How do you start with someone like Paddy McAloon? He is a proper artist, as I would call ‘pop stars’ who simply refuse to fit the mould, like Kate Bush. The band is Prefab Sprout (weird name? well, they were initially The Dick Diver Band…), which included his brother Martin, but to all intents and purposes it’s Paddy who creates most of it, together with producers like Thomas Dolby who he credits with massive creative input on albums like Steve McQueen, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback. As a result of his ongoing brilliance I can’t pick an album, and will have to work from a playlist, but believe me it’s a treasure trove. He writes obsessively, storing up hundreds of songs which never get released, so we’re honoured to ever get new stuff, especially these days as he has become a bit of a recluse due to ill health, including partial blindness. The last evidence was in 2017, a track called America which only ever appeared on Youtube and appears to have been filmed on a phone:
So – the playlist, in no particular order. He hates discussion of his work: “If I make something, it kills it stone dead if I spend too long talking about it,”. But today, I feel the need. (McAloon quote from an interview by John Earls of Classic Pop.)
The world awake. The opening track of Protest Songs, which has such a charge to it. This was a ‘lost’ album (ie one he did decide to release, but 4 years late, in 1989 and with no promotion). It was one of the first CDs I bought. His words always resonate so I usually get a line which sticks.
That frightening little sound, it’s just the world awake
It’s just a way of saying we’re in business
It’s just a lightning strike, it’s just a family row
It’s just the give and take of forgiveness
The Sound of Crying. This was a spare track released on a best of, Life of Surprises, in 1992. It was originally written for an unreleased album about Michael Jackson, (come on Paddy, you know you want to) with a chorus that went only the boogie music will never, ever let you down. Then came the Iraq war and it became a why does God allow this? song. Paddy very nearly became a Catholic priest; thank the Lord that he chose music. It’s one of his most stunning lyrics, and the tune will plague your brain.
Sometimes I think that God is working to a plan Then other times I swear that he is improvising
Discordant and remote
Another orphan baby in a failed uprising
Another real bum note
Enchanted. From the album From Langley to Memphis (1988), this has been a bit of an obsessive listen, firstly because it’s funky with a great repeated guitar phrase and 80s style orchestral stabs, but also a great lyric that references Romeo and Juliet. Sorry Taylor, but for me this is better than yours! The words don’t always make sense but they sound great:
It’s time to learn, tiger stretch, tiger burn
And the calendar pages blew
Like the Montagues, like the Capulet crew
We’re addicted to friction too
When love breaks down. From Steve McQueen (1985), this was their breakthrough single, and also probably their finest song, a gorgeous melody and desperately sad lyrics. Absence makes the heart lose weight. Enough said:
Oh my, oh my, have you seen the weather?
The sweet September rain
Rain on me like no other
Until I drown, until I drown
When love breaks down, the things you do
To stop the truth from hurting you
When love breaks down, the lies we tell
They only serve to fool ourselves
Wild Horses. This is a favourite from the masterwork, Jordan: the Comeback, a lengthy (for 1990) album about Elvis Presley, Jesse James, love, death, God and fate. It features a spoken phrase from the actress Jenny Agutter which leaves very little to the male imagination.
Look at you, unflawed
Now look at me, plain overawed
Grace and looks take no credit, for
Girl you’re young and they’re part of the score
Like the chemicals at war in me
‘Til I’m a wolf with an eye for the ponies
Cars and girls. This was a single from the From Langley to Memphis album, which was a minor hit, getting to no 44. It was written as a comment on Bruce Springsteen’s work: “I wanted to write a song about someone who was thick white trash, listening to Springsteen, and saying ‘But our lives aren’t like that'”. (from an article by Stuart Maconie, NME). Earworm territory.
Will heaven wait all heavenly
Over the next horizon?
Cruel. From the first album Swoon (1984), an acronym for Songs Written Out Of Necessity. Paul Lester in the Guardian, reviewing the album: “the lush sweep of George Gershwin and complex musicality of Stephen Sondheim, only played with the awkward angularity of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band”. This song would seem to be about someone who loses a girl because she is a christian. This rang some bells with me. Lyric and song perfectly intertwined, so clever.
Cruel is the Gospel that sets us all free
Then takes you away from me
My contribution to urban blues
I Trawl the Megahertz (2003, re-released 2019). In 1999 Paddy was rendered temporarily blind by detached retinas, and while he was housebound he spent time listening to shortwave radio, transcribing conversations, chopping them up into phrases and adding other material. He then commissioned an American friend to read them out against an orchestral background. This is 22 minutes long and unbearably moving if you give yourself time to listen properly. Something entirely different and arguably his greatest achievement. If his other music leaves you cold, this won’t.
The plane comes down behind enemy lines
and you don’t speak the language.
A girl takes pity on you:
she is Mother Theresa walking among the poor,
and her eyes have attained night vision.
I remember that. I am reasonably sure this was the first Prefabs song I ever heard, when Radio 1 were playing tracks from the new album (From Langley to Memphis) and I was a bit sceptical about the smooth, jazzy lounge feel, but then there was a tune; and then the words which were so much at odds with the music that I had to hear more. Maybe not a prime example, but there were other tracks which appear above, primarily Enchanted and Cars and Girls.
Cause that’s all we can have, yes it’s all we can trust
It’s a hell of a ride but a journey to dust
And there’s nothing pathetic listing clothes she’d wear
If it proves that I had you, if it proves I was there
I left The King of Rock ‘N’ Roll off the playlist. The band hated it. Paul McCartney pointed out to Paddy that yes, it was unrepresentative, but that it was his My Ding-A-Ling. Look it up if you don’t know it. Chuck Berry. Yes really.
Electric Guitars. Just a bit of a throwaway from Andromeda Heights (1997), but such a Tune! A wonderful send up of widdly guitar music, with the immortal line, we were quoted out of context, it was great!
I had a dream that we were rock stars
And that flash bulbs popped the air
And girls fainted every time we shook our hair
Prefab Sprout: you have to just listen.