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.

Paul Barrere (1948-2019)

Little Feat provided some of my happiest musical memories of the late ’80s. Paul Barrere, who has died at the age of 71, was a big part of that.

I was introduced to the band by Steve Farmer, a very cool family friend, who also passed on a load of other good stuff: Talking Heads’ ’77, Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha, Steve Martin’s Wild & Crazy Guy, Steely’s Katy Lied.

I was instantly smitten with Feat’s The Last Record Album though, possibly picking up on something Ry Cooderish, whom I already liked and seen playing live in London.

Barrere’s stinging leads, tasty rhythms, decent vocals and excellent songwriting were a massive part of Little Feat’s middle and later periods – the eras that really grabbed me – and he toured with the band right up until near his death, I finally saw them live in 2000, during the same week I also saw Steely Dan for the first time…

Barrere joined Little Feat in time for the release of ’73’s classic Dixie Chicken. As Lowell George’s influence waned in the band’s middle years (and critics mainly derided the band’s embracing of prog, jazz and fusion alongside the blues, country and rock’n’roll), he contributed more and more.

As a teenager, Little Feat’s music fascinated me. There’s an oft-quoted maxim, attributed to Joe Zawinul, about Weather Report’s modus operandi: ‘We always solo and we never solo’. It could also be applied to Little Feat. Nothing was quite as it seemed. Barrere and George’s ensemble guitars meshed with Bill Payne’s keys to make a beguiling brew, sitting atop the brilliant rhythm section of Kenny Gradney (bass), Richie Hayward (drums) and Sam Clayton (congas).

Barrere was born on 3rd July, 1948, in Burbank, California, the son of Hollywood actors Paul and Claudia Bryar. He wrote or co-wrote many Feat classics, including ‘Skin It Back’ from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, ‘All That You Dream’ from The Last Record Album, ‘High Roller’, ‘Keepin’ Up With The Joneses’, ‘Old Folks Boogie’ and ‘Time Loves A Hero’.

The band originally split after Lowell’s sad death in 1980, but reunited for 1988’s Let It Roll, which I bought at the time and need to investigate again (wish I still had it…). I also recall a great gig broadcast live by Radio 1 from the Town & Country Club around that time.

Sadly it’s often a great musician’s death that leads one to explore the nooks and crannies of their recorded legacy, and Barrere is no different: he worked with Bob Dylan and unbeknownst to me also recorded three solo albums in the early ’80s. I’ll be investigating further but have already taken a shine to the below.

Paul Barrere (3rd July 1948 – 26th October 2019)

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.

Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt

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 Bridge 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.

Story Of A Song: Chaka Khan’s ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On’

Jazz regained some ground in the ’80s. After a chastening period in the late-’60s and ’70s when rock pretty much swept all before it, major labels took a renewed interest in established jazz acts and underground movements flourished (no wave, acid jazz, harmolodic funk, neo-bop). Wynton Marsalis, Miles, Courtney Pine and Loose Tubes even put jazz back on primetime TV.

But when Chaka Khan recorded ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)’, the dramatic centrepiece of her What Cha’Gonna Do For Me album, she arguably set the whole revival in motion.

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan, Atlantic Studios 1981

It was producer Arif Mardin’s idea, his mind wandering during a flight between New York and LA. The album was one song short – so how about a tribute to the bebop masters of the ’40s using the crème de la crème of the early ’80s soul/R’n’B/jazz session players? They could use Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s 1942 bebop classic ‘A Night In Tunisia’ as a template.

Chaka loved the idea. Mardin hoped to find a lyricist but deadlines were pending so he tackled it himself with Chaka adding the final touches. Mardin made a demo of the arrangement which cheekily inserted Charlie Parker’s famous 1946 alto break.

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

A lengthy chart was quickly made up (resembling a ‘Chinese laundry list written in cuneiform’, according to Mardin) which included eight spare bars for the insertion of the Parker lick.

The musicians – Casey Scheuerell on drums, David Foster and Ronnie Foster (no relation) on keys, Abe Laboriel on bass – were booked and smashed the tune in one take.

Herbie Hancock later contributed a brilliant synth solo. Chaka then added her sublime vocals. Her four-part big-band harmonies and spine-tingling ad-libs bring the song right up to date.

But there was still space for an opening head melody and a solo in the final verse. Dizzy had been sent the demo by Mardin with a note asking him to contribute. But the bebop legend replied that he would be on tour and so couldn’t make the recording session – but he suddenly arrived two days before the album’s mastering date at New York’s Atlantic Studios to add his part. The track was complete.

Chaka and Mardin attempted to repeat the trick a few years later with ‘Bebop Medley‘ but it lacked the finesse of this timeless classic.