Remembering Prince Through His Albums
Sadly 2016 seems to be the year when the cultural heroes my generation grew up with are dropping like flies. David Bowie, Victoria Wood, and now…Prince.
I was 16 when I first came into contact with the music of Prince. It was 1984, and the song was When Doves Cry. A song with instrumentation so sparse that it flew in the face of the overblown arrangements of the time. A drum machine, a couple of keyboards and a wild electric guitar. A riff so infectious, welded to a piercing howl of a vocal. Not even a bass-line! So audacious, completely in contrast with the overblown ubiquitous Yamaha DX-7 and Fairlight synthesiser fests we were used to. A televised concert viewing later and I was totally hooked.
Prince, being the highly prodigious artist he was, released much during his recorded career. Because I call a spade a spade I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that all he touched turned to Gold. However I look back with fondness at a clutch of albums he released during the 1980’s that represent Prince at his peak. Here, for those readers, perhaps younger and wondering what the fuss was about, I present 6 of the best Prince albums. Records that I cherished during my late teens, played over and over and wove them into the fabric of my existence. Thankfully, Prince never allowed his albums to be remastered in 24-bit or whatever, since in my humble opinion the music always tends to suffer, even if the coffers of the music executives grow substantially. So an eBay hunter can find the 1980’s issues of these albums either on vinyl or CD, confident that the quality will be the highest available.
1. Controversy (1981) Not the first Prince album, but he was still a relative unknown on the mainstream charts at the time of this, his 3rd effort. The title alone sets the tone for this album. Prince was a shocker, and many of the songs on this album were, shall we say, “not suitable” for play on some of the more conservative (read, “most”) US radio stations. Not to mention the sheer length of some of the songs. Side 1 of the vinyl LP features only 3 songs – not exactly full of 3 minute radio-friendly hits then. Never mind all that, this album is an absolute corker. From the four-to-the-floor catchy hooks of the title track, to the romantically titled ballad, Do Me Baby (!) to the plea for gun control that was Annie Christian to the final notes of the 1950’s-influenced Jack U off, every song is a total winner. Not for the politically or sexually squeamish, but winners nonetheless.
2. 1999 (1982) A double album. I’ll say that again, a double album. In the times when a single LP cost as much as a meal for one in a restaurant, it must have been a brave step indeed for a record company to release a double LP by a relative unknown. Unfortunately music was not (is still not) immune to racial prejudice, and the colour of Prince’s skin still confined him to the relative anonymity of the black music charts. Nevertheless, this album still spawned two of Prince’s most famous hits, 1999 and Little Red Corvette. As with Controversy, most of the songs on the album ran to more than 5 minutes (nearly 10 minutes in many cases), hence the 4 sides. And again, the subject matter of some of the songs meant that I had to play my copy well out of earshot of my mother! Still, a Prince “must have” which went on to sell nearly 6.5 million copies worldwide, mainly on the strength of what was to follow.
3. Purple Rain (1984) The album that led the highly influential British teen magazine, “Smash Hits” to label Prince, “His Royal Badness” or aptly, “His Royal Perviness” and more importantly to put to bed the racial “boundaries” that beset his earlier efforts. On the tour bus between shows on the 1999 Tour, observers may have spotted Prince making notes on his own in the back seat. These notes became the huge film that was Purple Rain – the film that was to bring him to the attention of an international audience. For the first time for Prince, many of the songs were sufficiently non-pervy and therefore suitable for a mainstream FM radio audience. It didn’t stop the side 1 closer, Darling Nikki from falling foul of the censors though – and the right-wing Christian audiences were concerned with a supposedly “Satanic” backwards message in the run out groove of side 1. Again, I remember manually spinning the platter of my mono “record-player-in-a-suitcase” to reveal the message. With the advent of computers it’s now much easier so I’ll allow readers to work this one out for themselves! Again the Purple Rain LP yielded many hits for Prince, including the worldwide smash, When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and the title track. Worldwide sales were upwards of 20 million – no other Prince album has come anywhere near close to beating this figure.
4. Parade (1986) Beating the artistic and commercial successes of Purple Rain was never going to be easy, and Around The World In A Day (1985) – with its psychedelic theme received a critical panning. All this despite being a rather good (but different) album and yielding the hit single, Raspberry Beret. Not to worry though, 1986 proved that Prince had still been busy, working on another film, the frankly-not-so-well-received-and-not-very-good, Under The Cherry Moon. Thankfully Parade, the soundtrack, was rather splendid and rather better received than its predecessor. I wore my pre-recorded cassette out, playing it over and over. Personal favourites are Mountains, Anotherloverholeinyohead and the beautiful instrumental Prince composed with his father John L. Nelson, Venus de Milo. Musically Prince managed to combine the snappy commercial pop of Purple Rain with the psychedelia of the 1985 predecessor. Hence the trippy harmonically inventive Christopher Tracey’s Parade that opens the album, and the headline single, Kiss (later covered to great success by Tom Jones). This latter is reminiscent of When Doves Cry, with it’s sparse instrumentation. The film, being monochrome and harking back to 1920’s nostalgia, called for a nostalgic soundtrack and some of the songs (e.g. Under The Cherry Moon and Do U Lie?) are notable for jazz chord structures and virtuoso instrumental playing. The piano solo in Under The Cherry Moon is simply to die for.
As an afterthought, during 1986, Prince even found time to give away one of his most snappy songs to the all-girl group, The Bangles. Manic Monday can be found on their album, A Different Light and was a British top 10 hit. This album is another favourite from my 80’s collection, well worth hearing. Also by now, Prince, having earned his reputation for overtly sexual lyrics, was actually toning down his material. A relief for those teens who wanted to be able to play their Prince albums in front of their parents, but a side-effect was that some later songs suffered from sappy sugar coated lyrics that cloyed somewhat. “Everybody’s looking for Graffiti Bridge”, indeed. Are we?! For now, Parade is safe from such manifestations, and his artistic reputation was restored. However sales for Around The World In A Day, Parade and the Sign “O” The Times were all pretty similar, at 4-5 million each. In the 1980’s to reach number 1, records needed to sell much more than today, so it’s a sobering thought that these figures were actually a worry to greedy record company executives.
5. Sign “O” The Times (1987) Another double album, although unlike its forbear, 1999, this was not stuffed with 9-10 minute fillers but 3-4 minute commercial potential hits. Artistically we are on similar territory as Parade. Simply superb, containing as it does the Sheena Easton duet U Got The Look. Hi-fi enthusiasts, listen carefully to the live track, It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night. At one point Prince calls for the audience to do a Mexican Wave, and you can hear the audience clapping panning from side to side. Awesome!
6. Lovesexy (1988) Perhaps the public were put off by the “tasteful” nude photo of Prince on the cover, but here we begin to watch those sales figures begin to slide to below 3 million. Again however, musically the album is rather fine although we are on darker lyrical territory. There appears to be a concept running through this album – there are no silent gaps in between tracks, in fact your CD player will only register one approx 45 min long song – and Prince appears to be waging some sort of spiritual battle between the “good” and “evil” sides of his persona. This is witnessed on the title track which, were one unaware of the lyrics to Lady Cab Driver on 1999, would truly scrape the barrel in terms of what is acceptable! The LP yielded a hit single, Alphabet Street, but this album is highly accessible, with Eye No, Anna Stesia, Glam Slam and Positivity being high points for me.
In this round up I’ve barely scraped the surface of Prince’s prolific output, but rather than playing the Hits compilations released by Warners when the boss felt he needed to buy another mansion with a swimming pool, look out for these albums, which show a true genius (a flawed true genius maybe) at work. Heaven must be dancing now.
Mark Pearce 21st April 2016 – the day the world received the news of the death of Prince.