I first heard Prefab Sprout on Radio 1 late in the evening circa 1983, singing Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone).

A wordy title for an oddly constructed song… the instrumental arrangement sounded particularly tinny on my radio-cassette-player, but the voice was interesting: a bit stop-start… conversational at first, but then suddenly agitated. And the song structure wasn’t conventional at all.

Gosh look what I just found on Lloyd Cole’s website:

limoges_1

limoges_2

(I hope he won’t mind.)

I wrongly imagined that songwriter Paddy McAloon was singing about unrequited love and I assumed the Eden/apple lyrics hinted at some inner torment about sin – probably sexual.

But I recently read *John Birch’s book Myths, Melodies and Metaphysics which reveals that the song is about Paddy’s reaction when his girlfriend left to study in France. Limoges is an acronym of the song’s title.

So it’s not moral anguish he’s expressing… more your common-or-garden separation anxiety – which disappoints me, I have to admit!

The Genesis reference is a conceit highlighting the parallel between biblical Adam’s fate and Paddy’s own – his point being that “a lovely time has ended prematurely because of a woman’s desire for knowledge.” But whereas biblical Eve was cast out of Paradise by God, Paddy’s girl is leaving of her own accord; he would prefer to stay in Eden… but paradise cannot exist for him without her. Aahhh! How romantic, and yet simultaneously self-centred.

Paddy takes a very common crisis and writes about it using an elaborate code, creating something complex and obscure in the process. This pretty much sums up the Prefab Sprout method and some people find it very irritating. However, I liked their sound in the mid-80s and I enjoyed trying to decipher the meanings of their songs (without much success.)

I diligently taped Prefab Sprout records whenever I heard them on the radio: Cruel, The Devil Has All The Best Tunes, Don’t Sing… I even managed to video-tape Cruel when it was on The Tube in 1984:

Watching this now, what strikes me most is the terrifying intensity of vocalist Wendy Smith… Could this explain why Paddy’s girlfriend left the country?

‘Cruel’ is a lovely song but some of the vocabulary is very odd… Paddy has a habit of using out-of-date American slang in a way which sounds awkward. I have always assumed this was some kind of homage to J.D. Salinger’s fiction – I read Salinger’s work in the early eighties and there seemed to be an obvious territory overlap.

In fact Paddy’s songs contain numerous religious and literary references, but this is not surprising when you discover that he attended Upholland Catholic seminary (Wigan) before going on to study English in Newcastle, near his home town. (So when I was at my grandma’s house in Orrell in the mid-70s, Paddy was 2 miles up the road studying for A-levels. That’s so weird… and irrelevant, of course.)

‘Don’t Sing’ is about The Power And The Glory by Graham Greene (published 1940.) I would never have spotted the references in 1983/84 had I not just been required to study the book at sixth form. The novel concerns a Catholic priest persecuted by Communist authorities in Mexico during the 1930s; it’s an examination of human weakness and a crisis of faith… very bleak.

This may seem heavy subject matter for an indie band from Northern England to be tackling, but it seemed relevant to me in the mid-80s. I found myself surrounded by Catholic teenagers, all struggling to negotiate a path between 1980s permissive ‘normality’ and home-lives which were decades out of step. (I’ve only just spotted the similarity between ‘decade’ and ‘decadent’!) Our Catholic religion was a conundrum for us… it was an inherited tribal culture which we couldn’t abandon lightly, but neither did we necessarily feel bound by its teachings – many of us didn’t know what we really thought – I certainly didn’t. So what were we to do?

Inner torment seemed an appropriate option… And lo and behold, here were Prefab Sprout and The Smiths (among others) purveying musical soul-searching, photogenically, with irony, and suited to Celtic sensibilities. We were well-catered for, apparently.

Prefab Sprout’s first album Swoon (Songs Written Out Of Necessity – thanks John Birch!) was released on the Newcastle-based Kitchenware label in 1984… What a treat! I had two lyrically intriguing albums (including The Smiths) to pore over and attempt to decipher.

The second P.S. album, Steve McQueen (1985) produced (and directed, I believe) by Thomas Dolby was much more accessible and became a massive hit. I loved it – musically intoxicating but lyrically less compelling and intense than Swoon. (I could say the same about Meat Is Murder – also 1985.)

But when From Langley Park To Memphis finally came along (1988), I didn’t even buy it – I think because I hated ‘The King Of Rock’n’Roll’ which received a lot of radio airplay. Paddy seemed to be indulging in lyrical quirkiness to the point of self-parody. Were Prefab Sprout really that desperate for attention? I did buy ‘Cars And Girls’ on 7″ because it was a great single. But more generally, I was thinking – There goes another British band off to America, like it’s their birthright… they’ve obviously run out of ideas. Yeh… go and find Morrissey driving his tractor.

I didn’t ‘get’ that the intention of the title was to emphasise the glamour gulf between N.E. England and America. I think “From Whitton Gilbert To Any American City” would have illustrated that better! Langley Park actually sounded American to me, not knowing what or where it was.

In 1990, I did buy Jordan: The Comeback – though on cassette, so it hasn’t survived – and it became my New York soundtrack when I finally made it to America myself for two weeks in summer 1990… I know I’m completely unreliable. Criticising people for going to America one minute and then going there myself the next. And I bought a pair of black trainers while I was there, spurred into a fashion U-turn by style-guru Angela (I got Nike – not Air Jordans I hasten to add; Angela bought Muddy Fox.) It was a turning point: Dr Martens were dead to me for years after that.

So now I’m left grappling with questions about 1980s British indie music in general. What was its intelligence, contrariness, and curious intensity all about? It was earnest and cynical simultaneously… And so were we.

Here’s my theory so far:
By the 1980s, a massive gulf had opened between society’s values and the values which many ‘youths’ were brought up with (away from the bright lights; often in religious ghettos.)

Straight forward Rock’n’Roll/Punk rebellion was considered a cliche in the post-punk era (everybody seems to have forgotten this now.) It seemed like a dead-end: lots of swearing, some mild violence, general outrage, an overdose, leading where exactly? Die Young, Stay Pretty – no thanks. What we needed were clues about how to live.

So we examined ourselves and tried to understand what was going on. This explains the soul-searching and introspection of many indie lyrics… the hatred of cliches, distrust of authority and obsession with authenticity, although we probably wouldn’t have used that word then. (The notion of ‘Authenticity’ has itself become a cliche now.)

Indie music and the discussion around it provided an open forum for ideas about lots of subjects which overlapped with religious territory… truth, sexuality, gender politics, morality, as well as anything else you wanted to throw in. There were no rules. There was concern about value – what has value, what doesn’t? What is true? What have we been told is true, but is really a lie?

But then it all started to seem a bit stale and pointless. Much better to go out and dance for 8 hours, and to hell with lyrics! It’s that “What is music for?” question, isn’t it?

Paddy McAloon is still alive and (reasonably) well, making music at his home studio in the North East. He flouts the youth cult, wearing his big hair and beard white… like God the Father, or Kenny Rodgers, depending upon your world view.

He released an album in 2013 called Crimson Red which was rushed out to fulfil a recording obligation… but inspite of this some of the songs are very good, especially the first one, which was sadly not featured on Radio 6, when he was interviewed… perhaps they were already playing it so regularly that this would have amounted to mindless repetition:

Reassuring to see the 30 year rule demonstrated again: 1950s – 1980s – 2010s… with Cary Grant’s appearance here as ‘The Cat’ in ‘To Catch A Thief’ (1955).

There is a musical resemblance to The Year Of The Cat by Al Stewart…

But the lyrics seem to be about Cat Stevens – who experimented with Buddhism before he converted to Islam and abandoned his very successful music career.

How peculiar and inconvenient that Cat Stevens represents, on the face of it, the reverse journey from the one which I’ve touched on here… He travelled towards organised religion, rather than away from it.

And Paddy’s calling him The Best Jewel Thief In The World… I think? Surely, cherry-picking (or nicking) ideas or beliefs according to what appeals to you (intellectual jewel thieving) is the polar opposite of submitting to a traditional religious belief system? How can one person do/be both at the same time?

Oh what is Paddy on about? What is he saying?
He’s lost me again. Just like old times.

*John Birch has written in depth on the subject of Paddy McAloon’s song-writing in his second book about the band Desire: Paddy McAloon’s Prefab Sprout which is yet to be published. Really weirdly, it turns out that John grew up in Chorlton like me, and through this connection we have mutual friends, none of whom seem to be remotely interested in Prefab Sprout!