Book Review: Prince And The Parade & Sign ‘O’ The Times Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

Could Prince have thrived in this current age of the ‘bedroom’ musician?

On the evidence of Duane Tudahl’s superb new book – documenting every single studio session that produced the classic albums Parade and Sign ‘O’ The Times, plus countless others too – the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

As Tudahl points out in his wonderful follow-up to ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, Prince’s genius very much depended on a coterie of talented, fiercely committed back-room staff, particularly Susan Rogers, Peggy ‘Mac’ Leonard, Coke Johnson and David Rivkin (brother of Revolution drummer Bobby), not to mention the constantly-on-call band mainstays Eric Leeds, Matt Blistan, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, all of whom are interviewed at great length.

But there’s absolutely no doubt who’s the boss and the book doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths about Prince’s methods and manners. However, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the fan and valuable historical document, not to mention a great, gossipy read.

We join the book at the beginning of 1985, smack bang in the middle of the Purple Rain tour. We learn how he quickly tired of its routine and looked ever forward, taking particular inspiration from Sheila E and other collaborators, ducking into studios around the country often straight after a gig, usually recording between 2am and 6am (Sheila’s album Romance 1600 was almost exclusively put together in this fashion).

We also learn that there were three huge equipment trucks on the tour – one that contained reels of tape, one with the stage gear and one that contained only Prince’s instruments, so that he could record anywhere, anytime.

Tudahl tells the whole story of the fascinating Los Angeles night of 28 January 1985, when Prince won three awards at the American Music Awards but then failed to repair to A&M Studios for the ‘We Are The World’ session (he offered a guitar solo to Quincy Jones but was turned down!), instead going out to party at Carlos ‘N Charlie’s Mexican restaurant.

The evening had huge repercussions and began a period of press barracking – he was even lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’, with Billy Crystal blacking up and singing ‘I Am The World’.

Tudahl has access to a huge number of candid interviewees who provide a kind of making-of guide to other key side projects from the period: St Paul Peterson talks in detail about the recording of The Family and his subsequent fall-out with Prince; Jill Jones describes the painful, hugely drawn-out period working on her underrated 1987 solo record; Eric Leeds describes how the Madhouse albums came about.

Then there are the fascinating details: we learn the full story of how ‘Kiss’ came together, with Prince getting inspiration while playing basketball on the Sunset Sound court; how the expansion of The Revolution in February 1986 was somewhat of a result of Prince’s fascination with ‘twins’, probably inspired by his fiancée Susannah Melvoin’s relationship with her sister Wendy.

We also get a real sense of Prince’s incredible progression as a musician, especially through the early days of 1986, and learn all of the relevant details about his collaboration with Miles Davis.

We read how the US bombing of Libya on 14 April 1986 affected Prince, inspiring a talk with Jill Jones, the viewing of a film about Nostradamus called ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’ and subsequent removal of some of the more frivolous material on Jill’s album. We also learn how the LA earthquake of 12 July 1986 inspired the classic song ‘The Cross’.

And there are fascinating nuggets about how he saw his own work – he reportedly told Eric Leeds and Susan Rogers on 29 July 1986 that he thought his lyrics to ‘Adonis And Bathsheba’ were possibly his best, though Leeds and Rogers certainly didn’t agree… Both reasoned that Prince protested too much only when he was unsure of himself.

There are also the fascinating machinations of how the Sign ‘O’ The Times album finally came together, after numerous false starts, tracklist changes and the Warner Bros. top brass – led by Lenny Waronker – refusing him a triple album.

And then no detail is spared in the section on the ‘sacking’ of Wendy and Lisa, subsequent hiring of Cat Glover and reformatting of Prince’s live unit.

The period is an absolute whirlwind, and the mind boggles how much all of this studio time cost Prince and Warners. But finally the impression we are left with is that this book gets as close to the ‘real’ Prince as we are ever going to get – it’s not for the faint-hearted fan, but a fascinating, rewarding journey if you can take it.

As someone who regularly worked on a completely one-to-one basis with him, Susan Rogers often had the best seat in the house, and she offers rich insights into his family background and psychology. The section on Prince’s lonely recording session of Christmas Day 1985 will linger long in the memory.

But all of this is only scratching the surface. We haven’t even mentioned the making of ‘Under The Cherry Moon’. It’s another wonderful book and enormous achievement by Tudahl. We await ‘The Lovesexy/Batman Studio Sessions’ with baited breath.

‘Prince And The Parade/Sign ‘O’ The Times Era Studio Sessions’ is published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Author Duane Tudahl discusses the writing of the book in this podcast.

Story Of A Song: Jill Jones’ Violet Blue

When Prince appeared on the box the other day, my mum expressed her approval.

I asked 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’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…

Prince: 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. Prince screams his way through the morality tales of ‘The Ladder’ and ‘Temptation’ 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.