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.

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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 Sign O’ The Times: 30 Years Old Today

Paisley Park/Warner Bros, released 30th March 1987

Album chart position: #6 (US), #4 (UK)

Singles released: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (#3 US, #10 UK)
‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (#67 US, #20 UK)
‘U Got The Look’ (#2 US, #11 UK)
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (#10 US, #29 UK)

At the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release, the general critical consensus seemed to be that it was a great double album but, shorn of a few tracks, would have made a sensational single album. But what the press probably didn’t know was that Prince had actually intended to release a triple album!

He believed the three-record set Crystal Ball would have been be a huge artistic statement after a relatively disappointing 1986, but the idea scared the hell out of Warner Bros and also his manager Bob Cavallo. Prince was reluctantly forced to back down.

The tracks intended for Crystal Ball but later abandoned for Sign O’ The Times were ‘Rebirth Of The Flesh’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’, ‘The Ball’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Shockadelica’, and ‘Good Love’ (all hoovered up from two other aborted album projects, Dream Factory and Camille). But even after Prince removed these, he was still left with a 16-track double album, a brilliant mix of the sacred and profane, and a record which many fans believe was his finest hour.

The famous title track was recorded on 15th July 1986 in a single ten-hour session at LA’s Sunset Sound. Prince was experimenting with a new piece of kit – the Fairlight sampler/synth – but characteristically made the technology swing in a way that no other artist could. The track also demonstrates his love of space; it’s essentially just a minimalist blues featuring a three-note melody line, some sampled drums/bass and a bit of electric guitar. Listening again on the day after the Westminster terror attack of 23rd March, the song’s lyric also seems as relevant now as it was in 1987:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cos she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June

It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy
Until a man truly dies

‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’ are pure party pop – it’s scarcely believable that Prince alone could generate such a raucous studio atmosphere with only Susannah Melvoin’s backing vocals, a few guests and Eric Leeds’ sax for company. The latter also represents his first recorded attempt at hip-hop (unless you count the brief ‘rap’ in ‘Girls & Boys’), typically supplying something usually missing from the genre: humour.

‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, recorded in Prince’s Minneapolis home studio on 15th March 1986, may be his most psychedelic recording, the soundtrack to a dream with seemingly-spontaneous musical moments that no one else could have created. He demonstrates his mastery with the LM-1 drum machine and, vocally, sets up a novel ‘Greek chorus’ effect.

‘Forever In My Life’ takes a melody line very similar to Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ (and maintains Sly’s key of G) but again demonstrates Prince’s remarkable sense of space and also features another extraordinary backing vocal arrangement. The heartfelt lyric was written when he believed he would settle down with fiancée Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Wendy) – sadly it wasn’t to be.

‘It’, another bold experiment with the Fairlight, returns to the cold, sexualised world of 1999, while ‘Hot Thing’ is its flipside, a funky, James Brown-inspired one-chord romp with some great Leeds tenor sax.

‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (another song about Susannah/Wendy), ‘Strange Relationship’ (another big nod to Sly), ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, ‘Starfish And Coffee’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ are just brilliantly performed, beautifully written pop tunes with dashes of psychedelia and soul.

According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince was very influenced by Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love during the recording of SOTT, the track ‘Cloudbusting’ a particular favourite. Other songs showed contemporary influences too – ‘Adore’ was apparently Prince’s response to the popularity of Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason and Patti Labelle’s The Winner In You, and it also hugely influenced the neo-soul movement, particularly D’Angelo’s ballad style. ‘U Got The Look’ – the last song recorded for Sign O’ The Times on 21st December 1986 – was apparently inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’.

Sign O’ The Times sold 1.8 million copies in the US, a very similar number to Parade. Some believed the slightly disappointing sales were due to the choice of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as the second single; it is strange that ‘U Got The Look’ didn’t get the nod. But if Prince’s popularity was levelling out in the States, it was growing across Europe.

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.

Prince_GB_single

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.

utcm-1

‘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.

Prince_kiss

‘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.

prince

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.

Prince’s Around The World In A Day: 30 Years Old Today

Prince-Around-the-World-in-a-DayPaisley Park Records, released 22nd April 1985

9/10

I was a late starter when it comes to Prince, too young to get the sexual/spiritual absolutism of Purple Rain. The first album that really hooked me was 1986’s Parade, but Around The World In A Day stands out as my favourite. It was released just ten months after Purple Rain, a serious statement of intent and a good indication of how prolific he was at the time (though of course there was record company pressure to move quickly)

Prince and Wendy, Nice, South of France, 1985

Prince and Wendy, Nice, South of France, 1985

Prince unveiled the first release on his new Paisley Park label at an uncomfortable listening party on 21st February 1985 in the LA offices of Warner Bros attended by 15 to 20 Warners executives, plus Joni Mitchell and Prince’s father, all of whom had to sit on the floor.

Apparently the general reaction from the suits was: how the hell are we gonna sell this?

For me, ATWIAD is prime Prince, when he was tapping into jazz, psychedelia and even classical. But, perhaps surprisingly, the main musical influence is gospel. There’s no other way to describe ‘The Ladder’ and ‘Temptation’, though obviously both have elements of rock too and are very much in style of ‘Purple Rain’. Prince screams his way through these morality tales with just as much intensity as Al Green, Bob Dylan or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.

princeI also hear a lot of late-’70s Joni in the more experimental tracks such as the intense ‘Temptation’ and sublime ballad ‘Condition Of The Heart’ – he’s not scared to leave a lot of space for lengthy piano and guitar improvisations. This is the first Prince album where you can add ‘arranger’ to his list of musical gifts.

Much of Around The World In A Day actually predates Purple Rain. The title track, ‘Pop Life’, ‘Temptation’ and ‘Paisley Park’ were all recorded in early ’84, while the other songs were put together during the Purple Rain tour. While the album is credited to ‘Prince And The Revolution’, only ‘America’ and ‘The Ladder’ feature the full band. The rest is a one-man-band operation with guests here and there.

Any album which contains the classic singles ‘Paisley Park’, ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Pop Life’, the title track and ‘America’ definitely works. It’s well worth seeking out the 12” version of ‘America’ which runs to 21 minutes with no edits and no ‘remix’ element – just endless grooving. Only ‘Tambourine’ now sounds suspiciously like filler, despite Prince’s spirited impersonation of Sheila E’s drum style.

And we’ve got to mention Doug Henders’ sumptuous cover art. He explained the cover concept to writer Per Nilsen: ‘Most of the figures are characters in the songs, but some of the people are parts of Prince so they’re all somewhat autobiographical.’

Prince insisted on zero promotion for the album – no singles, no press or TV ads. This was totally unheard of in the mid-1980s. Even so, Around The World In A Day went to number one in the US album chart on 1st June 1985, just 20 weeks after Purple Rain had completed its 24-week run at the top. It eventually sold over three million copies in the US.

prince

With Purple Rain, Prince had shown Warner Bros that he could mix it with the biggies – Springsteen, Hall and Oates, Madonna and Michael Jackson. But now he was battling to do things his way, beginning with Around The World In A Day.

While this stance produced arguably his best music, it also drove a wedge between him and Warners leading up to the ‘SLAVE’ debacle of 1994/1995. But it was also, thankfully, a battle he won, producing an astonishing output of work between Purple Rain and Batman which rivals any five-year run in pop history.