(Michael's note: I knew Prince for a few songs - love Gold - but wasn't really a fan. I know lots were though, but no worries, you're in the hands of the superb Mr Arnold for his reminisces about the Artist formerly known...)
His name was Prince and he was, undoubtedly, funky.
Of the three pop stars born in the same year who ruled the decade when pop exerted its greatest cultural influence he was the most remarkable. Madonna and Michael Jackson were extraordinary performers: Madonna’s burning ambition and work ethic covered up an unremarkable voice and no one in the pop era has combined singing and dancing with the verve and perfectionism of Jackson (we’ll moonwalk gently past his private life here). Prince though… he was something else again. To the showmanship he shared with the others he added a musical virtuosity unparalleled by any major pop star and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of effortlessly inventive pop songs. This was a man with so prodigious an output he could afford to gift songs of the calibre of I Feel For You, Manic Monday and Nothing Compares 2 U to other artists and, in doing so, revive or make their careers. I might have been a touch too young to fully appreciate the majesty of his Purple Rain era output but I was certainly the right age to be grateful to him for making Susanna Hoffs and the Bangles international stars.
As with the other performers, his parents can explain some of the explanation for Prince’s genius. Where Madonna was partly driven by the death of her mother and Jackson’s domineering father forced his sons to perform, Prince grew up around jazz: his mother was a jazz singer and his father a pianist. It's easy to see the influence of jazz on his later work, particularly if you were lucky enough to see him live when he could seemingly effortlessly improvise new sections within the songs, his band following his lead. His given names came from the one his father used on stage. In a very real sense he was nurtured to perform.
He'd written his first song, Funk Machine, by the age of seven. By the time he was 18 he'd signed a record contract with Warner Bros, remarkably achieving creative control and ownership of the publishing rights for the first three albums. He was still two months short of his twentieth birthday when his first album For You was released with one of the most remarkable credits: produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince. Not yet 20 he'd played every one of the 27 instruments on the record as well as undertaking every other duty in the album bar some lyrics for the single ‘Soft and Wet’.
It's far from the most thrilling or accomplished album he released but as a calling card for a singular talent it’s remarkable. A case of not only write the theme tune, sing the theme tune but make the TV series to go with it, star in it and direct it too. It sold solidly but not enough to make a huge impact. Impatient for success his breakthrough came with the first single from his second album. I Wanna Be Your Lover became his first hit, falling just outside the top ten. His success was consolidated with the Dirty Mind and Controversy, establishing him as a successor to the likes of James Brown and Sly Stone with often filthiest lyrics. But it was his fifth album in five years that established him as a major mainstream star. The sultry Little Red Corvette was followed by a re-release of his first great single, the album’s title track 1999. It paved the way for a run of albums that were to the Eighties what Bowie was to the Seventies and the Beatles to the Sixties: a series of high class records that married innovation with an innate pop nous.
It began with Purple Rain. The film is Prince’s best (not, admittedly, a hotly contested accolade) but the soundtrack… the soundtrack album remains not only one of the finest soundtrack albums of all time but one of the finest albums of all time. If there's an album that’s peak Prince this is it. It has everything you need to know about Prince bound up in a mere nine songs and with no musical fat at all. It has Prince’s raised eyebrow sense of fun, some healthy filth (Darling Nikki, which prompted the introduction of Parental Advisory stickers, helpfully giving many teens pointers towards the stuff they theoretically shouldn't be listening to), ladles of funk and bold, brilliant songs. Backed by The Revolution, the finest of his many backing bands, it opens with the call to the dance floor Let’s Go Crazy and winds through some typically lascivious slow jams and funk before, at the point where you used to have to flip the record over giving the finest side of vinyl there ever was.
When Doves Cry, infamously, is a funk song without the most vital part of any funk record – the bassline. And yet, carried by Prince’s somehow vulnerable alpha male vocals and urgent synths it's irresistible. Time and a million imitators have dulled exactly how strange a record it is but it remains a compelling, urgent song. I Would Die 4 U is the ultimate profession of love, leading into the typically immodest Baby I’m a Star. And then after that breathlessly urgent workout a languid eight minutes and forty-one seconds that was the sound of a man reaching the peak of his talents. Purple Rain is now a rock monument to go with the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody but the sheer melodrama and emotion save it from museum piece status. It's not an innovative lyric - it's a very Prince lyric of longing and attempted seduction – but it's invested with an insane intensity and melodrama before peaking with as great as guitar solo as has been recorded. Musicians on top of their game are said to make their instruments talk but Prince goes beyond that here, expressing through music what mere words would be inadequate for. There's a good case to be made that one of pop’s greatest decades peaked with that solo and Prince’s wordless howls of lust.
Prince wisely never tried to make Purple Rain again. His output was too prodigious for him to consider resting on his laurels – by the time of his death he’d made 39 official albums, a slew of associated projects and allegedly still had vaults full of unreleased material. Between the sex and the song writing you wonder if he ever slept. Many artists either waste their prime or fall into the album-tour-album grind. Prince? By 1992 he’d released Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign O’ the Times (a double album cut down from a triple!), Lovesexy, a soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman movie, Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds and Pearls.
He released enough classic singles to shame the entire careers of artists happily enshrined in the Hall of Fame: Raspberry Beret, Kiss, Sign o’ the Times, If I Was Your Girlfriend, U Got the Look, I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man, Alphabet St, Batdance, Partyman, Gett Off, Cream… and that’s without touching the surface with album tracks such as Sometimes it Snows in April, The Ballad of Dorothy Parker or Starfish and Coffee. He rocked, he rolled, he funked and rarely put a foot wrong. Commercially he still had it too – Diamonds and Pearls was his bestselling album since Purple Rain.
If there's a point at which Prince fell from grace it came in late 1992, with the release of an album with a hieroglyphic squiggle for a title (it’s a stylised combination of masculine and feminine symbols and means ‘love’). It began with a couple of classic Prince funk workouts, Sexy MF and the self-sampling My Name Is Prince. During the campaign for the album he began to claim his name was no longer Prince and was now the ‘love’ symbol. This was part of a contractual dispute with Warner Brothers, who became possibly the first record label in history to ask an artist to slow down. Prince, enraged began to actually press to release more material to fulfil the terms of his contract and allow him to be free. He took to appearing with ‘Slave’ written on his face (parodied at one awards ceremony by Blur’s Dave Rowntree who wrote ‘Dave’ on his cheek).
Amidst this chaos, amongst other albums came the underrated The Gold Experience which featured his sole UK no 1 (The Most Beautiful Girl in the World) and late period masterpiece Gold, which features Prince’s second great solo. After fulfilling his contract with Warner Bros he was free of his contract and immediately celebrated by marrying Mayte Garcia and releasing the triple disc Emancipation. It’s remarkable not only for the volume of music but for it being the first time Prince had included covers on his albums (naturally they’re terrific: recognisably the same songs but unmistakably Princed up). His first marriage was short lived and touched by tragedy, in the three years of marriage the couple suffered a miscarriage and a child who died when only a week old.
By 2000 he reclaimed his old name and returned to a major label and giving interviews (although he continued to play the purple love symbol guitar he’d had made) as well as becoming a Jehovah’s Witness. By 2004 his showbiz rehabilitation was complete. He played at the Grammy's and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the latter ceremony he took part in an all star version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Tom Petty, Stevie Winwood and Dhani Harrison as a tribute to George Harrison. It’s a fine version and then at three and a half minutes Prince takes over. You haven’t heard what you might think is a guitar weeping until you’ve heard it. I showed this to a guitar playing friend of mine and his jaw hit the floor. Not just for the extraordinary solo but but because he was doing things that the model of guitar simply shouldn't be capable of.
All the time he was producing music at the same prodigious rate as well as remarrying and divorcing. He opened a club in Las Vegas, released an album via the Mail on Sunday and in 2009 played what Billboard later named as the best of the Super Bowl halftime shows. Performing on a neon love symbol stage he interspersed his own greatest hits with bits of We Will Rock You, Proud Mary, All Along the Watchtower and a version of Best of You which Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins described as ‘actually doing it better than we did’. It was arguably Prince’s last great world conquering pop culture moment. Soon after he announced a 21 night residency at the O2 arena in London: a run with no setlist, no autocue and where the band would only find out what they were playing by the use of codewords. And all that before a nightly after show party (a regular feature of his gigs).
He continued to be prolific, releasing four albums in the final two years of his life and reconciling and resigning with Warner Bros. It’s likely that his inability to slow down contributed to his death: despite being hospitalised in April (his plane having to make an emergency landing to get him there) he returned to his workaholic habits instead of resting and recovering. Unlike David Bowie, whose Blackstar had been written in the full knowledge of terminal illness, Prince’s demise was sudden, an accidental overdose of the drug fentanyl. The showman simply turned out the lights rather than providing a satisfying climax: the only time in his career he could be accused of doing so.
Like Bowie it felt as if the world had stopped, even Presidents and Prime Ministers were reduced to grieving fans. As the man himself put it ‘…all good things, they say, never last.’
Although there, he was slightly wrong, because we’ll always have some of the most remarkable music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Baby, he was a star.