PREFAB SPROUT, interview
Melody Maker, summer 1990
by Simon Reynolds
Exquisite. Sumptuous. Marvellously intricate, angelically forceful. That's Jordan The Comeback, Prefab's first album for two years, and their best since Steve McQueen. Possibly better. No record has sung inside me more insidiously, more irrepressibly this year, apart from Ultra Vivid Scene's Joy.
Paddy McAloon thinks it's better than Steve McQueen anyway, that touchstone album that's become something of an albatross around his neck. Produced by Thomas Dolby once more, Jordan was more of an equal affair. "Steve McQueen was Thomas' record in a way. I gave him a huge collection of songs, and almost all the ones he picked were written in 1979, long before Swoon". Paddy was 19 then, only just out of the Catholic seminary he'd been educated at
from the age of 11. That means he wrote all those songs about love and loss, having had only the most fleeting acquaintance with womankind. Incredible.
Paddy McAloon is a wonderfully animated, vivacious, and charming interviewee, stressing words left, right and centre in his silvertongued Geordie brogue, and erupting into manic outbursts of laughter. In a Newcastle tavern packed with businessman, I lay the old chestnut on Paddy: his work is something you either adore or abhor. Critics and punters alike either rate him as one of the best songwriters around, or lambast him with all those unkind phrases like "precious", "prissy", peddler of crossword puzzle romance, doyen of egghead MOR, Paddy McNancy.
This is all water off a duck's back and supremely irrelevant to Paddy these days. "Whenever I do interviews I always try to avoid being dragged into whatever world you lot want to make for me to be in. I try to remember that however much you might be a fan, or you might think we're irrelevant to whatever scene you've got going, it really... doesn't... matter. Cos we're not that big. We're in that
middle ground now where we're neither on the cusp of credibility nor are we massive in the mainstream."
The animosity towards Prefab seems to stem from the fact that they're not red-blooded, carnivorous, hell-for-leather rock'n'roll. For Paddy, that's like comparing football and racing driving, or saying why isn't Marilyn Monroe like Liza Minnelli: they're incommensurable, not in the same league.
"I find it strange that people who don't like us beat us over the head with the fact that we don't use three chords and distortion, when there's a record called West Side Story, and it would be much easier to hurt me by saying 'that's fabulous
songwriting, why aren't you as good as that?'"
Nonetheless, McAloon did used to come over as though he was on something of an anti-rockist crusade, offering a (pretty acute) critique of rock's vague bluster about passion and mystery (in particular the mystic ilk of The Bunnymen/U2/ Minds) and pledging allegiance to "superior" influences like Sondheim, Bacharach and David, Rodgers and Hammerstein, etc. But such partisanship is something that's behind him now.
"See, I actually like rock music. I've got loads of records that people would be really surprised to find out that I loved. But part of the deal for me has always been that you didn't rely on being overtly sexual. When I was 19, I decided that was the easy way out. It's not to do with being perverse or obscure, it's just me trying to do things that haven't been done. That's what I was into when we
did Swoon. Now I've mellowed a little, in that I'd rather do something that lasted a long time and was just plain beautiful, rather than worry about whether it was radically different to what everyone else does.
"But believe me, I could do the most brilliantly obscure noise records you've ever heard. I used to like Stockhausen when I was a kid. But when I got older I realised I actually spent more time listening to Abba than Stockhausen. I used to like the Velvet Underground when I was 20, but then I realised there was an awful lot of the Outsider that goes with the image. But in terms of playability, of records you put on to console yourself, I sort of gave up on rock. A while ago I gave up a bit on credibility, in the belief that I'd always be kinda hip simply through not caring about it. I went away and I thought: 'what is it you really like, what do
you love to do?' I love melody, and at that time I was very much enthralled by the Broadway album by Barbara Streisand. And I thought I wanna write songs where the melodies aren't caged in by the pop format of little stanzas. Most pop melodies are really crabbed, they don't flow, they don't go on for eight bars. I wanted to something as if Trevor Horn was doing a Walt Disney soundtrack. Wandering, extravagant melodies, rather than the pop thing of hooks."
McAloon seems to have floated outside the ideological to-and-fro of the music press, is now in his own little world where all the categories of 'hip' and 'uncool' don't apply: a separate timestream, from which he hopes to do timeless work.
"Yes! I'm in my own little world, that's the problem. I got the New Order 'England' record for my birthday and the Mark Moore remix of Prince's "The Future", but that's as close as I've got the pulse of 1990. And that's quite up to date for me, normally it's something that came out five years ago that I didn't like at the time, but now I've come round to it. I'm not in the vanguard of listeners."
But if he no longer feels that rockism is his great bugbear,it's still the case that he has no truck with rock romanticism. Partly that's a matter of physiological necessity ("I have a certain kind of a voice and it doesn't extend very far at that kind of 'waugghhh' level. The palate of my voice and Wendy's voice doesn't
include Iggy Pop."), mostly it's to do with temperament. The Rock's Romantic tradition is about the Dionysiac poet of Sex And Death (Jim Morrison,Iggy, Cave), "whose music is an emodiment of their physical presence. Whereas I like being able to write about something that maybe doesn't accord with your own viewpoint, but it makes for a good song. I believe in the distancing effect, where you write from a viewpoint that you don't necessarily believe, but it's valuable. It's like being a screenwriter. You may not believe what the Rod Steiger's racist character is saying in In The Heat Of The Night, but you have to make it ring true.
"And this goes very against the rock grain. The identification of the song with the singer is central, as is the identification between the star and the fan. And I find that childish, really: it's like pond life level. You get fat and you take loads of drugs, and that makes all your songs about drugs valid."
Jordan The Comeback was originally intended as a double album, and three of the sides are suites of thematically linked songs. One suite addresses the "bad boy" myth, using Jesse James as archetype of the spoilt mothers boys, who goes on the run from domesticity. But, grins Paddy, they're all really about Elvis.
"The title track is Elvis as Howard Hughes on the top floor of his hotel in Vegas. I wanted to get an Elvis imitator to sing it, but then decided it was bit gimmicky. It's an Elvis monologue, him looking back at his life and saying 'I didn't do it right, but if I come back it'll be gospel music all the way and sod this 'Wooden Heart' crap. 'Jesse James Symphony' and 'Jesse James Bolero" came about when I was trying to kickstart my writing again, and I thought: 'what if I was writing something for someone like Streisand or Presley?'. I decided to write something that would have appealed to Elvis' own self-image. He liked to identify with mythic
things, you can see that in his 'American Trilogy'. So I wrote something that dealt with him in those mythic proportions: the image of the outlaw, and all the sentimentality that allows the singer. The idea of his mother looking at him in the cradle, and then he ends up as this big fat guy onstage in Vegas that half the world
wants to go to bed with. He's gone from from wearing your nappy, to wearing a nappy again, cos he's incontinent in your bed, which he was at the end. Finally, "Moondog" is about... if he came back, where would the Colonel have him playing?. There's only one place big enough, the moon. A satellite link-up."
Another suite on the album is, says Paddy, "all about the appeal on the young imagination of Agnetha Faltskog. The image of the "Ice Maiden". I like Abba, I like the fact that their use of the English language has that once-removed quality, partly because they're Swedish and partly because the American rock'n'roll experience doesn't come naturally to them. But they have an image of glamour that is peculiarly European. And they're aren't that many great European rock groups. And "Ice Maiden" is all about the appeal of that image, and it's me saying 'you've met your match', I know exactly what you're about. It's all very abstract, there's no
reason anyone should pick up on it. And it's a medley of songs, which is very uncool and un-rock, but I like that. I've got a sweet tooth, you know!"
He may not care for rock's romanticism, its creed of impulse and instinct, but he loves romance. That said, Prefab songs display a vacillation or equivocation about the language of love. "Looking For Atlantis" chides someone for having too high expectations of love and life, for looking for the Holy Grail when all the while 'you should be loving me', who's flawed but real, here and now. But
'All The World Loves Lovers' seems to mock those modern couples who strive to have a very pragmatic, realistic idea of relationships, who aim not to make the foolish promises that other lovers do.
Paddy seem to be drawn to the intoxicating nonsense of lover's babble, the delicious folly of "forever" and "you belong to me" and "only for you", but sceptical of its superstitious nature. We're in Green land here: the Scritti idea of making pop that celebrates the lover's discourse as the same time as it unravels it, pop that both succumbs to and resists the malady and madness of love. It's standard terrain for songwriters with a brain, but McAloon spins out the contradictions as well as ever - the schizo-split between knowing intellectually that faith (amorous and existenstial) is impossible, but longing emotionally for those long-lost absolutes (God, true love).
The final suite of "death songs" touch on this tangentially, by suggesting music is how we satisfy our yearning for the absolute. Paddy sings "if there ain't a heaven that holds you tonight/they never sang Doowop in Harlem". Is this the idea that melody is a false promise of heaven: music's beauty mendaciously suggests that
the universe is harmonious, that everything will ultimately be resolved?
"I like the idea of heaven as being related to music. I like the paradox in 'One Of The Broken' of having God saying 'if you want to worship me, don't do it with sweet melodies', at the same time as you're doing it with sweet melodies. No one knows why a melody works, and I love that. I love that beyond-the-verbal aspect."
Any mystical feelings McAloon has stem from awe at the mysterious origins of melody. "Any idea of believing in God I have is as much to do with the presence and effect of melody as it is to do with other human beings. Which sounds awful: you're supposed to believe in God becuase you care about people. But I sometimes think
melody is a more instant, and less wearing apprehension of the divine, than people. Other people, you're blind to the God in them because of their faults.
"With those songs, I thought that I was gonna deal with the Big Subjects of human existence, it would be nice to get a bit of irreverence in there. On "One Of The Broken", to have God's speaking voice sound a bit like Glen Campbell. And "Michael" is the Devil talking, he's languishing in hell and he sneaks this message to Michael the Archangel asking him to put in a good word for him with the Lord. The way I envisaged at first it was Prince as the Devil and Michael Jackson as the Good Angel. But in the end, I couldn't write it as a duet. I liked the idea of Lucifer arguing for forgiveness by saying "I'm only there to prove free will exists... I'm the the Night to your Day."
One song on the album, "Paris Smith" contains the line "any music worth its salt is good for dancing". But this isn't a dig at acid house, or the new indie/dance orthodoxy.
"It's just that sometimes I think I'd like to write a song where I didn't have to answer a whole load of questions. Say if I was Nile Rodgers instead of me. Cos how do you write about something like 'Good Times' that slips down a treat, that's so perfect it doesn't to be validated or dissected. Sometimes I'd like to be capable of
that, but then I wouldn't be me. So the song goes "I'd rather be the Fred Astaire of words", which people can either machine gun me to death over, or think 'that's a nice thing to say'".
Me, I think that's pretty nice. Paddy McAloon remains the hippest "hip to be square" cat on the block.
* this reissue dedicated to Prefab and Scritti mega-fan Wolfgang Voigt