Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Lost Albums of Paddy Mac

Something significant has happened to me this week, and I'm pleased to say it's nothing to do with David Cameron or Gordon Brown. After 17 years, one of my all-time favourite bands has released an album, originally written in 1992, that has been at the centre of one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of rock and pop.

I have had many musical passions over the years, Genesis, New Order, John Rutter and Sergey Rachmaninov among them, but no music has ever touched me quite like that of Paddy McAloon, who formed Prefab Sprout with his brother Martin, sometime girlfriend Wendy Smith and drummer Martin Salmon (later replaced by Neil Conti) in the late 1970s.

In the 80s and early 1990s their albums From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan: The Comeback were rarely off my turntable for long, and friends who came to visit me at Number 13 around that time would invariably be forced to listen to them. Some of them even became fans themselves, although I doubt if they've still got the tapes I sent them.

And then, in about 1992, their once-prodigious output of wistful, brilliantly-crafted crafted pop songs came to an abrupt halt. Subsequently, the only new releases were the distinctly sub-standard Andromeda Heights in 1997, followed by the even more lacklustre The Gunman and Other Stories in 2001, while rumours persisted of a stack of unreleased albums languishing under Paddy's bed.

Which is where Let's Change the World With Music has presumably remained until last week, when it was finally released after a 17-year hiatus that has seen it assume legendary status among Sprout fans.

The reasons for the delay remain mysterious. In the sleeve notes to the new album, Paddy draws analogies with the Beach Boys' Smile, which went unreleased for nearly 30 years, and appears to take some of the responsibility for its non-appearance, saying: "Anyway, one day in May '93 we made a poor move."

But even though Paddy seems incredibly reluctant to point the finger at the record company, Sony, it seems likely that this is where the blame really lay, and my guess is that it will have had something to do with the overtly Christian nature of some of the songs - spritual blindness rather than tone deafness if you like.

Paddy's religious inclinations, previously only alluded to in lyrics such as "Don't you know who built Atlantis, and returned it to the sea, don't you know who owns the weather?," become much more in-your-face on Let's Change the World..... For example: "There was a baby in a stable, some say it was the Lord. Why if it's no more than a fable does it strike so deep a chord?"

It was obviously with a mixture of excitement and regret that I listened to the album for the first time this week. Back in the autumn of 1993, when it was originally scheduled to have been released, I was in the process of moving to a new job in Cardiff, and for my first few months down there I lived in a rather poky flat in the student bedsitland of Cathays. A new Sprout album would have brightened up that time no end.

But nevertheless, I feel blessed to have heard this lovely piece of music at long last, and although I don’t think I’ll ever love it quite as much as Langley Park or Jordan - ultimately, the songs you hear in your 20s are the ones that make you cry and the ones that save your life, as Morrissey said - it’s actually a more consistent album than either of those two.

I would certainly rank "Earth: The Story So Far" and "Music is a Princess" among their best-ever tunes, and I hope that the largely positive critical response to the LP - see the reviews in the Guardian, Times, BBC and Amazon - will encourage Paddy to raid his collection of lost albums at least one more time.

He is now in his 50s, partially blind, half-deaf, and with a grey beard of WG Graceian proportions that, together with his large dark glasses, obscures most of his weatherbeaten face, but wreck of a man that he seems on the outside, a musical genius still dwells within, and it seems inconceivable that we have heard the last of him.

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Tidey Sum said...

Something here reminds me of a certain journalist turned author with a passion for collecting records. Are you going to follow in the tracks of Nick Hornby? Do you think you might have a novel about meeting back up with all of your ex girlfriends in you?

Paul Linford said...


As Paddy himself said in the sleeve notes to LCTWWM: "If you try to write like someone else, at the very best you will end up with pastiche."

David Gladwin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Gladwin said...

[Excuse the deleted comment above, folks - I couldn't see another way to edit a mistake]

You don't need to write like someone else, Paul - you can write like yourself, and you've been doing it for years.

I don't know about what someone once called the rough unpublished novels of our lives, because many of yours have been published, but you could easily compile a small volume of your writing about the moments where life and music meet.

Robinbrevard said...

Paul -- Nice post; thanks for your personal recollections of one of my fave groups of all time!

But what's this about Paddy's "weatherbeaten" face? Here's a recent photo -- and underneath the bushy beard, the face looks young; the eyes still seem to twinkle!