It’s never easy describing why a personal hero meant a lot to you – heaven knows I still haven’t been able to set down anything cogent about David Bowie’s life and work. But I may be coming nearer to working out why Prince Rogers Nelson had such an effect on the way I heard – and still hear – music.
Before the release of 1986’s Parade, I was a confirmed chart-pop fan, but also into the weird rock of Frank Zappa, fusion of Weather Report and straight jazz of Courtney Pine, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Parade seemed to offer a perfect synthesis of all these forms. And, quite incredibly, one guy was pretty much responsible for all of it – and he was a brilliant singer and dancer too. Put simply, for fans and musicians of my age, Prince was the nearest thing to a Bowie/Ziggy figure.
His extravagantly-flamboyant stage persona also sometimes blinded people to the brilliance of his musicianship. Pre-Parade, that might have put me off initially too. But has there ever been a better keyboard/guitar double threat? (Steve Winwood, Johnny Guitar Watson and Lewis Taylor are decent competition but he surely outstrips all three.)
He obviously had natural talent but he worked extremely hard too – in his teenage years, he was living Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. Influenced by Sly Stone, Graham Central Station, Funkadelic, Tower Of Power, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell, he was busy getting his chops together in his home music room and during various high-school battle-of-the-band competitions in Minneapolis’s North Side. As he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1990: ‘Anyone who was around back then knew what was happening. I was working. When they were sleeping, I was jamming. When they woke up, I had another groove.’
On the bass, he took care of business. Along with a few other of his contemporaries (he credited future New Power Generation member Sonny Thompson as being a key early influence), he patented the Minneapolis bass sound, a rumbling, busy style, heavily influenced by Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham. But he also had a much more effervescent, Stanley Clarke-flavoured side as well, a good example being the incredible ‘I’m Yours’ from 1978’s For You.
On guitar, his sweet, creamy, heavily-distorted lead lines, usually injected with a healthy dose of delay, were coming out of the Carlos Santana and Ernie Isley school, but he also had many licks all of his own. For me, his lead guitar peak was 1985-1989; what an incredible tone, beautiful phrasing and a very ‘vocal’, very human sound. But he also had a funky ensemble rhythm guitar style out of Steve Cropper and Jimmy Nolan school. My favourite examples of Prince guitar would have to include ‘Lady Cab Driver’, ‘Bambi’, ‘My Love Is Forever’, ‘Alexa De Paris’, ‘The Question Of U’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Get Some Solo’, ‘One Of Us’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Batdance’, but there are many more. His playing throughout the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ and ‘Lovesexy Live’ concert films is sublime.
On keyboards, he was equally proficient. As NPG drummer Michael Bland pointed out, his piano playing had a touch and rhythmic approach similar to Thelonious Monk. He also patented the Minneapolis synth sound (alongside other influential players such as Ricky Peterson and Jimmy Jam), exemplified by his work between 1980 and 1983 on solo albums and releases by The Time, Vanity 6 and Sheila E. And he loved playing hot, churchy, gospel-flavoured organ too – check out ‘Hot Thing’ from the ‘Sign O’ The Times’ film or his superb Hammond playing on the Parade tour.
On drums, he was, by contrast, a late developer. Before discovering the Linn LM-1 drum machine in 1981, his playing was functional rather than spectacular. Purple Rain engineer Susan Rogers has talked about how much Prince’s drumming improved once Sheila E came into his life around 1983 – he very much wanted to impress her, and she taught him a few licks too. But he definitely had his own touch on the drums: check out the 12” version of ‘Mountains’, ‘Tambourine’, ‘Lady Cab Driver’ and ‘Sexual Suicide’ for some good examples. He was also very influenced by The Time mainman Morris Day’s playing – ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’ on Crystal Ball is quite illuminating.
Of course, it’s all very well playing lots of instruments, but it’s a question of arrangement. Good ingredients are important but you’ve got to know how to mix them up. Prince was a master. A lot of his ‘producing’ decisions (ie. what to put in and what to leave out) came about because he very, very rarely left a song unfinished – he would work very long hours without a break to achieve exactly the sound he had originally heard in his head. This is why his best stuff sounds so fresh today – it has enough melody and groove for the casual listener but also retains a precious, ‘unfinished’ quality.
As a young musician in the ‘70s, Prince was very much a student of funk, soul and rock, but he came to jazz too later in life, inspired by his work with Eddie Minfield, Sheila E, Miles Davis, Eric Leeds and Matt Blistan in the mid-‘80s. He tried a ‘one-man-band’ approach to jazz/rock/funk with his Madhouse project, and worked successfully with Leeds on his two Paisley Park solo albums, but was more successful when he integrated the jazz influences into his own ‘pop’ albums and gigs. The ultimate for me was the Lovesexy tour, when the band could turn on a dime, going from cool Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker licks to blazing hard rock.
For every great single that came out in the mid-to-late-’80s, there was a great B-side. We fans had to hear as much as possible. My friend Marlon Celestine was our source for amazing bootlegs; the brilliant original demos for The Family album, ‘Others Here With Us’, ‘A Place In Heaven’, ‘Movie Star’. What will happen to all these tracks now? Was Prince planning to let us hear everything? There was talk of opening the vaults and adding the outtakes to the ‘special edition’ re-releases of the Warner Bros studio albums. I wonder who owns these masters now.
Another important aspect of Prince was his sense of humour. Friends, collaborators and lovers have reported how hilarious he could be away from the media glare. He didn’t let it out very often on his own official albums, but you can hear it loud and clear on ‘Cloreen Bacon Skin’, ‘Mutiny’, ‘High Fashion’, ‘Movie Star’, ‘Housequake’, ‘Jerk Out‘, ‘Chocolate‘ and Sheila E’s Romance 1600 album. There are apparently many other ‘comedy’ tracks in the vaults. His cheekiness came out often on stage too – check out ‘Blues In C/If I Had A Harem’ from ‘Lovesexy Live’, and there are plenty of other examples.
He was also a true Gemini, and as such it’s important to note how vitally important many women were to his career, and how often he sought their musical and personal company: Susan Rogers, Peggy McCreary, Wendy & Lisa, Susannah Melvoin, Jill Jones, Mavis Staples, Sheena Easton, Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Cat Glover, Boni Boyer, Rhonda Smith, Mayte, Rosie Gaines, Candy Dulfer, Marva King, 3rdeyegirl – just a partial list. Yes, one might question some of his attitudes towards women when he put together the bands Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6 (and there’s some strange stuff in ‘Purple Rain’) but he was a very young man then. His ‘Camille’ songs (‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, ‘Good Love’, ‘When 2 R In Love’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’ etc.) present a perfect fusion of his male and female sides, and of course the design of his ‘90s Symbol heavily emphasised both genders.
Prince went out of his way to promote musicians who were important to him, figures such as Larry Graham, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis and Chaka Khan. He came to George Clinton’s rescue in the late 1980s when George had a huge tax bill to pay – Prince signed him to Paisley Park for one album (The Cinderella Theory) and the sizeable advance took care of his debt. He later enlarged on his feelings about George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic during this elegant speech inducting them into the Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame. Prince was also a musical philanthropist – he gave away instruments to schools and encouraged real playing in an age of samples and loops. He also played many, many charity shows throughout his career, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Then there was the spiritual element to Prince’s music, increasingly visible as the ‘80s progressed. He was a living embodiment of the sacred/profane dichotomy. The man who wrote ‘Sister’ and ‘Lady Cab Driver’ ended the decade by telling us: ‘Look to the light’. He could write ‘I Love U In Me’ one day but then follow it up the next with ‘God’. The entire Lovesexy live show (and album) was designed as a battle between good and evil. I wasn’t sure if I liked or understood the spiritual stuff back in 1988, but I loved the way he provoked questions. Still do.
In December 1987, when he had a change of heart and pulled The Black Album from release at the eleventh hour, believing it to be too angry, too dark, and an unrepresentative piece of work, he rush-released Lovesexy instead. Here was an artist of integrity. (Apparently one frame in the ‘Alphabet Street’ video features the words: “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry.” Or does it? I could never find it back then… Maybe it was a great bit of Warner Bros PR.)
I never saw Prince play live, to my great regret. I passed up a ticket for the famous London O2 run in 2007. It just didn’t sit right. The nearest I got to seeing him perform was a signing session at HMV in Oxford Street with the NPG in 1995. Around that time, he was way more visible on British TV than he had ever been before, memorably appearing on ‘The White Room’ and also being interviewed on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Show’. He seemed quite happy subsuming himself into a group ethos – there are shades of Bowie and Tin Machine.
Over the last few weeks, the press has frequently reported that the essential book about Prince is Matt Thorne’s biography. It’s good, but the killer is surely ‘Prince: The First Decade’ by Per Nilsen. There you will read about the recording of every single one of his albums from 1978 to 1988, find out what was happening in his private life throughout that time and also hear from all his key collaborators. Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The Documentary’ is also superb.
Though I struggled with a lot of Prince’s music in the ’90s and beyond, he seemed to live a pretty ‘noble’ life in a period when many musicians of his generation and popularity kind of lost their way. There was certainly a conscious retreat towards the end of the ’90s, but then look at what was happening in the wider world around that time – the Disneyfication of the music business, the dumbing down of culture generally. He chose not to play the whole global branding game (he never launched a clothes line or fragrance, for example), he took on his record company, temporarily withdrew the name ‘Prince’, resolutely promoted himself as a musician and spoke up about many of the things that troubled him. That may explain a lot. We shall see, though I’m not looking for any ‘theories’ or ‘explanations’ concerning his death and trying not to hear news reports.
In 1990, Prince told Rolling Stone magazine, ‘When I pray to God, I say, “It’s your call – when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. But as long as you’re going to leave me here, I’m going to cause much ruckus!”’
He did it. C ya.