Prince’s Parade: 30 Years Old Today

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Warner Bros/Paisley Park, released 31st March 1986

9/10

On 17th April 1985, just ten days after the end of the Purple Rain tour, Prince walked into LA’s Sunset Sound studios, sat at the drums, taped the lyrics of four new songs onto a music stand, picked up his sticks and instructed engineer Susan Rogers: ‘Don’t stop the tape when I stop playing. Just keep rolling.’ He then played through ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’, ‘I Wonder U’ and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ without pausing. This guy worked fast. The recording sessions for Parade had begun.

Prince, Brussels 1986

Prince, Brussels 1986

The album would see Prince continue his extraordinary mid-’80s run of form, surely comparable to Stevie Wonder’s fabled 1972–1976 period. He couldn’t release albums fast enough and the wider world was waking up to just how prolific he really was. His striking new horns-and-orchestra-driven sound, by turns jazzy, funky and psychedelic, lost him some fans in the States but made him a huge star in Europe.

Parade showed off the amazing versatility of Prince (drums, bass, guitar and keyboards) and his main collaborators Wendy (guitar) & Lisa (keyboards). It’s a trip, an anti-boredom album full of glorious contradictions – it features his first instrumental track but still contains four classic dancefloor singles; it’s his densest, most ‘produced’ ’80s album (alongside Lovesexy) and yet features his first all-acoustic track, recorded completely live in the studio; Clare Fischer’s orchestral arrangements are always high in the mix but rub shoulders with the Sunset Sound’s ancient sound effects library; Prince utilises ultramodern tech like a guitar synth and a Fairlight sampler, but the main solo instruments are Eric Leeds’ tenor and baritone sax. And there is zero electric lead guitar, barely 18 months after Purple Rain.

References this time around were The Beatles, ’80s Miles Davis, show tunes and funk-era James Brown. The biggest influence though is late-’70s Joni Mitchell. Parade is the nearest Prince ever got to the kaleidoscope range of her classic albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Hissing Of The Summer Lawns. There were also more vocals in Prince’s music than ever before: Wendy, Lisa, Susannah (Wendy’s sister and Prince’s fiancée) and Sheila E all contributed massively to the occasional West Coast/Bangles sound.

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By 2nd June 1985, nine songs for Parade were in the can, though three would later be left off the final album – the spooky ‘Others Here With Us’, frothy ‘All My Dreams’ and superfunky ‘Sexual Suicide’. Prince was also now working on not one but two other albums, Jill Jones and Mazarati’s debuts. By late June, he was also scouting locations in the south of France for the upcoming ‘Under The Cherry Moon‘ movie. But, true to form, he couldn’t stop recording – he set up a makeshift recording studio in his Antibes hotel suite.

Parade‘s first three tracks – ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’ and ‘I Wonder U’ – pass by in the blink of an eye, gloriously odd, genuinely psychedelic funk miniatures. Very few have taken on the mantle of this style of music since 1986, though D’Angelo had a good go on the superb Voodoo album.

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‘Under The Cherry Moon’ is almost a ’30s-style jazz number featuring asthmatic synths, fantastic piano playing and a daring melody line. I’d like to hear Tom Waits’ cover. If you listen very closely, you can hear the rattle of Prince’s necklace as he lays down the drum track.

‘Girls And Boys’ is a classic one-chord funk tune whose blaring guitar synth adds an engaging weirdness. Saxophonist Eric Leeds makes his mark on Prince’s music for the first time (though had already featured prominently on The Family’s album). ‘Life Can Be So Nice’ features fake harpsichord, sampled flute, piercing cowbell, some intricate acoustic guitar and a heavily-treated kick drum. It’s discordant and thrilling with an envelope-pushing vocal arrangement and some bizarre lyrics. The last minute of the song is a Latin/fusion jam in the Santana or Weather Report vein.

‘Venus De Milo’ is a sumptuous piece of symphonic muzak with some gorgeous trumpet from Matt Blistan (renamed Atlanta Bliss by Prince!) while ‘Mountains’ is another classic single, largely penned by Wendy & Lisa. The 12” mix has to be heard. ‘Do U Lie’ is an intoxicating little slice of soft jazz with cocktail guitar, spoken word, strings and accordion.

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‘Kiss’ is another effortless classic. It was the first single to be released from Parade, hitting US number one in April ’86, though apparently loathed by the Warner Bros suits. Initially given to the band Mazarati for their debut album, it was reclaimed by Prince when he realised the potential of the track. He kept their backing vocals and gave them some money.

‘Anotherloverholenyohead’, recorded on December 16th 1985, was the last track recorded for Parade. Lisa’s crystalline, densely-voiced piano sounds like it was recorded in a school assembly hall, and there’s more peculiar guitar synth and a few incredible bass runs from Prince. The full-length version made for another classic 12” single.

Album-closer ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ is Joni all the way. Its improvised, rubato prologue is very reminiscent of the opening to ‘Cotton Avenue‘. Prince delivers an amazing lead vocal but the song needs a stronger chorus (‘Sometimes I feel so bad’) and Wendy & Lisa’s backing vox are extremely rough. The track divides opinion – some find it moving, some mawkish (I’m in the latter camp) – but it was a pretty brave choice to close such an important album.

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The Parade sessions also spawned some fantastic B-sides: ‘Alexa De Paris’, ‘Sexual Suicide’, ‘Power Fantastic’, ‘4 The Tears In Your Eyes’, ‘Love Or Money’, ‘All My Dreams’ and the notorious ‘Old Friends 4 Sale’. All are well worth seeking out.

Then came the European tour. A funk revue. Horns, dance routines, backing vocals. Again, virtually no lead guitar. Europe loved him – there were riots in Holland – but the tour didn’t even make the States, which many insiders believe was a big mistake. Instead, there were several separate shows under the banner of the Hit & Run Tour. Sample some of the show here. You won’t regret it.

Despite the success of ‘Kiss’ in the States, three follow-up singles peaked outside the top 50. Prince believed that Warner Bros’ choice of second single (‘Mountains’) was wrong – it should have been ‘Girls And Boys’. Parade sold considerably less (1.8 million) in the States than Purple Rain (10 million) and Around The World In A Day (4 million).

By the end of the tour, it was all change: Wendy & Lisa were out of the band, Prince and Susannah had broken off their engagement and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ had stiffed. But there were still a couple of amazing albums left in the tank which we will focus on in due course.

Crap Lyrics Of The 1980s (Part One)

dynasty_wallpaper_by_mabmeddowsmercuryDuring an interview in 1981, Peter Gabriel said: ‘Many great songs have really appalling lyrics, but no great songs have had appalling music. If you’re going to write lyrics, you might as well make them try and communicate something.’ Sadly, it was a maxim ignored by many of his contemporaries in the ’80s pop pantheon…

But these sad wretches have our sympathies; anyone who’s ever tried to pen a song knows the potential pitfalls. Got a good melody? Great, but you’ve got to sustain the lyrical narrative across the whole song in a cogent way (just ask Coldplay and Keane). Words first? Handy, but it can be very tricky to fit a melody to ‘poetic’ ramblings. Basically, for every ‘Talking Scarlet‘, there’s a ‘With Or Without You’.

So join us as we take a trip through a collection of the sometimes inane, occasionally coarse, often totally meaningless ramblings of the 1980s. And don’t forget – sometimes these lexical disaster-areas didn’t detract from the quality of the song at all. But sometimes they did…

‘Sittin’ on a mountain, looking at the sun
Plastic fantastic lobster telephone’.

THE CULT: ‘Electric’

 

‘Heart of mine, sewing frenzies of steel to the sky
By night, a child in a harvest of virginal mines’.

IT BITES: ‘Midnight’

 

‘This morning there was joy in my heart cos I know that I loved you so
Scrambled eggs are so boring, for you’re all, all that I want to know’.

PRINCE: ‘Life Can Be So Nice’

 

‘She’s got eyes like saucers, oh you think she’s a dish
She is the blue chip that belongs to the big fish’.

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘Big Sister’s Clothes’

 

‘I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti’.

TOTO: ‘Africa’

 

‘Only time will tell if we can stand the test of time’.

VAN HALEN: ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’

 

‘I’m so bad I can suck my own d*ck’.

LL COOL J: ‘Clap Your Hands’

 

‘Late spring and you’re drifting off to sleep
With your teeth in your mouth’.

REM: ‘You Are The Everything’

 

‘Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts
Look for the purple banana til they put us in the truck’.

PRINCE: ‘Let’s Go Crazy’

 

‘You set my teeth on edge
You think you’re a vegetable, never come out of the fridge
C-c-c-cucumber! C-c-c-cabbage! C-c-c-cauliflower!’

ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN: ‘Thorn Of Crowns’

 

‘Where does it go from here
Is it down to the lake I fear
Ay-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya/Ah-ya/Ah-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya’

HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED: ‘Love Plus One’

 

‘Oh babe
I wanna put my log in your fireplace’.

KISS: ‘Burn Bitch Burn’

 

‘A stripping puppet on a liquid stick gets into it pretty thick
A butterfly drinks a turtle’s tears
But how do you know he really needs it?’

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘Deep Dark Truthful Mirror’

 

‘Every second counts when I am with you
I think you are a pig, you should be in a zoo’.

NEW ORDER: ‘Every Second Counts’

Catching Up With Eddie Van Halen

225px-Eddie_Van_Halen_(1993)When I think of ’80s Eddie Van Halen, the image in my mind’s eye is probably not a lot different to any other fan – he’s grinning from ear to ear, cavorting around the stage, playing some of the greatest rock guitar of all time with one of the sweetest tones.

So it’s interesting to see him recently – sober, reflective, brutally honest, fiercely independent – talking about his life and craft onstage at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

‘Jump’ had always been a favourite of mine and was at the back of my mind when I came across Van Halen’s superb debut album sometime in the late-’80s. In fact, I remember exactly when and where I bought it: Harry’s Records in Twickenham (another one that’s bitten the dust), during my first week of sixth-form college in 1989. I just loved the devil-may-care feel of Eddie’s playing. He was fearless, unconcerned about making mistakes (his dad gave him some advice: if you make a mistake, do it again – with a smile), the same attitude that spurred on Parker, Ornette, Hendrix and Jaco.

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I later got heavily into the VH albums Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984 and OU812, but the band have been completely off my radar since the early ’90s, when I loved the ‘Poundcake‘ single. Having said that, not living in the States, I’ve completely missed the recent new album and TV appearances featuring David Lee Roth back on vocals. Maybe I need to check in again because I dug this:

Anyway, back to the interview. It’s fascinating hearing Eddie chatting about his life and career, away from all the controversy that has dogged the band over the last few decades. He talks about building his first guitar, the last album he bought (clue: it was back in 1986!), demonstrates some techniques and talks candidly about his sometimes difficult early life as an immigrant in the USA. G’wan – give yourself an hour off and enjoy some words from a master.

Jaco Pastorius: Three Views Of ‘Three Views Of A Secret’

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click to enlarge

First of all, I’ve got to declare an interest: Jaco’s in my all-time top five favourite musicians. Ever since I started really noticing music in the late ’70s, he was always on my radar – my dad would play Weather Report’s Heavy Weather and Mr Gone around the house, and by the time I knew Jaco’s name I was totally (if subconsciously) immersed in his stuff.

I bought his legendary 1976 debut album from a secondhand vinyl shop in Blandford Forum, Dorset (don’t look for it now, it’s not there any more), sometime in the mid-’80s, and I’ve been a superfan since.

The general critical consensus seems to be that, at his best, when he was healthy and strong between the early ’70s and early ’80s, Jaco’s composing skills were improving at the same rate as his bass-playing skills. Luckily, in his short, somewhat tragic life, he left us five or six classic compositions (a list that would have to include ‘Havona‘, ‘Teen Town‘, ‘City Of Angels‘, ‘Punk Jazz‘, ‘Dania‘ and ‘Las OIas‘), but perhaps the most enduring of all is ‘Three Views Of A Secret’, a tune that has beguiled me since I first heard it.

He copped the title from a totally unrelated composition by Charlie Brent, the musical director of Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, a hard-touring funk/R’n’B band Jaco played with in the early ’70s. ‘Three Views’ is essentially a medium jazz waltz built on three sections (A, B and C). The 16-bar A section has a bluesy feel and strong, simple melody. The B section modulates to D-flat, before returning eventually to E. The third and final C section features repetitions of a four-bar phrase centred again around E, but with added colours to develop the tonality. It is, by any standards, an expertly-crafted piece.

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The first recording of the tune was arguably the standout track from Weather Report’s 1980 album Night Passage, recorded live at The Complex, Los Angeles, in July 1980. Joe Zawinul (a very tough critic, apparently calling Jaco’s ‘Liberty City’ “typical high-school big-band bullshit” right to his face a year later) rated it as his finest composition.

‘Three Views’ represented a distinct change of pace for Jaco in terms of his Weather Report career, coming hot on the heels of the frantic ‘Teen Town’, ‘Punk Jazz’ and ‘Havona’. The closest stylistic reference in jazz to ‘Three Views’ would probably be Charles Mingus, though Jaco himself claimed to be more a Gil Evans man.

Jaco starts the tune with his trademark false harmonics (most famously heard in the head of ‘Birdland‘), aided by Zawinul’s shimmering accompaniment. Then, in the B section, Wayne Shorter deliciously deconstructs the melody in the way only he can. He refers to it, flirts with it, skitters around it, but never fully commits to it, leaving Zawinul’s strong harmony to point the way forward.

The second version appeared on Jaco’s second solo album Word Of Mouth, released in 1981. A controversial release, it was supposed to be Jaco’s big Warner Bros ‘fusion’ debut but it ended up going way over budget and making him almost persona non grata at the company.

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The basic track was recorded at the Power Station, New York, with Jaco on piano, Toots Thielemans on harmonica and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Strings, brass, woodwinds, voices and bass were added later in LA, at enormous expense; Jaco hired a 31-piece string section from the LA Philharmonic at a cost of $9,000, but later erased their contribution, not believing they had delivered the performance required.

Seven players from the section were selected by Jaco to come back a few weeks later and try again – they were overdubbed nine times each to create the illusion of a 63-piece string section!

So was it all worth it? Judge for yourself below. I know which version I prefer…

There’s also a lovely 1986 live (bootleg) version featuring Jaco’s short-lived but storming trio with Hiram Bullock on guitar and Kenwood Dennard on drums, but it’s really hard to find.

‘Three Views’ was played by a specially-selected band at Jaco’s funeral mass on 25th September 1987 at St Clement’s Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he had once served as an altar boy. It rang out as the pallbearers, including Zawinul and Shorter, led the procession of mourners out of the church.

Cover versions have been multiple and generally pretty faithful to the originals: Bob Mintzer, Gil Goldstein and Richard Bona, though there is also this ill-advised smooth jazz/funk abomination by Brian Bromberg. But no matter – it can’t erode the majesty of this classic Jaco composition.

For much more about Jaco, check out the great recent documentary, produced by Metallica’s Rob Trujillo, and Bill Milkowski’s controversial, though very detailed, biography. Here’s one more very moving version of ‘Three Views’ to close.