Otherworldly Creature, Benign Visitor: Prince Remembered, By Simon Price
, April 22nd, 2016 11:30
Prince devotee Simon Price offers a personal remembrance of the music genius, tracing through the unparalleled back catalogue and career of a man who seemed a "super-being who could literally do anything"
Gotta Broken Heart Again. Even in the context of this absolute rancid shithouse of a year – if 2016 had told us, on New Year's Day, that we'd be living in a world without David Bowie and Prince in it (not to mention all the other fallen heroes), we'd tell 2016 to fuck off and come back with a better offer – the sudden death of Prince comes as a cataclysm from a clear blue sky. Make no mistake about the significance of this one. Prince was (and yes, to speak of him in the past tense will feel weird and wrong for quite a while) The Man. The absolute don. The greatest music genius – in the purest sense of that word – of the pop era.
The shock of his demise is heightened by the fact that the 57-year-old appeared ridiculously healthy and youthful, barely touched by the ageing process, and was still doing the splits onstage and pirouetting like an ice dancer well into his fifties. Famously clean-living (apart from all the sex), his only vices the occasional banana daiquiri and a dabbling with ecstasy in the '80s, he would, it surely seemed, outlive us all. This otherworldly creature – Prince felt like a benign visitor to the planet, rather than a native inhabitant – seemed so immortal that even last week's news of his temporary hospitalisation with flu symptoms was hard to process. Prince was never merely 'one of us'.
Put simply, Prince Rogers Nelson was a FREAK, by every conceivable definition. To say "we'll never see his like again" sounds a cliché, but consider this: there's probably a one-in-70-billion chance of anyone being born with that indecent level of sheer talent, and there are seven billion humans on earth. Even then, they wouldn't know what to do with it. Prince, crucially, knew what to do with it.
Born in Minneapolis in 1958 into a musical family (his mother was a jazz singer, his father a pianist) of Louisiana ancestry, he was a shy child with epilepsy, whose life was thrown into turmoil at the age of ten when his parents separated, which scarred him sufficiently that he was still working it through in the lyrics to 'When Doves Cry' and the plotline to Purple Rain. In his teens his self-confidence grew, chiefly through music and basketball (perhaps, along with sex, his only lifelong passions). While still in high school, he joined his cousin Charles Smith's band Grand Central along with his friend André Anderson (later Cymone), who would feature in Prince's early backing band, and also his Purple Rain nemesis and future leader of The Time, Morris Day on drums.
Rapidly gaining a reputation on the Minneapolis scene, the ludicrously talented youngster was spotted by local producer Chris Moon who, with the help of entrepreneur Owen Husney, brought his demos to the attention of Warner Bros., who signed the kid with a six-figure recording contract, granting him full artistic control, an unprecedented deal for an unknown 18-year-old.
Breaking the news locally in 1977, the St Paul Dispatch described his sound as "sweet, funky disco-soul", and initially at least, that was about the size of it. To the untrained ear, there was little in Prince's debut, For You (1978), or its self-titled follow-up a year later to suggest that he was anything other than a junior Rick James/Sylvester clone. Despite the effortless effervescence of the jubilant no.11 hit 'I Wanna Be Your Lover' and future Chaka Khan smash 'I Feel For You', only one track, 'Bambi', with its orgiastic rock guitars and storyline about the singer trying to seduce a lesbian, pointed the way forward to his genre-busting, sexually-ravenous imperial phase.
For all the rancour between Prince and his label in the middle part of his career, Warner deserve credit for sticking with a teenage upstart who didn't truly find himself till his third album, didn't make it big until his fifth, and didn't go supernova till his sixth. Dirty Mind (1980) was the first truly great Prince album, and still ranks among any sane Prince top five. From the minimal electro-funk of its title track onwards, Dirty Mind was the sound of an artist hitting his stride, with standout tracks including the utopian 'Uptown', on which Prince fantasises about a racial and sexual interzone ("White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin'"), the twisted 'Sister', with its incest narrative, and above all, the new wave power-pop diamond 'When You Were Mine', with its exquisite tale of lovelorn jealousy ("You let all my friends come over and meet/ And you were so strange/ You didn't have the decency To change the sheets").
Fourth album Controversy (1981), while not actively a dud – it's actually a lot of fun - was a case of treading water, and could as easily have been called Consolidation. It was with 1999 (released in 1982), the anthemic power of its synth-funk monster of a title track, and the FM radio-friendly follow-up 'Little Red Corvette', that Prince cracked the Billboard charts. But beyond those two smash singles, and the daft third one 'Delirious', 1999 showed Prince's experimentalism coming into its own on tracks like 'Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)', with its woozy synths and backward beats.
It was Purple Rain, released in 1984, of course, which turned Prince into one of the biggest international superstars of the decade. The self-mythologising movie, a fictionalised account of his own story so far, and its accompanying nine-song soundtrack were huge in America – at one point, he held the no.1 album, no.1 single and no.1 film (as well as picking up an Oscar) - but also broke him worldwide.
Which is where I enter the Prince story, or he enters mine. I can still remember exactly where I was standing when 'When Doves Cry' came over the radio and nearly floored me. N 51° 23' 42.044' W 3° 17' 18.903'', since you ask. With its squealing Hendrix guitars, beautifully simple synths, brutal electronic drums and baroque harpsichords, it sounded like nothing on earth, and indeed seemed to hover somewhere ABOVE the earth (a trick achieved, famously, by the absence of a bassline, leaving the listener to mentally sketch one in). It had a lyric dripping with vivid poetry and torrid passion: "Dream if you can a courtyard/ An ocean of violets in bloom/ Animals strike curious poses/ They feel the heat/ The heat between me and you..." It expressed a sense of profound regret and remorse, underscored by a terror of repeating the mistakes of one's own parents. To make this masterpiece even more unnerving, legend has it that the entire song was written overnight at the behest of Warner Bros., purely because the director of Purple Rain needed another track to go with a montage in the movie. It remains, to my mind, the greatest record ever made.
The album didn't disappoint. Even without the visuals, the emotionally overwrought 'The Beautiful Ones' and the country-tinged epic 'Purple Rain' sent a whole imaginary screenplay rolling in your head, not to mention the perverse sub-dom scenario suggested by 'Computer Blue', or the supremely sleazy 'Darling Nikki', whose lyric about a woman masturbating in a hotel lobby single-handedly inspired the pro-censorship group PMRC (aka the Washington Wives) to campaign for Parental Advisory stickers on LP sleeves.
I bought into Prince's The Kid character – a flamboyant, romantic dandy and a troubled, misunderstood loner – big time, and even tried to cop his Louis XIV-meets-George Clinton style on a schoolboy's budget, despite being a weedy Welsh kid with auburn hair and freckles, and travelled all the way to Birmingham to see Purple Rain in the cinema because I was too impatient to wait for it to open in Cardiff. (I've since watched it about 40 times.) It's an obsession which stayed with me: years later, my first tattoo was a Prince symbol.
What made Prince so appealing, and what made him define the spirit of the decade, was his ability to transcend. "Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" he teased on 'Controversy'. On 'I Would Die 4 U', he declared: "I'm not a woman. I'm not a man. I am something that you'll never understand." Despite clearly being a rampantly heterosexual male, he adopted an androgynous alter-ego called Camille circa Sign "☮" The Times, wore female underwear and make-up, and allowed himself to be photographed in a feminised, doe-eyed, objectifiable way. And, making playful reference to his light skin tone during live covers of 'Play That Funky Music', he would invariably interject, "Who you calling white?"
What made his records so viable, however, was his ability to transcend genre. He wasn't the first black artist to strike gold by mixing rock and soul. But where the Eddie Van Halen guitar on Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' sounded bolted-on, Prince lived, breathed and sweated rock as naturally as any other musical form. He could do genre – there are few soul men who could out-soul 'Adore', few funkateers who could out-funk 'Sexy MF' – but he was at his most successful, commercially and artistically, when throwing genre out of the window and effectively becoming a genre unto himself. That's why it's futile to compare Prince to any other individual artist: he was Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Sly Stone and David Bowie rolled into one, and then some.
I often say that Prince was 'my Bowie'. Which may seem odd, because Bowie was 'my Bowie' too. But David Bowie made his greatest music when I was still a small infant, and I only discovered it in retrospect. Prince I experienced in real time, along with that heady thrill of wondering what the hell he was going to come up with next, with his music and his image. For those of us who loved them both, it's pleasing to know that there was a mutual admiration between the two, from a distance: Charles Shaar Murray interviewed Bowie in 1984 and asked him what he thought of Michael Jackson. Bowie replied that he was far more interested in Prince. After Bowie's death this year, Prince paid tribute onstage: "Peace to David Bowie. I met him once, he was real nice to me. Seems like he was that way with everybody." A cover of Bowie's '"Heroes"' became a regular fixture in Prince's Piano & A Microphone solo tour.
Prince defined the '80s in the same way that Bowie defined the '70s. The two aren't perfectly interchangeable. Whereas Bowie brilliantly constructed an alien persona, Prince seemed genuinely alien, not-of-this-world. And for Bowie, the master collaborator, it took a mess of help to stand alone. Prince just needed Prince. With all due respect to his pool of musicians – and boy, did he have some great musicians at his disposal, from the Revolution through NPG to 3rdEyeGirl – Prince could play any instrument better than anyone in his backing band, and it was only the failure of science to perfect human cloning that obliged him to hire anyone to stand beside him.
The danger with any virtuoso musician is that they fall helplessly in love with their own prowess, and cannot resist the temptation to show off, ad nauseam. God knows Prince had his moments, and at times in the '90s was all too keen to turn any gig (and especially any of his word-of-mouth after-show parties) into one interminable technically-dazzling funk jam. But at his best, Prince knew when not to play. You can trace a line of inspired minimalism from 'When Doves Cry' through 'Kiss' and 'Sign '☮' The Times' and 'Hot Thing' to The Black Album's brutal 'Bob George'.
Prince's Bowie-like unpredictability was too confusing, for some. Anyone expecting Purple Rain: Part Two was baffled when he followed his big breakthrough with Around The World In A Day in 1985, a beatific flower power/psych-pop record without any hard rock bangers. However, it's arguably the most underestimated record of Prince's golden years, boasting the killer single 'Raspberry Beret', the sublime 'Pop Life' and the stunning ballad 'Condition Of The Heart'.
Parade (1986) was the soundtrack to Prince's second film, Under The Cherry Moon, a Côte d'Azur caper whose slight storyline and questionable acting means that it works better with the sound down. The album, though, is a truly phenomenal piece of work, taking in French chanson, jazz-funk, piano ballads and, above all, the uncategorisable but utterly pop 'Kiss'. I'll never forget Steve Wright in the Afternoon premiering the single, and falling about laughing with his studio posse at this supposedly awful record which proved Prince had gone completely insane. It topped the Billboard charts, reached top tens around the world and became one of Prince's deathless signature songs.
If Parade isn't Prince's finest album (and it's a mighty contender), then Sign "☮" The Times (1987) surely is. Despite being two discs and 16 tracks long, Prince's magnum opus is near faultless, from the on-point social commentary and edgy, paranoid minimalism of its title track, through the thunking call-and-response funk of 'Housequake' and the gloriously effortless power-pop of 'I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man' to the dark, claustrophobic intimacy of 'If I Was Your Girlfriend', the Prince track that most closely rivals 'When Doves Cry' as unimpeachable, incontrovertible proof of his genius.
His songwriting was becoming so prolific that he was able to pen and produce hits for other stars (The Bangles, Sheila E, Martika) as well as nurturing his own stable of artists (Vanity 6/Apollonia 6, The Time, The Family, Jill Jones and so on). Little wonder that he tried, against Warner's advice, to put out two albums in the same year. The Black Album, scheduled for a late 1987 release but mysteriously pulled from the schedules, was widely interpreted as Prince's attempt to reconnect with his African-American audience, and I've written about it recently in a separate article for the Quietus.
The Black Album's replacement Lovesexy (1988) is generally held to be his Scary Monsters, i.e. the last great album which everyone can agree on, and it's worthy of that accolade. It's the album on which he's most audibly struggling to reconcile his obsession with sex and his burgeoning interest in religion. (Although his own conversion to the Jehovah's Witness faith was some way off: there was a decade of his own cod-spiritual crypto-religion to get through first.) Lovesexy's best-known track is the poptastic 'Alphabet St.', but its finest moment is the haunting, neo-classical 'Anna Stesia'. Prince's classical influence goes far further than merely namechecking Mahler on 'Eye Hate U', and can also be heard on tracks like 'The Question Of U' from Graffiti Bridge (1990), but never more obviously than on 'Anna Stesia'. Pete Townshend – perhaps in response to that song, perhaps not – compared Prince to Mozart. He wasn't wrong.
The Lovesexy tour at Wembley Arena was the first Prince gig I ever saw, and remains one of the top five gigs by any performer. (The other four are also by Prince.) His reputation as a live performer, even when the hits dried up, was utterly well-deserved: when Prince was in the mood to entertain, nobody else could come close. That night at Wembley, I remember him throwing a basketball without looking, and getting it through the hoop. The sensation that we were watching some kind of super-being who could literally do anything was overwhelming. (When I interviewed Stevie Nicks a few years ago, she told me the story of the time she heard 'Little Red Corvette' on the radio while driving, and decided to lift the chord progression for her own song 'Stand Back'. She phoned Prince to ask his permission, and he agreed, as long as he could come in and play keyboards – uncredited – on the recording. Once the track was laid down, he persuaded Stevie to play basketball with him in the studio car park, a mental image that leaves one wishing that a CCTV camera captured the whole thing.)
If Lovesexy was Prince's Scary Monsters, then by that metric, the Batman soundtrack functions as his shark-jump. But he frequently rediscovered his touch in subsequent years, on tracks like the rutting shag-beast 'Gett Off', the deft, impossibly funky 'Sexy MF' and the Bolan-esque 'Cream'.
Every casual admirer has their cut-off point with Prince, and there's a decent case to be made that his quality control did become lax in later years, but you could never write him off completely. Every album would have at least something astonishing lurking within it, and every hardcore fan will tell you they could put together a mixtape or playlist from the years since 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World' – his last (and in the UK, biggest) proper hit – that would blow your mind.
Of course, they'll also tell you that the officially-released output is just the tip of the iceberg. Prince's famous vault of unrecorded songs ain't no fiction. A selection of these rarities were eventually released on Crystal Ball (1998) and The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale (1999) but the superior bootleg versions in circulation suggest there's more – and better – where they came from. The film director Kevin Smith, invited to Prince's Paisley Park complex with a view to making a documentary that never transpired, was made privy to just some of it, including singles-in-waiting complete with videos. Their fate, at the time of writing, remains uncertain. But don't hold your breath.
Prince leaves us no Blackstar, no coded farewell to the world. As far as the world knows, he had no inkling of his own imminent demise, even if, inevitably, the cryptic lyrics of the song 'Revelation' on his most recent release, HITnRUN Phase Two, will be pored over by Prince-watchers for clues.
Equally inevitably, if there's any silver lining to the devastating news of Prince's death, it's that his old albums will sell by the truckload, as was the case with Bowie, and younger musicians may start to investigate his unparalleled back catalogue, and be emboldened and inspired to follow the example of a true individualist who never compromised, and followed his own muse to the very end.