Paddy McAloon: The Last Pop Genius

Is the Prefab Sprout leader too smart to be a star?

Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout performs on stage in London, circa 1990. Credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty

Who Are You?"

On a blustery afternoon, Paddy McAloon is standing by the banks of the Tyne River in Newcastle, England, posing for a photo. In so doing he has captured the interest of two young, New Kids on the Block-loving school-girls who have been hanging out, smoking cigarettes beneath a nearby bridge.

"I'm a singer," McAloon tells the girls a bit shyly. In fact he is the singer, songwriter and all-around auteur behind Prefab Sprout, one of the most acclaimed bands on the British rock scene. But despite his status as something of a local musical hero in Newcastle, neither his name nor that of Prefab Sprout strikes a chord with the two youngsters. And though McAloon, 33, admits that he doesn't know Jordan Knight, the girls still want to get better acquainted with the mysterious rock star in their midst.

"What do you sing? Come on, sing us a song. Puh-leeze."

And so it is that McAloon breaks into a quick chorus of "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," Prefab Sprout's biggest English hit. A bouncy, seemingly upbeat pop tune, the song actually tells the rather barbed tale of a middle-aged one-hit wonder condemned to sing the same juvenile ditty over and over.

Whatever irony and depth the song has to offer seems utterly lost on the chirpy pair. Nonetheless, the girls jump up and down and sing along excitedly. As it turns out, they love the tune, though they're convinced it's not by Prefab Sprout — the band that consists of Paddy, his younger brother and bassist Martin, backing singer Wendy Smith and drummer Neil Conti — but by some obscure, busty British starlet named Sabrina.

"Listen, I'm just relieved that they recognizedthe song," Paddy says later. "I mean, that song was a hit two years ago. To those girls, I'm ancient history. The ultimate irony is that of all the songs I've written, that's my only Top Ten single, the one that all the kiddies and the old folks love."

McAloon once had the opportunity to discuss his ambivalence about "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" with one of his biggest idols. "I went to a Paul McCartney party, which remains the highlight of my career," he says. "To me, that's rubbing shoulders with a god. At one point Paul introduced me to the drummer of the Crickets, and he told the guy, 'You may have heard this guy's song.' And Paul started singing the chorus. And I said, 'I'm not sure that record did us any good, because it's taken as a sort of kiddie record.' And McCartney said, 'Yeah, Paddy, I suppose that song's your "My Ding-a-ling."'"

The problem, of course, is that Chuck Berry had many years of brilliant hits before he came up with a big, silly one like "My Ding-a-Ling." Paddy McAloon, meanwhile, is a major pop-music talent whose commercial impact thus far has been rather. . .selective. In England he's a revered, celebrated pop enigma. Prefab Sprout's most recent album — a sprawling, 19-track masterpiece called Jordan: The Comeback — earned rave reviews that compared McAloon to everyone from William Shakespeare to Marvin Gaye. His ambitious, ethereal music has found favor with young bands like Deacon Blue and such veterans as Phil Collins and Pete Townshend. Occasionally, the Sprouts even sell some records.

"I do read my name all the time in other people's interviews," says McAloon. "And I relish my reputation as this introspective, precious brooder because I know that's not me. I know I'm not the guy in the moody pictures. It's strange, though, when another musician cites me as an influence. It's hard to think of myself as being influential because influences are old and dead. I rate what we do very highly, but I have trouble thinking of us as a proper group because proper groups sell loads."

In America, meanwhile, Prefab Sprout is very much a cult band whose most noteworthy success came in 1985 with Two Wheels Good, a masterful work that was titled Steve McQueen in the rest of the world. Part of the problem may be that Prefab Sprout has never toured the States. For five years, the group didn't tour at all, as McAloon indulged his love for songwriting and record making, without interruption. McAloon even considered having his look-alike youngest brother, Michael, front the Sprouts secretly in his place. Says Paddy, "The funny thing is, if we had actually done it, then told everybody, it might have been exactly the thing that would make us stars."

But the truth is, selling Prefab Sprout to a mainstream American audience may not be that easy under any circumstance. In an era ruled by minimalist pop talents like M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice, Paddy McAloon is a welcome throwback to the time when reckless recording artists tried to break down the barriers to what popular music could become. For example, "Cars and Girls," the first single from the group's 1988 album From Langley Park to Memphis, is a passionate literary critique of the romantic imagery in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Hardly standard Top Forty fare.

If anything, Jordan: The Comeback is even more daring. Working with their longtime friend, fan and producer Thomas Dolby, the Prefabs have conjured up a panoramic song cycle that evokes a musical world wherein Elvis Presley is still alive, living in the Las Vegas Hilton, waiting for the right comeback song. It's a world that allows McAloon to go off in any number of musical directions and pay tribute along the way to personalities as diverse as Jesse James and Agnetha Fältskog, his favorite blonde from Abba. If Brian Wilson at the height of his creative powers had spent a year in the studio working up a concept album about love, God and Elvis, the result might have sounded like Jordan: The Comeback.

"Paddy is in touch with the aspect that's been largely missing from pop music in the last 10 or 15 years," says Dolby. "It's that part that doesn't have to do with moving product and selling your image, the part that has to do with real risk and adventure."

McAloon may be, however, a man who loves pop music too much for his own good. "The frustrating thing is that I'm a big fan of hit records," says McAloon. "And I get passionately upset when it doesn't happen for me. People say, 'Well, Paddy, you can't expect to be up there at the top with Ninja Turtles or whatever.' But I do feel if I was halfway decent, I'd be there, so I feel ashamed. And I get so infuriated when people say I'm too clever to make pop music. Instead, why don't they point out that perhaps there are some other folks out there who aren't clever enough to make pop music?"

Jordan Acts to Ease Gulf Tensions."

The newspaper headline on the bulletin board at the Kitchenware Records office, in Newcastle, refers to the situation in the Middle East, but it also suggests the seriousness with which the people around McAloon view the music he makes. Paddy and his brother Martin had settled on the name Prefab Sprout back in 1971, after considering some equally strange tags, like Grappled Institution, Dry Axe and the Village Bus. "I love our name because I know the naiveté it came out of," says Paddy. "But I thought U2 was a dumb name, so what do I know?"

Paddy and Martin grew up in small villages in County Durham outside Newcastle and shared a taste for the then-current rock of T. Rex, Free and the Who, as well as a sweet tooth for the Beatles and the classy pop songs of Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. And though he made his way through secondary school and got his college degree, all Paddy wanted to do was pump gas at his father's filling station and write songs.

"The first record that really made me love music was Wichita Lineman," says Paddy. "I still think it might be the greatest record I ever heard. It's not that I yearn for the past, but when I listen to records like West Side Story, Pet Sounds or any number of Jimmy Webb or Beatles records, I'm not sure what any of us have to show that's an improvement on that basic model."

In 1982, Keith Armstrong was managing a Newcastle record store when he heard "Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone)," an indie single that an early incarnation of Prefab Sprout had released. Armstrong knew immediately he had to meet its maker. Soon he signed on as the group's manager and released "Lions in My Own Garden" on his new Kitchenware Records. The single won the praise of, among others, Elvis Costello, and McAloon was on his way.

In 1983, the Sprouts — now joined by Wendy Smith, a young schoolgirl who fell in love with the band's music during its early concerts — recorded their first album, Swoon. Seeking better distribution, Armstrong soon struck a deal with Muff Winwood, a famed A&R executive with CBS Records in England and the brother of Steve Winwood. "It was clear to me right from the beginning that Paddy was one of the finest songwriters I'd ever heard," says Muff, "and I still believe that — without question to this day. Whether it's a record or a show or some sort of musical film, people are going to be hearing Paddy's songs into the next century."

Swoon managed to enter the British Top Twenty and caught the interest of Thomas Dolby, who offered to produce the follow-up. On the expertly crafted Steve McQueen, the group showed remarkable growth. The album became a hit in England and a staple on alternative radio in America.

By this period the group had settled into its current lineup and headed out for what would be its last tour of the decade. It has been suggested that, like Steely Dan, Prefab Sprout stopped touring because the band could no longer achieve in concert the complex sounds of its records. McAloon offers a different reason for spending so much of the Eighties locked away in his home studio, a modest room decorated with pictures of two of his obsessions, Michael Jackson and Meryl Streep. "When I was young I wanted to be famous," he says, "but then I discovered that I could actually do something — I could write good songs. And now I'm burnt by every day that I don't do it. It reduces me."

McAloon's single-minded devotion to his muse led to Jordan: The Comeback, a record that eventually cost in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars to make. "Quite a ritzy neighborhood for a guy like me," McAloon admits. "It was a bit of a battle, because there's this idea these days that if you don't make a record that 12-year-olds can dance to, then you're a bit of an asshole for not knowing how the music business works. People told me to cut the album down — that people would look at it and choose something with less music. And maybe those people are right. Maybe the world has turned so completely to shit that's what happens today. But I don't think so."

And so McAloon fights the good fight, even if it doesn't make good career sense. "I'm getting used to losing money," says McAloon, who explains he's never seen a positive royalty statement in his life. "We lost money touring England. We'll lose money touring Europe. And I nearly gave myself a heart attack making the record. But when we finished it, I was thrilled to bits because we'd done it. This is the biggie. And I thought, if I never get to make a record again, at least this is something I can be proud of."