Prefab Sprout website: A Life of Surprises

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Liner Notes

  A Life of Surprises  
  I Trawl the Megahertz      


When they asked me to write an introduction to their recording, I thought - right, keep it short and sweer, say something that they themselves might say, like: Words Are Trains For Moving Past What Really Has No Name. These are songs Written Out Of Necessity. Thatīs Swoon.

But that seemed a bit rock-ish, and they hate that sort of thing. Anyway itīs now late and Iīm listening to this for the umpteenth time.

My husband went to bed an hour ago - not that he has anything against the Sprouts, but he must get up early tomorrow. I wonīt be joining him for at least forty minutes. Thatīs Swoon.

Emma Welles 1984

             A LIFE OF SURPRISES            

How does the song go ? " Memories light corners of my mind. Misty water-coloured memories of the way we were. "*

As we all know, memories can be fabulous liars, and looking back over ten years since we released our first record, "Lions in my garden", I'm not unhappy to see that the day-to-day details of our legendary career have become smudged upon the canvas of time, forming some unbelievable misty water-coloured memories.

Did we really record all the backing tracks to our first album "Swoon" in an afternoon, believing upon its completion one month later that it would rival "Thriller" as a commercial proposition ?

Did we really audition 147 drummers over 5 days only to realise that applicant number one was the man for the job ?

Who was it that spent three expensive days in the Studio with medium Phyllis King in an attempt to record the voice of the late Elvis Presley - only to contact a troubled spirit identifying itself as Colonel Tom, who wanted 35% of any deal we were making ?

Did Johnny Marr appear in R.A.K.īs studio with a cassette player and tape of "William It Was Really Nothing" while we were making "When Love Breaks Down ?" And did we really release that single 5 times within 18 months before it finally became a hit - monopolising the U.K. number one spot for five weeks ?

Was it a dream or did we eavesdrop on Stevie Wonder as he rehearsed his harmonica solo for "Nightingales" - sat beneath a giant painting of Jimi Hendrix in Westworld Studios ? Do we treasure the photograph ?

Did we really not tour for five productive years ? Have we spent months arguing over tiny details, suppressing the bittersweet knowledge that theyīre only records, they mean everything and nothing ? And we were really recording in a Los Angeles studio when the famous voice in the world - that a man from Hoboken - asked us if weīd like a slice of pizza on the occasion of his 69th birthday ? Do we remember that or has time rewritten every line ?

Ten years of making records may justify a Best Of, but itīs hard to feel nostalgic when you hope that the best is yet to come. And who knows ? Itīs a life of surprises.

Paddy McAloon May '92

* Apologies to Alan and Marilyn Bergman

Johnny Marr with Morrissey created The Smiths and "William It Was Really Nothing" was one their big hits.

That Hoboken man was, of course, doobie-doobie-doo, Frank Sinatra.

I Trawl the Megahertz

'I Trawl the Megahertz' seems to be a portrait of a woman who is trying to make sense of her life by reviewing selected momories. She is like someone with their hand on a radio dial, turning into distant stations, listening to fragments of different broadcasts. I say 'seems to' because a degree of vagueness suits my purpose and reflects the tentative way in which 'Megahertz' was written.

In 1991 I went through a period of ill health that meant I was unable to write music in my usual manner - that is, hunched over a keyboard and staring cluelessly at a computer screen. (As you are too polite to ask, the problem was eye surgery followed by shingles followed by eye surgery. And while you're down there Nurse...) I found all this frustating as I've been writing songs since 1971, and am subject to itchy, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if I cannot work. So, unable even to read, I passed the time by listening to and tapping all kinds of T.V and radio programmes, concentrating on phone-ins, chat shows, citizen's band conversations, military encryptions - you name it, I was eavesdropping on it.

The more cynical among you are probably anticipating where all this is leading - an announcement to the effect that I have discovered a cure for insomnia. All right, so ninety percent of the stuff I recorded was boring: but isn't ninety percent of most things? What actually happened is that, almost against my will, I started to edit mentally some of the things I'd heard. Odd words from documentaries would cross-pollinate with melancholy confidences aired on late night phone-ins; phrases that originated in different time zones on different frequencies would team up to make new and oddly affecting sentences. And I would change details to protect the innocent (or guilty), to streamline the story that I could hear emerging, and to make it all more ... musical, I suppose.

It now seems obvious that this was the thwarted lyric writers' subconscious taking control: unable to write songs, it was organizing what I had collected into something that was part love song and part lament. (Have you any idea how many sad stories are floating over the airwaves after midnight?) To be frank, the finished item required a good deal of intervention and finessing (with respect, the average citizen's band exchange is not in the front line of the war against cliche) So I own up to jettisoning a lot of the source material that had been like scaffolding for the piece, and as the narrator's character became clearer. I filled in a lot of details of her story myself.

Eventually, and ironically, I came to write and shape all of 'I Trawl the Megahertz' music on a computer. In fact, I cannot think of anything else I've written that is so dependent on technology for its existence. For it is a sad fact that I am a musical ignoramus who has found dedicatd music software invaluable. Without it I simply have no means of road-testing certain ideas. (If I asked, I still wouldn't be able to play a single bar of this record, as it was all written - after the fashion of a monkey at a word processor - straight onto the score page of my computer screen.)

With this shameful admission, it is entirely appropiate that I now thank Calum Malcolm and David McGuinness who breached the gap between my virtual midi-instrument world and that of real players: thank guys for helping to translate my illiterate ideas into scores that professional musicians could read without laughing. And thanks to these musicians for their patience and skill, and to Keith Armstrong, for again finding a way to finance an ambitious recording. Finally, a word about the mysterious Yvonne Connors - the voice of 'I Trawl the Megahertz.' She was recorded between 6.15pm and 8.45pm in roon 551 of The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington, London, on October 25th, 1999. What more do you need to know? I now cannot imagine the piece without her. So thank you Yvonne, and thank you V. and Lucy Cuthbertson who led me to you, I hope you enjoy this record which is dedicated to my brothers, Martin and Michael.

Paddy McAloon



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