Paddy McAloon, visionary and front man of England’s Prefab Sprout, has been called a clever bastard, a god, an eccentric genius, and a wimp; critics either adore or abhor him. McAloon has been compared to everyone from immortal bard William Shakespeare to soul singer Marvin Gaye. “Suddenly,” said London’s Independent on Sunday of McAloon’s appearance on the music scene, “[he] was [British Pop icon] Elvis Costello with a sweet tooth, or he was [former Beatle] Paul McCartney with a degree in English and either way he was the smartest alec pop had seen in years.” New Musical Experience put it bluntly, stating, “Though it is de rigeur among self-styled rock pigs to feign hatred and contempt for Prefab Sprout, the truth is Everybody likes them.” Regardless of whether or not he is worshipped or vilified, this “last pop genius”—as RollingStonecalled McAloon—has been plugging away for over a decade, constantly reaching for the perfect pop hit.
McAloon and his brother Martin invented their band’s odd moniker in 1971 after hearing of strangely named bands such as Grand Funk Railroad and Tyrannosaurus Rex (later T. Rex). If ever they had a band, they would call it Prefab Sprout, the McAloon brothers decided. They also considered Grappled Institution, Dry Axe, and Village Bus. “I love our name because I know the naivete it came out of,” Paddy told Rolling Stone.
Still, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that the boys got to use the name. Between pumping gas at their father’s filling station in Consett, County Durham, a small town outside of Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England, they would play cover tunes behind the garage. As Paddy’s confidence in his own songwriting grew, they enlisted school chum Michael Salmon to play drums, while Martin played bass and Paddy took lead guitar and vocals. After that, all Paddy ever wanted to do was pump gas and write songs. McAloon’s early influences included T. Rex, Free, The Who, and the Beatles; the classy pop songs of Jimmy Webb, BurtBacharach, and Hal David; and staples of Broadway, especially Stephen Sondheim.
In 1982 gigs at local pubs earned Prefab Sprout enough cash to record a single, “Lions in My Own Garden,” on their own label, Candle. The single and its “simply ears ahead” poster caught the attention of the independent label Kitchenware Records, which released “Lions” nationally.
Meanwhile, local school girl Wendy Smith had fallen for the band after seeing their early shows. McAloon asked
For the Record …
Members include Neil Conti (born February 12, 1959, in London, England; joined group 1984), drums; Martin McAloon (born January 4, 1962, in Durham, England), bass; Paddy McAloon (born June 7, 1957, in Durham), vocals, guitar, keyboards; and Wendy Smith (born May 31, 1963, in Hartlepool, England; joined group c. 1982), vocals. Former members include Michael Salmon, drums.
Band formed in early 1980s; recorded first single, “Lions in My Own Garden,” and signed with Kitchenware Records, 1982; signed with CBS Records, 1983; released first album, Swoon, 1984.
Addresses: Record company —Kitchenware Records, Saint Thomas Street Stables, Saint Thomas Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4LE, England.
her and a friend to sing on their next single, and Wendy just kept on singing with the Sprout. Her first recorded appearance came on Prefab Sprout’s second single release, “The Devil Has All the Best Tunes.” The band recorded their first album, Swoon, in 1983. It so impressed Kitchenware that the label took it to the considerably larger CBS Records (later purchased by Sony), which signed the band for an eight-album deal. Swoon was released in 1984, went straight into the Top 20, and started the music media’s passions rolling.
Kitchenware had publicized the band a great deal and the notoriously temperamental British press was waiting to pounce, knives at the ready. In Melody Maker, Adam Sweeting deemed Swoon “virtually unbearable,” calling it “drivel” and “a gigantic folly, a tour de force of self-indulgence.” He concluded his remarks with, “As you can tell, I’m horrified.” Melody Maker’s Ian Pye felt Swoon “suffered from a self-conscious desire to impress,” and many others called it too clever. Yet Colin Irwin, also writing for Melody Maker, ventured, “All that anguish, preciousness and contrived wit took a bit of stomaching … but Swoon nevertheless still wielded an elusive, nagging magic that has continued to drag me back to it throughout the last year.”
This apparently exasperating music has been described in a variety of ways. Sylvie Simmons of Creem called McAloon “a sort of Marc Bolan [of T. Rex] spirit in Steely Dan’s body listening to [Bob] Dylan and the Beach Boys while fasting for Lent.” The music is profoundly nostalgic, harkening back to a time of beautiful, simple melodies. McAloon mixes a poetic wordiness with an eccentric compositional style. Melody Maker deemed the songs a blend of “sculpted, elaborate melodies and achingly beautiful chord changes.” Creem called it “melodic, high-gloss pop,” noting “colorful impressionistic lyrics sung in Paddy’s naive, soulful voice.”
Critical blather notwithstanding, Swoon caught the ear of several influential pop artists, including Thomas Dolby, who offered to produce the band’s next album. The result was 1985’s Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the U.S.), with drummer Neil Conti newly on board. Hailed by many critics as the best album of the year—even the decade—several felt it stood alongside eclectic gems like the Beatles’ Revolver, the Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Melody Maker’s Pye called it “an incredible achievement; its melodic and textural qualities are stunning enough, but the vision behind it all has produced a work that is not just consistently excellent but positively inspirational.” Rob Tannenbaum, on the other hand, wrote in Rolling Stone that “while the rich, fresh writing tempts you back to Two Wheels Good, the music often makes listening a chore—like sifting through mud to uncover a few specks of gold.”
Although beloved by many a critic, Prefab Sprout has never been much of a commercial success. Their biggest hit was a throwaway tune off their fourth album, 1988’s From Langley Park to Memphis. Ironically, “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” was a song about a one-hit wonder that McAloon whipped off in 20 minutes.
Langley countered the critical cries of “fey,” “wimpy,” and “precious” that had held the band back, though McAloon had dismissed such name-calling all along. “I’m not a wimp,” he told Creem’s Simmons, “I’m physically frail. I’m also guilty of being poor, so the songs I’ve recorded in the past haven’t had a brilliant sound because I couldn’t afford the right guitar. But that’s not wimpy. I’m not eccentric; in fact I’m probably cold-bloodedly straight ahead in what I do. I’m not a clever bastard genius.”
Indeed, McAloon is a product of his environment and thus can’t help that he always sounds “so bloody academic,” as he put it to Simmons. Educated in a Catholic seminary from the ages of 11 to 19, McAloon holds a degree in English literature and can hardly help writing intelligently. “And I relish my reputation as this introspective, precious brooder, because I know that’s not me,” he told David Wild in Rolling Stone, “I know I’m not the guy in the moody picture.” In fact, the inward-looking songs he writes are most often a product of his imagination. “A song’s just a point of view,” he explained to David Stubbs in Melody Maker. “I just try and be consistent to the law of that particular song, even if it isn’t how I necessarily feel.”
Some of the critical hubbub surrounding the band can be attributed to writers who just didn’t get it—they missed the jokes and McAloon’s wry sense of humor, taking him much too seriously. Though expressing some misgivings about the record, Melody Maker’s Chris Roberts, for one, did locate the humor in Langley. “Prefab Sprout get away with things which should normally be stomped on from a great height. Quite why the melodic and crafted Langley Park\s a truly delicious record is making me scratch my [head]…. It’s something to do with a poignancy which is too happily coloured with good-natured tricks to be maudlin…. I am baffled as to why this, like its noble predecessor Steve McQueen, hangs my guts from the lampshade every time.”
With each record, critics and a cult of fans in the U.K. and U.S. continued to rave, but the band was unable to achieve mainstream popularity. This could be attributed to their disinclination to tour in support of their albums. Prefab Sprout toured very early in their career and again in the early 1990s, but never in the U.S. McAloon told the Independent on Sunday, “I can do it, and I will do it, and it doesn’t break my heart to do it. But it’s possible that it destroys the mystery which surrounds the records and I’d rather be at home trying to write the big one.” Many hinted that the band could not recreate their complex sound in a live setting. But McAloon told Robert Sandall in the London Sunday Times of his concern that “you see what certain songs do to your audience every night, and you start writing to please them.” To Rolling Stone’s Wild he admitted, I’m burnt by every day that I don’t [write]. It reduces me.”
McAloon spent years working on Langley’s follow-up, Jordan: The Comeback, which was almost universally lauded as his masterpiece. “Exquisite, sumptuous, marvelously intricate, angelically forceful,” wrote taste-maker Simon Reynolds in Melody Maker. In the same magazine, Paul Lester enthused, “Prefab Sprout have, alongside their knowingness and intelligence and postmodern deliberation, a certain incidental beauty that could never be contrived.” Lester went on to sum up McAloon’s gift: “[His] genius is his ability to take those few breathtaking seconds from your favorite record— the thrilling intro or swoonsome chorus that you play over and over—and construct whole songs of them…. In [Jordan] there are numerous instances of Paddy’s ability to sustain freak moments over three or four sublime minutes.”
Jordan was an ambitious record, lengthy and ranging in themes from God to Elvis Presley. Where most reviewers gushed shamelessly, some found the disc a little too perfect. In the Guardian, Adam Sweeting opined that “nothing [Prefab Sprout] ever do appears to spring from impulse. It’s always a pastiche, an echo or a gesture, as if McAloon has studied music from books and old movies and set about turning his discoveries into a crossword…. It’s skillful, but it’s a little like sitting in an examination.” Nonetheless, Sounds contributor George Berger represented the majority when he noted McAloon’s simple “knowledge of beauty, in itself rare,” calling the songwriter “a Shakespeare in a world of cheap novels.”
After a brief U.K. tour for Jordan, McAloon again sat down to a mammoth project: Earth: The Story So Far. In the meanwhile, the rise of a new radio format in the U.S. called Adult Album Alternative boded well for the band’s commercial prospects; this type of radio station, which plays a softer, singer-songwriter-oriented form of “alternative” rock, including older songs befitting such tastes, had already taken a liking to Prefab Sprout. For the first time, radio listeners in America could hear Prefab Sprout on commercial airwaves.
On Kitchenware Records/Sony in the U.K., Epic Records in the U.S.
Steve McQueen (Two Wheels Good in the U.S.), 1985.
Protest Songs, 1989.
From Langley Park to Memphis (includes “King of Rock ’n’ Roll”), 1988.
Jordan: The Comeback, 1990.
A Life of Surprises, The Best of Prefab Sprout, 1992.
Billboard, September 20, 1988.
Consumer’s Research Magazine, March 1993.
Creem, February 1986; October 1988.
Guardian, August 23, 1990.
Independent on Sunday (London), June 28, 1992.
Melody Maker, March 10, 1984; June 1,1985; June 8,1985; February 6, 1988; March 12, 1988; March 26, 1988; June 24, 1989; August 4, 1990; August 18, 1990; January 5, 1991; June 20, 1992.
New Musical Express, August 18, 1990; June 20, 1992.
Q, September 1990.
R/M, August 22, 1990.
Rolling Stone, October 24, 1985; June 16, 1988; March 7, 1991.
Sounds, August 22, 1990.
Spin, January 1991.
Sunday Times (London), September 9, 1990.
Time Out, August 22, 1990.
Today, August 31, 1990.
Vox, August 1990; July 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Kitchenware Records publicity materials, 1994 and 1995.
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