Prefab Sprout's McAloon goes back on an aural odyssey

Paddy McAloon is now partially sighted while also suffering from Meniere's disease. — YouTube screencap
Paddy McAloon is now partially sighted while also suffering from Meniere's disease. — YouTube screencap

PARIS, Feb — Paddy McAloon, the musical genius behind some of the most catchy songs of the 1980s, is not one to complain.

Yet just asking the founder of the British band Prefab Sprout how he's doing is something of a fraught business.

"I don't wish to sound like some boring man at a bus stop who treats a polite enquiry as an excuse to download all his troubles," McAloon joked.

The singer songwriter lost his sight and also suffers from Meniere's disease, a debilitating illness that "causes balance problems, induces vertigo, leads to tinnitus and an irretrievable hearing loss," he told AFP.

It is hard to think of a more crippling condition for a musician.

The problem "first surfaced in 2006" and came back in 2017.

"It is much more debilitating than my eye problems," admitted McAloon, who spent two years in bed to recover from retinal detachment surgery in the late 1990s.

He can now see.

Out of the long periods of "enforced idleness" when McAloon was "medicated and drifting in and out of sleep" came one of the most intriguing things ever written by a man who has never stuck to the musical rules.

I Trawl the Megahertz — which has been compared the music of Debussy, Ravel and Dvorak transported to the digital age — is a long way from the evergreen symphonic pop of his hits like When Love Breaks Down, Cars and Girls and The King of Rock 'n' Roll.

But there are similarities, McAloon insisted in an interview with AFP conducted by email.

A beard like Merlin

He said he was inspired to write the "dream-like piece" from listening to "audio books and radio broadcasts" during his long convalescence.

The concept album has been recut and remastered and is re-released this week 15 years after it first appeared.

Trying to describe it in one sentence is a challenge. It is roughly the story of a woman trying to make sense of her life through a series of fragmented memories and soundscapes.

McAloon used the voice of a mysterious American woman called Yvonne Connors to narrate the spoken word parts "because I was tired of hearing 'me' on Prefab Sprout records.

"I wondered if I could make a record where I could have the same pleasure a listener has in hearing someone else," said the 61-year-old, who now has a long, white Merlin-style beard.

He said the idea to use a woman's voice as his narrator came after he was haunted by a line in a radio play in which a female voice says -- "Your daddy loves you, your daddy loves you very much; he just doesn't want to live with us anymore."

 'Heartbreaking to hear'

"It was heartbreaking to hear her. And I think Yvonne captures that spirit beautifully."

The album, and particularly its title track, is "drenched in melancholy," said McAloon, who comes from Durham in the northeast of England.

"I think it has something to do with my illness, obviously, and with the sad fragments of audio that I overheard and recorded. The sound of people pouring out their troubles to a stranger on a late-night radio talk show... It's a very modern form of the confessional box."

But the album also came out of the liberation of being able to work again with engineer Calum Malcolm and composer David McGuinness as his sight recovered.

"I am not good at doing nothing," McAloon told AFP.

Originally "I Trawl the Megahertz" was released as a solo album but McAloon's brother Martin, a former member of Prefab Sprout, persuaded him to look at it again this time under the band's banner.

"You can probably imagine the conversations I had with myself 20 years ago. Artists are often faced with this dilemma: change and disappoint fans or stay the same and disappoint fans," he observed wryly.

"And because 'Megahertz' isn't really a song album — I only sing on one track — I didn't want to confuse people. But the problem is that while it has had a kind of cult acclaim, it really deserves to be brought to the attention of more people.

"I was the one doubting it, now I see it alongside (Prefab Sprout's earlier albums) 'Steve McQueen' and 'Jordan: The Comeback'. It's where it really belongs." — AFP