From the gawkily posed photographs that have survived the decades, its clear they stood steadfastly out of step with their peers and, you’d think, knew that much best themselves. But although Prefab Sprout’s shape and style has evolved out of all recognition in the years since 1977, it’s that same sense of mis-match – the uneasy young buck in an out-sized dinner jacket and cheap shades – which has consistently defined them through the many moons and their many moods since.
Beyond the obvious, much of the band’s story is still soaked in loose talk and urban myth. Music’s mainstream, with which they flirted briefly, gave up on them twenty odd years ago and, ever since, the gaps in Prefab Sprout’s narrative have been filled by obsessive, fan-fuelled levels of hearsay, suggestion and general tattle. But nothing really changes there, either: the band’s frontman and writer, Paddy McAloon – the eldest son of an Irish Catholic immigrant family – was initially presented as a former seminarian.
What we do know for certain is that McAloon’s band first took root in the small village of Witton Gilbert in the North East of England, seventeen miles from Newcastle, during a peculiar period in British music history. The Clash had released their first album, The Sex Pistols had hi-jacked the Queen’s silver jubilee year – 1977 – and unofficially sound-tracked it while disco was approaching it’s commercial and creative pomp, flirting increasingly in the margins with electronica as it went. By the end of the following year, The Bee Gees were out-selling the field and Sid Vicious was arrested in New York for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
Worlds away in every respect, Paddy McAloon was twenty years old and lugging Prefab Sprout’s improbably ambitious songs – and the group’s cheap equipment – out into a variety of pub venues around County Durham for the first time. The band had been in gestation for years – in theory, in dreams – and although Paddy’s earliest hand-drawn outlines were far removed from the gormless aspects of punk rock or the sleazy veneer of cheap disco, he was certainly propelled forward by the more irresistible forces of both codes.
Punk rock unquestionably drove McAloon on – if you can, just do … so he did – and the dizzying, dance-floor sass of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, among numerous others, has long underlaid much of the band’s output. A point he acknowledges specifically on ‘I Love Music’, one of the many stand-outs on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ elpee, belatedly released in 2009.
Like every one of my favourite groups – The Blue Nile, R.E.M., The Go-Betweens, Trashcan Sinatras, The Smiths, E.L.O., The Frank And Walters, Into Paradise – Prefab Sprout struck me, initially at least, as much for the cut of their jib – their sound was distinctly at odds with their look, which was innocuous – as they did for the power of their writing.
Knowing little else, I thought that all of my formative pet sounds were peerless which, I suppose, is exactly as it should be during those first unsuspecting meets with the heady power of song. But while I know now that Teenage Fanclub borrowed influences freely – from Big Star, most obviously – and that Into Paradise magpied likewise from The Sound, its just impossible for me to clearly trace Paddy McAloon’s form lines. Prefab Sprout’s first single, ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ and debut album, ‘Swoon’, sound like what and sound like whom ? Aztec Camera ? Steely Dan ? XTC ? Mike Oldfield ? All of the above and nothing on earth ?
Which is all the more baffling given that no modern songwriter – to my mind, at least – has dropped so many references to music, writers and musicians so deeply inside his or her own material. Is there another contemporary writer for whom songs and the transcendence of sound have been celebrated so explicitly across such a vast body of work ? A career that now spans thirty-six years and nine studio albums.
From the very earliest Prefab Sprout songs – ‘Faron Young’ and ‘Radio Love’ were staples in their first live sets – to ‘Mysterious’ and ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ on 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’ album, McAloon has consistently used the pull of the of song and the craft of the writer as one of his primary lyrical motifs. ‘Hallelujah’, ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’, ‘Donna Summer’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘The Wedding March’, ‘Nero The Zero’, ‘Electric Guitars’, ‘Nightingales’ and the imperious ‘Doo Wop In Harlem’: the references are as manifold as they are varied and widely spread.
Indeed that same 2009 album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, a mighty and relatively unheralded record among the band’s catalogue, is ostensibly a concept album paying respect to those whose influences have long-driven the writer’s ambition, from classical and avant-garde to gospel, soul music and disco, Clair De Lune to Mozart to Pierre Boulez. McAloon sets his stall out early across a sweeping selection of cuts – ‘Let There be Music’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘Music Is A Princess’, ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ – and, awed and under some sort of spell [another of the writer’s favourite themes], the pervading fear that ‘music is a princess’ while he’ll always be ‘just a boy in rags’ is forced home over the record’s closing furlongs.
When the singer finally meets ‘the new Mozart’, he finds the composer ‘in the bed where commerce sleeps with art’. And ‘who can blame him ?’, he asks ?. ‘So much for the divine spark. It flagged and left me in the dark. Next time I won’t be so pure. Dreaming big, dying poor’. Knowing what we know now, and given McAloon’s unsettling and unsteady relationship with the industry that so engulfs music, ‘Meet The New Mozart’ may well be among his most revealing autobiographical songs.
Forty years after the band committed it’s first original songs to tape in the cramped confines of a custom-designed studio attached to the music department at a local college, Prefab Sprout remain very much an acquired taste, although no less intriguing or enigmatic for that. Indeed the most recent McAloon composition to see the light of day is an evocative protest ballad called ‘America’, possibly recorded on a smart phone or a small camcorder, and posted up onto YouTube ten months ago by Prefab Sprout’s long-time manager, Keith Armstrong.
Performed by Paddy on acoustic guitar in what, for the last decade, have been his trademark duds – trilby hat and shades, off-set with long grey hair and a full beard – ‘America’ is absolutely bulls-eye Prefab Sprout. Over a series of gentle progressions, McAloon works his fingers into almost impossible positions along the fret-board, effortlessly filling the spaces with unlikely moves, his voice as familiar as ever as he begs of America: ‘don’t reject the stranger knocking at your door’. To long-time band watchers, the song’s unheralded appearance on-line was a tender reassurance that yes, work was still ongoing at Andromeda Heights, McAloon’s home studio where, legend has it, decades of unreleased songs and albums remain under lock and key.
In Robert Forster’s recent memoir, ‘Grant And I’ – the Australian writer and musician who fronted The Go-Betweens, on and off, with Grant McLennan from 1978 until 2006 – takes issue with one review of his band that categorised them in the same vein as Prefab Sprout. ‘Grant And I’ is a terrific and breezy read – part buddy novel, part manifesto, part band biography – with a lovely, bitchy undertone. [Long-standing Go-Betweens’ fans have suggested the book should have been titled simply ‘I’ instead].
Perhaps Prefab Sprout were just too tailored, complicated and subtle for him, but The Go-Betweens have far more in common with them than Robert might like to think. Apart entirely from being among the most consistently successful unsuccessful outfits in contemporary pop music, both groups, through a series of different iterations, still managed to sound forever out of kilter with the times. A point I put to Paddy McAloon back in 1997, when I met him for the first and only time.
He was on the publicity circuit plugging Prefab Sprout’s hugely under-rated album [and there’s a theme emerging, isn’t there ?], ‘Andromeda Heights’ and I was a music columnist at The Sunday Tribune newspaper in Dublin. The band’s Irish record company, Sony Music, had flown him into town for the day and had packed his diary with a succession of one-to-one engagements with the local press and whatever television and radio interest they could muster. Which, almost ten years after ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ and seven years after the band’s previous elpee, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’, didn’t amount to a whole lot.
I fetched up dutifully, mid-afternoon, at the old Berkeley Court Hotel in the shadow of the old Lansdowne Road stadium – don’t look for either, they’re not there anymore – and, as is the case with these encounters, was immediately on the clock. I had thirty minutes with one of my favourite ever songwriters and was implored not to over-run.
Paddy was exactly as I imagined he’d be. In a crisp white shirt, black jacket and practical leather shoes, he politely trotted out a couple of well-rehearsed lines about ‘Andromeda Heights’ and, as polite and erudite as you’d expect, directed me gently through the exchange. During which, overcome with stage fright, I fluffed my lines badly and broke one of the most basic rules of journalism.
The eventual piece shone nothing new on him or his music – I just don’t think that’s possible anyway in most instances from any of those cosy set-pieces – and was sloppily written as an open love letter, one of the flattest pieces I’ve ever filed. I adored ‘Andromeda Heights’ then like I still do now and made that point forcibly on the page. But beyond that, nothing. For the bulk of our forty minutes together I was just a hapless fan with a biro, a list of obvious questions and a tape machine. And all I really wanted to do was get home, play my Prefab Sprout albums and get the dinner on.
But buried inside that sit-down – and not entirely lost on me at the time – was an interesting couple of minutes where we discussed the growing number of bands and artists who’d started to cover Paddy’s songs. Three years previously, Kylie Minogue had taken on ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, a non-album single originally released to support a Sony-released Prefab Sprout ‘best of’ in 1992. In 1995, Cher released an album called ‘It’s A Man’s World’ where she performed a dozen songs by male songwriters: as well as covering Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’, she also performed a new McAloon original, ‘The Gunman’, which he wrote especially for that record.
But it was Jimmy Nail, the Newcastle-born actor, writer and musician who eventually took McAloon’s songs back into the heart of the mainstream and, in so doing, gave him some of his biggest commercial successes. Nail wrote – and took the lead role in – a BBC drama series called ‘Crocodile Shoes’, in which he played a factory worker, Jed Sheppard, who quits his job to become a country and western singer. Over the course of the two series of what was a soft-focus, family-skewed drama, Nail performed five McAloon originals written for the strand: ‘Blue Roses’, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, ‘Love Will Find Someone For You’, ‘Dragons’ and the magnificent ‘Troubled Man’. All of which featured on two soundtrack compilations that accompanied the drama and that were eventually re-recorded by Paddy and Martin McAloon on a distinctly mediocre collection of Prefab Sprout oddities, produced by Tony Visconti, and released as ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’ in 2001.
Weeks before our date, ITV had debuted another gentle drama series in the same vein called ‘Where The Heart Is’. Based on the fictional adventures of a group of district nurses, it featured a strong, well-known cast and, at its top and tail, a piano-led theme tune commissioned from Paddy McAloon. This cut featured initially as a b-side to the Prefab Sprout single, ‘Prisoner Of The Past’ and ‘Where The Heart Is’ quickly became a staple of the ITV weekend schedules, eventually running for almost ten years.
Back in The Berkeley Court Hotel, Paddy and myself had moved the conversation on and, once we’d done our duty and agreed the claims for ‘Andromeda Heights’, I asked him about the cover versions and the television work and, specifically, how he felt this reflected on his own group. ‘Well’, he told me, ‘at the end of the day I have bills to pay and I need to look after the band’.
Paddy and myself: our destinies had been inter-twined for fifteen years. As with most of the best and most important things in life, I’d first come across Prefab Sprout during the early 1980s on both Dave Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ on RTÉ radio and on David Heffernan’s Saturday lunchtime music slot on the RTÉ One youth television strand, ‘Anything Goes’. [As an aside for anoraks, its worth noting that it was also on this slot that I was first introduced to Thomas Dolby’s magnificent ‘Airwaves’].
My love for Prefab Sprout was instant and unquestioning: windswept, lispy and smart, they stood tall on Marsden Rock, a National Trust-owned coastal site on South Shields, where they performed ‘Don’t Sing’, miles removed from the sounds du jour.
And although the band’s earliest shows in Ireland – their 1983 stop-off at The Buttery in Trinity College and a support to Paul Brady in Belfast the following year – were out of bounds to me on the grounds of age and distance, I was there, in thrall, when they played The Point Theatre in Dublin on the ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ tour in December, 1990. Supported on the night by one of my favourite local bands, Hinterland, Prefab Sprout were bulked up for the duration of that tour and, playing as a seven piece and with McAloon leading the line in a white suit, covered a huge amount of ground over the course of a mammoth set.
And I was there ten years later in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on April 15th and 16th, 2000, when the band played two consecutive dates – and two meaty greatest-hits-based sets – to close out a short tour that sat between the release of a Sony/CBS compilation album, ’38 Carat Collection’ and the aforementioned 2001 carnet, ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’. Paddy had put on a fair bit of weight in the years since and that white suit had been temporarily consigned to the back of a wardrobe, replaced for the occasion by standard rock and roll, denim-and-leather duds.
Sporting a full beard and long hair, his appearance attracted the odd barb from the stalls. And with Wendy Smith marked absent, the band on that tour also featured long-time sidekicks Martin McAloon on bass guitar and drummer Neil Conti, augmented and, to my mind, well and truly dominated, by the remarkable keyboard player, Jess Bailey. Strange days indeed, and most peculiar.
But while Prefab Sprout faithfully played through the hits, misses and maybes – they even did a rousing, barely-rehearsed version of ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ – and took deserved ovations from the locals, I left Dame Street that night thinking that I’d just seen the bolting of a door. Paddy – as quick-witted as ever and in terrific voice throughout – would rather, I imagined, have just been somewhere, anywhere else. In the great traditions of many of his own primary influences and heroes, his songs and his music had simply outgrown the crude parameters of the live circuit, temporarily or otherwise. No way, I thought, were Prefab Sprout ever conceived as a touring entity who, deep in their live sets, performed television themes and music made flesh by Jimmy Nail.
To this end, the liner notes Paddy penned for ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, are especially significant, I think. The songs that comprise this record were originally written and recorded as an intended follow-up to 1990’s vast double album, ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ and, for reasons we can assume have more to do with record company direction or lack of it, went unreleased for fifteen years, during which time the writer moved on as clinically as he’s always done.
‘It goes without saying that I would have liked to have recorded ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ with Marty, Wendy, Neil and Thomas [Dolby]. I believe they wanted to, but we missed our moment and it wasn’t to be. Why ? I have no idea. Beats me. Anyway, one day in May, ’93, we made a bad move. But hey, water under the bridge’. McAloon eventually put the record together on his own, with technical help from Calum Malcolm.
Another of Paddy’s party pieces is his long-standing capacity to de-rail his own interviews by talking freely and in-depth about the music and the merits of others. He does this on the ‘Let’s Change’ sleeve-notes too, where he gushes at length about the mythical Beach Boys album, ‘Smile’. And he concludes those notes by observing that ‘the ‘Smile myth is only partly to do with music. It’s also about the dull, grey stuff that musicians are often slow to address, yet ignore at their peril. And it may even have something to say about ego; about blithely, and unrealistically assuming that everyone sees things the way you do. But ultimately, it is probably just a story about entropy; the natural tendency for all things – however lovely – to eventually fly apart’.
Tellingly, the record is dedicated ‘for robust and unsentimental reasons’ to Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith, Neil Conti, Thomas Dolby and Michael Salmon [the band’s first drummer]. For the good times’.
During the press campaign around that record, McAloon told at least one writer that the album was eventually released in order to generate income and only saw the light of day after the continued promptings of his manager. And because he’s long been so uneasy about much of his own music anyway, the commercial death of his avant garde solo album, the largely ignored ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’ in 2003, the numerous contractual obligations he’s had to fulfil since ‘Jordan’ and the on-line leaking of the ‘Crimson Red’ album  before it’s scheduled release won’t have appeased that sense. The bed where commerce sleeps with art isn’t always one decorated with roses.
Paddy McAloon is now sixty years old and leads, by all accounts, a quiet life with his wife and three daughters back in County Durham, making the odd public appearance and snapped, from time to time, by well-intentioned fans as he picks up his groceries in the local supermarkets. Piecing together the clues he’s left within his songs over the last thirty-five years, one might now well ask: will we ever again hear fresh Prefab Sprout material ?
And, given the majesty of much of what has already gone before, and how plenty of what is already out there remains largely unexplored, some of it just neglected, would that really be such an issue ?