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.

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.

Book Review: Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

There aren’t many titles in the ‘complete studio sessions’ pop library. Mark Lewisohn and others have done sterling work in this area on the Beatles, and Elvis’s career has been similarly scrutinised. But the relative lack of material begs the question – do we really want to know everything about our icons’ recording histories?

When it comes to Prince, the answer may be a resounding yes, since his mystique is so bound up with his status as a master multi-instrumentalist, famously with hundreds of unreleased songs in the studio vaults.

So such a book was probably only a matter of time, but fair play to Duane Tudahl for ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, a mainly fascinating day-to-day diary of Prince’s studio work (at LA’s Sunset Sound and various facilities and warehouses around Minneapolis) when he was recording the songs that made up Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and key side projects with Sheila E, Jill Jones, Stevie Nicks, The Time and The Family.

The first half of the book is fascinating for three reasons – it outlines the vengeful decline of one band (The Time) and the adrenalized formation of two others (The Revolution and The Family), though you have to be a major fan of the former to enjoy these sections. It also captures Prince at a crucial juncture in his career, when he was going from mid-table journeyman to title contender.

What comes across loud and clear in the second half is the relentless forward motion of Prince’s creative drive – for example, just a week before the start of his Purple Rain tour, he was completing work on both the Around The World In A Day and The Family albums! We also get a real sense of his famously-short attention span – he curtailed the Purple Rain tour at its absolute peak, bored of the material after only six months.

But the bane of the book is repetition. Too many calendar days are similar –  there’s only so much you can say about two weeks of ‘Baby I’m A Star’ overdubs. In Tudahl’s need to flesh out sometimes fairly uneventful studio days, he uses variations on very similar quotes.

But he also gets some great interview material from almost all of the major players, and there are plenty of revelations and interesting theories – he reveals that ‘When Doves Cry’ was written on Tuesday 1st March 1984, two days after Prince lost two Grammy awards to Michael Jackson. Did this double setback prompt some fairly uncharacteristic introspection, spawning his biggest hit?

Prince is also revealed as a major Springsteen fan, bringing the saxophone sound into his music mainly due to Clarence Clemons’ playing with The Boss. Then there’s his little-known charity work, including a touching photo of a gig at a Minneapolis deaf school, and we also get an insight into his fear before the first night of the Purple Rain tour.

There are also interesting comments about Prince’s business deals – Wendy Melvoin: ‘Collaboration with Prince was a reality, but it didn’t pay the bills.’ Her sister Susannah goes as far as to say that Prince would test people’s loyalty by paying terrible money. These are tantalising – if troubling – morsels, never fully explored by Tudahl.

But he gets closer than most to revealing the true Prince, warts and all. Spoiler alert: some of it isn’t pretty. ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’ is a major achievement and a real labour of love. The years of research have certainly paid off. It’s a vital buy for hardcore Prince fans, but arguably only the second best book on the Minneapolis master – just pipped at the post by Per Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The First Decade’.

‘Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions’ by Duane Tudahl is published by Rowman & Littlefield

Story Of A Song: Jill Jones’ Violet Blue

When Prince appeared on the box the other day, my mum expressed her approval. I ask why, and without hesitation she offered: ‘He respected and promoted women’. It struck me initially as a weird reason but upon further reflection seemed spot-on.

He wrote many songs from a female perspective in the early ’80s, many of which have never seen the light of day. Then there was Vanity/Apollonia 6 – dubious acts for some, but without too much moral adjustment you could interpret them as ‘women reclaiming their right to enjoy sex’.

Then there were Prince’s striking collaborations with a variety of strong, independent characters: Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Sheena Easton, Dale Bozzio, Mavis Staples, Cat Glover, Elisa Fiorillo, Bonnie Raitt, Nona Hendryx, Wendy & Lisa, Susan Rogers and Peggy McCreary. How many other male pop icons can boast such a coterie of female cohorts?

Then there was Jill Jones. With hindsight, her 1987 debut album, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, is one of the great missed opportunities of his career, and its standout song ‘Violet Blue’ particularly demonstrates why.

The album started in the summer of 1983 during the filming of ‘Purple Rain’ (featuring Jill’s less-than-stellar cameo), when she replaced Prince’s guide vocal on ‘Mia Bocca’. Sadly he didn’t find time to resume work on the record until over two years later. Consequently, it’s very uneven, with some decent material (‘For Love’, ‘My Man’) mixed in with middling Prince outtakes, covers and B-sides (‘All Day, All Night’, ‘G-Spot’, ‘With You’) and undone by rushed arrangements and drastic changes in tone.

‘Violet Blue’, recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound in October 1986, was the last song put down for the album. Quite simply, it shows what the record could have been, and, frankly, how much Prince (and Jill) had developed between 1983 and 1986 – the vocal intro and accordion breakdown are two cases in point, not to mention the interesting chord progression and superb horn (Eric Leeds) and string (Clare Fischer) arrangements. Jill delivers a knockout vocal too, even throwing in a neat little Nancy Wilson impression via Dinah Washington.

Sadly the Jill Jones album sank without trace. She has recorded intermittently since, contributing a great guest vocal on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘You Do Me’ and playing low-key gigs. She’s always a refreshing presence.

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.

Prince’s Lovesexy: 30 Years Old Today

Why is Lovesexy probably Prince’s least-heralded, least-mentioned album of the 1980s? Even Dirty Mind, Controversy and Batman seem to get a better rap these days.

The cover photo said it all – this was Prince’s ‘spiritual rebirth’ album, and you were either in or you were out. Lovesexy was also a response to his alleged dabbling with psychedelic drugs (apparently taking place on 1st December 1987) that shook him to his core, and also a response to the highly sexualised, uncharacteristically angry Black Album. He once said, ‘I realised that if I released that album and died, that’s what people would remember me for. I could feel this wind and I knew I was doing the wrong thing…’

So Prince shelved The Black AlbumLovesexy was the speedily-recorded, musically-rich antidote. It’s one of the most challenging albums of Prince’s career but also one of the most rewarding. From the opening synth chords and Ingrid Chavez’s brief ‘poetry’, it’s clear that this is something pretty special. And different.

The horn arrangements are downright loopy throughout. Discordant, dissonant. Instruments are layered to sometimes disconcerting effect. Comparisons to Zappa are not inappropriate. Prince also dials in a lot of his spiritual concerns, with God competing against the Devil (or ‘Spooky Electric’), the purity of the spiritual life competing against the sins of the flesh. With a few jokes.

For many, including saxophonist Eric Leeds, the result was a bit of a mess: ‘I thought it was going to be a great album, but when I heard the final mixes, I was very disappointed. I thought he had completely over-produced the music…’ But the savvy so-and-so that Prince was, he was also careful to throw in three of his most irresistible, ‘throwaway’ pop tunes – ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Dance On’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ – and one of the finest ballads of his career, ‘When 2 R In Love’.

At once scary, profound, silly, funny, romantic and outrageous, Lovesexy still sounds fantastic 30 years on. It was Prince’s first UK number one album and spawned probably the best tour of his career. Here’s how prolific he was at the time – Sign ‘O’ The Times had only come out a year before. And many in Prince’s camp believed that the Sign album and tour had a lot more legs, and that releasing Lovesexy so soon killed them off. We’ll never know. But we do know now that he was coming towards the end of his Purple patch.

Dance On…