A book tailor-made for the Prefab Sprout fanatic
First part of John Birch’s projected trilogy is full of precise, carefully extracted detail
Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith of Prefab Sprout photographed backstage in the mid 1980’s. (Photo by Anthony Cake/Photoshot/Getty Images)
Prefab Sprout – the Early Years
Paper Portal Publishing
“Right from the start, I made it clear that the last thing on my mind was to become hip or flavour of the month, because there is nothing I hate more than the spurious kind of worthiness that comes after you have made one record or played one concert and people judge you as saviours of the world.”
Paddy McAloon, primary instigator of Prefab Sprout, may have wanted to avoid being viewed as a songwriting mastermind, but he had to wait some time for the acclaim to fade. It did, eventually, but only when the band – which began as a benign dictatorship and ended as an autocratic state – lost its grip on appealing to the public at large (which as is its wont, soon had other pop stars to adore). As the title, Prefab Sprout: The Early Years, the first part of John Birch’s projected trilogy on the band implies, genius status would arrive later.
Born in Co Durham in north-east England on June 7th, 1957, McAloon’s family background was working-class Irish Catholic. The area’s iron and steel industries was home to generations of Irish people, whose ancestors had travelled to England during the Famine years, and had worked and settled in so many villages dotted in and around Durham that the locale became known as Paddy Island. Not the most physically firm of children (mainly bronchial and sight issues, the latter of which predated future serious problems), McAloon routinely followed the path from hearing music on the radio and learning basic chords on a guitar his mother originally bought for herself (“I came home from school one day and saw it… and she never saw it again”) to intuitively messing around with tape recorders in the hope that something musical would emerge. “I wouldn’t use the word ambition,” says McAloon, “it was an aching to know how it was all done… to know how you wrote a song.”
The trail from trying to actually doing didn’t take long. The umbrella title of Prefab Sprout was culled out of prog rock’s history of absurd band names, while his younger brother, Martin, also began to learn how to play guitar. Gradually, as glam-rock was usurped by proto-punk, then that by punk and that again by post-punk, Prefab Sprout took shape.
Due to McAloon’s built-in diversity the band was as far removed from post-punk as you could imagine. “The simple truth is I liked Stravinsky, and viewed the fretboard as a shape-making device… Here was classical music that didn’t sound quaint. The coda to The Firebird Suite? I thought that we might sound like that.”
Naive ambitions (or, as McAloon admits, “an eccentric mix of total formal ignorance and wide-eyed curiosity”) eventually morphed into a songwriting style that equalled its creator’s cleverness. The title of the band’s first (self-released) single, Lions in my own Garden: Exit Someone, was actually an acronym of the French city Limoges, which is where a former girlfriend of McAloon’s was living. So began a committed expedition to fuse exceptionally crafted music with unusually subtle ideals of male-focused romance at its core.
John Birch – author of the rare (and slim) 1993 book Myths, Melodies and Metaphysics: Paddy McAloon’s Prefab Sprout – has been a fan and close personal observer from the very start, and brings that experience to produce what is effectively an insider’s view.
Although not an official biography, with little or no contemporaneous one-on-one interviews with the Chief Sprout, Birch was handed the next best thing: an access-all-areas pass to management, friends, former band members, former producers and record company bigwigs. The result is full of precise, carefully extracted detail gathered from over 60 interviews (including more than a dozen unpublished interviews with McAloon via numerous music journalists). Factor in many previously unpublished photographs, and you have a work that is tailor-made for the Prefab Sprout fanatic.
This said, Birch’s writing style rarely matches the quality and depth of his enthusiasm; biographical detail is clearly, almost exhaustively presented, but as good a songwriter as McAloon requires more than chapters of “that was” followed by “this is”. The how, why and wherefore of what went into making him such a sophisticated, affecting pop songwriter is missing here. Perhaps (and hopefully) the remaining two volumes will remedy this. Until then, it’s cue fanfare, and back to the music.