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August 3rd, 1985
Songs Wordshipped Out Of Necessity
Splash! Head Sprout Paddy McAloon is macarooned on a desert island with benevolent beached whale Danny Kelly. Songs and songsmiths are on the menu. Mac reveals his heroes. Big Dan cries for help. Paddy field of focus by Derek Ridgers.
Three o'clock on another cloudy Saturday afternoon in Sheffield. I'm sat forlornly in the foyer of a cosy hotel. Prefab Sprout are late.
Still, the time passes quickly, as it does when your reading matter grips. Mine is a scrap of paper on which is a list. A list of records, singers and songwriters. It's a short, ragged roll, dictated to me over the phone the previous evening by Prefab Sprout mainman Paddy McAloon. My mission is to rendezvous with him and, with The List as conversational cattle prod, to elicit his opinions on all matters songwriterly.
Why ask McAloon ? That's simple. Prefab Sprout's new LP 'Steve McQueen' has, with featherlight aplomb, confirmed Mister McAloon's growing mastery of the arty craft, the crafty art, songwriting.
He's an unashamed songwright and lyricst, and has joined Elvis Costello and Stephen Patrick Morrissey as the '80s most talked about practitioners of those much maligned trades. And he's late ...
An hour later, Paddy McAloon - thin, bearded and intense, every inch the young D. H. Lawrence - sits before me. We've already mattered informally. In a quiet, almost clenched way, he is passionate about songs, writers and records, sometimes allowing conversational gaps as he ransacks his mind for just the correct adjective or noun ...
It's high time we started. I gaze at the top of The List. It makes peculiar reading ...
PRINCE: LITTLE RED CORVETTE it says.
Prince ? Prince ? !! Paddy McAloon has chosen to open the proceedings with a sequinned, pouting purveyor of bastardised, lascivious funk (a close cousin to the demon cock rock). His writing to dignify a process that gravitates to titles like 'I Would Die 4 U', seems the polar opposite to everything that I perceive and find wondrous in the world of Prefab Sprout.
Prince ? I'm really puzzled. I'm more than a little shocked.
He smiles, amused at my bafflement.
"It's the song that I most wish I'd written. Basically, sex is the hardest subject about which to write with any class. How many people do ? And it's not like he's just lewd ... he's a pantomine ... he's Popeye. It's cartoon sex but at the same time it's incredible gorgeous and funny.
"I have to use English white boy language, to trust in literacy, but the black voice, and I hope this isn't a racist comment, is a tool of incredible value. There are few black artists - Marvin Gaye was an obvious exception - who rely on literacy for expression. Instead it's usually a tone of voice.
"I mean, with that voice Prince can do anything he wants. I haven't got that, so my armour is the English language. I'm forced to go for the accumulated effect of a line. Prince's writing doesn't seem to bother, it's pretty, slapdash, and I'm enormously envious of him ... "
Enough. The thought of Paddy McAloon envying the Purple Pixie makes my head spin. We'd better move on.
I DREAM OF JEANNIE BY STEPHEN FOSTER.
Oh dear, I've been rumbled. My knowledge of this Stephen Foster could be engraved on the head of a pin and still leave room aplenty for The Ten Commandments. Don't bluff.
Tell me about Foster. Who, whre, when, why ?
"I'm a little sentimental about him. Foster wrote at the turn of the century and died, in finest Hollywood fashion, destitute.
"America, like most countries, broadcasts or reveals something of itself in its music and I understand something of America's heritage from this song. Listening to it, I can see where people like Brian Wilson and Jim Webb came from."
"Are you particularly fond of romantic songs ?
"I am now. I think that no matter how hip or unsentimental you think you are, even if you think that only The Velvet Underground or Nick Cave make realistic music, you still need some romance.
"I used to adore Lou Reed when I was young, I saw how bad the world was, or could be, and convinced myself that all aspects of it boiled down to Velvets. But now I don't need any singer to tell me life's serious business ... "
'Jeannie' was a dewy-eyed choice, sure, but compared to The List's next entry, it's positively psychopathic hardcore.
THE BLUE NILE, the scrawled handwriting reads, 'TINSELTOWN IN THE RAIN'.
This song, of 1984 vintage, is the very pulsing heart of romanticism, a love song of gargantuan, contradictory, universal and specific beauty.
It's a magical five minutes worth and no mistake.
"Yeah, it is. It's one of those records that everybody understands profoundly. They've taken what on paper looks so obvious, so hammy - "Do I love you ? Yes, I love you !" - and made, or imbued the song with, something ... fantastic. No other word."
Smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, but 'Tinseltown' constantly stirs mental embers.
"Certain noises, certain songs, do stir memories. We call them 'memories' but they're not really part of our experience. But somehow we know they're somewhere in someone else's past. It's a common language. Bowie used to be very good at it."
A subliminal, fortitous link. David Bowie is next up. The pencil lines trace STATION TO STATION / HEROES.
In his time, the Thin White One has been all things to all people, including a renowned gatherer of diffuse elements into exemplary pop. Both 'Station' and 'Herores' are brilliant but the actual songs often seemed like mere vehicles for experiments in pop formalism and Bowie's cracked Eurofunk.
"What fascinates me about Bowie at this time is a certain awkwardness. The much vaunted iciness is there, but it's alongside a very real longing for a warmth that eludes him.
"His lyrics seem to me intensely emotional, bursting with very human feelings. They'd be dull in other hands because often they're very simple, classical, even, but on these records they're heartfelt and ... well, I've said it, awkward.
"I must admit I find Bowie's transition from Ziggy Stardust, or whatever, to today's all-round-entertainer, 'ooh look, this is real me', somehow rather sad. But, if I'm truthful, he's one of my biggest influences. A lot of my songs could be sung in a David Bowie voice."
Bowie's long since ceased being an important writer, though he has a knack of fooling people into thinking that he still is.
"Oh I dunno. Although it was severely panned, I thought 'Loving the Alien' was really beautiful."
See what I mean ? Fooled by a man in a light blue suit.
And apparently, by a man whose best friend is a llama! After Bowie the list skips to another pop icon.
I'm surprised (again) to see THRILLER and OFF THE WALL so prominently featured.
"Yeah, me too. For a long time, when disco ruled the world, I resent and detested them. But, late as usual, I found I was fascinated by them, by the way they're put together.
"Very simple chord structures are given inmensely complex sets of melodies. Quincy Jones and Rod Themperton, for instance writes like Bach and that's true. He's got the knack of weaving melodies, of counterpointing seven or eight of them without cluttering up the song.
"It's amazing. From a tiny, simple framework these people are at the peak of Western consciousness, all pervasive, defining the times like all great songwriters do.
"There's another side though. They're the most sophisticated record producers the world has ever known. Jones comes from a fabulous soul tradition - Ray Charles is one of his best friends - but still they settle for rhyming 'reality' with 'fantasy'. Why isn't the same attention lavished on the beauty, the gloss of the sound, afforded the lyric ?
"So on one hand I've total admiration for them, but on the other ... "
The sentence is never finished but Paddy McAloon - God, he takes music seriously, and personally - looks betrayed.
The List is deserted in an effort to discover McAloon's attitudes to these strange song things in general.
What do you yourself use music for ? Relaxation, rapture, escape, medication, trance, dance, soundtrack, fun ?
"All of those really but especially relaxation, though I'm always analysing music. It's perverse, but I listen to lots of music that I actively dislike. To inspire myself to write better I listen to the horrendous Andrew Lloyd Webber, for instance.
"I listen to music for all sorts that add up to ... fascination."
What do you get from the experience, the very act, of writing ?
"I'm like a kid, I make riches out of zero. Mentally I've got this huge pair of scissors - God, that sounds like Julian Cope - with which I cut and shape the world and share it with people. Usually a good songwriter's got something to share.
And how would you like these McAloon tunes, these visions of the world, to be consumed ? What use should we put them to ?
"Anything really. Anything, though I must say that I did blanch when one guy at some university said to me 'I quite see you as an after-hours jazz bar music'. No thank you very much."
Many of the writers you admire are destined to be remembered. Are you interested in posterity ?
"I told another journalist recently that I'd rather be inmortal than write the perfect song.
"Posterity does interest me. What I'd really love to be, ten years hence, some young kid, starting to write songs, to say 'yeah, Paddy McAlloon was good."
The hands on the clock sweep remorselessly on and the reality of the rock'n'roll world intrudes into this slightly distracted, loving chatter. The Prefab's tour manager is making anxious noises about sound checks. Back to the list ...