Best. Album. Ever. (Maybe)
Paddy McAloon’s odd, poignant I Trawl the Megahertz
“Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” said Paddy McAloon, centresperson of Prefab Sprout, on their only, unrepresentative,UK Top 10 hit in 1988. Delighted as I was that the Sprouts were on Top Of The Pops and getting quizzed by Smash Hits (RIP), I didn’t really click with From Langley Park to Memphis until years later.
But I stuck with them largely because of the strength of ‘When Love Breaks Down’, arguably their best known (and loved) track, which I remember listening to in the mid 80s on late-night radio. I couldn’t fully get rid of the hiss on FM (we lived in the middle of nowhere in rural Ireland), but the music played by DJs such as Mark Cagney, John Clarke and Gerry Ryan introduced me to the Sprouts, the Blue Nile and the 12" of Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel For You’ – all of which have marked me somehow.
That music, tracks like ‘When Loves Breaks Down’, ‘Tinseltown In The Rain’, and ‘Atmospherics: Listen To The Radio’ were thrilling and complex and grown up. Obsessed with the pop charts as I was, I was shattered when they didn’t appear in the Top Ten alongside my other fave raves the Thompson Twins and other singles acts. I was still a singles buyer; albums were expensive and full of things that were, well, not-singles (tweens today have it good with the all-killer no-filler joy of iTunes and the like).
But thrilled I was nonetheless. A new rich vein of music was opening up for me; the creators of which have continued to provide me with, if not quite the startling joy of my teens, a source of pleasure not easily found in other fields. Perhaps as one ages, one really has heard it all before and overwhelmed as I now am with a bewildering amount of music, I’m not easily grabbed by the balls by a piece of music.
How odd, and great, then that Paddy McAloon has managed to bowl me over at several stages in my (and his) musical career.
I Trawl the Megahertz is a bizarre piece of work. I labelled it ‘unclassifiable’ in iTunes. While it has comparisons with Gavin Bryars, Gorecki and John Cage, it doesn’t belong in the classical section. It’s not electronica despite the snippets of talk radio and the method of its being composed (McAloon said that without certain software, he could never have executed his ideas). It’s certainly not pop or rock.
(There’s a bit of a saga about detached retinas and being housebound with only the radio to console, but you can Google that. It’s not as interesting as the music. That said, I’m very pleased that Paddy’s peepers are now OK.)
Whatever genre it is, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. The album begins with a monologue by a woman with an American accent, who is ‘telling myself the story of my life’. She doesn’t let up for the next twenty-two minutes. The collage-like narrative seems to be about loss (Your daddy loves you – he just doesn’t want to live with us anymore), anomie (I am waiting for life to start), and resignation (Repeat after me: ‘Happiness is only a habit’).
However, like so many truly great pieces of art, something is salvaged out of the sadness of simply being:
By day and night, fancy electronic dishes
are trained on the heavens.
They are listening for smudged echoes
of the moment of creation.
They are listening for the ghost of a chance.
They may help us make sense of who we are
and where we came from;
and, as a compassionate side effect,
teach us that nothing is ever lost.
Which must mean that somewhere in the ether, those same crackly transmissions I listened to under my pillow as a kid are still floating around, forever loaded with the possibility of thrill.