top of page
  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


A most trusted musical cohort of mine asked the other day through the medium of the face book to list five songs that made you cry. I don't know if he was feeling particularly melancholy or perhaps was so deliriously happy he was feeling guilty and thought he needed to counterbalance - I suspect the latter. Anyway, you, dear reader, will know that I love a FabFive (though this article is not a contribution to that section of the blog) and I dutifully drew up my list.

For me, straight in at number one was "Alone Again Naturally" by Gilbert O'Sullivan which has the double whammy of a jilted groom (with threatened suicide attempt) and two parental bereavements, and I find cannot be topped (pun intended). However, as part of the list, I also included the heartbreaking "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" by Glen Campbell to which the afore-mentioned cohort questioned whether it should not be "Wichita Lineman" instead. I have always found that a far more uplifting and inspirational song but this led me to consider the song's lyrical ambiguity - is our itinerant phone engineer dreaming or pining?

Of course, both of these were written by the genius, Jimmy Webb, who is undoubtedly one of the masters of storytelling in song both through his lyrics and the melodies he produces to elevate them. Indeed, he is the only man who has won Grammys for music, lyrics and orchestration.

It is perhaps his eye for small details that makes his songs reverberate so much - the non-answered telephone call, the devotion to doing a job properly etc - and he himself says that much of his best music comes when dealing with what he calls "crushed lonely hearts" and at some stage or another, everyone knows how that feels.

Coincidentally, I also managed to track down a rather nice French pressing of "Crimson/Red" the 2013 release from Prefab Sprout. In truth, this was not an album performed by the band but actually made in his studio by Paddy McAloon (known only to me and one other as "The Immaculate"). The other story is that it needed to be made quickly in order to fulfil a contractual obligation; so Paddy, who notoriously stockpiles songs over decades, pulled out a few he thought might work.

And thank goodness he did.

"Crimson/Red" is certainly one of the most satisfying pieces of work they have ever produced and that's from a band who have managed to avoid any terrifying skeletons lurking in their back catalogue. Before you say "The King Of Rock And Roll" - their only UK Top 10 flirtation and described by Paul McCartney as his "My Ding-a-Ling" moment. I gained a little more respect for it when Paddy said he was actually trying to write a Japanese haiku about America.

Hot Dog

Jumping Frog


He is one of the few writers I could actually imagine thinking like that. That said, there is "Farmyard Cat" on "The Gunman And Other Stories" which proves he is actually human.

Nevertheless, for what he thought of as a ragbag of songs he had on his shelves, he produced some of the best lyrical stories I had heard in years - filled with wordplays, characterisations and hook after hook. The opener "The Best Jewel Thief In The World" is his own take on the arrogance needed to be a writer - as ever it manages to be self-effacing and joyous all at once.

Paddy has always liked to write about his musical heroes. "Jordan The Comeback" had many references to Elvis Presley whilst "Cars And Girls" from the previous album to that was his (perhaps unjust) attack on the limited nature of Springsteen's musical inspiration. There are also rumours of an entire album about Michael Jackson locked away in his vaults.

And in "Crimson/Red" whilst there are delightful references to "Francis of Hoboken" he also writes a tribute to Bob Dylan called "Adolescence" with references to a "psychedelic motorbike" amongst others capturing the wild, boundary-pushing nature of the old legend.

But the tributes do not end there as he also includes "The Songs Of Danny Galway" which was a tribute to Jimmy Webb, a writer to whom he has often been compared. It was based on a meeting between the two in Ireland in 1991 when they had performed together on a TV show - what a treat that must have been. Again the admiration is palpable.

The comparisons are often made because of their ability to write such involving stories in their music filled with characters, observations and very human dilemmas. "Crimson/Red" is full of them - playing to Webb's notions of crushed romance, there is the moving "Grief Built The Taj Mahal" whilst "The Old Magician" ruminates poignantly on the debilitating progression into later life.

Though he can also lighten the mood with songs such as "Billy" where he dips in and out of playing the main character and the questioner which highlights once again Paddy's own love affair with music. It's many listeners favourite track on the album.

Mine however, is the astonishing Faustian rewrite "The Devil Came A-Calling" which plays once again to the band's love of The Old West - though this time not in Haiku form.

Overall, "Crimson/Red" is a very tight album sewn together with beautiful production and may well have actually been a collection of Songs Written Out Of Necessity (SWOON) it certainly did not feel like it not least because many of the songs had been percolating in the vaults for some time just aching for a chance to be given the air they undoubtedly deserve.

There are more treats to come but if you want to listen to the album and you really should click HERE.

However, although I have talked so much here about the excellent quality of the writing and production what sometimes becomes forgotten is what a unique singing voice Paddy has. Sadly, because of his preference to avoid the limelight and it is certainly unlikely we shall ever see him touring again, the opportunities to really appreciate his soft, breathy and melodic tenor is limited really to the recordings. It is a perfect match for his wordsmithing - no mumbling or raucous screaming but a gentle enunciation that brings real power to everything he produces.

And then I found this...

If ever, there was an example of the beauty of his singing voice then it comes when released on one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Its simplicity - I believe this is just from an old radio recording - it's much simpler than Glen Campbell's epic version, of course, but the performance has an honesty that is at the very heart of the song.

And here's the joy of the rabbit holes of YouTube, because somebody (Lord love them) found the clip of them performing together that I mentioned earlier and it is a real treat. Together, with their contrasting voices they perform Jimmy's "The Highwayman" with a full orchestra.

The orchestra was led by Bill Whelan who was the mastermind of the original "Riverdance" concept and much admired by musicians for his innovation and he constitutes the third part of what is a truly memorable performance.

Again, I make no apologies for my partisan devotion to Prefab Sprout but they inspire the kind of dedication that only a band like Steely Dan could comparably achieve. A fanbase that are transported through elegant words with glorious melodies and crafted production without a dance remix in sight - the pleasure further enhanced by the fact that not everybody in the room is likely to understand.

80 views3 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Jul 19, 2020

PPS I'm sure you know that Wichita Lineman was never completed. Glen recorded it after being sent an early demo that lacked the chorus Jimmy was waiting to write!


Jul 19, 2020

PS that arrangement on Highwayman is exactly the one George Martin wrote for the album of the same name that he produced for JW


Jul 19, 2020

Lovely, and what finds. As a lifer Jimmy Webb fan as well as a great admirer of Paddy, they are treasures. If you haven't come across it (its relatively recent and a bit obscure) may I recommend JW's album Still Within The Sound Of My Voice. It is full of joys, none more than to hear the man sing Macarthur Park with Brian Wilson on backing vocals!

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page