Prefab Sprout

MUSIC IN THE SNOW, SNOW IN THE MUSIC

 

 

 

Regular subscribers to The Blackpool Sentinel – one of the advantages  of digital media means that we have identified someone in West Cork  and possibly another in Eastern Europe – will need no introduction to  the magnificent Scottish band, Trashcan Sinatras, and their seductive,  smart and startlingly soothing pop songs. They are in part the patron  saints of under-achievement and the brothers of perpetual succour and,  over the course of a near flawless thirty-year career – during which time  they’ve dropped six wonderful studio albums – have covered a huge  amount of thematic ground.

The Trashcans are one of a number of bands – Prefab Sprout and The  Go-Betweens are others – to whom I default in times of major events  like births, deaths, anniversaries, personal anxiety and general  uncertainty. Because like all of the truly great artists and writers, they  can bring a serenity and a calm to every occasion, no matter how difficult.

Neither will our regulars need any introduction to snow, in either the  literal sense – and certainly not our regular in Eastern Europe – nor in  the more metaphorical one. Snow – a long-time industry slang word for cocaine – has long been a buzz-word [in every sense] within the entertainment industry, and particularly inside music circles. Many is the coked-up flunkey I’ve encountered around the circuit over the years  :- toot has long been the peccadillo of choice for an entire demographic  sweep since when our Lord determined there would be music.

It was the late comedian and actor Robin Williams’ – no stranger to  snow himself – who asserted that ‘cocaine is God’s way of telling you  you are making too much money’. Which might come as a surprise to  many of those chemical enthusiasts working across all aspects of the  music scene and who tend to be perennially penniless.

It was the inveterate drug addict, Eric Clapton – who also found time to play guitar and make a series of unfortunate records as an addled solo artist – who immortalised the phrase ‘no snow, no show’ back in 1978 as  he was transitioning from one dependency to the next. And his is one of  the most celebrated – if certainly nowhere near the worst – example of  a career that was spectacularly derailed by dust.

Indeed there are numerous lists of albums made by paranoid, agitated and utterly uncoordinated artists while under the very obvious influence of bump, most of which are impenetrable, unlistenable and inconsistent affairs. The Band, The Eagles, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Oasis, Sly And  The Family Stone and Blur are just some of the bigger and better known  artists who’ve ignored the Status Orange warnings and suffered the inevitable collateral damage that tends to follow extreme snow-storms.  Just, indeed, as there are lists of essential records too that were made  and produced in a blizzard of blow, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ easily  one of the best of them. And an album whose enormous international  sales numbers directly mirrors the mountain of cocaine consumed as it was being conceived and recorded.

Elsewhere, the producer Gary Katz oversaw the recording of an entire  Steely Dan album in Los Angeles that neither Donald Fagen or the late Walter Becker – the creative core of the band – could actually recall being present at. The sessions for David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and  the third Oasis album, ‘Be Here Now’, are just as celebrated and for similar reasons.

As Ireland prepares for the arrival of what the Portuguese Meteorological  Office have named ‘Storm Emma’, and what looks like an unprecedented  and havoc-wrecking weather event, its worth noting that the last time  so much snow damage was forecast for Ireland was after Oasis were confirmed as headliners at Slane Castle back in 2009.

But snow – in the literal, meteorological sense – has long been a useful metaphor too and practically every writer and performer of note has  dropped a lyrical reference to it at some point. One of the more obtuse – and, naturally enough, one of my own personal favourites – is the The Cocteau Twins’ ‘Snow’ special Christmas E.P. from 1993, on which  they covered, as only they might, both ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Frosty  The Snowman’. But everyone’s done snow at some point :- from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to The Go-Betweens, it is literally all around  us.

 

 

And yet no one’s done it as beautifully as our old friends, Trashcan  Sinatras and, given the serious weather event incoming, it’s only right  and proper that they’ll be soundtracking the snowfall across Ireland for  as long as it endures. In my own house, at any rate.

‘Snow’, written by Randy Newman and first recorded by Harry Nilsson, the American singer-songwriter for an album called ‘Nilsson Sings Newman’ released in 1970, presents in the spirit of The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’ [or perhaps The Smiths’ ‘Death Of A Disco Dancer’ ?] and is another of those soft, tender and dangerously loaded love songs in which they specialise. ‘Its all over and you’re gone’, Frank Reader sings over a slow, rumbling air. ‘But the memory lives on, although our dreams lie buried in the snow’. And apart  altogether from the quality of the writing – ‘Snow’ is easily as gorgeous  as anything they’ve committed to tape themselves and man, have they consistently shot the  lights out in that respect– they’ve also managed a rare sensory feat.  ‘Snow’ has a rare, mesmerising quality :- if snowfall had a sound to accompany it, this would be it.

‘Snow’ doesn’t feature on any of the band’s studio albums :- they’ve  used it twice over the years instead as a bridging piece between  elpees. It first saw the light of day in 1999, post ‘A Happy Pocket’ and  still five years before their fourth album, ‘Weightlifting’. And ‘Snow’ was re-issued in 2006 between the release of ‘Weightlighting’ in 2004  and ‘In The Music’ five years later, even if the record itself remains difficult to find.

The weather, the outdoors, natural history and geography have long  been strong themes across much of The Trashcans material. Snow  features as a backdrop on their magnificent ‘Wild Mountainside’ [‘snow  is falling all over, out of clear blue sky] while, as far back as the band’s  second album, ‘I’ve Seen Everything’, the curious ninety second  shuffle, ‘Iceberg’ remarked how ‘through thaw and freeze, my life’s a  breeze’.

In light of the current weather cycle, The National Emergency Co-Ordination Group has recommended that all Irish citizens, where possible, remain indoors for the bulk of the next couple of days.

Their advice – and it’s sound – is to be careful of the snow. And especially what lurks underneath it.

Appendix

Following a back and forth on the best song about Snow on Twitter we have put together a list of the possible contenders that have been suggested… thanks all. (We will keep adding as we get more suggestions)

Suggested by @mosstinpowers

 

Suggested by @ccferrie

 

Suggested by @Lyricfeature

 

Suggested by @boamorteband 

 

Another one Suggested by @boamorteband 

 

@aslinndubh suggests another 

 

Suggested by @Tconlononthecouch

 

suggested by @westcorkpaul (& @Boamorteband – really pulling out the stops guys.

 

Suggested by @kevsul47

Advertisements

PADDY McALOON at 60 [GOING ON 61]

paddy path

 

From the gawkily posed photographs that have survived the decades, its clear they stood steadfastly out of step with their peers and, you’d think, knew that much best themselves. But although Prefab Sprout’s shape and style has evolved out of all recognition in the years since 1977, it’s that same sense of mis-match – the uneasy young buck in an out-sized dinner jacket and cheap shades – which has consistently defined them through the many moons and their many moods since.

Beyond the obvious, much of the band’s story is still soaked in loose talk and urban myth. Music’s mainstream, with which they flirted briefly, gave up on them twenty odd years ago and, ever since, the gaps in Prefab Sprout’s narrative have been filled by obsessive, fan-fuelled levels of hearsay, suggestion and general tattle. But nothing really changes there, either :- the band’s frontman and writer, Paddy McAloon – the eldest son of an Irish Catholic immigrant family – was initially presented as a former seminarian.

What we do know for certain is that McAloon’s band first took root in the small village of Witton Gilbert in the North East of England, seventeen miles from Newcastle, during a peculiar period in British music history. The Clash had released their first album, The Sex Pistols had hi-jacked the Queen’s silver jubilee year – 1977 – and unofficially sound-tracked it while disco was approaching it’s commercial and creative pomp, flirting increasingly in the margins with electronica as it went. By the end of the following year, The Bee Gees were out-selling the field and Sid Vicious was arrested in New York for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

Worlds away in every respect, Paddy McAloon was twenty years old and lugging Prefab Sprout’s improbably ambitious songs – and the group’s cheap equipment – out into a variety of pub venues around County Durham for the first time. The band had been in gestation for years – in theory, in dreams – and although Paddy’s earliest hand-drawn outlines were far removed from the gormless aspects of punk rock or the sleazy veneer of cheap disco, he was certainly propelled forward by the more irresistible forces of both codes.

 

 

Punk rock unquestionably drove McAloon on – if you can, just do so he did – and the dizzying, dance-floor sass of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, among numerous others, has long underlaid much of the band’s output. A point he acknowledges specifically on ‘I Love Music’, one of the many stand-outs on Prefab Sprout’s ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ elpee, belatedly released in 2009.

Like every one of my favourite groups – The Blue Nile, R.E.M., The Go-Betweens, Trashcan Sinatras, The Smiths, E.L.O., The Frank And Walters, Into Paradise – Prefab Sprout struck me, initially at least, as much for the cut of their jib – their sound was distinctly at odds with their look, which was innocuous – as they did for the power of their writing.

Knowing little else, I thought that all of my formative pet sounds were peerless which, I suppose, is exactly as it should be during those first unsuspecting meets with the heady power of song. But while I know now that Teenage Fanclub borrowed influences freely – from Big Star, most obviously – and that Into Paradise magpied likewise from The Sound, its just impossible for me to clearly trace Paddy McAloon’s form lines. Prefab Sprout’s first single, ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ and debut album, ‘Swoon’, sound like what and sound like whom ? Aztec Camera ? Steely Dan ? XTC ? Mike Oldfield ? All of the above and nothing on earth ?

Which is all the more baffling given that no modern songwriter – to my mind, at least – has dropped so many references to music, writers and musicians so deeply inside his or her own material. Is there another contemporary writer for whom songs and the transcendence of sound have been celebrated so explicitly across such a vast body of work ? A career that now spans thirty-six years and nine studio albums.

From the very earliest Prefab Sprout songs – ‘Faron Young’ and ‘Radio Love’ were staples in their first live sets – to ‘Mysterious’ and ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ on 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’ album, McAloon has consistently used the pull of the of song and the craft of the writer as one of his primary lyrical motifs. ‘Hallelujah’, ‘The Devil Has All The Best Tunes’, ‘Donna Summer’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘The Wedding March’, ‘Nero The Zero’, ‘Electric Guitars’, ‘Nightingales’ and the imperious ‘Doo Wop In Harlem’ ;- the references are as manifold as they are varied and widely spread.

 

 

Indeed that same 2009 album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, a mighty and relatively unheralded record among the band’s catalogue, is ostensibly a concept album paying respect to those whose influences have long-driven the writer’s ambition, from classical and avant-garde to gospel, soul music and disco, Clair De Lune to Mozart to Pierre Boulez. McAloon sets his stall out early across a sweeping selection of cuts – ‘Let There be Music’, ‘I Love Music’, ‘Music Is A Princess’, ‘Sweet Gospel Music’ – and, awed and under some sort of spell [another of the writer’s favourite themes], the pervading fear that ‘music is a princess’ while he’ll always be ‘just a boy in rags’ is forced home over the record’s closing furlongs.

When the singer finally meets ‘the new Mozart’, he finds the composer ‘in the bed where commerce sleeps with art’. And ‘who can blame him ?’, he asks ?. ‘So much for the divine spark. It flagged and left me in the dark. Next time I won’t be so pure. Dreaming big, dying poor’. Knowing what we know now, and given McAloon’s unsettling and unsteady relationship with the industry that so engulfs music, ‘Meet The New Mozart’ may well be among his most revealing autobiographical songs.

 

 

Forty years after the band committed it’s first original songs to tape in the cramped confines of a custom-designed studio attached to the music department at a local college, Prefab Sprout remain very much an acquired taste, although no less intriguing or enigmatic for that. Indeed the most recent McAloon composition to see the light of day is an evocative protest ballad called ‘America’, possibly recorded on a smart phone or a small camcorder, and posted up onto YouTube ten months ago by Prefab Sprout’s long-time manager, Keith Armstrong.

Performed by Paddy on acoustic guitar in what, for the last decade, have been his trademark duds – trilby hat and shades, off-set with long grey hair and a full beard – ‘America’ is absolutely bulls-eye Prefab Sprout. Over a series of gentle progressions, McAloon works his fingers into almost impossible positions along the fret-board, effortlessly filling the spaces with unlikely moves, his voice as familiar as ever as he begs of America ;– ‘don’t reject the stranger knocking at your door’. To long-time band watchers, the song’s unheralded appearance on-line was a tender reassurance that yes, work was still ongoing at Andromeda Heights, McAloon’s home studio where, legend has it, decades of unreleased songs and albums remain under lock and key.

In Robert Forster’s recent memoir, ‘Grant And I’ – the Australian writer and musician who fronted The Go-Betweens, on and off, with Grant McLennan from 1978 until 2006 – takes issue with one review of his band that categorised them in the same vein as Prefab Sprout. ‘Grant And I’ is a terrific and breezy read – part buddy novel, part manifesto, part band biography – with a lovely, bitchy undertone. [Long-standing Go-Betweens’ fans have suggested the book should have been titled simply ‘I’ instead].

Perhaps Prefab Sprout were just too tailored, complicated and subtle for him, but The Go-Betweens have far more in common with them than Robert might like to think. Apart entirely from being among the most consistently successful unsuccessful outfits in contemporary pop music, both groups, through a series of different iterations, still managed to sound forever out of kilter with the times. A point I put to Paddy McAloon back in 1997, when I met him for the first and only time.

He was on the publicity circuit plugging Prefab Sprout’s hugely under-rated album [and there’s a theme emerging, isn’t there ?], ‘Andromeda Heights’ and I was a music columnist at The Sunday Tribune newspaper in Dublin. The band’s Irish record company, Sony Music, had flown him into town for the day and had packed his diary with a succession of one-to-one engagements with the local press and whatever television and radio interest they could muster. Which, almost ten years after ‘The King Of Rock And Roll’ and seven years after the band’s previous elpee, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’, didn’t amount to a whole lot.

I fetched up dutifully, mid-afternoon, at the old Berkeley Court Hotel in the shadow of the old Lansdowne Road stadium – don’t look for either, they’re not there anymore – and, as is the case with these encounters, was immediately on the clock. I had thirty minutes with one of my favourite ever songwriters and was implored not to over-run.

Paddy was exactly as I imagined he’d be. In a crisp white shirt, black jacket and practical leather shoes, he politely trotted out a couple of well-rehearsed lines about ‘Andromeda Heights’ and, as polite and erudite as you’d expect, directed me gently through the exchange. During which, overcome with stage fright, I fluffed my lines badly and broke one of the most basic rules of journalism.

The eventual piece shone nothing new on him or his music – I just don’t think that’s possible anyway in most instances from any of those cosy set-pieces – and was sloppily written as an open love letter, one of the flattest pieces I’ve ever filed. I adored ‘Andromeda Heights’ then like I still do now and made that point forcibly on the page. But beyond that, nothing. For the bulk of our forty minutes together I was just a hapless fan with a biro, a list of obvious questions and a tape machine. And all I really wanted to do was get home, play my Prefab Sprout albums and get the dinner on.

Prefab Sprout

Courtesy Anthony Casey

But buried inside that sit-down – and not entirely lost on me at the time – was an interesting couple of minutes where we discussed the growing number of bands and artists who’d started to cover Paddy’s songs. Three years previously, Kylie Minogue had taken on ‘If You Don’t Love Me’, a non-album single originally released to support a Sony-released Prefab Sprout ‘best of’ in 1992. In 1995, Cher released an album called ‘It’s A Man’s World’ where she performed a dozen songs by male songwriters ;- as well as covering Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’, she also performed a new McAloon original, ‘The Gunman’, which he wrote especially for that record.

But it was Jimmy Nail, the Newcastle-born actor, writer and musician who eventually took McAloon’s songs back into the heart of the mainstream and, in so doing, gave him some of his biggest commercial successes. Nail wrote – and took the lead role in – a BBC drama series called ‘Crocodile Shoes’, in which he played a factory worker, Jed Sheppard, who quits his job to become a country and western singer. Over the course of the two series of what was a soft-focus, family-skewed drama, Nail performed five McAloon originals written for the strand :- ‘Blue Roses’, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, ‘Love Will Find Someone For You’, ‘Dragons’ and the magnificent ‘Troubled Man’. All of which featured on two soundtrack compilations that accompanied the drama and that were eventually re-recorded by Paddy and Martin McAloon on a distinctly mediocre collection of Prefab Sprout oddities, produced by Tony Visconti, and released as ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’ in 2001.

Weeks before our date, ITV had debuted another gentle drama series in the same vein called ‘Where The Heart Is’. Based on the fictional adventures of a group of district nurses, it featured a strong, well-known cast and, at its top and tail, a piano-led theme tune commissioned from Paddy McAloon. This cut featured initially as a b-side to the Prefab Sprout single, ‘Prisoner Of The Past’ and ‘Where The Heart Is’ quickly became a staple of the ITV weekend schedules, eventually running for almost ten years.

Back in The Berkeley Court Hotel, Paddy and myself had moved the conversation on and, once we’d done our duty and agreed the claims for ‘Andromeda Heights’, I asked him about the cover versions and the television work and, specifically, how he felt this reflected on his own group. ‘Well’, he told me, ‘at the end of the day I have bills to pay and I need to look after the band’.

Paddy and myself : our destinies had been inter-twined for fifteen years. As with most of the best and most important things in life, I’d first come across Prefab Sprout during the early 1980s on both Dave Fanning’s ‘Rock Show’ on RTÉ radio and on David Heffernan’s Saturday lunchtime music slot on the RTÉ One youth television strand, ‘Anything Goes’. [As an aside for anoraks, its worth noting that it was also on this slot that I was first introduced to Thomas Dolby’s magnificent ‘Airwaves’].

 

 

My love for Prefab Sprout was instant and unquestioning :- windswept, lispy and smart, they stood tall on Marsden Rock, a National Trust-owned coastal site on South Shields, where they performed ‘Don’t Sing’, miles removed from the sounds du jour.

And although the band’s earliest shows in Ireland – their 1983 stop-off at The Buttery in Trinity College and a support to Paul Brady in Belfast the following year – were out of bounds to me on the grounds of age and distance, I was there, in thrall, when they played The Point Theatre in Dublin on the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ tour in December, 1990. Supported on the night by one of my favourite local bands, Hinterland, Prefab Sprout were bulked up for the duration of that tour and, playing as a seven piece and with McAloon leading the line in a white suit,  covered a huge amount of ground over the course of a mammoth set.

And I was there ten years later in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on April 15th and 16th, 2000, when the band played two consecutive dates – and two meaty greatest-hits-based sets – to close out a short tour that sat between the release of a Sony/CBS compilation album, ’38 Carat Collection’ and the aforementioned 2001 carnet, ‘The Gunman And Other Stories’. Paddy had put on a fair bit of weight in the years since and that white suit had been temporarily consigned to the back of a wardrobe, replaced for the occasion by standard rock and roll, denim-and-leather duds.

Sporting a full beard and long hair, his appearance attracted the odd barb from the stalls. And with Wendy Smith marked absent, the band on that tour also featured long-time sidekicks Martin McAloon on bass guitar and drummer Neil Conti, augmented and, to my mind, well and truly dominated, by the remarkable keyboard player, Jess Bailey. Strange days indeed, and most peculiar.

But while Prefab Sprout faithfully played through the hits, misses and maybes – they even did a rousing, barely-rehearsed version of ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ – and took deserved ovations from the locals, I left Dame Street that night thinking that I’d just seen the bolting of a door. Paddy – as quick-witted as ever and in terrific voice throughout – would rather, I imagined, have just been somewhere, anywhere else. In the great traditions of many of his own primary influences and heroes, his songs and his music had simply outgrown the crude parameters of the live circuit, temporarily or otherwise. No way, I thought, were Prefab Sprout ever conceived as a touring entity who, deep in their live sets, performed television themes and music made flesh by Jimmy Nail.

To this end, the liner notes Paddy penned for ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, are especially significant, I think. The songs that comprise this record were originally written and recorded as an intended follow-up to 1990’s vast double album, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ and, for reasons we can assume have more to do with record company direction or lack of it, went unreleased for fifteen years, during which time the writer moved on as clinically as he’s always done.

‘It goes without saying that I would have liked to have recorded ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ with Marty, Wendy, Neil and Thomas [Dolby]. I believe they wanted to, but we missed our moment and it wasn’t to be. Why ? I have no idea. Beats me. Anyway, one day in May, ’93, we made a bad move. But hey, water under the bridge’. McAloon eventually put the record together on his own, with technical help from Calum Malcolm.

Another of Paddy’s party pieces is his long-standing capacity to de-rail his own  interviews by talking freely and in-depth about the music and the merits of others. He  does this on the ‘Let’s Change’ sleeve-notes too, where he gushes at length about the mythical Beach Boys album, ‘Smile’. And he concludes those notes by observing that ‘the ‘Smile myth is only partly to do with music. It’s also about the dull, grey stuff that  musicians are often slow to address, yet ignore at their peril. And it may even have something to say about ego ; about blithely, and unrealistically assuming that everyone sees things the way you do. But ultimately, it is probably just a story about entropy ; the natural tendency for all things – however lovely – to eventually fly apart’.

Tellingly, the record is dedicated ‘for robust and unsentimental reasons’ to Martin McAloon, Wendy Smith, Neil Conti, Thomas Dolby and Michael Salmon [the band’s first drummer]. For the good times’.

During the press campaign around that record, McAloon told at least one writer that the album was eventually released in order to generate income and only saw the light of day after the continued promptings of his manager. And because he’s long been so uneasy about much of his own music anyway, the commercial death of his avant garde solo album, the largely ignored ‘I Trawl The Megahertz’ in 2003, the numerous contractual obligations he’s had to fulfil since ‘Jordan’ and the on-line leaking of the ‘Crimson Red’ album [2013] before it’s scheduled release won’t have appeased that sense. The bed where commerce sleeps with art isn’t always one decorated with roses.

Paddy McAloon is now sixty years old and leads, by all accounts, a quiet life with his wife and three daughters back in County Durham, making the odd public appearance and snapped, from time to time, by well-intentioned fans as he picks up his groceries in the local supermarkets. Piecing together the clues he’s left within his songs over the last thirty-five years, one might now well ask :-will we ever again hear fresh Prefab Sprout material ?

And, given the majesty of much of what has already gone before, and how plenty of what is already out there remains largely unexplored, some of it just neglected, would that really be such an issue ?

STEELY DAN :- LIVE AT THE 3 ARENA, DUBLIN. OCTOBER 28th, 2017. 

It was because of Mark Cagney’s perenially classy late night radio show on Radio 2, ‘The Night Train’, that I was first alerted to the wonder of Donald Fagen and, as a consequence, Steely Dan, the band – in the loosest of terms possible – that Fagen first roughly sketched out with Walter Becker in New York in 1967. Fagen’s regal 1982  solo album, ‘The Nightfly’ became, in several respects, the signature record for Cagney’s show in that, across it’s eight cuts, it also captured the essence of the host who, like the artist, seemed forever torn between the macho ache of cool and the lure of the middle-ground, where the audiences were bigger, the prizes greater and the landings softer.

Thom Hickey, on his excellent blog, The Immortal Jukebox, describes ‘The Nightfly’ as ‘a record that shows us an artist brilliantly finding the means to come to terms with the challenges of perspective’. In so doing, the record reeks of the after-dark and the small hours, wherein man casts one eye on his past and another into an uncertain future. All of which, at the time the record was released, was lost on my empty teenage head :- I was just struck by Fagen’s vocal and the smart, off-beat lustre of ‘New Frontier’, which was unlike anything I’d heard previously. I just loved it.

A memorable television interview that Mark Cagney did several years later with Pat Kenny on ‘Kenny Live’ put real side on what had previously been an affable public personae. In the course of twenty compelling minutes under the studio lights, Cagney spoke affectingly of his wife, who was seriously ill, about his own issues with drug abuse and about why, how and to what effect he had laboured on the graveyard shift for so long. It filled the dots for me on what was often a uniquely sharp radio show ;- Cagney had not only a back story but a scream too. He remains, to my mind, one of the more interesting characters in Irish broadcasting and it would be wrong to dismiss him as just another chat-show lightweight, cut adrift on breakfast television.

When it comes to rock and roll, Cagney has an incredible range and a formidable curiousity. But as REM’s ‘[Don’t Go Back To] Rockville’, Lloyd Cole’s ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken’ and Prefab Sprout’s ‘Desire As’ defined ‘The Night Train’ for an entire generation of newcomers searching the more interesting edges of new music, Cagney was an instinctive tutor too ;- he’d thread Neil Young, Lou Reed, Springsteen and vintage American soul music seamlessly into his set-lists. It was education and learning at its most subtle and Cagney was effortleesly schooling his listeners on the value of context. And into those lessons, as primary texts, sat Steely Dan.

In this respect, their ‘Countdown To Ecstasy’ album [1973] and ‘Gaucho’ [1980] helped me, eventually, to make some sort of sense of the likely origins of much of the Prefab Sprout catalogue from ‘Steve McQueen’ [1985] onward, particularly the band’s enormously ambitious 1990 double, ‘Jordan : The Comeback’. Those records may not sound overly similar – and, on the surface at least, have little in common – but Fagen and Becker had already shown how possible it was to fuse smart wordplays with complicated time signatures, difficult chord sequences and a variety of styles – routinely incorporating ragtime and jazz – while also knocking out more regular, multi-layered, popular music. It was the scale of the ambition and the grasp of the possibilities of sound that bonded them.

Every house in Ireland is familiar with Steely Dan, either consciously or otherwise. One of the band’s best known songs and biggest commercial hits, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’, lends its title – and its chorus – to the long running and consistently repeated RTÉ archive-based television series. And scanning the sold-out audience down in the soul-less old cow-shed in Dublin’s docklands for Steely Dan’s first Dublin show in twenty-one years, its obvious that many of those same households are represented in the sprawl. Steely Dan might well be an acquired taste and, to many, a difficult listen – aren’t those always the best ones ? – but it’s still comforting to know that, forty-five years since the release of the band’s first album, their impact is still being felt so far from home and to such an extent.

A point not lost, clearly, on Donald Fagen, who appears to be in decent humour as he saunters onto the vast stage – wielding a melodica like a spoil of battle – at Dublin’s 3 Arena and whose positive demeanour develops as the show catches fire. He appears to be genuinely taken by the response to tonight’s best-of set which, as you’d expect, often veers off of its expected course and in which much of Steely Dan’s canon remains unwrapped. ‘Pretzel Logic’ is untouched, they barely dip into the ‘Katy Lied’ elpee, there’s no ‘Rikki’ and, instead, they do a pair of cuts from ‘The Nightfly’ – ‘Green Flower Street’ and ‘New Frontier’ – a formidable ‘Godwhacker’ and a Joe Tex cover.

The two big video screens flanking the stage capture Fagen throughout in close-up, towelling the sweat from his head and wiping his prescription shades clear of fog. He never references the late Walter Becker by name, referring twice instead to ‘my partner’ but, as has been the case throughout the current tour, the band performs ‘Book Of Liars’ from Becker’s 1994 solo album, ‘11 Tracks Of Whack’ by way of a tribute to Fagen’s long-time side-kick, who died in September.

But there’s a name-check later for David Palmer, the band’s one-time vocalist who took the lead on ‘Dirty Work’, back on Steely Dan’s 1972 debut, ‘Can’t Buy A Thrill’. That mighty cut is performed tonight, as it’s been for many years, by the group’s imperious backing vocalists, The Danettes, and is a real stand-out among many.

Those considered, layered female harmonies have long distinguished much of Steely Dan’s best work, regularly sitting at the heart of their material and not, as can often be the case, as mere decoration or after- thought. And tonight they serve a more practical purpose too :- Fagen has forever been a distinctive vocalist but he’s never been a comfortable one and, closing in on seventy now, deftly deflects the top registers side-stage, from where The Danettes regularly escort him home.

Elsewhere, the four-way brass section – alto and tenor saxes, trumpet and trombone – add girth to the ragtime and jazz aspects of the set and also sit tidily into the bigger picture, even if all twelve musicians on stage often make like they’re all working in isolation. Which is another long-time Steely Dan trait :- the busy arrangements have always been carefully plotted – the more clinical aspects of their sound have always been a critical bugbear – and Becker and Fagen are among the most formidable structural architects in the history of contemporary music. For better and, often, for worse.

But backed by an exceptional band, among which guitarist Jon Herington – the definitive New York City blade – drummer Keith Carlock, bassist Freddie Washington and backing vocalist Carolyn Leonhart have been long-time side-kicks, Steely Dan counter the coldness of the venue quickly, which is no mean feat, and also just about defy the vagaries of the in-house sound system, which can often take on a life of its own.

They sign off with ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ – by a distance the closest to concession they get all night – and which, fully-revved and loaded, brings a deserved ovation from a full-house that, one suspects, was won over long before the band had even taken the stage.

In the twenty-odd since Steely Dan last played in Dublin, the area that surrounds the venue, deep in the city’s docklands, has changed beyond all recognition :- the container depots and the cargo huts are dwarfed now by the dominant cut of contemporary architecture, every new structure a statement piece. Given the prominence of chrome, metal supports, clean design lines and glass fronts on the long walk down from the city centre, there’s a Steely Dan metaphor on every block.

Because I’m certain I’ve never seen such a breadth of ambition on any live stage previously :- the closest I can recall by way of comparison is Prefab Sprout’s show in the same venue in December, 1990, when that band’s core line-up was suitably enhanced as they toured the ‘Jordan : The Comeback’ album. But not even that performance,  memorable as it was, comes anywhere close in terms of the sheer scale of delivery and the scope of aspiration that hallmarks tonight’s. Which was stellar, spellbinding stuff from the off and if, as you’d imagine, many of us are unlikely to see Steely Dan live again, a remarkable farewell.

 

THE HARVEST MINISTERS TAKE DUNDALK

It’s over twenty-five years ago now since, one Saturday evening, Ken Sweeney set his mother’s runaround for Dundalk and sped the pair of us up the road, out of Glasnevin and onwards to Mister Ridley’s. The two of us were softly obsessive about one of our many favourite bands, The Harvest Ministers, a Dublin outfit who’d been making decent headway for a while, earnestly kicking against every single convention of the time, often maybe over-earnestly so. With their boy-girl twin lead vocals and deft lyrical flourishes, they’d been ludicrously compared to Prefab Sprout on a shoestring. But burrow in behind their fragile frontage and William Merriman’s dark introspection owed far more to Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ than Paddy McAloon’s ‘If You Don’t Love Me’.

 

Five years after they formed in the initial afterglow of post-‘Joshua Tree’ optimism, and representing the absolute antithesis of all that that record stood for, they were making a rare foray out of Dublin and Ken and myself were anxious to see how they got on. Or, indeed, if they’d complete the course at all. On paper, the prospect of The Harvest Ministers taking on a nightclub crowd in Dundalk looked like a real mis- match and Ken had the runaround primed, immediately outside the venue, for a quick getaway. Just in case.

 

I knew little of the scene in that part of the world. Anything I did was informed by the ribald, souped-up yarns imparted by the late George Byrne and, in print, by the delicate hands of Tony Clayton-Lea in Hot Press, who handled much of the constituency work in the North-East and who got through a fair amount of mileage on his beat. There was also the storied battle-front experience of Cypress, Mine !, the paisleyed Cork undergrounders who, one Saturday afternoon, may or may not have been hastened out of County Louth during an eventful double-bill in Drogheda Boxing Club, possibly by local youths bionic on apples.

 

Ken and myself were briefly back in Ireland from London, where we were both based at the time. He was one of the small number of fledgling artists on our books at Setanta Records and had, months previously, rescued me from a squat in Peckham and taken me in under his own roof, far across town in West London. I was stick-thin at the time and, lost in the music and in the giddy rush of an emerging story – I was working closely with The Frank And Walters – hadn’t been minding myself. In spite of all the shimmer, I just wasn’t having a good time ;- I didn’t like London because I wasn’t clued in enough or sussed enough for it and so I fairly welcomed the prospect of a few days of respite.

 

We set up base in Ken’s family home for the duration :- Mrs. Sweeney was a terrific and gracious host who afforded me a mighty welcome and, unusually for that time, regular, healthy meals. And although I’m not sure if she completely appreciated the ambition in her son’s work, it wasn’t as if she let on. I was helping him to promote his first album, the excellent eight-song ‘Understand’, which he’d released on the Setanta label under the band name, Brian, and had set up a range of interviews and live appearances for him around the country. ‘Understand’ was clearly a compelling piece of work but, as with much of the Setanta output at the time, I wasn’t convinced we had enough access to the pipes and wires down which we could distribute the message as widely as it deserved.

 

And so, hastily around the country, kitted out in our long-sleeved Setanta sweatshirts, we proselytised for the week, the highlight of which, I think, was Ken’s live acoustic performance on the RTÉ television series, ‘Nighthawks’. But the purpose of our trip wasn’t just to promote the Brian album ;- we were blazing a trail for Keith Cullen’s asset-rich but still emerging imprint which, at the time, also boasted the likes of The Frank And Walters, The Divine Comedy and A House on it’s roster.

 

And it was to this end that, hours before The Ministers took the stage in Mister Ridley’s, we’d fetched up at the local radio studios of LMFM, where Ken did a short piece with the aforementioned Tony Clayton-Lea, who at the time also presented a weekly show there. We did likewise in RTÉ Cork Local Radio and at other selected stop-offs around Ireland ;- I had a cluster of Setanta samplers in my ruck-sack which we’d leave behind us as we left ;- the definitive calling cards, we thought.

 

Mister Ridley’s was – and remains, by all accounts – a popular nightclub in Dundalk, a serious provincial discotheque with notions, even if the shape and scale of the place has changed enormously in the years since. God knows how The Harvest Ministers, with their brittle, barely-pulsing songs ever ended up playing there, but then the band’s long history is pock-marked routinely with this sort of thing. An eternal search for God Knows How.

 

They’ve been on the go now for over thirty years and yet you’ll struggle to locate them in any of the annals that document contemporary music in Dublin from 1985 onwards. I first saw them at one of the heats at the Carling/Hot Press Band of The Year competition in Sir Henry’s in Cork during the late 1980s where, then as now, they stood out because they didn’t stand out at all ;- they were reluctant, callow, soft and hardly there. In a broader salad of paisley, black denim and long, swept-back hair, they were hunched and cut apart in their charity-shop jackets and dead men’s shoes. They were far from perfect and, in one way, still are – which is why, I think, I took to them so quickly and so intently.

 

Will Merriman first patched his group together during a period when U2 had just gone global and when a single, anthemic chorus got you to first base and a positive Hot Press notice without ever breaking sweat. He’s seen many summers – and indeed many drummers too – in the decades since and The Harvest Ministers’ family tree certainly extends far, deep and wide. But on that night in Mister Ridley’s, Will – the band’s leader, songwriter and constant, led what is easily the band’s best-known and most cohesive line-up, supported by the long-serving Padraig McCaul on guitar, piano and sax, the tearaway Pat Dillon on drums, Gerardette Bailey on sweet, sweet backing vocals, Brian Foley, then previously of The Blades on bass and Aingeala De Burca on violin. And it was this line- up that featured on the band’s first album, ‘Little Dark Mansion’, which was released later that year on the Bristol-based Sarah Records label.

 

You’d never, were you so pushed, expect The Harvest Ministers to get a disco crowd going, post-midnight, but that’s what was expected of them in Mister Ridley’s. And, at the time, there was nothing unusual about that :- given that many venues, especially those outside of Dublin, were located in nightclubs, many excellent live bands were routinely booked to bridge an hour or so over the course of what were long nights and, by so doing, up the intensity – and the take – at the bars. Indeed the one-time Ultravox singer, Midge Ure, once just refused to take the stage at The Bridge Hotel in Waterford when he was told he was going on-stage in the venue’s faux-Roman classical finished dance-hall as a support act to a disco.

 

And so, when The Harvest Ministers ambled onto a small space in the corner of the main floor at Mister Ridley’s, caught in the flickered glitter shapes cast by the numerous disco balls mounted overhead, they looked, as they’ve often tended to, like Nemo and his friends set free from the tank. Opening with a spartan, skewed new number called ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’ can’t have endeared them to the revellers, many of them already well flutered. And, for a while, patronising as you like, Ken and myself worried if The Ministers would make it through.

But they were quickly into their groove and went on to play a protracted and often wild set that featured several of what have long been staples :- ‘Forfeit Trials’, ‘Theresa’, ‘Silent House’ and ‘You Do My World The World Of Good’ among them. And, maybe with a calculated nod to their surroundings – or maybe not ? – the jerky ‘Oliver Cromwell’, with its convulsive sax and frantic snare over which Will repeatedly sings the big money-line – ‘Oliver Cromwell … is a pansy’. And as I recalled in a review in Melody Maker magazine subsequently, ‘by the end of the night there are couples waltzing around at the front and not an evil word is spoken’.

 

I’m consistently drawn back to that night in Dundalk for many reasons, not least of all because, not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I saw exactly how music, in this instance neither obvious, direct or immediate, can often forge a direct emotional contact even in the most unlikely of settings. Where, kicking against all reasonable theory or argument, The Harvest Ministers absolutely aced it. Of all of the live shows I’ve seen – and I’ve seen far too many at this stage – it is easily one of the more memorable and certainly on any list of favourites.

 

And that’s maybe why, I think, The Harvest Ministers continue to be such an unremarkable and yet at the same time wholly remarkable force. Because notwithstanding their exceptional back catalogue, and the scope inherent in what Will is still trying to do, it’s just impossible to dislike them.

 

In a curious twist of fate, they went on to release two terrific albums for the Setanta label, ‘A Feeling Mission’, produced by Phil Thornalley in 1995 and 1997’s magnificent ‘Orbit’, which was over-seen by John Parish, a long-time side-kick of P.J. Harvey. And betimes during this period, it looked as if the band might, almost in spite of itself, achieve some manner of cross-over, especially when the sound was bolstered up on the likes of ‘If It Kills Me [And It Will]’. But that they’ve remained resolutely stuck in the hedges and caught on the margins ever since shouldn’t in any way devalue Will’s song-writing stock :- all that’s really changed in that respect is the manner in which he now records his material, and with whom.

 

Most recently he’s been buttressed by Andy Fitzpatrick, the New York- based, former Dadas frontman who’s been an ancillary member of The Ministers for years and it’s the pair of them who, ostensibly, laid down the down the core of The Harvest Ministers’ current album, ‘Back To Harbour’, which was recorded in Fitzpatrick’s apartment and released last week.

 

And, as we’ve come to expect [and long since come to take for granted], it’s another pretty special instalment that, over the course of it’s eleven tracks, plots a familiar course dominated by casual strumming, brushed drums, delicate melodies, layered strings, a soft organ wash here or there, over-laid with Will’s vocals which, to this day, are sometimes barely there at all. Especially strong over the home straight, you’d have to wonder if he’s ever written a cluster as impactful as ‘The Debutante With The Nose Ring’, ‘Through The Trap Doors Of Insanity’, ‘No Feelings For You’ and the absurdly beautiful ‘The Heron’ ? All of which, yet again, come highly recommended.

 

Several years later I returned to Mister Ridleys. Plenty of water had roared out past Dundalk Bay in the seven years since I’d last darkened it’s doors and I was now working as, of all things, a television producer. Myself and my friend, Dave Hannigan, were making a documentary for RTÉ about the retired Irish footballer, Paul McGrath, and were picking up an important aspect of the story.

 

McGrath was, and remains, a fascinating subject and, in our efforts to unravel what was a complicated and often difficult past, we’d come looking to speak with another Irish footballer, Barry Kehoe, who had also, like Paul, played in the League of Ireland before briefly trying his luck at Manchester United. Barry’s story was no less complicated :- he was a magnificent midfield player at his hometown club, Dundalk, but his career was curtailed by injury and, later, by a long battle with cancer. As a contemporary of McGrath’s at Manchester United, however briefly, he was an obvious contributor to our film. And I located him quickly and easily enough ;- he was living and working in Dundalk, managing a nightclub in the town. Mister Ridleys.

 

Myself and Dave remember the time we spent on that Paul McGrath documentary very fondly and, across the Atlantic, we’ll still trade short messages about those wonderful months, back in 1998, as we pieced together ‘They Called Him God’. And as the cast list passes away one by one – Tommy Heffernan, Charlie Walker, Graham Taylor and Barry Kehoe himself, who eventually lost that cancer battle in 2002, those memories take on added significance for us.

 

On Barry’s suggestion, we conducted the interview with him at his place of work and, while our crew began to set their equipment into place, he proudly took us on a tour around Mister Ridleys and, as he did, The Harvest Ministers, from out of nowhere, flashed through my mind. The mirror balls, the waltzing couples, ‘Too Many Astronauts, Too Few Rockets’, Ken and the runaround.

 

‘And over there’, said Barry in a warm but typically flat Dundalk accent as he pointed to a small alcove area touching onto the dance floor, ‘that’s what we call The Erection Section’. And, for whatever reason, The Harvest Ministers disappeared back to the dim recesses of my mind, as did any thoughts I had about lunch for the cast and crew.

Brian

Via Ken Sweeney

 

WHEN PADDY McALOON MET JIMMY WEBB

 

I’m not especially good at staying in touch with my friends and Dave Heffernan, among several others, will attest to that. It’s a good year when we catch up a couple of times socially and yet, for all that, I’ll still think nothing of seeking him out for advice and tapping him up, usually out of the blue. He’s probably one of the few people I actually listen to but it’s a wonder how he puts up with me.

 

It was music that first brought us together and it’s music that still dominates many of our conversations. Dave has made plenty of excellent music television and radio during a distinguished career in broadcasting, both in front of house and behind the sticks. And, like one of his peers, Mark Cagney, he also boasts one of the finest record collections in the country, the extent and scale of which is beyond impressive. He puts this lesser man to shame.

 

There was a time, way back, when Dave and myself enjoyed a much different relationship. As one of the four presenters on the 1980s RTÉ Saturday morning kids show, ‘Anything Goes’, alongside Mary Fitzgerald, Kathy Parke and Aongus McAnally, Dave’s weekly music bulletins were a vital and necessary watch. For twenty odd minutes every week [often twenty very odd minutes], just before lunch, RTÉ would go off-message and open up it’s doors to a broad church of musicians and performers, many of them unknown or from the left-field. And I was there, religiously, for most of those broadcasts.

 

Like all of the best television, those inserts often seemed at complete odds with their surroundings. Routinely, the tall, imposing shadow of Aonghus McAnally – in his mis-matched red and yellow shoes or his magician’s gloves and hat – would cast itself across a sublime ballad performed live in Dave’s corner of the studio by a renowned American songwriter who was just travelling through town or by an emerging young buck with a head full of steam. And that just added to the experience :- over thirty years later, the devil is in the detail and the tunes.

 

It was live on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first clapped eyes on Billy Bragg. He played a couple of spunky live numbers and spoke at length about his customised green guitar and about serving in the army while, dotted around him on the studio floor, was the guts of a local youth club or scout troop who’d come for the earlier part of the show and who couldn’t wait to leave the premises. It was in conversation with Dave on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first heard ABC’s Martin Fry talk eloquently and at some length about one of the greatest albums in the history of British popular music, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, an interview during which Fry offered his English Literature degree to his host. The Blades and Thin Lizzy were perennial favourites too and turned up regularly over the course of the show’s lifetime and I can remember appearances by other local notables like Tokyo Olympics, The Vipers and Tony Koklin.

 

And it was on ‘Anything Goes’ that I first encountered Prefab Sprout, a band about whom I’ve bored many folk to distraction in the years since. As the video for ‘Don’t Sing’ was rolled, and as the nascent Newcastle band got busy on a local beach, the impact was immediate and the connection was instant. Many, many music videos at this time were filmed on beaches where, more often than not, something was set on fire at the end. Prefab Sprout were fresh-faced and wind-swept on ‘Don’t Sing’ and the song itself – erratic, a bit wordy, brilliant – required little by way of added drama. The only fire here was a metaphorical one and I’ve adored Prefab Sprout ever since.

 

I was in Manchester with a friend of mine and his older brothers some weeks later to see United play West Ham in a non-descript league game in the old First Division. Back in April 1984, in the days before routine Ryanair flights and the corporate annexing of Old Trafford, Manchester was a dank, deprived city with two well-supported and perennially average football sides and a pretty serious music scene. We’d arrived in Manchester during the early morning after an over-night ferry from The North Wall in Dublin and, killing the many hours before the 3pm kick-off, I bought the ‘Don’t Sing’ single and the ‘Lions In My Own Garden [Exit Someone]’ E.P. from the HMV shop on Market Street. I protected my purchases fiercely on The Streford End later that afternoon as a United team, featuring Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath among their number, ground out a loveless 0-0 home draw. We were back in Cork by tea-time the following evening ;- the long return journey made bearable by the prospect of getting ‘Lions In My Own Garden’ onto the turn-table at home.

 

After the curtain came down on ‘Anything Goes’, Dave and his twin brother, Gerald, founded their own company, Frontier Films and, as one of the early movers in the Irish independent television production sector, Dave went on to make some pretty serious documentaries for the international market on the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and The Velvet Underground. And he’s still at it. A forthcoming project of his for RTÉ One, ‘Music On D’Telly’, pulls a diverse range of archive clips from RTÉ Television’s considerable music catalogue, from right across the ages and the genres. Fronted and scripted by Pat Shortt, the series features one particular insert that’s as remarkable a watch and listen now as it was when I was first alerted to it almost 25 years ago. So how and why did Paddy McAloon duet with Jimmy Webb, backed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra playing an arrangement scored by George Martin, in a studio in Dublin in September, 1991 ?

 

‘Eye on The Music’ was an early 90s live music show, produced and directed in the main by the RTÉ grandee Ian McGarry, with help in the trenches from Niall Mathews and Adrian Cronin. The ambitious eight-part series, fronted by Bill Whelan and made by RTÉ’s Entertainment Department, ran on RTÉ One on Sunday nights from October, 1991, and brought together a wide range of local and international acts to perform with the country’s most powerful orchestra and to discuss their work and influences with the programme’s host. Ostensibly Bill Whelan’s concept, he also scored and conducted almost all of the orchestral accompaniments and, among those who graced the sound-stage in Studio One in Montrose during the run were acts as diverse as Tanita Tikaram, Elmer Bernstein, The Trio Bulgarka, The Pale, Engine Alley, Míceál Ó Súilleabháin, Altan, The Corrs, Louis Stewart, Mark Nevin, Lloyd Cole and Beverley Craven.

 

 

Four years before Riverdance, which he composed, and a decade since he’d written, with Donal Lunny, the far-ranging ‘Timedance’, the original sister-piece that featured during the interval at the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin’s R.D.S., Whelan was a formidable and multi-tentacled presence around the Irish music scene. Born in Limerick, he’d trained and qualified as a barrister but it was in music that he’d started to make an imprint. In the years immediately before the ‘Eye on The Music’ series, he’d served as resident musical director on RTÉ’s ‘Saturday Live’ series, a pre-cursor to what later became ‘Kenny Live’. He’d studio produced a variety of acts too – U2, Stockton’s Wing and Planxty among them – and, on ‘Eye on The Music’, brought a considerable influence and a wide frame of reference to bear on the bookings, which he over-saw with John Hughes who, among other things, was then working as manager of an emerging pop act called The Corrs.

 

Whelan had been a long time admirer of Jimmy Webb’s work and the two shared a past of sorts ;- back in 1969 and 1970, and while still in school, Bill  contributed to the soundtrack of a Richard Harris film called ‘Bloomfield’, and it was during this project that the pair first met briefly. But it was on September 24th, 1991, that their relationship was kick-started in earnest when Whelan welcomed Webb into the RTÉ studio complex for an appearance on the second of eight episodes of ‘Eye on The Music’. Mingling with them in the green room that evening were the show’s other guests ;- Altan, Don Baker and the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.

 

Born in 1946 in Oklahoma, Jimmy Webb has long been considered one of the great American songwriters, routinely garlanded by the industry – if not always by critics – for a canon that includes ‘Galveston’, ‘Up, Up And Away’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’, among hundreds of others. But it was another of his own compositions, ‘The Highwayman’ – a song that had first featured on his 1977 album, ‘El Mirage’ – that he performed for ‘Eye on The Music’. It wasn’t until Glen Campbell covered ‘The Highwayman’ in 1979 – on an album of the same name – that the song generated popular cross-over traction.

 

Born in 1957 in County Durham in the North East of England, Paddy McAloon was – by September 1991 – established as one of the most distinguished and arresting British songwriters of his generation. As the creative backbone of Prefab Sprout, he’d recently dropped the band’s most ambitious album to date, ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, which was toured with an augmented backing band and a full range of bells and whistles. McAloon had also been a target for the bookers on ‘Eye on The Music’ and, through the offices of a London-based agent, agreed to travel to Dublin once Jimmy Webb – a long-time influence – had also been confirmed for the series. Indeed Webb’s presence on the list of confirmed acts on the series also helped to snare Lloyd Cole’s participation.

 

Watching the clip again, twenty four years after it was originally broadcast, it’s difficult not to be humbled by the quality of the performance. It’s a duet in every sense, both men bringing divergent styles to the party and, in so doing, creating a magic that’s far more than the sum of it’s parts. The playing is soft and warm and, with Paddy’s soft tenor leading Jimmy’s rich baritone, there’s a real sense that the young wizard has the older sorcerer under some kind of a spell. It’s hard to believe that Webb, sporting a full-bodied mane and McAloon, wearing a Lee Van Cleef moustache, had never performed together previously or, indeed, that they’d only just met for the first time. Time and a lack of budget meant that there was no prior rehearsal ;- the magic happened on the studio floor on the day of the recording.

 

As well as being a masterful writer, Webb is also an exceptional player but here, against a lavish orchestral accompaniment scored by the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, that Webb brought with him, his playing is far more restrained. And, to this end, he is absolutely in concert with McAloon, who tenderly finger-picks the primary guitar parts while, behind them both, the Concert Orchestra – conducted on the night by Bill Whelan – takes on the heavy lifting. But to these ears at least, the most alluring aspect of the performance is McAloon’s vocal. His is a voice that’s often taken for granted within the full Prefab Sprout artillery ;- in the thirty odd years since I first heard him sing, I don’t think it’s aged a jot.

 

Prefab Sprout’s body of work, spread erratically over the decades, features many lyrical references and structural genuflections both to Jimmy Webb and to what we can, for the sake of reference here, broadly claim as ‘country music’. This is most obviously manifest on the band’s 2001 album, ‘The Gunman and Other Stories’ – particularly on songs like ‘Streets of Laredo’, the Jimmy Webb-laced ‘The Gunman’ [which was first performed by Cher on her 1995 album, ‘It’s A Man’s World’ – alongside Paul Brady’s ‘Paradise Is Here’] and, it goes without saying, ‘Cowboy Dreams’, which Paddy wrote for Jimmy Nail’s BBC television series, ‘Crocodile Shoes’. Further back, a cover of Jim Reeves’ ‘He’ll Have To Go’ was an early live staple that featured as part of the ‘Don’t Sing’ package while the band’s second album, ‘Steve McQueen’, opens with the banjo-and-harmonica-romp, ‘Faron Young’, a song named after the American country singer best known for ‘It’s Four in The Morning’. And among the numerous highlights on ‘Jordan – The Comeback’, the two-song Jesse James suite is a particular stand-out.

 

 

‘The first record that really made me love music was ‘Wichita Lineman’, Paddy McAloon told Rolling Stone’s David Wild during a long interview in 1991. ‘I still think it might be the greatest record I ever heard. It’s not that I yearn for the past, but when I listen to records like ‘West Side Story’, ‘Pet Sounds’ or any number of Jimmy Webb or Beatles records, I’m not sure what any of us have to show that’s an improvement on that basic model’.

 

And he’d have copped a wonderful earful of Webb in full flight, up-close, while in RTÉ. As well as ‘The Highwayman’, the American also performed another of his own songs, ‘Adios’ – one of four originals he’d composed for Linda Ronstadt’s 1989 album, ‘Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind’ – for the show. During a technical delay in the studio, and with the audience already in situ, Webb’s U.K. agent, Terry Oates, who had accompanied his act to Dublin, asked Bill Whelan if he’d like Webb to play anything to help fill the space and appease the crowd. And so Webb performed, for Whelan, McAloon and the 100- strong assembly, an on-the-fly version another of his songs from the ‘El Mirage’ album, ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’. That performance, sadly, was never captured on film.

 

Having covered ‘Wichita Lineman’ himself over the years and having repeatedly declared his heart to Webb’s music in numerous interviews, McAloon finally committed his affections to wax on the last Prefab Sprout album, 2013’s ‘Crimson Red’. ‘The Songs Of Danny Galway’ is a love-note to Webb’s work that opens with specific reference to their 1991 appearance in RTÉ. ‘I met him in a Dublin bar, a sorcerer from Wichita. A wizard and his baby grand, a range of powers at his command’, the song starts, before baldly stating the long- standing impact of the writer on our hero. ‘Like a stone into a well, I fell under their spell. The songs of Danny Galway’.

 

That recollection – and the depth of feeling that scaffolds it – contrasts sharply, one imagines, with Paddy McAloon’s memories of a previous appearance in RTÉ back in 1988 when, plugging the ‘From Langley Park To Memphis’ elpee, the band mimed listlessly to ‘Cars And Girls’ on The Late Late Show. With Paddy and Wendy Smith lip-synching badly, Martin McAloon, the bassist, looks like a stage hand who’s found himself on a live television show by accident and who’s hoping that, by ‘acting cool’, no-one will notice. And it’s difficult to blame the band for their indifference, given that they’d been introduced by the host, Gay Byrne, with typical disdain. ‘They have a very, very odd name, so they have. Very odd. In this very, very odd world of rock and roll’, he claimed, with the kind of insight he routinely reserved for musicians and young bands.

 

In a parallel world, Bill Whelan would have turned his back and gagged.

 

 

NOTE :- ‘Music On D’Telly’, presented by Pat Shortt, is scheduled to start on RTÉ

One on Friday, October 30th next at 8.30PM.