I like Paddy McAloon. A lot. Even his last record as Prefab Sprout, the mediocre, cheesy The Gunman And The Other Stories, didn’t shake my faith. Now he’s about to release the most remarkable record of his career. It feels like the return of a good angel in bad times.
He’s had a hold on me for years. At school, a wannabe-literary sixth-year struggling with techy drawing, I taped the Prefab Sprout album Steve McQueen off a mate. I was keen to move on from things heavy metal, FM rock and Big Country-shaped. I was keen to get with it.
Initially, I wasn’t sure. These were love songs and a bit close to something my mum would like. The first song, Faron Young, was a galloping country tune. What was up with this?
I stuck with it and Steve McQueen has stuck with me ever since. Bonny, Appetite and Goodbye Lucille #1 were the first bits of "classic" songwriting - romantic, lush, melodic - I ever dug. After a couple of goes, When Love Breaks Down became a hit and people who liked Simply Red started liking Prefab Sprout. I stayed true.
I dived backwards and bought Swoon, their first album, and their first single, Lions In My Garden (Exit Someone). I nipped sideways and got into The Blue Nile. I read that McAloon rated Burt Bacharach, so looked into that, too. I’ve a lot to be grateful for. McAloon’s lyrics had me wondering who Bobby Fischer was, and why a Geordie lad ever played basketball in the first place, and how on earth this admission of sports abandoned (the narrator in I Never Play Basketball Now has also given up "fencing foils") could make for a poignant love song. If you were a proper songwriter, were good with words, it just did.
"Hot dog jumping frog" - Prefab Sprout got massively popular with From Langley Park To Memphis. "Machine gun Ibiza" - Prefab Sprout took four years to follow that, then did so with a double album. Jordan: The Comeback was about the angel Michael, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Jesse James. At the time, summer 1990, I met McAloon in Newcastle, my first "big" interview. Were all pop stars this talented, gracious, courtly, nice?
Ever the iconoclast, McAloon went on to write songs for Jimmy Nail and for Britain in Eurovision ’95. Out of the way in Consett, County Durham, living with his mum, he beavered away on a variety of concept albums, about ram-raiders, the Millennium Dome, the history of the world. He didn’t tour for a decade, then reappeared in 2000. Had Paddy McAloon, overburdened with talent and ideas, gone too far upriver?
"Maybe I’ve got the audience I deserve," he mused two years ago. He was promoting The Gunman And Other Stories. We were considering his array of unfinished projects, long absences and discomfort with public performance. "It’s hard to see where eccentricity is rewarded in mainstream music," he said.
He had just had a third silicon buckle inserted in his eyes - a progressive eye condition was washing away his retinas. Whether because of this, or because The Gunman was a deck-clearing exercise for a songwriter who just can’t help himself, he seemed distracted. His primary interest, he said, was I Trawl The Megahertz. "It has a woman speaking and it sounds like she’s speaking about her voice. I loved that distance. I’m making a Prefab Sprout record which I can bear to listen to because it’s not me singing." He sighed: "But I suspect it will be too unusual for a major label to release.’
Next month Virgin releases I Trawl The Megahertz. Less an album than a largely-instrumental suite, it is billed as McAloon’s first solo album. As his eyesight has deteriorated, he has increasingly listened to the radio, and the nine "tracks" feature an array of voices, swimming in and out of earshot as the dial spins through the frequencies. The opening title track - a 22-minute monologue over relaxed orchestration - is the aforesaid woman’s life story.
Elsewhere there are snippets of war reporting and voices seemingly taken from radio phone-ins. No matter his reservations about his frontman qualities, the greatest shiver comes on hearing McAloon’s golden voice on the seventh instalment, Sleeping Rough. "I am lost, yes I am lost, and duty will not track me down, asleep among the trees." Encroaching blindness, seclusion, the loneliness of the short-wave aficionado - I can’t think when I last heard a sadder record. Yet, with this project, and the triumph of simply getting it done and getting it out, Paddy McAloon, this most singular of talents, seems to have found himself again, seems to be smiling. How do I know? Cos there’s a new Prefab Sprout album coming this year, too.