He was signed by Warner Bros. when he was 20. But they lied to the world when they promoted him as an 18-year-old prodigy. Flamboyant like Little Richard, a colourful showman like James Brown, and a devastating shredder like Jimi Hendrix, Prince Rogers Nelson further bridged the musical gaps between funk, soul and rock as he would go on to become one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of all time.
And now he’s dead. Recently sent to hospital for what was reportedly the flu (new reports claim he was suffering from “severe dehydration”), his 57-year-old body was found earlier today at his home in Minnesota. It’s not clear yet what exactly happened. Surely, it wasn’t influenza.
When I was a kid in the 80s, Prince was all over the Television and radio airwaves. Not a year went by when he didn’t have either a new studio album, a new live album, a new movie, a new soundtrack to that movie or a new song and video out. Looking back, you wonder if the man did anything besides create and play music. He must’ve been a light sleeper.
After releasing a couple of soul albums in the late 70s, one ignored and one that went platinum thanks to his first big hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover, Prince’s first full-length critical breakthrough was 1980’s Dirty Mind. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau famously noted in his exuberant rave of the LP, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”
Prince never looked back after that. The following year, he offered Controversy. The superior single edit of the overlong, rather warped title cut intensified his already highly sexualized, religious fervor as he addresses rumours of his sexual identity. (He was often presumed to be gay because of his fondness for falsetto vocals and seemingly feminine presentation. He wasn’t.) The single edit remains one of his greatest songs.
By 1982, after building a strong black following, he finally started appealing to white kids thanks to his highly acclaimed double album, 1999, which spawned numerous smash hits like Little Red Corvette, Delirious and of course, the political title song. (Like David Bowie’s Fantastic Voyage, it warned of the still real danger of a nuclear holocaust.) Speaking of the latter, every verse was originally supposed to be harmonized with members of The Revolution, his second backing band. (The Time preceded them.) But Prince decided to individualize the vocals so that each harmony part would get a line of its own to sing which made all the difference. The apolocalyptic 1999 would go on to become one of his most enduring musical signatures.
In 1984, Prince was ready for the big screen as he unveiled Purple Rain, his only fictional film to receive praise. (Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge did not fare as well. The concert picture, Sign O’ The Times, however, was critically acclaimed. It played on MuchMusic for years after its 1987 theatrical run.) The fantastic soundtrack became his Thriller, his most popular collection of recordings, some of which were captured live. (It has sold about 15 million copies in North America alone.) Just before the album’s unveiling, Prince felt it lacked an anthem, so he quickly put together a new song that would feature his best guitar solos, most especially the one that ends the track. Long before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, Let’s Go Crazy cheekily addresses The Rapture without being annoyingly overt (unlike the full version of Controversy which directly references The Lord’s Prayer). The result was Prince’s second number one single. (When Doves Cry, which also features his first-rate guitar playing, was his first.)
The Purple Rain soundtrack, the first one that gave credit to The Revolution, was loaded with other memorable songs like the beautifully epic title track (which peaked at number 2), I Would Die 4 U and the lascivious Darling Nikki which bothered Tipper Gore so much it ended up on the Filthy Fifteen list. Foo Fighters later covered it in 2002 and it became a minor alt-rock radio hit despite being a B-Side. (As a thank you, during his Super Bowl halftime show in 2007, Prince covered their 2005 single, Best Of You.) In 1985, the soundtrack would win the Best Original Song Score Oscar and would be nominated for the Album Of The Year Grammy.
For the rest of the 80s, Prince would continue to offer quirky, mass appeal singles: the anti-drug Pop Life, Rasberry Beret, Kiss (another number one later covered by Tom Jones & The Art Of Noise), I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, U Got The Look (with Sheena Easton) and the funky Alphabet St. In 1987, the same year he presented Sign O’ The Times, Prince produced his darkest collection of songs. Growing fascinated with the burgeoning hip hop movement, The Black Album was going to be his Christmas release. Warner Bros. balked at putting out another Prince album so quickly after the multi-platinum double release of Sign O’ The Times. But, in the end, he second-guessed himself. Despite the production of a small number of vinyl copies (the survivors of which became very valuable collector’s items fetching thousands of dollars each), The Black Album would be cancelled. It would go on to become one of the most bootlegged lost albums over the next 7 years.
Lovesexy would take its place in 1988. (The Alphabet St. video urged fans to not buy The Black Album bootlegs.) It included a rerecorded version of When 2 R In Love, the only Black Album track to see official release at the time.
With the hope of finally taking a break, Warner instead convinced him to do another soundtrack, this one for a new Tim Burton film. Red hot after the overrated Beetlejuice, he directed Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger and Jack Nicholson in Batman, the biggest hit of 1989. Prince’s stellar soundtrack, which I originally had on tape but is now very hard to find on CD (I’ve managed to locate three used copies in recent years, though, two of which I bought for a buck apiece), ended the decade with an emphatic exclamation point. Batdance, an exhilarating, film dialogue-heavy montage of many of the soundtrack’s songs (including non-album B-Side 200 Balloons) and featuring yet another classic rip roaring solo, would also hit number one. Another single, Scandalous!, didn’t fare nearly as well chart-wise but it is a lovely ballad nonetheless, another vivid showcase for his trademark falsetto. Curiously, the video for Partyman would feature the full 7-minute version whereas the soundtrack only has the 4-minute single edit.
After Graffiti Bridge flopped in 1990 (Thieves In The Temple did crack the Top 10, however), Prince rebounded with his new backing band, The New Power Generation, in 1991 with Diamonds & Pearls. The orgasmic Cream would be his final number one smash. The pretty title cut would peak in the Top 5.
In 1992, Prince signed a lucrative multi-album deal with Warner, his longtime label. He would immediately regret it. Despite learning about copyright law in high school, Prince belatedly realized he didn’t own any of his masters. His next album that year () would become his new identity in 1993 (along with The Artist and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince), an unpronounceable symbol (referred to as the Love Symbol) that references both sexes. (To be fair, it inspired cool guitar and stage designs.) featured his last great single for Warner, the jazz-inflected Sexy M.F., one of the rare times he rapped on record.
After announcing his new identity, which baffled the music world and gave comedians plenty of material, Prince decided to get out of his contract by offering a succession of albums within a three-year period which deeply annoyed Warner. They hated the idea of flooding the marketplace because it meant lower profits.
Prince didn’t care if they sold or not. He just wanted out. Some of the music he released during this period had been languishing in the vaults for years including The Black Album which finally surfaced officially in November 1994 but with a catch. It would only be on sale for 2 months before being supposedly pulled from record shops in late January 1995. (5 years after its release I still managed to find a new copy for 6 bucks. I’ve seen at least one used copy available for 20 but that was a while ago.)
Just a few months before that, Prince released the acclaimed Come which finally corrected a longstanding error. The cover revealed he had in fact been born in 1958, not 1960 as Warner had falsely promoted for years.
During a memorable September 1993 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, Prince performed a track from The Gold Experience, an album that wouldn’t be available until 1995. (I would love to own the damn thing on CD but good luck finding it today.) The word “SLAVE” was written on his cheek, his way of protesting what he saw as an unfair arrangement with Warner. Gold Experience included The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, another falsetto ballad that hit the Top 5 in 1994 and was previously issued on an EP that year, the Top 20 hit I Hate U and P Control, yet another hooky ode to the vagina.
After the releases of the unloved Chaos & Disorder and the Girl 6 soundtrack (curiously released under his old name) in 1996, Prince released his first post-Warner collection, the three-hour Emancipation, which featured his last Top 40 hits, a cover of The Stylistics’ Betcha By Golly Wow! and The Holy River. Instead of signing with another major, he starting shipping CDs of his music over the Internet (they would eventually surface in stores not always with the same track listings, though) including Crystal Ball (available in three, four and five-disc incarnations) which captured numerous outtakes from past album sessions for a number of scrapped projects including a few that featured his child-like alter ego Camille (not including previously released rejects like non-album B-sides Shockadelica and the catchy Feel U Up which could’ve been a hit like U Got The Look, all of which are on The Hits/The B-Sides).
Meanwhile, Warner would continue to occasionally release new Prince material leftover in their vaults (one such collection was actually called The Vault) plus a number of hits packages, the best of which remains The Hits/The B-Sides in 1993. It features Nothing Compares 2 U (which Sinead O’Connor famously covered in 1990) and the original version of I Feel For You (a big hit for post-Rufus Chaka Khan in 1984). I guess he never recorded Manic Monday, the hit song he wrote for The Bangles.
Although the two discs of hits were also available as individual releases (The Hits 1 and The Hits 2), the 20 non-album B-Sides were exclusive to the three-disc set. I was personally very lucky to finally nab a new copy at HMV just a few years ago. It’s another hard-to-find release, but even when you do spot it, it’s not always affordable. (I once saw a used copy that cost 30 bucks. New ones can run as much as 60 to 70. My copy was 10 but free with a gift card.)
In 2000, by this point long past his commercial and artistic prime, Prince belatedly announced he was reverting back to his birth name, although he would continue to incorporate his highly mocked symbol in his live shows. No longer a Top 40 fixture, he would however have one last multi-platinum hurrah in 2004. (To be fair, he would also have two final Gold albums in 2006 & 2009.) Musicology received his best reviews in years and thanks to a clever promotion (it was given away with concert tickets), it charted well. His performance with Beyonce at the Grammys that same year inspired a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch.
In the final 12 years of his life, Prince never stopped creating and performing, although he would considerably dial down the lust in his lyrics because of his new found religion. He continued to churn out new records on an annual basis and he remained a popular concert attraction. (He had just played a couple of shows in Toronto a few weeks ago. His last concert, part of his Paisley Park After Dark series at his home estate, happened over the weekend.)
His sudden death comes just three months after the shocking demise of David Bowie. Like the creator of Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, Prince was a major influence on subsequent generations of performers, both black and white, trans, gay and straight. His sexually charged lyrics pushed the boundaries of acceptability way more than Madonna ever could. (There’s no way she could’ve gotten away with writing songs like Jack U Off, Head and Scarlet Pussy.)
Prince’s often horny songs were ubiquitous and brilliantly accessible to a mass audience, never more so than in the 80s and early 90s. For someone so weird, soft-spoken and distant (he rarely gave interviews), he had surprisingly global appeal. He was unusual enough to excite young audiences thirsting for something unique. And yet his decision to sing more often than not in an inoffensive high register (a huge risk that could’ve resulted in unintentional laughter, although he did come close to becoming a self-parody at times) and his remarkable gift for well-crafted arrangements allowed him to win over more conservative pop traditionalists. There’s no denying he had flat out, incredible musicianship. He was as much as master of the electric six-string as more celebrated axmen like Eddie Van Halen and Jeff Beck.
But he could also be prickly. Owners of Prince fan sites and bootleg distributors of his long coveted and voluminous unreleased recordings often felt his wrath in the form of lawsuits and public criticism. A unrepentant control freak, he was not pro-Napster. (He also didn’t want any of his songs parodied by Weird Al Yankovic who gave up asking for permission after a while.) And although he would eventually return to work within the major label system, he wisely avoided traditional, longterm deals. He would continue to offer new material online right up until last year.
And now he’s gone. My reaction to his death is curiously more subdued than Bowie’s. I hadn’t heard a Prince album since Musicology. (The library copy I once borrowed I unfortunately broke by accident. Not a good way to spend 20 bucks.) And while I greatly admire many of his singles and especially his Batman & Purple Rain soundtracks, I have never felt the need to own everything he did. On the contrary, I never stopped listening to Bowie. (I’m loving Blackstar at the moment, his last release.) In the last several years, I made it a point to add as many of his CDs to my collection that I could find for as little money as possible with a few more still to seek out. With the exception of that elusive Gold Experience, on the other hand, I have all the Prince I need.
In the days and weeks to come we will surely learn more about his sudden death, as mysterious and odd as the man himself. But for those grieving for the early end of another 80s icon, there is the warm comfort of the vast legacy he leaves behind. Plus, now that the stern gatekeeper of so many unheard goodies is no more, how soon before that enormous trove of material long buried from the prying eyes and curious ears of a soon-to-be insatiable public begins to be unearthed?
More than 45 years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, we’re still getting new albums from him. Prince is about to give him some much needed competition.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, April 21, 2016
CORRECTIONS: Only Prince’s debut release was ignored. His second album went platinum and spawned his first Top 40 hit, I Wanna Be Your Lover. It was 2000, not 1999, when Prince announced he was Prince again. P Control from The Gold Experience was wrongly listed as P Patrol. Musicology was his last “multi-platinum” success but by no means his last certified album. He would acquire two more Gold records by the end of The Aughts. And sadly, having rewatched the Controversy video a couple of times today, I realize that Prince isn’t wearing his infamous assless chaps, just leggings and bikini underwear. All of these corrections have since been incorporated into the original piece. I regret all the errors.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 24, 2016