Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Seven Ages of Prince

1. R&B Auteur

He begins, like so many others, a 70s soul and funk artist, and his self-performed/produced debut was standard fare for the times. It was false start, only the lewd "Soft and Wet" hinting at what was to come, as he seemed to make clear on the sophomore collection by calling that one "Prince." Here he is half naked, staring at the camera, a skinny guy with long hair. The record includes his first hit, "I Wanna Be Your Lover," a brilliant piece of new wave dance pop; "I Feel for You", a later number for Chaka Khan, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" and other deep cuts that are well worth replaying.

What came next was a sidestep but an important one. "Dirty Mind" is one of the great funk records of the era, and his "blackest" record outside of the disputable "Black Album." "When U Were Mine" is the pop hit, but its the sleazy title track and the raw minimalistic "Head" that gave this album its rep. Not such a big record at the time - and virtually invisible in the UK at that time - its the album that really showed that he wasn't keen on just being the "next" Rick James or similar. 1981's "Conspiracy" continues in the same vein, but on the cover he's a suave southern gentleman, edging towards his purple period.

2. Global Superstar 

Prince's 5th album "1999" was a crossover record. A mostly successful double album (he still plays deep cuts like "Something in the Water" and "Let's Pretend We're Married" in his live set) its nonetheless not any kind of prog rock statement but a series of killer dance grooves. The epoch defining "1999" and rock crossover "Little Red Corvette" amongst its massive hits. He was toe to toe with Michael Jackson at this point, "Little  Red Corvette" his "Beat it", before "Thriller" hit the stratosphere. You wait twenty years for a black superstar and then two come along at once.... the control freakery had been lessened somewhat as "1999" features a named band, The Revolution. "1999" - the single - made him visible in the UK, but there was still a sense that he was a niche artist, R&B, dance floor music. The next record saw an end to that. "Purple Rain" might be the most achieved statement in rock history since "Sgt. Pepper." A mega selling record, that was actually a soundtrack to a low budget but elegantly classic film of the same name. Prince, the recluse, plays "the kid" in this "A Star is Born" style movie. But the songs in the film are perfectly placed telling the story; and even better, are utter classics. "When Doves Cry" came as the preview track, and what a preview it was - terse, minimalistic tale of domestic violence - eschewing a bass line for a staccato beat - it was a massive hit. "Lets Go Crazy" was a successful retread of "1999" whilst the epic "Purple Rain" was a guitar anthem to match Guns N' Roses or Lynyrd Skynrd. With this record and movie Prince had turned into a megastar.

3. The Imperial Phase

Six records in, Prince had made it in every way. His songs were being covered by other artists - he was acting as a mentor to chart acts as diverse at the Bangles and Sheena Easton, as well as fuelling spin off acts like the Family, Madhouse, The Time, Sheila E and others. A "Purple Rain Pt. 2" would have been expected but instead he used this platform to go left field. "Around the World in a Day" was a surprisingly tentative record. Its first single "Paisley Park" more notable for naming his new studio; whilst "Raspberry Beret" was a Beatlesque piece of power pop. Long tracks like "The Ladder" and "Condition of the heart" spoke of a more ambitious musical canvas. Yet it was a sidestep from "Purple Rain" and sold much, much less. There was no film this time - though the crassly psychedelic cover hinted at the film in the listeners head. Tellingly it wasn't really  a soul album at all.  Having moved our expectations, the next record "Parade" was remarkable. A film soundtrack to the black and white "Under the Cherry Moon" this fantastic record is an art pop masterpiece yet includes bonafide number one hits (in the US at least) in "Girls and Boys" and the skeletal "Kiss." Where did this come from? There are jazz interludes, and the beautiful Joni Mitchell-esque "Sometimes it Snows in April." A near perfect record that most artists would never have been able to top - the news that his next record was a double (like "1999") got us excited, but not as excited as the first single. Prince "first singles" had become a tradition - sparse, maverick and ahead of the game, "Sign O the Times" was a beautiful bleak song about crack addiction. The double album was mostly without the Revolution. Prince in his studio churning out hardly finished demos. Not since "Revolver" had a major record been so scrappily produced. Yet he knew what he was doing. In the over produced eighties, simple sounding tracks like "Hot Thing" sounded underproduced but have remained fresh years on. Its a treasure trove. The frankly amazing "If I was Your Girlfriend" (Prince as lesbian), the rock pop "U Got the Look" (Prince as Roxette), the new wave "I could never take the place of your man" (Prince as the Cars), the beautiful ballad "Adore"(Prince as Smokey) and the live funk jam "Its Going to be a Beautiful Night"  (The Revolution as Parliament) among its treasures. Despite an opening salvo in "Alphabet Street" as good as any of his other first singles, the next album "Lovesexy" was transitional. It ran as a single sequence - its intricately produced, a studio record first and foremost. It feels like his first record made specifically for CD. It came out after rumours of a dark funk record "The Black Album" leaked - and only one track from the latter made the cut here.

4. Prolific Pop Prince 

Prince fans were the luckiest fans in the late 80s. Whereas Michael Jackson took years between records Prince was ridiculously prolific, and each of his last four or five records had been an advance, musically, if not in sales, on the former. It couldn't go on. Not that the albums after "Lovesexy" were bad, but they no longer had the shock of the new. Sometimes there was a sense that he was spreading himself too thin - e.g. on the soundtrack to "Batman", very little of which made the actual film, or on the sprawling "Graffitti Bridge" where acts on his record label such as Mavis Staples made guest appearances. The new wave and sinewy Revolution had been replaced with a new band, the more funky, live-focussed New Power Generation. If "Batman" was a soundtrack that wasn't heard in the film, "Graffitti Bridge" was a soundtrack to a film (his third) that nobody really watched. The songs are occasionally filler though "Thieves in the Temple" was a big hit. Perhaps realising he was losing his audience a bit, his next album, "Diamonds and Pearls" was his biggest pop record since "Purple Rain" and songs like the title track, "Get Offf" and "Cream" were bonafide classics to add to the collection, the latter another to his collection of U.S. number ones. Next time we saw Prince he was in dispute with his record label, the word "slave" on his face, and a new "symbol" replacing his own name. Ridiculously perhaps, he became known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince as he extricated himself from his Warner Bros. contract. The "symbol" album was hardly affected - it included the self mythologising rap "My Name is Prince" and unplayable on the radio "Sexy MF" - his most jazz influenced song since "Controversy." With 3 double albums in a row, and rumours of much unreleased material, the next record, the underwhelming funk album "Come" was perhaps a letdown. Yet these years though hardly imperial still saw Prince in the 90s as a major star, with many pop hits. The albums that followed would be enough for most artists' career - the poppy "The Gold Experience", the finally released "The Black Album", and the somewhat scrappy "Chaos and Disorder" were topped with a triple CD, "Emancipation". All contain gems. During his dispute with Warners, a self released single "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" became his only UK number one (though he has written number ones for Sinead O'Connor and Chaka Khan.)

5. Emancipated Prince 

Part of the Warners dispute had been Prince wanting to release what music he wanted when he wanted rather than following some kind of career path. Yet we'd seen how prolific his discography was. Emancipated Prince would release and market his own music. The long rumoured quadruple album "Crystal Ball" came out on his own label, and was an archive trawling exercise, matched by Warners on the forgetable "The Vault". Prince albums for the next few years would be far from being "events" slipping out unnoticed, marketed directly to fans or by mail order (or in the early 2000s as internet downloads). "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic" was licensed to a new label, but sold poorly. Prince continued to play live - but often his sets had nothing in common with his latest record, and versions of old songs were stretched out, funkified, changed beyond recognition.

6. Back in the Game 

The diminishing returns of this fan-club only Prince were suddenly reversed in 2004 with a reinvigorated Prince putting "Musicology" out through a major label. This and the following "3121" were triumphant returns to form - even if they appealed more to fans who now appreciated his remarkable musicianship rather than a wider pop audience. That said, the latter's "Black Sweat" was kind-of a hit. What happened next was odder than the internet only instrumental albums or the boxset of bootlegs. Prince released "Planet Earth" his most straightforward album for years through British newspaper the Mail On Sunday. With most of his sales from tickets for his popular live shows, this seemed a way of getting a new album into as many hands as possible without a hit single or radio play. The covermount was repeated for his next UK album "20Ten" - experiments in distribution we can line up with Radiohead's "pay what you want" model for "In Rainbows." In between these records, the latter of which was bizarrely not released in the US, a US-only (and then mail order) triple album LotusFlow3R/MPLSound came out with a 3rd disc from new soul prodigy Bria Valente. A harder edged more "classic" Prince sound, its a better record than the covermounts that preceded and followed it - yet has never had a retail release in the UK. To me, the run of albums from "Musicology" to "20Ten" show a revitalised Prince, enjoying his music, and happy to dip into his vast back catalogue of tropes. None are essential, but none are negligible.

7 3rdEyeGirl and the future

And why am I even writing an article on Prince in 2014? It turns out that Prince is back and this time he's got a band in tow, the all female 3rdEyeGirl. After a love-hate relationship with the internet, last year 3rdEyeGirl started posting on Twitter, and a number of singles appeared to download including "Rock and Roll Affair" a Purple-Rain-era style pop rock record. Then in January Prince started doing unannounced pop up gigs with his new band in the UK - first London - and rumour has it in small venues in Manchester this week. This is the artist who last time he played extensively in the UK sold out 21 nights in a row at our biggest indoor arena, the 02. In usual Prince style there have been no interviews, no explanation... but as we ponder whether he'll ever release deluxe editions of his back catalogue, or bootlegs or live albums (the rumour is that he's waiting till all his "rights" revert back to him) we've got the excitement of the man himself...playing and making new music. In a moribund musical landscape, once again the purple one is front page news.

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