old, “List of impossible things” has been tinkered with for a decade- on a deadline, and decided to forge his normal tendency to take a hook line and sink it beneath modal twists and turns, and just let the choruses breathe. All the songs mention plus the harmonica-led, forever whittled ear worms, destined to get your humming annoyingly at the checkout in Tesco.
The result is an album that cuts through much of the cerebral work that being a Prefab Sprout generally entails, in favor of mainlining you down to the heart. It’s a genius pop album by a genius pop singer-songwriter. Or a universally accessible joy from a particularly clever bastard.
Crimson/Red feels like the most sincere and musically straightforward album you’ve ever made. Do you agree?
I know what you mean. But I have a problem with the word “sincere”. People take that to mean that you’re getting some straight talking from someone, and I don’t know that I like straight talking. It makes for earnest and dull records. But the goal I set myself this time was that instead of fighting against simplicity, I’d try and ride with it. And I’d let the burden fall on the lyrics or the melodic hook. I’m dead conscious that people prefer things simple.
“The songs of Danny Galway” is about meeting you here Jimmy Webb in Dublin. What was he like?
I was in 1991 for a show on RTE about songwriters with orchestra. A did a duet with him on The Highwayman”. He was very nice and very humble about his talent. I was too shy to say too much to him. I was just thinking “You wrote “Wichita Lineman”!”
You’re 54 but you still have the same boyish singing voice that featured on “Lions in my own garden…” in 1983. What’s your secret?
Gargling with virgin’s blood I always find helps. I think my voice is all right because I didn’t hammer it for hours a night for 30 years. It’s a side effect of not touring. See… vindicated at last.
Paddy was interviewed on BBC Radio 6 on 8 October; here's the link, but there are only five days left to listen: