Paddy McAloon: The return of Prefab Sprout's elusive genius

Paddy McAloon remembers it all too well: 23 January 2006, when the maverick genius behind Prefab Sprout was last able to sing his own songs. So how, asks Craig McLean, has he managed to create a new album in spite of a hearing disorder that has made his life a 'nightmare'?

Sunday 06 September 2009 00:00 BST

Paddy McAloon, pop's great lost voice, is leaning forward, singing softly to me. The song is a duet he wrote with Barbra Streisand in mind. "Barbra, do you think that we can change the world with music?/ If a sane man overheard us he'd shout 'Two straitjackets please'/ Because all we've got is music/ It's a wonderful ambition/ But our only ammunition/ Is a bunch of do-re-mis..."

The singer and songwriter who is Prefab Sprout pauses, then sings the lines he imagined Streisand singing back to him. "Patrick, you're forgetting that the heart responds to music/ That the heart responds to music is an undisputed fact/ So let's change the world with music/ This is not a foolish notion/ It's not logic but emotion/ That compels the heart to act..."

Now, the chorus. "Let's change the world with music/ Let's be a little naïve/ Let's change the world into something they'll want when we leave..."

McAloon, 52, sits back in his chair in the drowsy lounge of a hotel in the centre of Durham. "So," he says in his lilting Geordie accent, softly clapping together his white- glove-clad hands (he has eczema, he explains), the lyrical sentiment is "kinda [that of] a Coca-Cola commercial, but with sincerity. As in, this is a silly thing and it could never ever happen in a billion years. But everyone likes to think they can make some sort of difference."

Bespectacled, long of white hair and extravagant of beard, McAloon is wearing a red suit and red-and-black checked shoes. A cane, a red hold-all and a black, brimmed hat complete the giddy ensemble. He looks like Santa Claus as played by Billy Connolly. And certainly he likes to bestow gifts, albeit not annually. Paddy McAloon may write songs with ear-tingling frequency – he has the material for upwards of a dozen LPs in "boxes" at home – but all remain unreleased. "I can move really fast," he insists. "It's just that there's no fun in the legwork of putting it out to the public." The flowing head and chin hair is that of a hermit who doesn't have the internet at home. But a hermit who is a functional husband and father of three young daughters.

Tomorrow, one of McAloon's lost albums will finally be released. The song he sung to me is called "Let's Change the World with Music". It's one of three songs with that title that McAloon wrote for an album of the same name. At his home in the countryside outside Durham he recorded a demo version of the record in 1992. But McAloon and his record label Sony disagreed about what the album could become, and how it could be recorded with the rest of the band (his brother Martin, who currently manages a band called Babygod, his ex-girlfriend and co-vocalist Wendy Smith, now head of practitioner development at The Sage concert hall in Gateshead, and drummer Neil Conti) and with Thomas Dolby (the producer of Prefab Sprout's 1985 classic Steve McQueen).

Muff Winwood, McAloon's A&R man at Sony, suggested that he look at one of the album's myriad ideas "and expand it". McAloon took him at his word. The song "Earth: the Story So Far" became, first, a 22-minute song, then a 30-song concept album that would do exactly what it said on the label; beginning with Adam and Eve and ending up somewhere around Neil Armstrong and Jackie Kennedy.

And Let's Change the World with Music? Instead of becoming the sixth Prefab Sprout album, it was shelved. Now, 17 years on and minus the Streisand song, the second title track and a song that imagined Princess Diana as a Sainsbury's check-out operator, the exquisitely recorded homemade demo is finally being released, the first Sprout album since 2001's The Gunman and Other Stories. Why now?

"Nothing to do with me," McAloon replies mildly. The prime mover behind the release of this beautiful collection of songs hymning the power, romance and mystery of music, is his long-standing – and, one imagines, long-suffering – manager Keith Armstrong. "Keith was trying to help me, to make some money. When I finish something I listen to it intensively for a short period, then never look at it again. And I'm not really that interested. But when I heard this I thought, 'Oh boy, this is good.'" That may sound arrogant, but it should be noted that McAloon – whom I've interviewed a few times over the past 20 years – is one of the most self-effacing, solicitous souls in music.

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"But," he continues, underscoring what his perennial "problem" is, "I saw a trailer in this month's Mojo magazine for an interview I'd done, saying what I'd be talking about in the next issue. And I thought, in the space of two months [since I did that interview], I'd moved on. It's funny. I wrote something in May, and something in June, and now I'm working on something else. I wrote an album called Blue Unicorn in the past couple of months. But that's not what I should be working on. I should be programming up older stuff that needs to be out there."

For a while in the 1980s, McAloon did make a difference, and he didn't need Coca-Cola-type songs to do so. The lyrical, mellifluous, melodious songs he wrote for Prefab Sprout's 1984 debut Swoon and its 1985 follow-up Steve McQueen cast him as a Cole Porter or Stephen Sondheim for the Morrissey years. With From Langley Park to Memphis (1988), in particular the top-10 single "The King of Rock 'N' Roll", he moved from cult artist beloved of students and NME readers into Proper – if reluctant – Pop Star. He underscored that reluctance with the follow-up to that commercial breakthrough. Jordan: the Comeback (1990) was a 19-track album featuring meditations on angels, cowboys, Elvis and Ibiza.

The die was cast. Over the next decade McAloon retreated further and further from the mainstream. The gaps between albums became longer. Or, as he puts it with typically gentle and meaningful eloquence, "I drifted a long way from what people's notions of Prefab Sprout would be. I've got to accept that I've been on a trajectory away from the rest of the world for a long time."

Was he propelled on that trajectory by the huge success of "The King of Rock 'N' Roll"? He wrote it in 20 minutes, and describes it as "a novelty record". Typically, for this intuitive but also analytical writer (who understands Dylan as much as he understands Mozart, Louis Armstrong as much as Michael Jackson), it is a kind of meta-pop song in that it "foresees the phenomenon. It says, here's your pop moment... and now it's gone." He replies in the negative, and embarks on an illustrative anecdote.

In 1979, when he and his brother Martin were helping out in their dad's garage in the small County Durham village of Witton Gilbert, one of the regular customers was a clinical psychologist "with a fancy tape recorder in his house". He saw the young McAloon brothers playing their guitars and invited them over to record some songs. They gave it a go, "but we were kinda ungrateful kids, I was an ungrateful person. And didn't think it was going in the right direction anyway..." They abandoned the recordings.

Earlier this year, the same clinical psychologist turned up on McAloon's doorstep. They hadn't seen each other in 30 years. He walked through McAloon's kitchen to the little room in which he works, daily, on songs. "I'm in a corner of this room, behind a rack of gear, and I've got my white gloves on because of the eczema and the creams, and I've got a torch and a screwdriver. I'm clearly penned in, trying to fix something!" McAloon, as he often does, laughs at the image of himself. "And he walks in the room and looks at me, and I said to him: 'It's not what it looks.' And he shook his head and said, 'I feared even then you would become a recluse.' I said, 'Really? Why?' 'Well, because you didn't seem that keen to push what you were doing.'

"And it's true. It's true," he repeats. "Our Martin was ambitious, Keith was ambitious. And I went along with that. But left to my own devices, I'm in the corner of that room."

There are other, harsher reasons for McAloon's retreat from the limelight, from the world. He has, as he puts it, been hit by a "double whammy" of health problems. In the late 1990s he developed a degenerative eye condition. The jelly inside his eyes began shrinking; this tore holes in the retina, allowing the retinal fluid to leak out and wash away the retina. "If I'd have been born 50 years ago I'd be blind by now." He has had three silicon buckles inserted, which press the eye on to the retina. He shows me them, rectangular lumps bulging out of the whites of his eyes. One in the left eye "never heals", he says, inviting me to peer at it. "See that, it's blood red, it's very close to the surface."

The "eye thing", he says, slowed him down in the studio – he'd need one pair of glasses to look at the tape recorder, then another to look at the mixing desk. But that laboriousness was nothing compared to "the hearing thing. That was crushing." He began to suffer from tinnitus.

"I was driven mad by it, this loud roar in my right ear. January the 23rd 2006," he recounts with the weary matter-of-factness of the long-term suffering, "it collapsed. Music was split into different bits. The Beatles' 'Getting Better', it had the notes that George Harrison's playing, plus Chinese music happening at the same time. Scary stuff."

He peers at me through his glasses. "If you'd been standing over there, turning paper, it'd be nails down a blackboard. I couldn't sleep. I tried putting a heater, a fan, next to my head, to cover up the noise in my head. A nightmare.

"And," he says heavily, "it went on. I had six months of lying on a mattress in another room from the family." His wife said it was like being a single parent. He couldn't bear the sound of the girls. "I had a cycle of symptoms. One was a feeling of pressure. Then it would evolve into a high-pitched sound. Then the cycle would start gain. After six months my head was starting to creep, the top of my head started to crawl."

He went to the doctor again and told him: "This is really bad. I've nowhere to hide. I've nowhere to go..." He was frightened, and the doctor was "maybe a little more matter of fact than he needed to be. He said, 'People kill themselves with tinnitus.' And I understood why you might just do away with yourself. There's no refuge."

After six months it "receded slightly", allowing him to re-record acoustic versions of Steve McQueen songs for a "Legacy Edition" bonus CD. "Now what I have is this permanent condition – if there's not ambient noise, I'm conscious that this ear is not open to experience in the way that the other one is. But the brain can clearly cope with it now." He can't go near loud music, and if there are a number of voices he can't distinguish what's going on. "Musically, I can still work but I don't push my luck with it." What does this mean in blunt terms? It means that crucially – frustratingly, tragically, horrendously – this inveterate songwriter can no longer bear to sing his own songs. "I haven't sung anything properly since the hearing disaster. I know I can do it. But it's not gonna be much fun."

His daughters (Georgia, 11, Cecilia, nine and Grace, six – all named after songs), he says, are "very good at keeping it down, not yelling 'cos it just goes right through." They're less understanding, it seems, of his outlandish clobber. Why, I ask delicately, the red suit? "I always wear this. I'll tell you why, and it's a real simple thing. When I write, I have to gee myself out of melancholy sometimes. And the clothes – I have some great red shoes – put me in a ridiculously up frame of mind. And it affects the thing I go for in the music. It's a mood-altering experience. Red is overtly dramatic. I'm just amusing myself; my wife will laugh. But the trouble is," he grins, "stuff you're meant to keep for the house to change the psychic atmosphere, you wear it when you go out the house. Oh, I'll just go to the bins in tartan trousers... Or you go for a walk. The next thing you know, someone sees you..."

Write write write. McAloon can't do anything else. He's not much interested in singing his songs (too, literally, painful). He's certainly not up for performing them (he last toured nine years ago; again, now, too painful). He's most emphatically not interested in "punting" them, as his clinical psychologist friend recognised 30 years ago. Hence his (still reluctant) enthusiasm for Let's Change the World with Music, a record on which he did all the hard graft 17 years ago.

But what about all those albums, and ideas, and complete, imagined worlds? The unreleased material includes Earth: the Story So Far and Blue Unicorn, and other projects with the titles Behind the Veil (a Michael Jackson concept album, long ago shelved), The Atomic Hymnbook, 20th-Century Magic, Jeff & Isolde, Digital Diva (a song cycle using commercially available music software featuring a "virtual vocalist" – no singing required) and Doomed Poets Vol. 1. There's an entire set of songs written with Rod Stewart in mind. And there's a long-running plan to re-record Swoon, Prefab Sprout's 25-year-old debut ("I can see now how disjointed it all was").

"I told myself, 'one a year'. But if I did one thing a year, I'd be 60 by the time I cleared eight of them. And I have a lot more than eight." Clear-eyed, twinkle-eared, coulda-gone-deaf-and-blind Paddy McAloon, the sanest maverick and most engaged recluse in music, chuckles. At himself, at his situation, at the world.

"I don't know what to do!" he smiles with a sigh. "I've written too much stuff, that's my problem. It's ironic. Stockpiling it for the bad days. Now it's crushing me. I laugh about it, but I get vaguely depressed about it. Ah man, how did you get here? I know how you got here: you thought you were being productive. You thought you had a vision of yourself as someone who worked all the time. But it's locked you in the corner of that room, behind the amplifier that needs the wires stuck in. I'm pinned back against the wall with it all, and slowly trying to find ways..."

So what, if anything, will tip him over into singing, recording, releasing? "Probably financial concerns. Someone saying, you gotta do this, you gotta make some money. Or disgust at myself at having sat on things for so long. You know, in one way I can describe my life as being immensely productive. I've stayed true to the... most pure thing. Haven't cared less about an audience. I'm the audience. And if it pleases me, I hope to please someone else. I start there. Doing this to amuse me. I've stayed true to that.

"But on the other hand, in terms of taking care of business, disaster. Disaster." Another of those easy smiles, and a shrug. The white gloves are back on. "What can you do? If I can get away with it, I get away with it. And I write. And that's what I do."

'Let's Change the World with Music' is out tomorrow on Sony

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