Gold single (1995)
And lo, Sir Lenny of Kravitz did declare the Rockandroll beast slain. But the Purple Prince laughed and said nay. It lives, for I have found it lurking in the land of one thousand lakes. Rock and Roll may still be with us but this song from 1995 is an example of something that would soon be extinct: the Prince b-side. Technically two more would still arrive – 2001’s Staple Sisters cover When Will We B Paid? and 2005’s instrumental Brand New Orleans – but these were released as afterthoughts weeks after being offered digitally. Phantom echoes of a bygone age, like the meaningless “virtual b-side” tag which makes as much sense as pleather or vegetarian bacon. Rock ‘n’ Roll is Alive (and it Live in Minneapolis) is the last true, legit b-side – the end of a long, illustrious line which started with Gotta Stop (Messin Around) and included some of the best songs Prince ever wrote, like Erotic City, How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore? and 17 Days. It parties with the demob abandon of a season wrap-up, or a heirless lord trashing the family manor in one night of drunken decadence. Antique furniture flies through Edwardian windows as revellers dance round a pyre of heirlooms. Behold, I will show it to thee. The Prince removed a gold box from the folds of his cloak and at his command a magnificent dragon leapt to the heavens, showering the hall with fireworks. Everyone present stood agape but I fear the display took away something from the Prince that night. Never again would such a spectacle be forthcoming.
Unreleased (1983) / Ice Cream Castle (1984)
Maybe Prince thought Morris looked a little too smooth performing The Walk because for their next “brand new dance” he had The Time frontman squawking and waving his arms like a rattled rooster. On the scale of foolish to cool, The Bird sits at the midpoint between The Tweets’ The Birdie Song and MIA’s Bird Song. It’s ego-pricking daft fun – a rubber chicken thrown into Narcissus’s pond – yet it still funks seriously hard. We’re told “this dance ain’t for everybody, only the sexy people” (a line reused on Salt & Pepa’s Push It) but the beat is addictive enough to get the most self-conscious wallflower flapping along like a Bluth. What you hear on The Bird single, Ice Cream Castle album and Purple Rain film is a live recording – the only song on The Time’s third album not performed by Prince – yet an unreleased studio version exists if you want to cut out the middlemen and bask in the purple wellspring. Prince would write a third dance craze for The Time years later with Murph Drag but that only sits on the hard drives of hardened collectors. If you only want to learn one Time dance in your life there’s a reason why, in the words of that other Minneapolis band The Trashmen, everybody’s heard about The Bird.
The Voice (1993) / The Undertaker (1995)
Mavis Staples was briefly married to an undertaker in her youth, which may be the reason Prince gifted her this song. The Undertaker’s lyrics warn against gun violence and crack cocaine – cautionary words which Mavis performs with her usual aplomb. But, as good as it is, we’re not here for that. She brings the soul but in Prince’s 1995 recording grows something immeasurable and powerful. A force that is both subterranean and super celestial, and lies growling in the bass for six minutes before exploding from Prince’s guitar in an unleashed storm of raw, white-hot rage. The slow build and release is cleansing. A soul enema. And for a while afterwards our emotions are much closer to the surface. Colours are more colourful. Joy surfaces more readily. I was at a funeral yesterday, my first in a very long time, and what struck me were the extremes of emotion on show. Tears I expected but they were punctuated by moments of jubilation as family members who hadn’t seen each other for decades reunited. And even more memorable were the moments of hilarity. People siloed in personal grief during the service connected again in laughter as the coffin left to the sound of the departed’s favourite song: Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell. Something similar happened when we arrived and our silent solemnity was ruptured by the car radio playing Pharell’s Happy. No other artform has the ability to instantly flip your emotions like music. And no other artform works as well as a reservoir for memory. Goodbye Denise. You taught me who David Bowie was and you’ll forever live on in my heart and in his songs. I hope you’re there with him now, pulling wheelies with Prince on his purple Hondamatic.
Dirty Mind (1980)
Prince’s third album isn’t all the trench-coated, bikini-briefed, daughter-corrupting taboo-breaker the cover suggests. Yes, Head and Sister could still get Moral America hand-wringing today, but elsewhere there’s scarcely a tut to be found. Instead we’re treated to endearing jams like this one which begins with the words “pardon me”. Granted, he then goes on to tell you he wants to do it all night, but he is also concerned about doing it to you right. Hugging and kissing and drowning in your arms is as racy as this song gets. Prince takes pains to tell you he’s “kind of shy” and usually so chaste (“giving up so easy is something that I never do”). Even the way he drops in a couple of “bloody”s is sweet, like he wants to show passion but goshdarnit that’s the wildest cuss he’ll allow himself. He’s uncontrollable with lust but he’s not an animal. Totes adorbs!
Unreleased (1986) / Crystal Ball (1998)
A ballsy ballad written for Prince’s uncompleted musical and considered for Sign O’ the Times before losing out to the Slow Jam Zeus, Adore. Crucial was released a decade later buried in the centre of his Crystal Ball compilation, meaning it never made the splashes it deserved but not for the want of trying. In I986 Prince kept tweaking the track, and various variations exist where Eric Leeds is on sax, Susannah is on vocals, Clare Fisher’s orchestra is overdubbed. But then his spotlight moved on, leaving us to discover it ourselves. A Roman coin hiding in shrapnel beneath the earth. This one’s just for us. The fans who dig where the weeds are overgrown.
Sign O’ the Times single (1987) / The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
The Hits liner notes tell us Prince wrote La, La, La, He, He, Hee after Sheila E dared him he couldn’t compose a song around this simple refrain. A bread and butter request for somebody who had already turned his bandmate’s phone number into a hit so the story always sounded suspect. And in 2012 Sheila confirmed her contribution was indeed more than providing those six syllables. She revealed La, La, La, He, He, Hee started as a song she had written about a cat teasing a dog from a tree and the chorus was suggested by her as a joke. Prince, having sensed the Atomic Dog potential in her feline/canine tale, sprinkled on a bit of p-funk dust (something he did more overtly with Scarlet Pussy later that year) added a sax solo (courtesy of Eric Leeds) and a bass solo, and the result was an 11 minute Saturday morning cartoon. Not your modern CG strobe of noise and colour – something subversive and timeless, like Looney Tunes or The Pink Panther. Although you may want to cover your kids’ ears when the licking noises start.
The Lovesexy album is a kaleidoscope of intricate wonder but at the midpoint sits a sparse and jarring track – the machine gun funk of Dance On. Sheila E’s drum beat (possibly cut up and rearranged by Prince’s sampler) is too angular to hang anything off except the most bowel-loosening bass rumble. And with the lyrics forgoing the album’s celebratory brief to paint a picture of societal decay, you realise the song has its sights on becoming Sign O’ the Times part 2. Dance On is skittish and awkward and moves like a brick in a washing machine, yet against all known physics it’s also deeply funky. If you’re dancing to it you need a 5th dimension to fully do it justice.
The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
It may over-ripen by the umpteenth listen but for the first dozen bites Peach is the juiciest fruit in the 12-bar blues tree. Like Zannalee, recorded a year later, it follows a tried and tested format so Prince holds your (and his) attention with a cavalcade of comic sound effects and Kim Basinger’s moan every four beats (sampled from the Scandalous Sex Suite). Peach is shallow and dumb – the polar opposite to his follow-up single, the rich and respectful The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (the Jessica Rabbit to Peach’s Roger). But I know which I’d rather be blindsided by on a dance floor.
Hear ye! Hear ye! One and all. The double speed playhouse is making a call. This unreleased epic – a common vault favourite – is an ambitious dream sequence with shifting and slipping walls. Prince, with megaphone pressed to lips, plays the role of the man in the moon or King of Toy Town. Amid fanfares and music hall pizazz he rains down marriage proposals and cereal recommendations (Cap’n Crunch will get another shoutout on his similarly epic Joint 2 Joint). And that’s one of the more lucid moments. To document all the twists and turns would be exhausting and make as much cohesive sense as an actual dream… so it was about a submarine but we were on a train… which was also a sailboat… so I’ll just say if you’ve not heard All My Dreams, find a copy and dive in. When the vocals slow to half-speed and the bassline becomes quicksand it may seem there’s no way back but the planets never fail to realign. You’ll always wake to the rousing chorus on the opposite shoreline, remembering only fragments of what just happened.
The Gold Experience (1995) / Crystal Ball (1998)
I first heard this song half my lifetime ago. Since then, with the majority of my cells replaced, I’ve become on a molecular level a whole different person. But the thoughts and emotions I experienced then will forever be part of my make-up. Adolescence and early adulthood is such a rich time for the universe to shape your soul. It’s when we are pushed out into the adult world to fend for ourselves and need to be armed with as much information about this strange terrain as possible. We become rabid consumers of music, film and literature, and are at our most susceptible to art penetrating our defences and leaving its mark. Life will never be as vibrant and illuminating again. If I came across P Control for the first time today I’d file it as one of Prince’s lesser-successful club hip hop experiments. His first release under his new symbol but a continuation of what his birth name had done for two albums already. But back then I was at the start of my journey of hoovering up everything he ever put out. I was playing catch-up. I borrowed The Gold Experience CD from the local library and played it for the first time, having no detailed context for how this fitted into his oeuvre. My entire Prince collection consisted of two recently bought 80s albums – 1999 and Purple Rain – and this was my first dive into something more contemporary. The opening track started with Emerson, Lake & Palmer synths announcing a Fanfare for the Expectant Fan. A snippet of a guitar riff and a foreign tongue kept me guessing which direction it would take and then BOOM! The beat starts and I’m being spoken to in a familiar language. A Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics rap that immediately connected and told me Prince was still relevant. I didn’t need repeated listens to acquire the apparatus to digest this. It was instant nutrition. The raw thrill of that first encounter still lingers with me. Twitter storms and broadsheet thinkpieces can debate whether the lyrics are empowering or demeaning (the word pussy may have once had enough of a wink to crop up in pre-watershed sitcom catchphrases and Bond films, yet the track isn’t that old) but my early exposure means I’ll still scream along with every single word.
Chaos & Disorder (1996)
What started life as a sketch on The Undertaker became the pinnacle of Prince’s 18th album and a masterclass in how twelve bar blues is done. Zannalee, the monster-riffed daughter of Bambi, is too on-genre to be played completely straight so ***KCHH*** the police radio from All the Critics Love You in New York gets an extended rollout ***KCHH***. He has to keep himself entertained somehow right? It’s just too easy for him. Funny and filthy with Faustian levels of RAWK, this is the only Prince blues you’ll need. You can discard 5 Women, smash up The Ride (well, maybe not The Ride), destroy your false idols; today we have a new primal goddess and her name is Zannalee.
Unreleased (1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
This site is a hodgepodge of critique, history and anecdote. For every entry I begin by reeling in the song’s fishing line and see which sea creatures get plucked from the depths of memory. Afterwards I’ll research further to plug any holes or corroborate my fickle recollections and then I’ll write a paragraph on whatever I find the more interesting. With The Dance Electric I’m pulling the line up but all I can think about is the present. I’m currently listening to it on a busy commuter train – one of those without inter-carriage doors – and I stand with one foot in one compartment, and one foot in the other. Both train carriages are jerking me in different directions, trying to knock me off balance. But I retain my core, and fill it with this song. I feel I’m dancing the dance electric. Pulled by sporadic forces I have no control over. Vague memories swirl up of a rumour André Cymone has his mom to thank for Prince giving him this song. But I can’t even recall what his version sounds like. Nor the version with Wendy and Lisa on backing vocals. The Prince solo recording, the one released on Purple Rain Deluxe, is all there is in the world right now and I’m living in it like I’m trapped in an 80s Tron computer soundscape.
Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)
Like Partyman channeled Prince’s inner Joker (or Gemini), Prettyman is a comicbook exaggeration of his inner Narcissus. Initially written for Morris Day, Prince said “it was so funky, I kept it”. And he’s not wrong. Buoyed on the wind from Maceo’s horn, Prettyman flies to the heights of The JB’s finest. The lyrics are as funny as Movie Star, another song reclaimed from the pile marked for The Time frontman, and the line “when no-one’s around, I smell myself” is deserving of an Emmy in itself. The extended version may only be a minute longer but includes the missing kicker: the sound of the mirror smashing. A punchline that tells you Prettyman may not be the fairest of them all.
You know you’ve been writing about Prince too much when Anotherloverholenyohead appears in your phone’s predictive text after only three characters. Parade’s penultimate track and final single has Prince pleading his departing lover whose eyes have wandered to stay with him. He tells here she needs another lover like she needs a hole in her head. Is it too much of a stretch to believe this is really a restless Prince toying with the idea of going solo? By the next album The Revolution would be disbanded and this song’s video is the last they ever feature on. Was he thinking about other bands when he wrote this? Is he reasoning with himself in an attempt to quell his wanderlust? In the second chorus Prince’s vocals almost completely drop out while The Revolution sing “We were brothers and sisters united all for love. Now all of the sudden U try 2 fight it. U say you’ve had enough”. The band would stick together for several more months but if Prince smashing up his guitar at the end of the Parade tour was seen as the final nail in the coffin, this song may be one of the first.
The Glamorous Life (1984)
Sheila E spins her debut album’s highlight into an extended mix of percussive, tantric bliss – a trick she’ll perform again with A Love Bizarre on her follow-up lp. The Glamorous Life single was Ms Escovedo’s first release and to mark the occasion Prince christens it by popping his saxophone cherry and also giving Lisa’s brother David his first outing (on cello). In 2005 the Pussycat Dolls threatened to tarnish the melody with their taunts of “don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me…” Don’t Cha may have climbed higher in the charts and reached more ears but The Glamorous Life is impervious to such base attacks. It exists on a higher plain. An eagle soaring above the muck and thistles of chart fodder. I heard it playing in an antiques market once and it was like spotting a kingfisher. Forget the glamorous life; I’m happy with this one where mundanity can be punctured by a moment of beauty darting out of the shadows at any time.
Unreleased (1985) / C-Note (2004)
Empty Room is a colossus of brooding loneliness. Written shortly before Prince was due to leave his girlfriend Susannah to film in France, it takes a moment of private inner-turmoil and scales it up to fill the void of an empty concert hall. A soundcheck staple of amplified anguish. It was considered for many projects over the years before finding a home on an otherwise forgettable album of instrumental jazz, proving once again there’s a purple diamond in every rough. Surprisingly this official version, recorded on the One Nite Alone tour, holds its own against the 80’s original. The guitar no longer thrashes around like a downed power-line but there’s no escaping the devastating gamma rays of long-distance relationship pain. His Montreaux performance in 2009 is a different beast and has a guitar solo that sounds like a polar wind has snapped away the tent fabric, exposing us to the icy elements of an unforgiving universe. Not your usual crowd-pleaser but I envy every single person at that concert with an inhuman intensity. That’s one room I’d trade my aura to be in.
Sign O’ the Times (1987)
After the dystopian vision of Sign O’ the Times we’re hit with a solar blast of pure vitamin D. The warm all-enveloping fuzz of sunlight on closed eyelids blocking out a decaying city. With an Elvis lip snarl, Prince sings about dancing as if it’s the last time and having fun before his life is done. Is time running out? Is this a 1999 style party-ocalypse? Will the world stop when the music does? Or is it his last dance with Susannah during their final recording session together? Whatever the urgency, Play in the Sunshine works as a better memento mori than your usual oil painting of a skull. We’re all gonna die someday so forget your earthly worries and lose yourself in this surreal garem masala of sunny positivity. That POP you hear in the right channel at 1:47 is the departure of your last remaining negative thought.
The Truth (1998)
Anna Karenina’s opening sentence – happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – could also be applied to songwriters. Spite can be a more creative muse than love. Love is universal and can find expression along pre-existing furrows. Spite has to needle out its own path. This is why Fascination, found on The Truth, compels. Its frantic flamenco style could only be born of a bitter fury looking for its acoustic-album-appropriate voice. Prince takes out his resentment by shredding his fingers to the bone and drawing lyrical daggers that offer little to suggest where they’re pointing. Michael Jackson was thought to be the target, mainly for the line “so-called king gives birth 2 to so-called prince”. But Fascination is believed to precede Jackson’s son Prince by several months. Regardless, the real story is better hidden in the shadows. Tales of spite may titillate but its sublimation into art is to witness the divine.
Unreleased (1982/1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Wonderful Ass brings all the boys to the yard with a gait that shimmies more than a catwalk queen. If ever a song could sashay then it’s this one. It struts with the confidence of the song’s muse (Vanity?) if they only paid attention to the chorus. Listen to the verses and it’s clear Prince hasn’t built a totem to these unattributed buttocks of intrigue. He believes they are the subject’s single redeeming feature; a counterweight to balance out her many faults which he details in a long litany. Less of a tribute and more of an over-zealous negging bonanza. At least I think that’s the gist. To be honest I’m usually too distracted by those curvy synths to notice. I can see why they call that drum a snare, amirite fellas!?
Where to start? There’s enough material in these six epic minutes to fill a book – hell, a bookshelf! It plays like a trailer for the 3 Chains O’ Gold film in Prince’s head (instead of the eventual TV movie) and features him rhapsodising like the finest bohemian and harmonising with an army of Princes filtering up from the earth’s core. The shape-shifting NPG, in turn, ply this one song with enough key and tempo changes that exceed any normal album’s quota and was amazingly recorded in one uninterrupted sitting, rather than being stitched together in the studio afterwards. Over the top? Yes, but beautifully so. Fuck your albums of identikit indie rock that never stray outside their Pixies/Pavement/Punk template of choice: this shoots for the glitterball moon and doesn’t care if it falls short. It is the penultimate song on his Love Symbol album and became, along with the segues, the most obvious carrier of the rock opera concept, drawing the critics’ ire and pulling the rest of the album into their firing line. Shot down with shrill cries of “indulgence” and “bombastic” by po-faced Vanessa Bartholemews. And yes, it realms into silliness but who likes their rock earnest? This is Queen at Wembley. Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon. The Darkness on Mars. A spandexed testimony to the sheer, balls-out ambition and virtuosity of Prince in six glorious parts – an experiment to see how many charms will fit on one chain – but first and foremost it’s big E Entertainment son!
Unreleased (1982) / 4Ever (2016)
Prince’s first vault item to be released posthumously was 1982’s Moonbeam Levels, a much-loved song used to hoodwink fans into buying yet another greatest hits compilation. Although picking a popular bootleg already illicitly owned by many may not be the effective dangled carrot Warner Bros envisaged. Written during Prince’s 1999 era, the lyrics are naturally concerned with death, destruction and nuclear fallout. They describe a Cold War Chicken Little wanting to be beamed out of this life and into “a better place to die”. Sounds depressing but the music is anything but. The only thing that could beat it is if the moon goddess Selene herself descended from the heavens with her silver chariot’s tape deck blasting out the soundtrack to a dream Elliott Smith once had.
The Truth (1998)
Cool like the other side of a pillow: a catchphrase coined by the late sports commentator Stuart Scott and the self-descriptive hook of this sparkling acoustic spritzer. The Other Side of the Pillow’s lyrics are full of similes for cool, allowing any review to write itself. But beyond the champagne charm lies a bedrock coolness that entire industries spend billion-dollar budgets chasing. This is no ersatz cool, worn like branded sportswear – “a logo that sticks to the roof of one’s ass” as Prince sings in Style. This is cool born of blood, sweat and tears. Cool born of the Blues. You don’t get to sound this care-free by growing up free of cares. This refreshment could only come from the previously parched.
Unreleased (1985) / No Sound But a Heart (1987)
Turn the number 8 on it’s side and you get an infinity sign. Is this why Eternity, a track Prince wrote while working on his eighth album Parade, also appeared on both Sheena Easton’s and Chaka Khan’s eighth albums? The latter was even released in ’88. The universe is playing us. But forget the released versions – Prince’s touch has been polished away and they’re too of their time to merit anything more than a nod of recognition. Go to the source. The raw demo in the vault. The beat is rudimentary and the lyrics are full of ellipses which sound like half formed thoughts colliding together, but that melody will lure your feet off the floor like Pepe le Pew’s vapours. A purple pick-me-up from the Pied Piper of Paisley Park.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
Prince’s new found faith isn’t just found in The Rainbow Children’s lyrics and spoken monologues. The whole album is born of it. It’s in the music, the artwork, the concept, the whole damn package. This puts many people off but it caused a focused Prince to write his most cohesive lp in years. Opening track Rainbow Children (note the missing definite article) is the album in miniature. It starts with some smouldering jazz, a groove which toys with gospel and a guitar workout before ramping up towards a hard funk climax, followed by a smooth Fender Rhodes vamp. The album’s whole suite of characters are in attendance with Prince in various guises telling us his version of Genesis or whatever. He could be reciting Finnegans Wake for all I can make out, or indeed care but the words aren’t important. The atmosphere is king. His beliefs built this amazing world and I’m privileged to be allowed to visit.
Diamonds & Pearls (1991)
And now for an intermission. Put your phone on flight mode, disable notifications and pull the plug on your anxiety. Relax and watch All The Things You Feel Guilty About Parts 121 – 526 slip down the drain. You’re due a break from Maya’s drudgery and what better way than to dip your toe into this Raleigh Chopper ride through an endless, ice-cream filled summer. Strollin’ is a John Hughes movie about all the best parts of your childhood. A light-jazz reimagining of Lou Reeds Perfect Day minus the heroin. Ice Cube’s Good Day minus the AKs. The regularly scheduled programme – a 24-hour livestream of civilisation’s collapse – will soon return but in the meantime stay awhile in this carefree retreat. You’ve earned this.