A belated note about the latest Prefab Sprout album, ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’, which was released a few weeks ago. It has a curious history. Paddy McAloon wrote the songs at the beginning of the 90s, intending to make a follow-up album to 1990′s ‘Jordan: The Comeback’. As he liked to do, Paddy made demos of all the songs in his home studio, and sent them both to me and to the band’s record company, Sony. I immediately fell in love with the songs, especially ‘Ride Home To Jesus’ and ‘I Love Music.’ I was keen to produce them and we’d started to make plans. However Sony’s head of A+R, Muff Winwood, who had always been a huge supporter of the Sprouts, was a bit negative about the album, saying that the religious overtones of many of the songs would create a perception of a ‘Christian rock’ band, which would destroy their credibility and commercial appeal. He was very aware that U2 had narrowly dodged a bullet round about the time of songs like ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’ and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ when many accused them of veering towards ‘God Rock’—even though those titles were referring to something completely different.
Ultimately it didn’t do U2 any harm though, did it. And Paddy’s songs were not actually promoting God or religion. If anything they were an analysis of faith and integrity. They seemed to aspire to a love of something above, beyond ourselves. In ‘Music Is A Princess’, for example, the author characterises himself as a lowly boy in rags, willing to die for Music but unworthy to carry her flag. In ‘Ride’, Paddy praises people who work thanklessly for the greater good. I thought the songs were excellent, with great chords and melodies, and it was very refreshing to hear some subject matter that wasn’t just about sex, relationships, money or starvation. But the band felt unable to deal with the friction caused by the record company’s push-back, and Paddy decided to move right on and start from scratch. I believe Muff Winwood has since claimed that he only wanted a few changes to the words and titles and perhaps the addition a couple of extra songs that were not so controversial.
It’s easy in retrospect to say that the original decision not to release ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ did irreperable damage to the band’s career. Certainly it threw a spanner in the works, because the next twelve years saw only two more Sprouts albums, neither of which approached the critical or commercial success of their previous four. There were several other song projects that never got off the ground, including a musical about Zorro and an album of Michael Jackson-themed songs. Paddy or his managers at Kitchenware would send me the tapes and I always enjoyed them and was impressed by how good his home studio recordings were becoming.
During those years, which also ushered in the era of Internet music and self-publishing by artists, I repeatedly told Paddy I thought he should ditch his major label contract altogether and just release his stuff himself via the Net. His output was so prolific that he could easily have released two or three albums per year, maintained a great mailing list (his brother Martin having become something of a Web expert), and made a perfectly good living without any interference from A+R men and radio promotion people. But he is quite conservative in his view of the music business, and always felt that success had to include the conventional trimmings of commercial acceptance, like seeing your poster in the window of WHSmiths, getting played on BBC Radio 1, and so on. He’s perfectly entitled to cling to that view. In this day and age though, what’s survived of the Industry star machinery is reserved for celebrity-hungry 20-something hotties that can sing, dance and disrobe like world champs. Paddy’s health is not good and he’s in no mood to be out there under the spotlights, so perhaps now he will reconsider my suggestion and make some new music to release softly on the Internet for the legions of devoted Sprouts fans to enjoy.
A couple of years ago Keith Armstrong, the Sprouts’ manager, talked Paddy into the idea of reviving ‘Let’s Change The World With Music’ and releasing it independently. With the help of engineer Callum Michael, Paddy cleaned up the recordings and replaced a few parts, though he stuck with the original vocals. It’s a pretty sweet-sounding record. Of course, I feel it would have been even better if the mainly programmed backing could have been replaced Martin, Wendy Smith and Neil Conti, and the whole package produced by me. After all it’s been billed as a Prefab Sprout album, not a solo project like Paddy’s beautiful ‘I Trawl The Megahertz.’ But this release needed to be swift and the costs kept low. One of the challenges of the new music business landscape is how to pull off a project that requires several musicians and expensive recording studios, without going heavily into debt with a label who will then demand their pound of flesh in return. There’s not really a new system in place for compensating musicians and producers without incurring the huge ridiculous costs of accounting and royalty calculations.
Still, what we’re left with is a gorgeous piece of work. I’m really glad it saw the light of day, and hope that its warm reception from fans and critics alike will encourage Paddy to do some new work, despite the problems he’s having with his hearing and eyesight. If you want to feel inspired, just read his sleeve notes, about Brian Wilson and ‘The yawning caves of blue.’ He’s a brilliant writer and would make a fine novellist. There’s a very candid interview with him transcribed here which explains the album much better than I can. Do seek it out if you can. I notice it’s not on iTunes for some reason but it is on Amazon.