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ONE TWO TESTING
P A D D Y
THE PREFAB SPIRIT
Paddy the principle Prefab Sprout invites John Morrish on a fabricated northern journey to meet Costello, Thomas and Steve.
McALOON, the noted musician, singer and musicologist, was
waiting in his panelled drawing room when his butler showed in.
"Thank you, Costello," he said, as the shambling but somehow familiar figure left the room. Later, I was to learn how this same Costello, once a popular entertainer in the music halls, had praised McAloon's admirable trio (now quartet); the Prefab Sprout, in their earliest strivings. McAloon, a kindly man, had found a place for the sad old figure in his dotage, after watching him make an embarrassment of himself in a public place. (I believe he called the Terry Wogan show.)
"Tell me about
your instruments," I began, but the look of dismay was
enough to tell me that Mr McAloon did not consider such trifles a
suitable topic for two gentlemen of scholarly inclinations to
discuss. I advised him that the periodical which you scribe
represents has been known to take an interest in musical
He came back: "I can't understand it, you do a lot of reviews on all these sequencers and what have you and what is really needed is some sort of editorial comment on the uses to which these things are being put.
"It sounds a bit schoolmasterly," said Mr McAloon, his gown flapping around him as he rose to his feet and began pacing, the better to ponder the question. "But if you've got somebody who's 15 years old in a band, and he's wondering what kind of effects to get, it might be worth pointing out that effects in themselves ..."
I saw him groping
for words, and suggested, "Can't perform miracles ?"
Evidently that was not quite what he had in mind. He pursued a
different line of thought. "If the day comes that they
actually go into a studio, they'll find plenty of people to
advise him, not try and sell them this, that and the other. You
would be much better off actually learning how to write a song,
or working out how to criticise some of the records that you like
yourself," he confided.
Indeed, learning seems to come very close to the heart of things for Paddy, who says that he invited me to his baronial hall on the moors above Durham Cathedral because he wanted to speak about the "aesthetics" of music and not its technicalities, which he compares with asking, say Graham Greene about his biro.
For there are many,
gentle reader, who believed that with the 11 songs composed for
his group's second Long Playing collection "Steve
McQueen", Mr McAloon has been on the task of resurrecting
such valuable skills as song-writing and arrangement. There are
those in the public prints who speak of his compositions in the
same light as those of McCartney, Brian Wilson, the
aforementioned Mr Costello and, strangely, Steely Dan.
"I've got a couple of Steely Dan albums," he admitted, adding, "but I've got all of Led Zeppelin's."
Nobody ever mentions that, I thought, before pushing my host to tell me more of his own preferences, which ever recklessly towards the more classic names in musical history, or so I had read.
"I thought I'd
throw what I hoped would be a few spanners in the works by
mentioning Stephen Sondheim, hoping that other songwriters would
check out someone in a different field of writing who wasn't
going to be hampered by bloody rhyming couplets of maybe/baby.
You know, the whole boring disco plodding schtick.
"So I mentioned these and now I'm labelled the Tin Pan Alley man," he protests.
In fact his real favourites come a little earlier, with names like Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel prominent.
"All these great people, the music was of worth, and had sicological relevance without them having to say 'Look, I'm a working class hero' about it. Anybody who has to strive for that is out of the window as far as I can see," said Mr McAloon, adding that for his last birthday (27th) he was given by singer Wendy Smith a complete set of Stravinsky recordings (also on CBS), running to 32 albums. Now Patrick is spending his evening delving into the nether regions of late Stravinsky, trying words like "Agon" that hardly anyone but the composer has ever heard.
But it could be
wrong to make Mr McAloon into some kind of musical egghead.
Walter Becker he is not: indeed, he does not read or write
notation as yet, though he is struggling towards it. A struggle
made worse, I would add, by his poor eyesight.
Nor is he a supreme instrumental technician.
He plays most of the guitar on the "Steve McQueen" album. "I usually play it because I've written it," he says. "I'm not particularly happy about my guitar playing because I'm not as fluent as I should be. I'm a very, very slow learner. If I can sit at home and work out an elaborate part, I can learn to play it, no bother.
"But in the studio, Thomas would suggest something to me and I would take me an awful lot of time to digest it. But my brother, who's used to having instructions through the years, he will remember something quickly," he said, before I stopped him to ask about this "Thomas".
It seems he was speaking of Thomas Dolby, Master of Science, the man who took the always interesting but somewhat unfocussed Sprout sound as heard on the first record, "Swoon", and conjured up the infinitely seductive sound we hear on "Steve McQueen".
"I'm used to saying, 'This is the song, this is how it
goes,' but to have somebody else say to me, 'Yes, it's your song,
but I think you ought to do this to make it better,' I find it
very difficult. So I was a bit of a slow student in the studio.
And I got a bit depressed by it."
On the earlier "Swoon", Paddy, a self-proclaimed non-player of the piano, played all piano parts. This time round he played "the bones of it", while Mr Dolby played "the virtuoso things, the embellishments". McAllon has no complaints about the synthesiser wizard and his appliance of science.
"I think he kind of went along with that because in America it was. 'For God's sake, what else are you going to do, to do your Canute act against the tide of Pat Benetarism ?' You do something to get yourself on the radio, I can understand that," he laughed.
In fact, it's as a
master musician rather than the cliched mad scientist that
McAloon pictures Thomas Dolby. "He's an all-rounder. I think
he's about 26 or 27 ... I tend to think of him as a junior Quincy
Jones. I can picture him at 60 with a wealth of experience.
"Thomas did the the main bulk of keyboards. He even did a brilliant banjo impersonation on the opening track ('Faron Young') on the Fairlight. Unlike a lot of people, if he´s going to imitate it with the Fairlight he will make it play like a banjo player would play it, with the style of the picking," he said.
Then there's Thomas arranging skill, very prominent on this cunningly organised album. "I write very chordal things and he'll look at my hands spread across the piano and he'll say, 'We can do without that, you're duplicating that.' And he can do that with guitar parts. I would play an open chord quite high up by the 12th fret and he would say, 'Only play the bottom three strings. I'll play the top three on another instrument.' It's just a revelation to me, splitting the six-strings over two or three instruments."
But he doesn't stop
at pitched instruments. "He's also marvellous at thinking of
a rhythm track to complement the melody and interlock with the
bass line. On one of the songs, 'Appetite', the bass and drums
are locked together in a beautiful pattern underneath and that's
mainly Thomas's work."
The multi-faceted Mr Dolby also sorted out Paddy's voice, to the evident satisfaction of all parties. On 'Swoon' the combination of haste, unsympathetic vocal production, and what McAloon admits was "ornate, or perhaps verbose" writing left things sounding too murky by half. Dolby pulled the McAloon voice out from the dark Mike McDonald-isms he was indulging in and left him loud, clear and straightforwardly passionate.
maybe more comfortable. Listening to it I don't cringe, whereas
with 'Swoon', if I was to put that record on, my head would be
under the seat with embarrassment," confessed our host. The
clear critical success of "Steve McQueen" has placed
some unspoken pressure on the Sprouts to take more of Mr Dolby's
direction in future. They will resist, they say, even if his
magical skills help them to a hit single (which remains to be
seen as I write).
"I would love to work with Thomas Dolby any day of the year, but wouldn't it be more refreshing to go away, give it two or three years, do something else and then maybe ... come back and try it again ?" he pondered.
I made a parting quip about the group's ridiculous name. "It's the sort of name that people feel uncomfortable about asking for at the Woolsworth counter," I said.
helped ourserlves with the name, I know," said Paddy.
"But I'm a bit puzzled that so much has been made of it,
because I think a lot of bands have ridiculous names. I think
Frankie Goes to Hollywood is quite strange as a name."
I stood up to leave and saw, on the wall behind Mr McAloon, some kind of framed document. It was a reply to a letter from Patrick to Karlheinz Stockhausen, written when Mr McAloon was 17.
"I wrote when I was at school. I was writing songs and I wrote this stupid letter to him. It said, 'Dear Mr Stockhausen, do you write your material at the piano ? And nobody with any acquaintance with Stockhausen would know that, Jesus, you don't write something like 'Gesang der Junglinge' or whatever on a piano. I found his address in 'Who's who' in Wigan library, I sent it to Cologne, and I got this thing shortly after Christmas. It was like a fotocopy of the first page of a score.
signed it, I think it was himself because I've seen his writing
on other things since, 'Cordially to Patrick McAloor'. He
couldn't read any name," added Paddy by way of explanation.
We shook hands and parted. As I walked along the halfway behind Costello I heard in an upstairs room the gentle tinkling of Mozart. "That'll be Miss Wendy," offered the man. I decided some subterfuge was called for, and asked him point blank if he knew anything about Master Patrick's instruments.
From him I learned that the young master owns a Stratocaster acquired, it appears, from a Shadows roadie, and not much loved. Recently he has acquired a Paisley Telecaster in the antique style, and then there are his two electro-acoustics, a Takamine and an Ovation dammed as 'characterless'. For writing he has a Roland JX3P, a Dr Rhythm, and lots of other 'toys'. Then he stopped suddenly as brother Martin, a fine bass-player, walked past.
I walked off as Costello closed the door. "How pleasant, " I thought, "not to have to interview people in a nasty record company office. I should do this more often."