Colm was on RTÉ Radio One’s ‘Arena’ last night speaking about Paddy McAloon in the week that Paddy turned 65. The audio can be listened to here
Below is the transcript of his piece.
And so Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout reaches the grand old age of 65. The man we might call ‘the songwriter’s songwriter’ has enjoyed limited commercial success – with the odd breakthrough hit – during a forty-year career. His band’s second album, ‘Steve McQueen’, released in 1985 – but much of it written by him during the previous decade – is generally held to be the group’s finest. It regularly surfaces on those lists of albums deemed to be ‘essential listening’, but strong cases can also be made for several of the band’s other long-players. The sprawling ‘Jordan: The Comeback’ is their most cinematic. ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ gave McAloon his biggest chart hit – ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ – and, one suspects, an albatross for his neck. ‘Andromeda Heights’ is like a warm embrace of an album and I’d even make a case for two of McAloon’s most recent elpees, ‘Lets Change The World With Music’ and ‘Crimson Red’. Prefab Sprout have long inspired that kind of blind devotion, even though their critical standing far outweighs their popular appeal.
McAloon remains an elusive and enigmatic character. Like another great British songwriter in hiding, Kate Bush, we know very little of him beyond the obvious. What we do know is that him and his band were deemed surplus to requirements by the music industry twenty years ago and he’s been rarely seen and seldom heard since. He’ll pop up the odd time peddling a new record and, just as quickly, exit the frame.
McAloon has led Prefab Sprout since 1977 and, for the last twenty years, the name has been a cover for what is ostensibly a one-man operation. We know that his improbably ambitious songs are influenced by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin and Brian Wilson. And we know this because he has routinely told us as much within his own considerable body of work: many of his own songs contain lyrical references to music, tunes, writers and composers. There is no other contemporary writer who celebrates songs and the transcendental quality of sound so explicitly, consistently and beautifully.
On ‘Lets Change The World With Music’, our hero meets ‘the new Mozart’ and finds the composer ‘in the bed where commerce sleeps with art’. ‘Next time I won’t be so pure’, he sings. ‘Dreaming big, dying poor’. Given McAloon’s unsteady relationship with the broader world of entertainment, ‘Meet The New Mozart’ is the story of Prefab Sprout in four magnificent minutes and sixteen seconds.
Sightings and soundings of Paddy have become increasingly rare this last while. Indeed his most recently released composition, an evocative protest ballad called ‘America’ – possibly recorded on a smart phone or a small camcorder – was discreetly posted onto YouTube over five years ago without fanfare.
‘America’ is absolutely bulls-eye Paddy. He works his fingers into almost impossible positions along the fret-board, his voice as warm and beautiful as ever as he begs of America: ‘don’t reject the stranger knocking at your door’. The song’s surprise appearance on-line was a welcome reassurance to the faithful that yes, good work was still ongoing at Andromeda Heights, McAloon’s home studio where, legend has it, decades of unreleased songs remain under lock and key.
On sleeve-notes to ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, Paddy gushes about the mythical Beach Boys album, ‘Smile’ and concludes that the story of that record 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’, he writes. Tellingly, the record is dedicated ‘for robust and unsentimental reasons’ to his long-time band-mates – his brother, Martin McAloon, singer Wendy Smith and drummer, Neil Conti. To Thomas Dolby – who produced some of the band’s finest records – and Michael Salmon, Prefab Sprout’s first ever drummer.
Paddy’s eye-sight and hearing are both compromised now: he leads a quiet life with his family in County Durham where hes infrequently photographed by well-intentioned fans in what is now a trademark trilby hat and wearing long grey hair and a full beard. Speculation and conjecture about current and future projects continues on in small pockets of the internet. Having now reached pensionable age – and piecing together the clues he’s left on his own records over the last forty years – one might legitimately wonder if we’ll ever hear fresh material from Prefab Sprout again ?
The audio can be listened to here