Prefab Sprout: 1988 lost interview with Paddy McAloon
Words and curation by Nick Rivers, artwork by Mick Clarke, as ever!
I was a Prefab Sprout fan from the first moment I heard “When Love Breaks Down” on MTV. It was their music, not the lyrics, that drew me in. Paddy McAloon’s non-traditional arrangements and musical progressions were the catalyst for me. From there however, years & years of nuanced discoveries in the music — the production, lyrics and presentation — followed. Prefab Sprout are like that film or book that gets better every time you re-watch it or re-read it. The songs have a longing that you’ll find in songs from say, The Smiths from the same era, but are much more reflective, with an eye to the past, as opposed to the present. Musically they have no peers as such, perhaps the pop sensibility of Scotland’s Deacon Blue — except Ricky Ross never went for those unpredictable time signatures or the wry, observational lyrics. I won’t be forward and drop any of those lyrics here, as I’m hoping this post and playlist will entice you to discover them on your own. Suffice it to say, those lyrical and musical signatures have remained with me for nearly 40 years.
In the summer of 1988, I was lucky enough to interview Paddy McAloon about the band’s third album (and their bridge to mainstream stardom) From Langley Park To Memphis, as he was promoting its release. The interview was for my college radio station, and outside of the single airing to a tiny audience, it hasn’t seen the light of day in over 30 years. It’s a great reveal into Prefab Sprout at a great time. I hope you enjoy it, and the music of course. Distinctive, wholly original, like nothing else in pop then or now. Lose yourself in the wonder that is Prefab Sprout.
[WARNING: THE INTERVIEW REFERENCES MICHAEL JACKSON, NOT EVERYONE’S FAVOURITE CUP OF TEA PERHAPS, BUT THIS WAS 1988 AND IT WAS WHAT IT WAS! YOUR ED.]
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH PADDY MCALOON, PREFAB SPROUT
June 30, 1988
The new album, From Langley Park to Memphis, seems to be an outsider’s look at America. Is that by design?
I realize I’ve given all sorts of clues that point to it being an American record and I don’t think it is really. I’ll go through a few of the songs in turn to give you some idea of what I was talking about.
“Cars and Girls” deals with Springsteen. It was my humorous way of playing around with some of the images that he uses. His way of talking about life always involves the image of a car or the metaphor of a journey. I suppose in that song I was trying to look at it from a slightly more humorous and English point of view, and say that life is so hard, that talking about it in terms of highways and journeys and cars…it’s too brutal of a subject for those images to ever do justice to it. I like a lot of his stuff, especially “Born To Run.” That relies on this image of people getting away from a city by bike, or whatever it is. In my song, I wanted to say that no highways go anywhere near where I live, and anytime we get in the car we feel carsick. We’re having a bit of fun with something that is very American…from Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, right through to Bruce Springsteen, cars have a very prominent place in American pop music.
“The King of Rock n’ Roll” is about an imaginary English character in the seventies, whose hero is Elvis Presley. He’s getting older, and maybe had one hit record in his time. He’s an Elvis Presley imitator and quite a pathetic figure. It’s really more a song about growing old, and growing up with your dreams not happening.
Similarly in “Hey Manhattan” I used the image of the city as a starting point. I know very little about America firsthand, but a place like Manhattan seems to symbolize a place for the rest of the world, where there are opportunities for everyone. It’s an exciting place. I wanted to write a song about someone who’s maybe 18 or 19 and has come to the city for the first time. I used New York only because there aren’t any European cities that would give you the same kind of feeling. The guy in the first half of the song is that younger guy, who has come to town for the first time, but the guy in the second half of the song, he’s lived here for a long time and more disillusioned.
I get a strong sense from walking around Manhattan that all things can come true here. You know, you’ve got immense wealth, beautiful buildings and there are obviously a lot of people that don’t share in that. That’s not meant to be any social commentary on Manhattan as it’s true of any city. That said, if you’re looking to write a song about those issues you’ve got to pick very carefully some strong central images that help you do it. That was Manhattan for me.
So I think I’ve built up a collection of things that say “oh yes, this must be an American record, when really I feel it’s an Englishman’s impression of numerous things that happen in life — ageing, disillusionment — they simply hinge around American images.
On the album you reference “rollmo,” what is that?
Well, I’m a big Michael Jackson fan. For a year before Bad came out, I had a series of dreams about what he would call his record, and in one of these dreams, I was stuck in the studio with him and he’s there with his brothers discussing the recording session. Michael says “Ah, you want to give it a little more rollmo.” When I asked Michael what it meant, he said “Rollmo is a term we picked up back in the Motown days — it’s a little bit of magic you’ve got to add to it, whether it’s in the recording process or whether it’s something to do with the deal you make. Rollmo makes it a little more special.” When I told everyone about it, they thought it was funny. It sort of passed into common usage in the Prefab Sprout camp. I have a recording studio at home called Rollmo Studios.
Outside of Michael Jackson, any other notable influences?
I’m also a big Stephen Sondheim fan. I like anybody that tries to do something a little differently. He, to me, is possibly the best American songwriter in the last 30 years. I tend to like traditional things like the Beatles and Brian Wilson. Jimmy Webb is one of my all-time favourites. Paul McCartney has also been a favourite, but he’s suffered from one problem. He was so brilliant in the sixties that it kind of overshadows everything he does now. I guess that’s not too bad of a problem — to have written so many great songs.
You did a cover of Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go.” Curious why you went with that one…and are there others you’re planning to do?
You obviously know quite a bit about our past stuff. I only feel confident about doing a cover version if I can see a way to twist the original slightly. On that one, I used completely different chords. The tune is still the same, but the chord accompaniment is different. I have no plans at the moment to do that with any other song. Not that I don’t like other numbers, it’s just I haven’t thought of a way around that arrangement problem of seeing them in a new light. Also, at present, I have a lot of songs that remain unrecorded by myself. I feel it’s kind of lazy of me to do other people’s songs. I don’t rate myself such a good singer, and I think that if people are interested in Prefab Sprout, it’s mainly because they like our songs. So I don’t have any covers we’re thinking about at the moment, but I would never rule it out.
Does a song start for you with the lyrics or music?
Well, I tend to write the music first, and then follow with a title. If you ever get lost, or have second thoughts about the content of a song, you can come back to a strong title and write a different lyric to it. I tend to struggle on forever in trying to put an appropriate lyric to the title I have. On occasion I have written individual lines to songs, and done a melody afterwards. For example the line “There are all kinds of things, I could tell you if I chose.” from “Hallelujah” on Two Wheels Good, it reads like an ordinary sentence and not really a song lyric. That was the starting point for the song. I then set it to music, got the rest of the tune, and put the lyrics to that.
How did the collaboration with Stevie Wonder come about on the new album?
It came about through sheer desperation! I had written the song and demo’d it a few times with a horn solo, a few times with a synthesiser solo, and it seemed to be crying out for a harmonica. I had a studio musician, an Englishman who tried to play it on harmonica, but couldn’t manage it. It involved a chromatic harmonica and was a very difficult melody to play. Someone said to me, jokingly, we should ask Stevie Wonder to do it. By luck he happened to be in England while we were recording the track. We got a tape to him, he liked it, and said he would do it. He came over to the studio one afternoon and we did it. I was very frightened because I had never been in the studio as a producer with anybody that brilliant before. I was terrified as to how I was going to tell him if there was anything I didn’t like. He had absolutely no ego about it, and had lots of very good suggestions. I was impressed, as I was a big fan of his with a lot of his records…to think he could be bothered to play with some people who I’m sure he’s never heard of, well, he’s a real gentleman.
Guessing you may have gotten this question before, where did the band name come from?
When I was a kid, most bands had obscure names, and I thought for a band to be important they must have an unusual name. I literally picked two words and put them together and kept it all my life, since about 1971 or 1972. I could have chosen a better name, a more sort-of slick name, but Prefab Sprout felt appropriate. It means that people have to listen to the record to find out what you’re like. It doesn’t give any clues away…
Nick Rivers is a nom de plume for a very famous and important person in the music industry. The Song Sommelier will be changing its name to Garden Balloon under Paddy McAloon’s 30 year old advice.
For more and the accompanying playlist go to https://www.songsommelier.com/prefab-sprout