Prince: Dirty Mind/Controversy

Picture the scene: It’s August 1980 at Warner Bros Records’ Los Angeles HQ. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli is playing the suits his charge’s new demos.

Both the artist and his manager want to release these rough recordings as the next album.

Fargnoli hits the play button, and these lyrics crawl out over a peppy – but distinctly lo-fi – new-wave groove:

I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse
My sister was thirty-two, lovely and loose
She don’t wear no underwear
She says it only gets in her hair…

Major labels often – quite rightly – take a lot of flak, but Warner Bros deserves credit for taking on Dirty Mind (released 8th October 1980) and Controversy (released 14th October 1981). It was a brave move by Prince too, an incredible volte face after it looked like he might be going down a big-budget, soft-rock/disco rabbit hole. Just compare the Prince and Dirty Mind covers: it was definitely one in the eye for Reagan’s new, ultra-conservative regime.

I first heard these albums circa 1988 via a compilation tape made by my schoolfriend Seb. I already knew and loved Parade and Sign O’ The Times but these older songs sounded like they’d been sent down from a different planet. I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics in those days but sensed something very odd going on.

In the Dirty Mind/Controversy era, Prince’s main modus operandi seems to be: shock at all costs. It’s a novel approach, because if he can express himself completely freely, and then deliver such a classic, ‘throwaway’ rock song like ‘When You Were Mine’, you never know what’s going to come next. Cue a long, great career.

Recorded very quickly during summer 1980 at his rather ramshackle home studio in Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis (the drum kit apparently sat in a puddle of water surrounded by sand bags), Dirty Mind has more in common with the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Cars than it does Earth, Wind & Fire or REO Speedwagon.

It’s nasty, brutish and short. And of course what struck me listening to it again after five or six years, it’s remarkably stripped down compared to a great deal of modern music – hardly surprising when nearly all the noises are made by Prince. Only ‘Head’, ‘Partyup’ and ‘Uptown’ outstay their welcome, underwhelming grooves with slight vocal performances (though the former became a great live track).

Vinyl is back in vogue big-time, and my old LP version of Controversy sounds absolutely great. Of course it helps that the album’s only 37 minutes long, and also there’s a lot more bottom-end this time.

On a decent turntable, various details emerge like the scuzzy synth bass escaping from the left channel during the Lord’s Prayer on the title track (can you guess it’s a Prince album yet?!) and some low-octave backing vocals throughout.

It’s also a totally schizophrenic album again, with the title track and ‘Sexuality’ laying down a kind of free-love/free-speech manifesto, two rockabilly tunes (one a message to Reagan), a graphic seduction ballad and synthetic funk tune (‘Private Joy’) which marks Prince’s first use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

Weirdly, none of these songs made the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. But they still sound totally fresh, especially the unclassifiable stuff like ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Annie Christian’, ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’.

Prince toured Dirty Mind and Controversy extensively, and there were three particularly infamous gigs during the period: his London debut at The Lyceum on 2nd June 1981 and the two shows supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on 9th and 11th October 1981.  Were you at any of them? Let us know your memories.

Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

TACK>>HEAD: Friendly As A Hand Grenade 30 Years On

Tackhead have always been ahead of their time, but no one could have predicted quite how prescient their 1989 album Friendly As A Hand Grenade would prove.

When Trump became president in 2016, Gee Vaucher’s brilliant cover artwork went viral, though one wonders how many people knew the image’s origins.

In a way that’s a good metaphor for the band’s career. A supergroup of session players, and arguably the ultimate post-punk band in their effortless fusion of hip-hop, P-funk, agit-prop, dub, house, gospel, blues and industrial, Tackhead have never quite hit the mainstream, even while their respective careers flourished with other artists.

And that’s probably exactly how they like it. Tackhead has always been a kind of musical petri dish for each member’s explorations, kind of a funk version of 1980s King Crimson.

Bassist Doug Wimbish, drummer Keith LeBlanc and guitarist Skip McDonald had of course hooked up during their legendary sessions for Sugarhill Records, and vocalist Bernard Fowler was one of the great singers on the ’80s New York scene. Add London-based mixologist/dub innovator Adrian Sherwood and it was a whole new thang, mixing the latest sampling technology with classic funk-rhythm-section smarts.

And if their second album Friendly, released 30 years ago this weekend, hasn’t dated as well as hoped, that’s more down to its mastering limitations (not enough bottom end) and occasional dearth of quality original material. But when it works it really works, a thrilling mix of heavy guitar, funk basslines, tasty grooves, soulful vocals and scary samples, usually with a political element.

‘Mind And Movement’ steals a march on Heaven 17’s ‘We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang’, a funky missive against Margaret Thatcher’s late-’80s policing policies. ‘Stealing’ is a grinding, gospel-tinged rail against TV evangelists. The two ska cameos are pure filler, but side two is much better, kicking off with the classic Tackhead theme tune ‘Airborne Ranger’, and gradually adding in elements of old-school hip-hop and early house.

Friendly was a hit, reaching #3 on the UK Indie album chart and reportedly selling over 100,000 worldwide. The majors smelt a hit; EMI subsidiary SBK came calling with a big advance and huge recording budget (LeBlanc puts it at around £250,000), resulting in the 1990 major-label debut Strange Things, which had some brilliant moments but has been been described by a few band members since as ‘crap’. Arguably the better follow-up to Friendly was the 1994 Strange Parcels album Disconnection, credited as a ‘A Tackhead Re-Duction’.

Elsewhere, Wimbish went on to great things with Living Colour, McDonald formed the potent Little Axe and Fowler became a key member of the Rolling Stones touring entourage. And they all continued to work with fascinating On-U Sound outliers Mark Stewart and Gary Clail.

But the ‘real’ Tackhead sound has probably never adequately been captured on record  – the gigs were (and are) where it’s at (and highly recommended is their live anthology Power Inc. Volume Three).

There was a memorable March 1989 show at London’s Town & Country Club, and I went to many great gigs in the capital during the early 1990s and beyond. The band’s fans were (and are) an incredibly disparate bunch, from Whirl-Y-Gig crusties to B-boys and musos.

And they’re still with us. Don’t miss them if they come to your town – they’re still doing some of the best stuff out there.

Prince: Batman Motion Picture Soundtrack 30 Years Old Today

At the beginning of 1989, the tabloids were full of rumours that Prince was in dire financial straits.

While that seems unlikely, with hindsight it does seem a curious decision for him to take on a soundtrack gig for such a huge mainstream movie, stepping right into the belly of the Warner Bros. beast.

But then it’s also not much of a surprise that he smashed Batman out of the park. On many levels, it was the perfect project for the time – the movie’s themes appealed to his post-Lovesexy spiritual concerns and also tapped into his own feelings about fatherhood. He explored those themes poignantly on ‘The Future’ and ‘Vicki Waiting’.

Musically, in the main he retreated from Lovesexy‘s album’s dense, complex, band-inspired sounds and went back to a minimalist approach, pushing his guitar right to the fore and making liberal use of samplers and a Fairlight.

But even though ‘The Future’, ‘Electric Chair’, ‘Partyman’, ‘Batdance’ and ‘Lemon Crush’ are essentially one-chord jams, Prince knows exactly how to hold the attention with false endings, escalating riffs, hysterical guitar solos and quirky chord voicings. The net result is a somewhat forbidding but still undeniably funky album.

Also he doesn’t scrimp on the dancefloor classics – put on ‘Partyman’, ‘Trust’ or ‘Batdance’ (a UK #2 and US #1) and to this day you’ll get any party started. Elsewhere, ‘Scandalous’ is a brilliantly-sung, sometimes funny seduction ballad in the tradition of ‘Do Me Baby’ and ‘International Lover’, while ‘The Arms Of Orion’ is a pretty – if somewhat trite – ballad.

The album was a smash hit, selling over a million copies in its first week of release and becoming his first US #1 album since Around The World In A Day. Prince was almost returning to his Purple Rain popularity, no doubt helped by the huge success of the movie too.

But this kind of mainstream success was short-lived. Something was eating him up inside – in typical form, he regrouped immediately and took on a deeply personal project, the doomed Graffiti Bridge movie/album.

It was a funny old end to the decade. But a totally Prince one. Probably his least-remembered album of the ’80s – though arguably the last great album he delivered – Batman is ripe for rediscovery as we reach more end-of-the-decade, spiritual/political uncertainty.

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

Prince: The Lovesexy Tour @ 30

I haven’t kept many VHS cassettes: ‘Steve Martin Live’, Japan’s ‘Oil On Canvas’ and King Crimson’s ‘The Noise’ are probably lurking around somewhere, and two vids that definitely won’t be hitting the charity shop any time soon are Prince’s ‘Lovesexy Live: Volumes 1 and 2’ (still unavailable on DVD…).

The Lovesexy tour kicked off 30 years ago this week, on 8th July 1988 at Paris’s Palais Omnisport. The seven-month jaunt, taking in Europe, North America and Japan, was arguably Prince’s greatest ever.

A spectacular in-the-round stage set was designed as a kind of ‘fantasy island’, half a playground and half a dreamscape, with curtains, a mini basketball court, brass bed, swing set and a Ford T-Bird which Prince ‘drove’ around the stage at the start of the show.

The Lovesexy tour band: left to right, Cat Glover, Dr Fink, Boni Boyer, Miko Weaver, Eric Leeds, Prince, Levi Seacer Jr., Matt Blistan, Sheila E

Taped on the last night of the European tour – 9th September 1988, at the Westfalenhalle in Dortmund, Germany – ‘Lovesexy Live’ still makes for a thrilling watch. First, the music: this band could turn on a dime. It’s hard to imagine any other set of musicians from the era pulling off the ‘Adore’/’Jack U Off’/’Sister’ medley. Prince’s guitar playing is at its best, with creamy, delay-drenched distortion and tight, tasty Telecaster.

And of all the ’80s ‘pop’ acts who incorporated jazz into their work, Prince may be the most successful. In collaboration with his superb horn section (Eric Leeds on saxes, Matt Blistan on trumpet), he often went back to the source: Ellington’s ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ and Charlie Parker’s ‘Billie’s Bounce’ infiltrate ‘Blues In C/If I Had A Harem’, and Blistan occasionally quotes from ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing’). Meanwhile Sheila E brings the Bay Area jazz/rock sound so beloved of Prince. Her solo feature is a highlight of his ’80s live work.

Then there’s the ‘story’. The Lovesexy show is structured like one of those old Warner Bros gangster pictures – in the first half (lucky for us), we see an ‘evil’ Prince, seduced by the sins of the flesh and tempted by drugs, money and criminality, giving him an excuse to dust off Black Album standouts ‘Superfunkicalifragisexy’ and ‘Bob George’.

Then there’s punishment, atonement and spiritual conversion. Yes, y’all, the second half of the show is ‘God stuff’. But if you don’t go along with it, the music is enough of a spiritual experience anyway. Anyway, Prince certainly seems genuinely transported during ‘Anna Stesia’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’.

Europe couldn’t get enough of the tour. There were no less than seven nights at London’s Wembley Arena and a series of famous after-show gigs, particularly at the Camden Palace on 25th July when Mica Paris was picked out from the crowd to sing ‘Just My Imagination’ and Ron Wood joined Prince onstage for a memorable ‘Miss You’ (see below).

Ticket sales were not so good in the States (14th September to 29th November) where apparently Prince struggled to sell out many arenas, despite it being his first major tour there for over three years. But normal service was resumed when the Japan leg kicked off in early February 1989. The last night of the tour on the 13th was apparently an exceptionally emotional one.

When Prince got home to Minneapolis, he commenced work on the ‘Batman’ soundtrack, another project about the duality of man. It’s not hard to see where his head was at as the ’80s drew to a close.