FOLLOWERS of Prefab Sprout’s 30 years in music will be familiar with the what-might-have-beens.
They remain stashed away in Paddy McAloon’s archives, the unheard products of a reclusive songwriter with an endlessly active mind. Next week, however, the 56-year-old Co Durham singer and musician emerges with a fully realised album called Crimson/Red.
It’s a record, he admits, that was driven by simple expedience. The songs themselves had been “written over years, that’s for sure” but “the gathering together of them was a bit more fraught”.
“I had been working on something else for a couple of years, writing all the songs for this other project. It still wasn’t finished for very many reasons. I thought it was shaping up very well then I got a reality check last October. I owed a record to some investors, so I went looking for the best songs I could find in a hurry.
“I’m annoyed at myself for having got into that position,” he sighs softly. “I’ve got no-one to blame but myself. I did not have time to hear it as a collection of pieces, but that often happens. I get there in the end.”
Crimson/Red is full of songs about characters such as the best jewel thief in the world and the old magician. Scratch the surface, however, and some of McAloon himself is revealed.
“I tell everyone that they are not autobiographical, it’s not a diary – my diary is full of facts,” he explains. “What I try to do in song-writing is get some collection of images that work together. [The Old Magician is about] the sad old person at the end of the pier, the fears that we all have – losing our powers of independence and ageing. I can’t pretend I’m not inside those songs. Sometimes it’s more of an imaginary reconstruction, like [the song] Adolescence, but there’s usually a bit of me lurking in there.”
Elsewhere McAloon considers two songwriters who have influenced his own craft. Mysterious is about Bob Dylan while The Songs of Danny Galway was inspired by a 1991 TV appearance with Jimmy Webb.
“I feel the Dylan one was my attempt to steal some of the ground from the Dylanologist who will happily devote a thousand pages to everything that his Bobness does. A lot of it’s warranted but I’ve sometimes thought to myself what a strange life he must have had. When he went through a door marked ‘Famous’ it was not an ordinary fame like a zillion of his contemporaries. He had no career plan as such, he had not chosen a job he thought would make him immensely rich, but he said himself he could not walk into a room without changing the temperature. I thought that was such a curse. I can see how that might drive you round the twist.
“To work outwards from that, I thought I would do a very brief sketch of his life from when he arrived in New York as an aspiring folk singer to falling off his motorbike [in 1966]. On the way I added a little bit of reflection on what it is to be a songwriter, to capture the world in images.”
The Jimmy Webb song is “a fan letter my younger self would have wanted to write to him...to me, he was a legendary figure”. He recalls how in a pre-internet age he and friend would often sit in pubs wondering what the composer of Galveston, MacArthur Park, By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman was up to at that moment. “One night I was able to tell my pal next Sunday night he’s going to be playing with me,” he says, remembering how he was invited to sing The Highwayman with Webb on Irish television.
“Now I would have passed up the opportunity but being younger and foolish then I tried to learn a lovely picking part on the guitar. When I met him it dawned on him not only had I learned the guitar part I was attempting to sing with it. The one criticism I have, and it’s a mild one, is it’s not so great when somebody you love says to you, ‘By the way, I’ve written a chorus to this song’. It didn’t have one before. [If you look at the clip on YouTube] I’m floundering around badly.”
For this release McAloon may be the only member of Prefab Sprout – tinnitus and a detached retina having made working with other musicians difficult – yet he holds out the prospect that one day he will record with his brother Martin again. “My hearing does not make that easy. I’m not very comfortable about people bashing instruments, not that he does that,” he says.
“What I can do is work with machines. Watching the volume I can put together a convincing record that way. That’s what I do. But never say die and never say never and all those other never expressions about Prefab Sprout. Never write us off.”
It’s certainly quite a different set-up now to the late 80s when Prefab Sprout sold millions of records. In the past two decades McAloon seems to have been slowly withdrawing from the limelight, releasing only a solo album (I Trawl the Megahertz) and a collection of songs (Let’s Change the World with Music).
“The mainstream decided we were not for it,” he reflects without bitterness. “I hoped that we would sell a lot of records but then you are too blind to be able to assess yourself properly.Now I have a better picture of what you would do if you wanted to write catchy music. I have boxes at home full of ditties. But pop fame, you have to have the will power to do it. You have to be at the same situation in your personal development where you’re willing to do anything else but wait around.
“My hope was that we would get into heaven on quality – and still is. With the accumulated weight of songs, at some point you hope people will realise you’ve come up with a few good ones on the way.”
Crimson/Red is out on Monday.