Prince: Revolutionary Transmissions From Beyond The Greatest Hits
, February 3rd, 2010 05:23
While there's nothing wrong with a Prince hits anthology or two, this doesn't even begin to tell the story. Petra Davis, Joe Stannard, Al Denney, Wyndham Wallace, David Moats and John Tatlock choose their favourite non-single tracks...
Prince singles don't tell the whole story, so here is a collection of his best album tracks and... SHUT UP ALREADY! DAMN!
'Lady Cab Driver' from 1999 (1982)
Compared to some of the musical hubris displayed on 1999, 'Lady Cab Driver' starts off quite unassumingly - a relatively pedestrian bass riff with some tasteful brass. No space-age synths, just good old-fashioned, driving funk.
And then comes the bridge. For several minutes, Prince seemingly delivers his lines through clenched teeth as he gives some lady a good seeing to - dedicating each amorous thrust to: cab drivers, politicians, discrimination, not being tall, the rich (just the greedy ones), himself, the poor, the creator of man (and the son). Who knew dirty talk could be so profound. Just try saying "This is for _ " under your breath next time you cop off. It's way sexier than your normal internal monologue of "Am I doing it right?"
Indecently, the moaning lady on the receiving end sounds like she's in a different room entirely, which suggests that maybe Prince is not that short after all.
‘Erotic City’ B-side to 'Let's Go Crazy' (1984)
Every bit as bare-bones electric as his masterpiece, ‘When Doves Cry’, this B-side to ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was a stealth club smash and smoking-hot vocal collaboration with Sheila E, the lady for whom Prince would allegedly pen The Black Album as a birthday gift. The buzzing chemistry between the pair as they wilfully confound the words ‘funk’ and ‘fuck’ over a predatory, circling bass line is a joy; the lyrics are sheer ripest perfection: “Every time I comb my hair, thoughts of you get in my eyes/ you’re a sinner, I don’t care - I just want your creamy thighs." Al Denney
'Life Can Be So Nice' from Parade (1986)
Could this be a nod to Pink Floyd's terrific 1968 single 'It Would Be So Nice'? It'd make sense given the paisley-tinged direction Prince pursued after the multimedia blowout of Purple Rain. This song boasts a similar theme of everyday life viewed through a kaleidoscopic prism – where Floyd's Rick Wright politely enquires as to whether we've read “the Daily Staaaaandard” Prince dismisses scrambled eggs as “so boring” en route to declaring that “this wonderful world is paradise”. One of the many highlights of the thoroughly astonishing Parade, this song is a dizzy forward tumble urged on by drummer Bobby Z's persistent pounding, Dr Fink's cuckoo keys and Wendy and Lisa's hare-brained back-up chatter. The guitars also reveal Prince (and possibly Wendy) anticipating the skittering steez of Fennesz without recourse to digital signal processing. Prince wasn't just revisiting psychedelia, he was attempting a reinvention, at roughly the same time as the real new psych of acid house was jacking its way out of Chicago. It's interesting to compare and contrast the two, in cultural as well as sonic terms – but of course, Prince has never, ever, ever, ever, ever done any drugs in his entire life, so to suggest that this song sounds a lot like an early report back from the then-mysterious land of Ecstasy would be, um, inappropriate. Joe Stannard
‘How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore’ B-side to '1999' (1984)
This gospel-tinged beauty is a stand-out moment in a back-catalogue of ballads that occasionally tends towards the craftsmanlike and seems to draw out the tedious r&b muso in His Royal Purpleness. Prince has never been a great singer exactly, but he’s rarely used his striking falsetto to better effect than here, punctuated as it is with shiversome asides and swoops into normal register. The lack of studio gimmickry helps, too, giving space for the stabbing, bluesy piano to sing out its loneliness with sensual grace. Alicia Keys turned this into a minor hit years later, but her phrasing remains near-identical to the original, and the polite hip-hop backing track glosses over the unvarnished soul that's on display here. Al Denney
'Lovesexy' from Lovesexy (1988)
Its parent album in microcosm, 'Lovesexy' is neoclassical jazz-inflected new age funk rock in excelsis, the references to “race cars burning rubber in my pants” giving some clue as to its unorthodox nature. The song begins with what seems like an extremely basic melody, but this is eventually abandoned in favour of a series of vocal fragments subjected to all manner of time-stretching perversion. Prince's voice and that of playmate Cat are sped up, slowed down, twisted, refracted and merged in glorious illustration of the polymorphous sexuality-as-spirituality of the lyric, a crazed conflation of the philosophies of George Clinton, the Reverend Al Green and Wilhelm Reich. Our hero's excitement reaches such a fever pitch at one point that his voice buckles and warps until it resembles a puddle of sonic matter frothing at the feet of God.
It's funny as fuck, too, the self-mocking asides perfectly judged: “I'll make love to you... tomorrow” offers the self-styled International Lover with a shrug and in all likelihood the same shit-eating grin he fired off-camera in the 'Raspberry Beret' video. The song is whacked even further out of shape by a series of Zappa-ish stylistic detours and horn charts which are Lovecraftian in their geometry, muscling their way in from weird angles, suggesting a mind-melting dream collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and Duke Ellington. Finally, the neo-gospel chant of “Rain is wet, sugar is sweet/Clap Your hands, stomp your feet/Everybody, everybody knows/When love calls U got 2 go” rings like the fundamental truth of all things, leaving the listener shuddering between ecclesiastical fervour and lustful devotion, not knowing whether to laugh, cry or cum. [Nurse! The bromide... Ed] Joe Stannard
'Darling Nikki' from Purple Rain (1984)
On Purple Rain, Prince's singles-laden soundtrack album, sandwiched between the cheerful Moroderisms of 'Computer Blue' and the stunning pop-psychedelia of 'When Doves Cry', lies a disturbing glimpse of aberrant genius. From stammering intro to shuddering outro, 'Darling Nikki' is determinedly, unforgettably, sinister: this is the song as succubus, less burlesque than grotesque. "I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend," explains Prince over the track's early, spare bars, "I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine." I credit this image almost exclusively with the warping of my 12-year-old sexual imagination. There's more than one way to masturbate with a magazine, after all.
Though this explicit lyrical content provoked international outrage, thereby giving the world the PMRC, Tipper Gore and Parental Advisory stickers, in fact it is the arrangement that truly drags the mind through the gutter. As the song progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to listen to at all. Chilly guitars, effects-laden and multitracked, slither around the floor of the song; urgent blastbeats bludgeon past an increasingly frantic vocal which culminates in a scream that sounds like nothing so much as a wounded dog. What follows is, if possible, even stranger: the song's outro swims into focus, a set of gospel harmonies, recorded in reverse, announcing the End Of Days. A sexual apocalypse in only 4 minutes, and to this day, genuinely hair-raising. Petra Davis
‘Nasty Girl’ by Vanity 6 (1982)
This stemmed from Prince’s idea to assemble an all-girl trio decked out as high-class prostitutes who would lip-synch odes to their own insatiable sexual appetites and, um, personal massagers. With the group’s Prince-penned ‘Nasty Girl’, we get exactly that – the video looks like Patrick Bateman's softcore fantasies minus the chainsaw – twinned with a terrific, crystal-poppin’ dance groove replete with those blaring synths. Hilariously, Prince tried and failed to persuade lead singer Denise Matthews to adopt ‘Vagina’ (pronounced ‘Vageena’) as her stage name, later settling for Vanity because looking at her was apparently like looking in the mirror at a female version of himself. The ‘6’ was added to the group’s name in tribute to the number of breasts possessed by the trio. Al Denney
'Electric Chair' from Batman (1989)
The Batman soundtrack is considerably better than received wisdom would have you believe, and though 'Electric Chair' faces stiff competition from similarly neglected gems such as 'The Future', 'Partyman' and 'Arms Of Orion', it's still the best track on the album. I'd go as far as declaring it one of the greatest all-round studio performances Prince has ever given. His guitar here is just fucking nasty, its filth and fury barely contained by the sleek titanium cage of the drum machine pattern, puncturing the song from the inside. 1988's The Black Album is usually considered the ultimate distillation of the artist's shadier impulses; in giving voice to the character of The Joker, however, Prince accesses his darker side in much more convincing style than either 'Bob George' or 'Dead On It' could allow. The song's sense of gleeful amorality is forced home by some of the finest screaming-in-tune this fellow has ever committed to tape. As evocations of spiritual decay in a violent, crime-ridden dystopia go, this one's a killer. Joe Stannard
'Sometimes It Snows In April' from Parade (1986)
He’d shocked with the bass-less ‘When Doves Cry’, the schoolboy-arousing female masturbation references in ‘Darling Nikki’, the pop-pyschedelia of ‘Pop Life’ and the sleek and shiny ‘Kiss’. But when Parade reached its conclusion, the last thing expected was a tremulous acoustic ballad that ached for Christopher Tracy, the deceased fictional character he played in the doomed Under The Cherry Moon film (to which Parade was loosely a soundtrack). So intimate that you could hear the scratching of his fingers along the fretboard, so mournful that even his grand piano seemed to be grieving, Prince sighed with a resignation that blended a tender nostalgia for friendship and the tragedy of inescapable human frailty: “Sometimes I wish that life was never ending/ But all good things, they say, never last”. Then, just as you’re wiping the final tears from your cheeks, he lays down one last revelation that sucks the breath from your lungs: “And love, it isn't love until it's past."
Regret has never sounded so poignant. He may have been known as the imp of the perverse, but he was a poet of the platonic too.
’17 Days’ B-side to ‘When Doves Cry’ (1984)
This song also labours under the title '17 Days (the rain will come down, then U will have 2 choose. If U believe, look 2 the dawn and U shall never lose)', and again finds Prince licking his wounds following a ladyfriend's unexpected exit. Though originally conceived of as a track for Vanity 6’s second album, you could imagine Madonna doing justice to this in one of her less self-aggrandising moments - but no-one hurts quite so good as Prince. Building from an elastic bass-line and synths falling like electric snowflakes on those famously Bambi-esque eyelashes, it’s simply a great piece of pop songwriting, confirming the newfound emotional range that helped make Purple Rain a multi-million seller. The way the chorus refrain just melts into the verses, in particular, is a masterclass in economy at a time when perfection seemed to come disarmingly easily for the young Mr Rogers Nelson. Al Denney
'Automatic' from 1999 (1982)
As we know, Prince is extremely versatile, and before he started hawking copies of Watchtower door-to-door, he liked to remind us of this as often as possible. Sometimes, he told us, he liked to pretend he was married. Every so often, though, he liked to pretend he was a robot. One of the more mechanistic entries in his oeuvre and one of the less obvious highlights of 1999, the nine-minute-plus 'Automatic' showcases an oft-undervalued aspect of Prince's talent - his brilliance as an electronic musician. Here, he advances like a one-man Kraftwerk with a chromium boner, presenting himself as a helpless machine in the service of his lustful significant other while making a slave of the listener with the compulsive proto-House shudder & clunk of his beloved Linn M-1. Joe Stannard
'Crystal Ball' edit from Crystal Ball box-set (1998)
The gestation that led to Prince’s magnum opus Sign O'The Times was a fraught one. The original plan, pushed by Revolution members Wendy and Lisa, was to make an album as a democratic band, rather than another Prince & The Revolution project, in which they were little more than session players. Work commenced on what was to be the LP Dream Factory, but Prince’s megalomania and didactic working methods soon re-asserted themselves.
Wendy and Lisa threatened to quit over it, but were persuaded to stay to finish the record and the current tour. However, this perceived disloyalty niggled away at Prince, and he shortly after fired them anyway, canned the LP (much to his label Warner Brothers’ displeasure), ended his relationship with Wendy’s twin sister, and locked himself away in the studio to work obsessively and mainly alone.
After experimenting with changing the speed of his own vocal recordings, to create various indeterminately gendered alter-egos, he put the female-sounding “Camille” voice up-front, and turned in 8 tracks of concise pop-funk. Despite its bizarre origins, Warners loved the album, and had high hopes for it commercially, until Prince informed them that it was to be released under the name Camille, and he would neither do press for the album, nor acknowledge it as his work. More troublingly, he also began to talk about Camille both in the third person and as if she were a real person.
Warners flatly refused to go along with this lunacy, so he canned Camille too and began work on what was to be a triple album, the equally ill-fated Crystal Ball.
By this time, Warners, concerned that their star act was spiralling into unbankable Brian Wilson-esque madness, despatched an A&R man to find out what the hell was going on.
The legend goes that Prince, excited about his latest new direction sat the guy down and played him the title track, a Camille-led 11-minute long song about magically preventing the apocalypse by drawing ritualistic sex art on the walls of your home, featuring bizarre prog-jazz interludes, spoken word segments, an atonal flute & funeral drum intro, and introducing the world to the concept of “mathematical gas”. Prince reportedly received the bollocking of his life, and was told to stop fucking about and make an LP with some singles on it or else.
Somewhat chastened, he went back and edited everything down into the Sign O'The Times double album, leaving this song in the vault for almost a decade. If you can track down the original though, with its musings on “the purple underground”, Claire Fisher’s sinister orchestral arrangements (later to be recycled for the Batman OST), and its ever-shifting tones, styles, and bleak Book of Revelations imagery, you’re in for a demented treat. Plainly, Mr. Nelson was not a well man at this time, and his imminent evolution into a sunnily optimistic and slightly preachy bible-waver was probably necessary for his own sanity. But of all his recorded works, Crystal Ball most powerfully distils his mid 80s obsessions with identity, gender politics and the nature of faith into a compelling, if unhinged, whole. John Tatlock
‘Power Fantastic’ edit from Crystal Ball box set (1998)
As jaw-dropping an achievement as Sign O’The Times undoubtedly was, Prince had originally intended his magnum opus as a three-disc set entitled Crystal Ball – Warner Bros baulked at the idea, he was forced to reconsider, and so began a history of bad blood between artist and label, culminating in the regrettable ‘squiggle’ farrago which saw him sent up as a nutjob in the popular press. All of the tracks slated for release on Crystal Ball have surfaced in some form or another over time, but it's ‘Power Fantastic’ which speaks most eloquently of its dizzying ambition. It's a quite unspeakably grown-up sounding epic, an absolute space-cruiser of a ballad. ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’’s Joni Mitchell-inspired weepie might provide a vague sort of precedent for this, but here he’s gunning for the jazz greats and getting away with it: muted trumpets, flutes, the piano which plots a defiantly tricky course with languorous ease. The whole thing feels like you're lazily circling the plughole towards ends unknown. Basically what we’re saying is, Crystal Ball would have been the best album ever, 'til those Bugs Bunny cunts at the label came and ruined it all. Al Denney