Paul Nolan casts a critic's ear over the great man's remarkable career...
It was a year ago today that the shock news broke that Prince had been found dead in his Paisley Park headquarters.
One of the most celebrated musicians and cultural influencers of his generation, his genius had been discussed many, many times before in Hot Press. Here's part one of the tribute we ran in our special Prince Collectors' Issue last April...
NOTHING COMPARES 2 U
With Prince’s passing, we have lost another of music’s all-time greats. Paul Nolan analyses the life and career of the Minneapolis genius.
2016 – the year that keeps taking away. It seems scarcely believable that within the space of a few months, we have lost two of the greatest and most influential musical artists of the 20th century, David Bowie and Prince. Add in the deaths of Alan Rickman, the brilliant US comic Garry Shandling and numerous other renowned figures, and the year has surely claimed more iconic cultural figures than any other in living memory – and we’re not yet in May.
For me personally, Prince’s death has eerie echoes of Bowie’s – indeed the circumstances were a virtual facsimile. They were both among my favourite ever artists, and as with Bowie, in the months leading up to Prince’s death, I had begun listening to his albums sequentially. I had also been simultaneously reading Matt Thorne’s superb account of his career, Prince, described by Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor as the artist’s “own Revolution In The Head.”
On the day before Prince died, I had listened to his 1992 Love Symbol album, whilst working in the Hot Press offices. So it was somewhat surreal to find myself on the UTV Ireland 10 o’clock news the following evening discussing his death. Those of us writing about music have had the sad feeling of being part-time obituary writers throughout the first half of 2016.
Just as with Bowie, listening to Prince’s output, as well as being an enormously pleasurable experience, simply confirmed that he was one of the greatest artists in the history of rock and pop. However, in one important respect, Prince was unparalleled – when it came to all-round ability, truly nothing could compare to him. He was in the vanguard not just as a singer and songwriter, but also as a musician, producer, live performer and cultural icon. Nobody excelled or broke as much new ground in so many different areas...
STATUS AS PROVOCATEUR
Prince Rogers Nelson was conspicuously gifted from an early age. The son of jazz singer Mattie Della (nee Shaw) and pianist and songwriter John Lewis Nelson, who was born a century ago this year (he passed away in 2001), Prince Rogers – who was given his father’s stage name – was known as a musical prodigy on the local scene in his hometown of Minneapolis.
A demo he made, at the age of just 17 sparked a bidding war amongst several record labels, but he would eventually sign with Warners and decamp to Sausalito, California to record his debut album, For You. Although it didn’t make much of a splash, either critically or commercially, the album did point to an artist with an extraordinary range of talent – famously, as well as writing the songs, he also played all of the instruments and produced the whole album by himself. Prince’s burgeoning talents as a songwriter are particularly notable on the track ‘In Love’, a brilliant psych-pop number with an irresistible groove and a memorable chorus.
Prince built on the solid achievements of his debut with his self-tilted second album, which was recorded in just a few weeks – again in California – after Warners requested a quick follow-up to his debut. Once more, his remarkable musical gifts were in evidence as he wrote, performed and produced the entire album on his own. The record opened with ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, a brilliant new wave pop number fixated on sex – the keynote lyrical subject of Prince’s career. There were similar thematic concerns on the album’s other standout track, the blistering, Hendrix-like rocker ‘Bambi’, on which the singer wailed, “Bambi, can’t you understand/ Bambi, it’s better with a man.”
Prince’s interest in sex was to develop into a full-blown obsession over his next two albums, the aptly named Dirty Mind and Controversy, released respectively in 1980 and ’81. The former’s raunchy subject matter was telegraphed by the cover, on which Prince was pictured wearing just a jacket, a cravat and his underwear.
Once again handling all of the musical and production duties – and recording for the first time in his beloved hometown of Minnesota – Prince moved in a new musical direction on the album, and conjured two awesome electro-funk workouts on both the title track and ‘Head’. For good measure, there was also an hilarious and outrageous tale of an incestuous sexual encounter, ‘Sister’, which swiftly became one of Prince’s most notorious songs.
The singer’s status as a provocateur was acknowledged in the title of his next album, Controversy, which produced several more vintage electro-funk jams, many of them possessing self-explanatory titles like ‘Sexuality’, ‘Do Me, Baby’ and ‘Jack U Off’. Clearly, when it came to women, Prince believed in adopting a policy of safety in numbers. He also had an uncanny ability to capture the paranoia of the Cold War era, an element of his work which surfaced for the first time on Controversy, in the shape of the uproarious rocker ‘Ronnie, Talk To Russia’.
PARENTAL ADVISORY – EXPLICIT CONTENT
The anxiety about nuclear war, which marked the 1980s, was to be the lyrical subject of Prince’s next single, ‘1999’, which doubled as the title track of his fifth album. Backed for the first time by his band the Revolution – showcased in the classic video for ‘1999’ – the album, a top ten hit in the US, elevated the singer from star to pop icon. His classic look of chaotic hair, frilly white shirt and purple jacket was also unveiled for the first time in the ‘1999’ clip, while the track itself was a synth-pop gem – and one of the finest tracks of the ’80s.
Elsewhere on the album, ‘Little Red Corvette’ was a powerful pop symphony and ‘Delirious’ a gloriously quirky new wave jam, while ‘All The Critics Love U In New York’ unveiled yet another string to the artist’s bow. With its hypnotic electro rhythm, deadpan vocal and wry lyrics (a satirical look at the self-conscious culture of hipness in NYC that anticipated LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’), the track was a dry run for house music, a genre on which Prince would exert considerable influence.
Prince’s unique take on dance music would also surface on the classic 1982 single ‘Nasty Girl’, a brilliant electro-pop number he produced for the all-female trio Vanity 6, fronted by his then girlfriend Vanity (initial plans to christen her ‘Vagina’ having been nixed). The song was a club sensation and would go on to soundtrack a memorable scene in Beverly Hills Cop.
His stock was at all-time high, but Prince was just getting started. He had long harboured ambitions to star in his own film, and having developed a treatment based on his own life, Purple Rain was to be the realisation of his dream. Though the film itself was a standard teen drama, the accompanying soundtrack, released in 1984, was nothing short of a masterpiece.
It boasted tracks as brilliant and varied as the swinging rocker ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, the pop gem ‘Take Me With U’ and the stunning electro ballad ‘The Beautiful Ones’ – and that was just side one. Side two boasted another of the decade’s great singles, ‘When Doves Cry’ (the minimalist electro arrangement again showcasing Prince’s genius as a producer), and the majestic soul epic ‘Purple Rain’, released as a live recording – performed with the Revolution in a Minnesota club – after Prince declared it the definitive take.
Hitting number one on the Billboard charts (a position it retained for the next six months) and eventually being certified 13 times platinum, Purple Rain was Prince’s second consecutive classic and turned him into a global superstar. In the best rock tradition, he soon found himself denounced both from the pulpit and high political office as a corrupting influence on youth.
Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, was so appalled to find her daughter listening to the Purple Rain track ‘Darling Nikki’ – a tale of Prince’s encounter with a woman in possession of a wide range of sex toys – that she founded the Parents Music Resource Centre, a move which eventually led to the infamous “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” stickers appearing on album covers across America.
MOST BOOTLEGGED RECORDING
Always a restless creative spirit, Prince pressed on and was soon at work on his next album, Around The World In A Day, released the following year, in 1985. Though not as well-received as his previous two outings, the record did produce another all-time Prince classic in ‘Raspberry Beret’, a pop masterpiece with an exquisite arrangement and glorious melody.
The album may have marked a relative low point artistically, but like many artists of his stature, Prince came back from a creative dip twice as strong. Still longing to make an impact in the world of film, Prince directed and also took one of the lead roles in the 1986 movie Under The Cherry Moon. While the film – an unremarkable piece of hokum about two con artists based in France – was a flop, the accompanying soundtrack, Parade, again showcased Prince at his brilliant best.
The album contained ‘Kiss’, one of his signature tunes, which became a US number one and was named Single of the Year by NME. On a personal level, if I had to point to one song which best encapsulates Prince’s genius, this would be it. Originally written as an acoustic demo and given to the funk band Mazarati, Prince then decided to keep the song for himself and pursue a drastically different direction, after being knocked out by the group’s electro overhaul of the tune.
Boasting an irresistibly funky groove, as well as a memorable chorus and a brilliant vocal performance, ‘Kiss’ captures everything that is glorious about great pop music. Elsewhere, the song’s skeletal electro-funk arrangement is arguably Prince’s greatest achievement as a producer, and provided a sonic blueprint for everyone from Pharrell Williams to Trent Reznor.
Elsewhere, Parade showcased Prince’s versatility, notably with the delicate closing ballad ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’; the album’s all-round eclecticism and innovation would see it named Album of the Year in both The Village Voice and NME.
Prince was a now regular fixture on MTV, frolicking around in the playful video for ‘Kiss’, and when it came to high camp, he had certainly been alpine. But he was determined to show there was substance beneath the style and he duly embarked on his most ambitious project yet. In a pointer to the record label rows that were to come in the ’90s, Warner Bros. demanded that Prince edit Sign O’ The Times down to a double LP from its initial status as a triple album. Either way, the finished work would lack nothing in artistic scope.
The title track was effectively ‘What’s Going On?’ updated for the new decade and, in its chilling portrait of societal breakdown, proved to be one of Prince’s lyrical masterpieces. Elsewhere, ‘Starfish And Coffee’ was psych-pop worthy of The Beatles, ‘Strange Relationship’ was a storming funk workout, and ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ was a raunchy jam that recalled the sex-obsessed themes of yore. Meanwhile, ‘The Cross’ – later performed with Bono during an uproarious late night show at the Pod in 1995 – addressed the spiritual issues that would become increasingly important in Prince’s work.
Released in 1987, Sign O’ The Times was another huge hit for Prince and, like 1999, Purple Rain and Parade, is now a fixture on ‘greatest albums ever made’ lists. The following year’s Lovesexy produced another vintage single in the pop-funk track ‘Alphabet St’, while Prince’s Batman soundtrack album, released in 1989, again put him back at the top of the charts. Prince would again influence dance producers with the dark techno track ‘The Future’ (which James Murphy, amongst others, still drops into DJ sets), while the seductive waltz ‘Scandalous’ was one of his greatest ballads. ‘Partyman’ and the smash hit single ‘Batdance’, meanwhile, brilliantly pushed robotic beats up against throbbing funk grooves.
Batman marked the conclusion of Prince’s commercial heyday, although there would be several classic moments befroe the turn of the Millennium. Prince’s new backing band, the New Power Generation, were unveiled on his next outing, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, an album which produced the classic funk-pop number ‘Thieves In The Temple’. The same year, Sinead O’Connor’s magnificent vocal performance on ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ turned the song into an international smash (although relations between the artists proved strained, with O’Connor reporting that a meeting between herself and Prince came to blows).
The title track of ’91’s Diamonds And Pearls was a stunning ballad, while there were two more storming singles on 1992’s Love Symbol album, the raucous hip hop tune ‘My Name Is Prince’ and the brilliant funk-soul jam, ‘Sexy Motherfucker’.
After putting out two albums’ worth of previously unreleased material in 1994, Come and The Black Album (the latter having become one of the most bootlegged recordings in history), Prince’s golden era had its denouement in 1995 with, perhaps suitably, The Gold Experience. The album yielded two more gems in the soaring pop number ‘Gold’ and the suitably gorgeous ballad ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In The World’, Prince’s only UK number one.
Around this time, Prince’s well-earned reputation for eccentricity took firmer hold. In the early ’90s, he had changed his name from Prince to an unpronounceable symbol, leading to pandemonium in publishing houses across the globe, until Warners issued a disc containing the appropriate font. Elsewhere, he reportedly cancelled the initial release of The Black Album at the last minute due to a non-specific spiritual epiphany, while his perpetual wrangling with Warners led to him performing at the 1995 Brit Awards with “Slave” scrawled down his cheek (Blur’s drummer, Dave Rowntree, appeared at the same event with “Dave” written on his face).
Over the next 20 years, Prince’s recorded output would never again scale the heights of his stratospheric creative peak, although his live performances would continually confirm his status as one of the greatest artists of all time. The highlights were legion.
There was a barnstorming appearance with Beyonce at the 2004 Grammys, while his halftime show at the Superbowl in 2007 was widely acclaimed as the greatest ever such performance. The same year, he embarked on a 21-night stand at the London 02, which had the audiences in raptures and saw the media become a giant orchestra playing one tune: Prince. Headlining the following year at Coachella, he turned in an epic cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ that floored the crowd and wowed the critics.
In 2011, after an absence of several years, Prince finally returned to Ireland and played an awesome set at Malahide Castle, one of the finest live performances I’ve ever seen. In a career-spanning show, Prince displayed all of his unique style and charisma as a frontman, while musically, he and the band were simply on fire.
During this time, the stories about Prince’s capricious temperament and odd behaviour became lore. The film director Kevin Smith famously explained that he had been summoned to the singer’s Paisley Park compound to commence work on a documentary – several weeks later, he was still waiting.
Dave Grohl cleared his schedule to make an appearance at a Prince concert in Los Angeles – then, having nailed down a blistering version of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ at soundcheck (following the obligatory two-hour wait), Prince enquired if Grohl might be able to come back on Friday instead.
The legal fallout that followed Prince’s cancelled Croke Park show in 2008 resulted in the odd scene of the High Court’s Judge Peter Kelly surmising that the singer was “a very erratic individual.”
But it was all part of the package. Make no mistake, with Prince’s passing, we are another genius down – and the world is a considerably less colourful and interesting place. He truly was one of a kind. RIP.
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