I first heard Prefab Sprout on a cassette that a school friend made for me. Tibor put Swoon on one side, and the Pale Fountains’ Pacific Street on the other. Songs Written Out Of Necessity soon became songs listened to out of necessity. I used to sit next to Tibor in maths; he was of Hungarian origin, and his family ran a restaurant in town called the Silken Tassel. I don’t know what became of him after we left school. He could almost be a character with a walk-on, walk-off part in one of the more nostalgic songs on Swoon; ‘I never play basketball now’, say.
Today, I more readily associate the Swoon-era Prefabs with the word-heavy, melodic alternatives provided by early Del Amitri and Microdisney than with the Paleys. Because of the relative maturity of Paddy McAloon’s song craft, you could tell that the Prefabs had greater commercial potential than any of those groups, and eventually – four years down the line – Paddy’s ship did indeed come in, in the form of ‘The king of rock’n’roll’. But there were three long players before that moment, two released and one rejected. After all these years, and prompted by a friend who’s been retrospectively puzzling over Swoon like a dog gnawing away at a bone, I think it’s time for me to square up to each in turn, starting with that first LP.
What I like about Sondheim is that he can put a set of precise emotions into a song lasting a certain number of minutes. If he had an odd shaped sentiment, he would construct an odd shaped melody to accommodate it. There was never any sense of it being a happy accident. – Paddy McAloon, 1983
That absurd, prog-sounding name. It’s like those early automatically generated internet passwords which paired two random words. Yet at the same time, it suits, as does the fact that the group contained a pair of McAloons, brothers who appear to have lived a rather Danny the Champion of the World childhood a little way outside of the cathedral city of Durham.
The album opens with ‘Don’t sing’. Not ‘Sing’, but ‘Don’t sing’. A negative right there at the start (give or take the two preceding singles), a negative immediately disregarded. Some might say that comprehensibility is disregarded too. ‘An outlaw stand in a peasant land / In every face see Judas / The burden of love is so strange.’ Individual lines and couplets make sense, but put it all together and it’s hard to elicit or discern what Paddy’s driving at. We seem to be in the southern states of the US, or possibly Mexico. Too much is being asked of someone, the outlaw, presumably; a guise for Paddy himself? It could almost be a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel, but in fact these are scenes from Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose central character is a self-destructive ‘whisky priest’. Paddy had obviously read widely – in early interviews, he mentions Joyce, Knut Hamsun, Nabokov, and Thomas Hardy – and it’s clear that imaginative worlds were informing his songwriting just as much as the real one around him. In 1984, I was immediately captivated by how singularly crafted the whole of Swoon was, in comparison to pretty much everything else around. The lyrics for every song on the album were rich in allusion and poetic intent. I may have been puzzled by the lyrics, but it seemed complete, a perfected work, with nothing out of place, and no redundant embellishments. The imagery, the melody, the odd arrangements and structures, the dulled funk of the subdued but equally melodic bass, the contrast between the amateur sheen of the cheap keyboards sounds and the complex proficiency of temporary member Graham Lant’s drumming; it sounded like nothing else. Despite all the lyrical questing and questioning, the songs and the way they were sung was assured; a benefit I would guess of their long gestation period, but also of Paddy’s seemingly gargantuan self-belief and confidence in his own abilities, as this unguarded quote from an early interview suggests:
It might sound a bit pompous, but I really am ambitious to be acknowledged as the best. It’s not that I think I’m as good as the real greats – people like Steven Sondheim, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney – but when I look at the competition around at the moment. I don‘t really see anybody to fear. – Paddy McAloon, 1983
It’s no accident that ‘Cue fanfare’, which is gently nostalgic in the verse, tips into a bright and blaring celebratory chorus about chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. When Paddy sings, ‘He’ll take those Russian boys and play them out of town’, he is surely signalling that it is his ambition to be a songwriting grandmaster. And who could deny that he became one?
On ‘Green Isaac’, the singing takes centre-stage, as Paddy’s grown-up choirboy is ably and ethereally echoed by Wendy Smith’s complementary backing vocals. Not just on this album but those to come, Paddy’s vocals would habitually be lain on the soft mattress of Wendy’s, as she double-tracks many of his lines. The song seems to concern the lot of a songwriter naively setting out on his journey ‘to be someone’. Perhaps Paddy is looking back and seeing himself as Green Isaac, ‘still wet behind the ears’.
For ‘Here on the eerie’, presumably Paddy meant to play on the word eyrie; the title works either way. He voices the dilemma faced by any artist – by any person in so many walks of life – between choosing what is safe and comfortable and unthreatening and normal, or deciding to take the first in an ongoing series of risks, and put yourself out there where there is no safety net, no comfort blanket, and always plenty of threat; a place where you decide what is normal for you. ‘A universal prescription continues to elude… Face yourself or give it away.’ The complexity of the dilemma is underscored by the choppy challenge of the music, and the plangent, questioning critique posed by Paddy’s lead guitar late on.
‘Cruel’ somehow manages to walk the line between archness and sweetness, iced as it is with Paddy and Wendy’s sugar-coated sixties ‘ba ba ba’s. It also manages to address the confusion of a desirous male feminist and the seeds of what came to be called political correctness with the lines ‘But I don’t know how to describe the Modern Rose / When I can’t refer to her shape against her clothes / With the fever of purple prose.’ Made politically aware by punk and all that followed in its wake, this was a bind that many of Paddy’s listeners might also have felt themselves trapped within, over-sensitive and straight-jacketed by a reaction against the blithe and casual sexism of the age, and left unsure as to how to voice their yearning. The song’s archness undoes Paddy’s assertion that ‘There is no Chicago urban blues / More heartfelt than my lament for you’; he seems rather more concerned about the theory and niceties of love than the love itself. This is how he attempted to explain it back in 1984:
It expresses a very down to earth sociologists’ approach to rock, expressing a very basic human feeling. Music can do little more than tell narrative tales about things that are happening. I think you can go beyond that — the difficulty is when it starts to become too vague. You can describe things in another way from that journalistic/sociologist approach. I like to score between the two — I like things that leave you with a strong emotional sense. The correspondence between the words and the real world. Our songs don’t have a definite message — you have to look much deeper.
Just how odd is the intro to ‘Couldn’t bear to be special’, with its choral ‘bo bee’s? Again, it’s like nothing else before or since. Paddy’s vocal goes on to be gently argumentative, until suddenly he unleashes a whole load of pent-up angst that on top of ‘Cruel’ gives you to think that, at the time he wrote these songs, to love or be loved did not come easy for the songwriter. The song also features the line ‘Words are trains for moving past what really has no name’ which only adds to the feeling that despite all of his undoubtedly erudite efforts, what Paddy is reaching for is frustratingly out of his grasp, as by definition the ineffable must always be.
‘I never play basketball now’ starts in a deliberately humdrum fashion before bursting to life with inspired chord progressions and changes of pace. Lyrically, it’s a slam dunk elegy for lost youth, and an evocation of what we all lose as we move from childhood into adult life. Basketball ‘joins the list of things I’ll miss like fencing foils, and lovely girls I’ll never kiss,’ sings Paddy, and we may never have fenced, Paddy himself may never have fenced, but we instinctively know what he means, and I certainly knew and felt it then, in 1984, a time when I was starting to make my own transition from childhood to adult life.
A cheery, whirling Wurlitzer keyboard line meets a bubbling, burbling bass in the uptempo of ‘Ghost town blues’, where listlessness meets meaninglessness and death, and ‘we’re all caught in history’s web’. The prolific songwriter concludes, ‘Perhaps I should learn to shut my mouth.’ No chance of that.
‘Elegance’ is the very definition of its title, with its piano (rather than the cheaper keyboard sounds elsewhere) and its clipped, killing couplets; elegance here is aligned with ownership of the world, while, in contrast, kid, you own nothing – but don’t be seduced by silver service or salvers, because real life and real loving happens out of the purview of those with money and property.
Meanwhile, the narrator of ‘Technique’ appears to have lost out on a woman’s love to the astronomer she has married, and he’s upset because scientists’ eyes ‘don’t fill with wonder when you speak’, and yet at the same time, he’s all too consciously aware of his own intellectual limitations when in her presence. The scientist is unmoved by beauty, and the artist, too moved to make sense. Despite this dim view of scientists, I think we can infer both from this narrator and subsequent star-referencing releases that if he was not intent on being a songwriter and perhaps a pop star, Paddy would have liked to be an astronomer. If we add that his schooling was within the cloisters of a Catholic seminary, then we could say that he chose art over both science and religion. Art which he saw as a craft; a technique, indeed. With the choice resulting in songs as beautifully realised as this – propelled particularly by Graham Lant’s brilliant drumming – music’s gain is God’s and science’s loss.
Proceedings conclude with the second part of ‘Green Isaac’ and in this coda, there is a warning: only fools reach for the moon or the stars. But our sense is that the singer is bound to shoot for the satellite anyway, in what appears to him to be that necessary attempt still ‘to be someone’.
Thirty-odd years after its release, the album leaves me with two abiding (and not unconnected) impressions. One is of a character who has already discovered that love is rarely simple and often imbalanced in some way; the songs feature characters who want to love, but fear failure, and perhaps are struggling to admit anyone to the fortress of the heart, finding fault with an elegant woman for being too elegant, a loving one for loving too much, a beautiful one for being too beautiful, and so on. The second is of a powerful and complex artistic intent. Swoon is definitely a statement, although it voices too many doubts and contradictions to be taken for a manifesto. Someone with that kind of artistic vision is likely to find love difficult, because both are states which attempt to subsume and subdue everything else that might be deemed important. Swoon is the sound of art and love clashing.
On Steve McQueen, a more relaxed songwriter would emerge, one less troubled by the anxieties to be found within Swoon’s grooves. And I would hazard a guess that like many people at a similar age, it was not that Paddy stopped having more questions than answers, but that he began to accept that such answers as he had were good enough to work with, and that perhaps some questions weren’t ever meant to be answered in the first place.
With thanks to Sproutology for its comprehensive archive of interviews.