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 However, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the fan and valuable historical document, not to mention a great, gossipy read.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.

‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince invites his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more.

Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other former Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’.

But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin.

Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Apart from some fairly unsavoury drum sounds, pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends.

But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince.

‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime.

‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’.

The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.