Not all the musicians who use radios to make music take the output from the transmission directly into the input of the mixing board or microphone to capture the voice of the aether. And not all of them used it as a source of direct audio sampling either. Some have trawled the megahertz and found inspiration in the voices they heard on the radio talk in shows, in the banter to be heard on the citizens band, and in the back and forth between hams in long distance rag chews over the shortwaves.
Paddy McAloon found so much inspiration listening to the radio, he created an entire album and the based the lyrical elements off of the various conversations he had heard and taped at his listening post. Paddy had been writing songs since he turned 13, but in 1999 at the age of 42, the ease with which he could write songs suddenly changed. Not from the level of his mastery of melody, hooks, and poetic pop lyricism, but on a physical level, when he suffered from the detachment of both his retinas one right after the other. Suddenly blind, he was bound to the house with nothing but free time.
Not only had Paddy been writing songs since he was 13, but he’d been in the habit of making chart topping albums with his band Prefab Sprout, started with his brother Martin, in Witton Gilbert, County Durham, England. The band played in a down on its heels gas station owned by their father, and were joined by a friend down the street, Michael Salmon drums, forming in 1977. Five years later after forging some musical chops they went into the studio to record their first single, Lions in My Own Garden (Exit Someone) with a b-side called Radio Love. The lyrics are seemingly innocuous but hide a tragic undercurrent, and it’s hard not to read an eerie prescience into the tune for Paddy’s later album Trawling the Megahertz. It starts with the static and whine of a shortwave set, and ends with the same, and the voice of a distant announcer.
“Requests for everyone / Love is on / Radio love is strong / Radio love / Shortwave for everyone / It was on the news, someone had drowned / She keeps hearing it over / All night long / All night long”.
All the years spent listening to everything from David Bowie, to Igor Stravinsky, to T. Rex, put the band in good stead as Paddy continued to refine his craft of songwriting. Having written most of his songs using guitar Paddy had a crisis around the instrument, thinking he’d exhausted it, picked up a Roland synth, and started using that to write songs with just as they were poised to start making albums. It was around this time that vocalist Wendy Smith was recruited for the band.
In 1984 came Swoon followed by 85’s Steve McQueen. This was followed by another string of album leading to Jordan in 1990. The band then went on hiatus until work began on Andromeda Heights, the last album to feature Wendy as vocalist. It was released in 1997.
Two years later Paddy’s retina detached, possibly from congenital factors. Repairing his eyes required extensive surgery and he was left blind and stuck in the house. Composing hunched over the keyboard had become impossible, and he was starting to twitchy, unable to work on new songs, and unable to read. Radio became his solace.
“I found all this frustating as I've been writing songs since 1971, and am subject to itchy, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if I cannot work. So, unable even to read, I passed the time by listening to and taping all kinds of T.V and radio programmes, concentrating on phone-ins, chat shows, citizen's band conversations, military encryptions - you name it, I was eavesdropping on it.”
McAloon found a lot of what he taped to be boring and banal, but within all the day to day chit chat of people talking on the air, he caught glimpses of the sublime, and started having moments of inspiration. In his mind he began to edit what he had heard into the spoken word lyrics for what would become his next album.
"Odd words from documentaries would cross-pollinate with melancholy confidences aired on late night phone-ins; phrases that originated in different time zones on different frequencies would team up to make new and oddly affecting sentences. And I would change details to protect the innocent (or guilty), to streamline the story that I could hear emerging, and to make it all more...musical, I suppose."
Using the snippets of radio conversation he had recorded, and further riffing off "mental edits" he’d made of these, he found the poetic moments within the plaintive complaints he heard on the radio and mixed these with things he had heard on various documentaries. A specific word like "ether" or "anesthetic" would strike him, and he started using these as launch points for his own writing. All the radio transmissions had been like a fertilizer, seeding his imagination.
“After awhile I got enough of these sentences and radio thoughts, and I thought, well, I’m not going to be able to finish the thought by listening to radio to find the words I need, so sometimes I’ll fill them in.”
He started writing musical parts to go with the words on his 1987 era Atari computer. Paddy had developed a philosophy of not wanting to use all the latest gear. “You find a piece of software you can use, you do it well, and then someone will tell you the computer you've got will break down, it's old now, you'll need to go over to a Mac. Let me tell you - I still use an Atari computer from 1987. I didn't like where the software went after that. Even on the Mac. I don't care how sophisticated it got - I knew how to use the old software in my limited way. And, finally, my eyes are not great. So I resent the learning curve with new equipment. I don't have Garage Band. I don't have a Mac. That’s what it is with me and old technology. I can't be bothered. Nor do I have the money to spend in the way I used to have. I don't have a massive guaranteed advance from a record company. I work very slowly by myself. BUT - I have a message on my studio wall that says: ‘Imagine that you crash landed on a desert island, but you've survived, you've walked away, and there's a small town there, with a recording studio, the recording studio is very old-fashioned. How thrilled would you be, having survived your plane crash and how thrilled you'd be for the most basic recording equipment?’ That's me. That's me in my home studio full of this old gear that's out of date that other people can laugh at.”
Working with the Atari computer to compose the title track on I Trawl the Megahertz, the limitations of the software gave the piece a form to materialize within and determined the length of the title track. “I spent a long time working on that just as a computer piece, using the same old rubbishy synth sounds. Do you know why it is as long as it is? This is a terrible thing to tell you! 22 minutes of music is the length you'll get on an Atari! That's a bad reason for it. But in the end when I figured out the structure of it was just gonna fall within what an Atari could do.”
The piece ends up being something of a movie to watch with your eyes closed, a narrative to listen to if you have been left without sight. Culled from the airwaves, it is also perfect piece to be played on the radio. While Paddy is mostly known for his pop songs, this long player of a track, is in a way akin to the kind of storytelling heard in the music Laurie Anderson and in the operas of Robert Ashley. It is so perfectly suited for transmission itself. While not a radio drama, it can be listened to as a radio drama, these kind of works could form the basis for revivification of radio drama, infused with specially composed music, and a delight to people to near and far, who happen to tune, out of the blue and right on schedule.
And though written on the Atari, the album proper ended up being recorded with a classical crossover ensemble, Mr. McFalls Chamber. Co-producer Calum Malcolm and composer David McGuinness helped Paddy to take his original MIDI versions and produce scores from them for the final recordings. The final result is an breathtaking excursion into neo-romantic chamber pop. Echoes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Leonard Bernstein swirl and coalesce with the tender reading of his poetic text by vocalist Yvonne Connors.
On the second side there are eight more tracks, mostly instrumental. I’m 49 is the only one to use samples of the actual recordings he’d made off the air to deliver a melancholic meditation on one man’s post-divorce mid-life crisis. At a time when Paddy had been suffering from the trials and travails of his own life, and the curveballs it had thrown at him, he plumbed the depths of our shared human condition, and found companionship and comfort in the voices that called out to him across the expansive aether.
Special thanks to One Deck Pete for reminding me of this story.
Read the rest of the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY series.
Paddy McAloon, I Trawl the Megahertz , Liberty EMI, 2003
Prefab Sprout, I Trawl the Megahertz (Remastered), Sony Music 2019
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.