Prefab Sprout were one of my favourite 8Os bands – I loved Paddy McAloon’s voice and vocals. I even used a line from one of their songs, “pulling rabbits out of hats, when I’d much rather wear them” in the Leaving Cert Honours English paper! I may even owe the only “A” I got -(there were no A1s in those days, dating myself here!) in the Leaving Cert to Paddy McAloon. I don’t know did I understand that line about the rabbits, but it popped into my head and off I raced with the rabbit metaphor to write my essay.
Now I don’t remember Paddy being particularly handsome, not in the Spandau, Durans kind of way, but what a shock to see a picture of him in a newspaper today, with long, grey hair and a wild white beard. Of course this doesn’t take away from the great man at all – just shock at the ageing process! I still feel like that 17 year old girl sitting her Leaving Cert, quoting Prefab Sprout, with her life before her – an unmapped adventure. The years since have been a mixture of joys and sorrows, the story of Paddy McAloon too, as I read today’s interview.
These days the 52 year old McAloon lives a quiet reclusive life with his wife and three daughters. He disbanded the band in 2001 (after 17 years, and 8 albums) and has released only one album since, the instrumental and spoken word piece, ’I Trawl The Megahertz’ in 2003. But it turns out he never stopped making music, he just stopped letting anybody hear it.
Prefab Sprout are about to release their first album in 8 years, ’Let’s Change The World With Music’ (on Kitchenware, out next week). Only its not a reunion. And its not even new. It is one of McAloon’s lost works, recorded in 1992, when Prefab Sprout were still firing on all cylinders, their glistening, emotional pop revered by critics and music lovers alike. And it is an extraordinary album, a rich, glorious, melodic, poetic, wry and romantic pop hymn to the power of music. Although recorded as demos over the course of a year by the perfectionist McAloon completely on his own, it has everything you could want from a Prefab Sprout album, marrying the aesthetic of arty, left-field singer-songwriting with the super polish of pop and jazz. But it was shelved after an A&R meeting when doubts were expressed about whether the world was ready for a concept album with references to God.
What seems utterly ridiculous from the remove of two decades is that the album is actually so sleek, smart and beautifully distilled, you wonder how anyone could have doubted its worth. It is not even, as he points out himself, particularly religious.
“There’s the vaguest of metaphors in there for the notion of a deity: if God was to speak, then music would be where you would find that voice. I’ve not nailed my mast to the flag of any particular denomination or point of view. I don’t know where I stand on belief. Whatever era we’re born, we think we have the definitive model of the way the universe is and our place in it. In the 19th century, they thought it was a mechanistic universe. The analogy now is a computer. And I just think it’s all wrong. Bob Dylan believes in God, and Richard Dawkins is never going to win an argument against Bob Dylan, cause you need a poet to discuss these things. So let’s just say I’m with Bob.”
It might be surprising that McAloon would express any sort of faith, because he seems to have suffered the trials of Job in recent years. McAloon had several eye operations to counteract a progressive degenerative disorder of the retina. He was recovering from this when he had what he describes as his “hearing disaster”. “It was six months of noises in my head, so loud I felt other people must be able to hear them. When it receded it left me with damaged hearing in my right ear. So I’m very reluctant to go anywhere where there’s loud music playing, I wouldn’t stand in front of a drum kit, but I can still plug things in and work on a low level.”
To talk to McAloon, he seems like one of the most reasonable, thoughtful and self aware people you could meet. “I have a good family life, I do the school pick up, I have friends. But I am reclusive in a lot of things. I don’t really care for the brave new world. You’re talking to a guy who doesn’t drive. I’m not on the internet. But I don’t think it’s as mad as it looks,” he says of his self-imposed artistic isolation. “If you decide to devote your life to something as an artistic endeavour, you’re doing it cause you think it’s worth doing. Its not some act of grandeur for myself, its more that I can get away with it, and concentrate on the exciting bit, the flowery bit. I feel like when I talk about it, I’m coming from a sensible place. But I know how it makes me sound. Maybe it’s the beard.”