PREFAB SPROUT - 2013 - a biography

The last official release by Prefab Sprout, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, appeared in 2009 – although the fact that that record had largely been conceived and written seventeen years earlier makes the imminent release of ‘Crimson/Red’, their first album for thirteen years, all the more poignant. Prior to that of course and way back in 1982, Prefab Sprout (who hail from County Durham and comprised Paddy McAloon, Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti for much of their existence) sprang to eminence with the arrival of their self-released debut single "Lions In My Own Garden: Exit Someone."

Paddy McAloon

The album that followed  - ‘Swoon’  - released on the independent Newcastle-based Kitchenware label in 1984, drew comparisons with Steely Dan and Aztec Camera but was far more beautiful and complex than that comparison suggests. Scary and rather strange sounding these days, it remains a timely snapshot of how Prefab Sprout were developing as a band but it wasn’t until the release of ‘Steve McQueen’ in 1985 that the floodgates truly opened and all bets were off. Lovingly produced by Thomas Dolby, to this day ‘Steve McQueen’ remains as “eloquent as anything by Leonard Cohen, as angry as Elvis Costello at his most spiteful and accompanied by the melodic grace of Brian Wilson” (Uncut). It is also a record that toys with your emotions, the piercingly sincere evocation of heartbreak only becoming more evident when you strip away the extraordinary and unique multi-layers of supra–production. The album  - which was released in the US as ‘Two Wheels Good’ - stayed in the UK charts for 35 weeks and a re-released version of “When Loves Breaks Down” became the band’s first Top 40 hit.

In 1988 Prefab Sprout released from ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ which featured guest appearances by Stevie Wonder and Pete Townsend. The album included the band’s biggest hit to date, ‘The King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, a song that Paddy still refers to as “a novelty record”, indeed a kind of meta-pop song that ”foresees the phenomenon, it says here’s your pop moment … and now it’s gone.” The following year the band released ‘Protest Songs’ (which included the song ‘Life Of Surprises’, later the title of a greatest hits compilation) and the year after that the astonishing ‘Jordan: The Comeback’, a fabulously imagined tapestry that cast Paddy McAloon as a Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim for the Morrissey generation. This terrifyingly brilliant nineteen track master-class, featuring meditations on angels, cowboys, Elvis and Ibiza, was again produced by Thomas Dolby and received a Brit nomination as well as a No.7 slot on the UK album chart.

Despite - or because of?  - the success of ‘Jordan: The Comeback’, Paddy retreated further and further away from the mainstream and records were hard to come by. Having said that, a greatest hits compilation entitled ‘A Life Of Surprises – The Best Of Prefab Sprout’  - described as “damn near indispensable” by Q magazine - reached No. 3 in the UK charts and produced two new singles, ‘The Sound Of Crying’ and ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, the latter spending several weeks on the Top 10 dance chart and providing the band’s biggest US hit.

In 1997 Prefab Sprout released ‘Andromeda Heights’, “a virtual orchestra” of a record that reached No.6 and spawned the Top 30 single ‘Prisoner Of The Past.’ Another compilation, a double album entitled ‘The 38 Carat Collection’, surfaced in 1999 and then, in 2001 the band released ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’, a themed long player produced by Tony Visconti and with the American West at its heart. Two years later, McAloon released his first solo album, the largely instrumental, ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’ although it was around this time that Paddy was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that seriously impaired his vision and necessitated a need to wear one pair of glasses to look at a tape recorder and another to look at a mixing desk. If this wasn’t remarkable enough, Paddy had also begun to suffer from an intense bout of tinnitus that drove him quietly mad. He spent six months lying on a mattress in another room from his wife and three children and when he took the time to listen to music he could sense it splitting into different bits: “The Beatles ‘Getting Better’ had the notes that George Harrison was playing, plus Chinese music happening at the same time”, he says now. Thankfully, the condition has receded slightly although Paddy still has issues with singing or performing live music.

In recent years rumours began to emerge around several recorded and unreleased Prefab Sprout albums. These included ‘Earth: The Story So Far’ (a thirty song concept album that began with Adam and Eve and ended up somewhere around Neil Armstrong and Jackie Kennedy), a Michael Jackson concept album called ‘Behind The Veil’, and other albums called ‘Blue Unicorn’, ‘The Atomic Hymnbook’, ‘20th Century Magic’, ‘Jeff & Isolde’, ‘Digital Diva’ (a song cycle using commercially available music software featuring a “virtual vocalist”) and ‘Doomed Poets Vol. 1’ – plus an entire set of songs written with Rod Stewart in mind. On 7th September 2009, however, one of these albums saw the light of day under the name ‘Let’s Change The World With Music.’ The title sprang from a song (that doesn’t appear on the album) that had been written as a duet with Barbra Streisand in mind and had been demo-ed as long ago as 1992 and regardless of the album’s gestation period, reviews were extremely favourable, the Times calling it “heartbreakingly good” whilst the Observer described it as “fantastically glorious and fantastically dated.” And, if nothing else, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ whetted the appetite for new material that McAloon was rumoured to be working on.

Fast forward to 2013 and that new material is now known to be a record called ‘Crimson/Red’. Written and conceived over the last eighteen months by McAloon himself who plays all the instruments on the record, ‘Crimson/Red’ is quite simply the album the world has been waiting for since ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. The title itself is no doubt a nod to positivity or is, as Iris Murdoch once put it, an attempt “to overemphasize a point to make a point.” McAloon has alluded to this in recent years when describing his choice of clothing. “Red is overly dramatic”, he says. “It’s a mood-altering experience. When I write I have to gee myself out of melancholy sometimes and the clothes – I have some great red shoes – put me in a ridiculously up frame of mind. And it affects the thing I go for in the music.” And the album’s opener – the ridiculously catchy and back-on-top-form ‘The Best Jewel Thief In The World’ – is another pointer: “It started out as ‘The Worst Jewel Thief In The World’ but then I decided to make him arrogant and a writer”, chuckles Paddy, “although it’s really about being the best writer you can be.” Knowing this fact, however, it’s impossible to stop the sense of being propelled into the world of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch A Thief: Masked and dressed in black, you scramble over rooftops/ Carrying a bag – a bag marked “SWAG”/You’re the best jewel thief in the world” and “Sirens moan and drone/They groan, but Interpol can’t catch you/Their cameras only show a screen of snow – ergo – You’re the best jewel thief in the world. “ And, no, I can’t think of another song that uses “ergo” so brilliantly either.

The album continues apace with the gentle swoon of ‘List Of Impossible Things’ before you are transported into the brutal netherworld of ‘Adolescence’: “Adolescence – what’s it like? It’s a psychedelic motorbike/You smash it up ten times a day then you walk away/it’s moonlight on a balcony, it’s pure hormonal agony” and then, quite brilliantly, “It’s knives flashing in fountains/Poison, Capulets, letters that go astray/Molehills bigger than mountains/You’re pre sat nav. Learning to find your way.” After this we get ‘Grief Built The Taj Mahal’ which probably had its genesis in a story Paddy’s father (who had been stationed in India in the Second World War) had told him as a boy, specifically, how Emperor Shah Jahan constructed the Taj Mahal to commemorate the death of his third wife during childbirth, and ‘Devil Came A Calling’ which re-imagines the Faustian pact – “The devil came a calling all smiles and flattery/In his hands a contract exclusively for me/He showed me a house it was as big as a star/He said to me “Patrick, whad’ya thinks so far?” – and uses a repetitive-verse – strophic - structure that brings Dylan’s ‘Positively Fourth Street’ to mind.

The last five songs on ‘Crimson/Red’ are stunning and as huge and life affirming as anything you’ll hear this year: ‘Billy’  - a mooted single that’ll easily send you into raptures - features a heavily treated harmonica before name-checking a Billy and a Susan – which Paddy calls “great rock ‘n’ roll names.” Paddy toyed with ‘Where D’you Find That Trumpet, Billy?’ as a title before blithely concluding: “But why would anyone buy a song called that?”; ‘The Dreamer’ is one of those lush orchestral stream-of-consciousness treats you associate with the finer points of Prefab Sprout dining; and ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ retells the story of a meeting between Paddy and Jimmy Webb in 1991 – “I met him in a Dublin bar, the sorcerer from Wichita/A wizard and his baby grand a range of powers at his command.” Best of all though is ‘The Old Magician’ which is the album’s centrepiece if not its coda. The song could very easily be about Paddy himself although he points out that it’s more likely about mortality in general: 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/ There was a time he produced doves. A mirror and a puff of smoke/ His mysteries are now a joke/ His poor assistant black and blue/ She’s tired of being sawn in two/ She’s tired of being sawn in two.” And McAloon follows this with another in-a-permanent-state-of-chorus song called ‘Mysterious’, the album’s closer and an homage to one of his heroes, Bob Dylan: You roar right out of Nowheresville/ To find the beating heart/ Cryptic, elusive, smart/ Mysterious from the start.”

It’s notable that whilst we’ve all waited a very long time for ‘Crimson/Red’, you can talk to Paddy McAloon and retain the impression that it’s only comparatively recently that he’s felt a need to record and release music with any matter of urgency. Having said that, any recent lack of activity surely has more to do with Paddy and how he sees his place in the world. He admits as much today - “I drifted a long way from what people’s notions of what Prefab Sprout would be and I’ve got to accept that I’ve been on a trajectory away from the rest of the world for a long time” – although perhaps another comment (said with a wry grin) – “how much ME needs to be out there, does the world need any more ME?” – hints at this artist’s true humility. The answer, of course, is “as much as we can get, Paddy!” and when the man himself roars “Crimson/Red fireworks inside your head/You’re three times brighter than the sun – have some fun” (on ‘Adolesence’) you can’t help feeling that this Is a summation of the album as a whole. “Three times brighter than the sun?” You better believe it.

© Phill Savidge 2013.

Paddy McAloon


The Guardian, September 2013