Sprouting season: the return of Paddy McAloon
He may have tinnitus and detached retinas, but the gifted soul behind sophisticated pop act Prefab Sprout remains clear-eyed and sharp
Paddy McAloon: ‘The notion of joining in has never been me.’
McAloon with Wendy Smith of Prefab Sprout in the 1980s. Photograph: Anthony Cake/Photoshot/Getty Images
Little problems, says Paddy McAloon, arise to put a kink in your day. The lead everything of Prefab Sprout, now 56, knows what he’s talking about, and if it wasn’t for the fact that great music is still being made, then you would direct an admonishing finger towards the gods for having the nerve to encumber McAloon with not one but two sensory afflictions: severe tinnitus and detached retinas.
“I can see better than I could a few years ago,” he says, “but because I’ve had cataracts removed from both eyes, what happens is that you can’t focus on things that are close to you without a different pair of glasses. I always have those glasses with me, but most of my days I carry around a big magnifying glass, which means I feel like an old git.
“The care and ease with which most of us go about our business is gone, but compared to many other people it’s a minor complaint.”
How do these health problems affect his work? They’re surely a hindrance in the studio. “I can’t see the end of big mixing desks, so I tend to use small equipment. I work by myself, because I feel that I would try the patience of people around me. You might think that, given the circumstances of my ailments, it would be much better to have someone who can see and hear properly to help me, but in a strange way I feel slightly embarrassed and would rather proceed quietly and in a solitary manner.”
More than a silly name
For some, Prefab Sprout might just be an obscure band with a silly name from the 1980s, but fans have stuck with the sophisticated pop albums from that decade (including Swoon and Steve McQueen), the 1990s (including Jordan: the Comeback and Andromeda Heights) and the 2000s (Let’s Change the World with Music), smug in the knowledge that they backed a winner.
They also backed a maverick, one whose musical and lyrical motifs referenced Sondheim and Bacharach instead of the prevailing 1980s moods of Morrissey, Weller and Costello. And so, with lengthy gaps from album to album – as well as the news that McAloon’s health issues had effectively sequestered him in his home studios in the north of England – fans could only wait until McAloon felt like striking again.
Which brings us to Crimson/Red. By name it’s a Prefab Sprout album, but it’s actually McAloon solo throughout. Inevitably, as the years passed, Chinese whispers were more clearly heard – of his reclusive nature, of his current state of genius, of his tendency to lock himself away for days on end to create, of his long silver beard and even longer silver hair.