Paddy McAloon doesn’t sit awake late at night in a cold, cold sweat, wondering why his British pop-rock group, Prefab Sprout, never caught on in the United States.
But he can’t be blamed for being mildly curious.
“When we first started out,” McAloon said recently, “a lot of people in England said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll go down really well in America; you’re too sophisticated for the U.K. You’re not punky enough, you’re not new wave enough. America would appreciate you; they have more of a tradition of listening to those kinds of chords and your lyrics are very involved.’
“I suppose early on I thought it would happen, but I appreciate now that at the heart of what I do there’s something that stops mainstream acceptance. That partly has to do with that I like what I do to fall between categories. It’s rock music, but it’s not particularly hard. Some of the chords are quite sophisticated, yet it’s not so smooth or bland that it would fall into too much of an easy listening category. It’s too spiky for that. It’s not rhythmically consistent so it can’t be easily remixed like a Sade track or Everything But the Girl. I love that, but I don’t think it’s ever helped us.”
McAloon, now 43, says he can think of a thousand reasons why the stylish, literate band, who were early purveyors of the alt-pop movement, slipped through the U.S. net.
“I would’ve loved to have more success in America,” he said, “but I can’t really see that happening now, even with the things I’m doing now. We just finished a new album, and it’s probably more straightforward, more listener-friendly for those who are casually interested in rock music.”
That forthcoming album, “The Gunman and Other Stories,” produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Luscious Jackson, Sparks, Gay Dad), will be released this year by EMI in McAloon’s native England. Whether it will see the light of day in stateside stores is anyone’s guess. The group no longer has a U.S. label deal, even though Epic/Legacy released the two-disc best-of, “The Collection,” on Feb. 13.
Diehard Prefab Sprout fans can get reacquainted with such favorites as “Faron Young,” “When Love Breaks Down,” “Cars & Girls,” “Hey Manhattan!” and the vastly underrated “The Golden Calf,” plus seven previously unavailable cuts. Seventeen of the 38 tracks were produced by Thomas Dolby, but Prefab Sprout – McAloon (vocals, lyrics), brother Martin (bass), Neil Conti (drums) and Wendy Smith (vocals-guitar) – hasn’t been blinded by science.
“The Collection” is a great introduction for the uninitiated, those who have a palate for intelligent, witty songs, with a jazzy-pop feel and elegant harmonies. They don’t sound overtly British, and they hold a reverence for American rock ‘n’ roll and a fascination for American cultural icons, notably Elvis Presley.
In America, “Two Wheels Good” (1985) was the lone Prefab Sprout album to chart, albeit briefly. In Britain, the group had 15 chart singles, including the Top 10 hit, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (1988).
“It’s vaguely depressing,” McAloon said of “The Collection,” “because so much of your past is easily summarized. It’s a weird way to look at it, but I don’t get a rosy or golden glow when I look at a best-of or a compilation. For some reason, they make less sense to me; I have more of a warm feeling for the albums from which they were taken. When those tracks are put together in that fashion, I don’t know what to make of it. I wish I could say, ‘Hey, that’s essentially the best of what I’ve done,’ and I’m assuming it is, but it doesn’t quite do it for me (laughing heartily).
“Yet, I do like other people’s best-of’s. It’s a great idea, but for me, maybe it’s like looking too long at a scrapbook or a photo album and you’re smiling at your old haircut or you’re smiling at the things that passed as fashionable back then. The past 10 years have been my best time, in terms of writing. I just haven’t made that many records, for a variety of reasons. In terms of the muse, or whatever you want to call it, there’s been no slacking off. The quality is still pretty high; I felt creatively very good. It’s always a shame to be talking about old material when you’ve got bags of new things, that giving the finances you could do correctly and do justice to them.”
The quartet’s last album, 1997’s “Andromeda Heights,” garnered mixed reactions. Fans either loved it or hated it, McAloon says.
“It kind of upsets me,” he said, “because of all the things I’ve ever done, it has more of my best songs on there than anything else. I know good songs don’t necessarily make a great record. I think my tastes have diverged slightly from the tastes of old diehard Prefab Sprout fans. I have kind of different requirements now.
“I’ll have to concede that on some of our earlier records that there might have been more energy. By ‘Andromeda Heights,’ I had given up on energy; I was more in the frame of mind to make a record without a drummer, that sounded like you hadn’t gotten rid of him, using machines but not in a way dance musicians do. I was trying to make it sound like there were still lots of people present, so maybe Prefab Sprout fans don’t appreciate that.
“On the other hand, maybe Prefab Sprout fans have simply not heard the record, and there’s the thing you have to face as you get older that you’re no longer novel and that people’s lives move on. That’s a natural process, really.”
An unwillingness to tour didn’t help matters for Prefab Sprout’s standing in America. But Americans can’t take it personally; they rarely toured in Britain, too.
“We don’t play in America. We don’t play anywhere, really,” McAloon said. “We toured at the beginning of (2000) in the U.K., and it was the first time we had played live in 10 years, so some people think we’re not even around anymore.
“The tour went very well, but I have to say it’s something that I’m not really cut out for. I decided to give it one last shot, because I thought maybe since I was 42 at the time that you’re a different person than a guy at 32, but I was shocked to discover that I had forgotten what it was that bothered me about playing live in 1990. For me, it was more of a matter of having to be in the right frame of mind every night. I couldn’t do it. I would tell myself all those mature things which should run through your mind, which are that people are still interested in you, how we have a good back catalog of songs and they all went down well. But I was too erratic of a character; I wasn’t tuned into the ritual side of it or the routine, submitting yourself humbly to the fact that at 8 o’clock every night you would be performing. I guess I didn’t do it long enough to get into it. I thought, ‘Boy, this is a weird way to make a living.’
“The best part of the night was when I would close the hotel door and I’d take out a book and I would start to read. By the end of the tour, it was only about three weeks, I just had to say myself, ‘You really must remember what this feels like, so you don’t feel tempted to do it again.’ It sounds awful, but it’s the truth. Some people are cut out for it and thrive on it, but for me, I prefer writing. That’s my thing.”
McAloon can wax poetically about the songwriting greats of the 20th century, particularly his idol, Burt Bacharach. All the more reason why he feels no kinship to the cookie-cutter works of Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and Spice Girls.
“It’s a curious feeling,” he said. “Part of me rejoices in the fact that this sort of river goes past you; you can’t stop it. I sort of like that feeling of not being crucial to events. Now it’s more like, ‘How do you fight for some space to be heard?’ I don’t like touring, and especially if you don’t make records that fit a specific demographic, you just have to live with the fact that what you want to do fits oddly against the mainstream. There’s some freedom in that.
“It’s interesting that as you get older, you’re not part of a boy-band scene or something terribly fashionable, and I do quite like that. Pop music is changing, and the audience gets older. Will pop music grow with it? Will it always be a young person’s thing? Is there hope for you because Steely Dan can still make records? It’s a challenge, but I don’t despair too much because I think I’m lucky in that had I been writing any earlier, like say in the ’70s or even in the ’60s, I don’t think there would’ve been any chance that I would’ve ever been noticed, because there was too much good stuff in the same area that I like to work in – melodic pop. I would’ve been swept away, whereas now you stand out a little bit more.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I think it was ‘All Right Now’ by Free. That’s a great record, isn’t it? It was either that or I think I got my mom to buy me ‘Ride a White Swan’ by T. Rex.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I was slow in that department; it was Lindisfarne. I got pushed off a chair by a bouncer because I was standing on it; it was at some university in the middle of England and I was overexcited. They wouldn’t ask you to sit down, they would just push you, which is pretty dangerous.”
BWF (before we forget): Fans can spot Prefab Sprout on the Web @ www.prefabsprout.com. … The Prefab Sprout album discography – “Swoon” (Epic, 1984); “Steve McQueen” (1985); “Two Wheels Good” (1985); “From Langley Park to Memphis” (1988); “Protest Songs” (1989); “Jordan: The Comeback” (1990); “A Life of Surprises: The Best of Prefab Sprout” (1992); “Andromeda Heights” (Columbia, 1997); “The Collection” (Epic/Legacy, 2001; originally released as “38 Karat Collection” in the U.K. in October 1999); “The Gunman and Other Stories” (EMI Liberty, 2001); “I Trawl the Megahertz” (2003); “Let’s Change the World with Music” (Kitchenware, 2009); “Crimson/Red” (2013).
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