The Gold Experience (1995)
Prince first gave Shhh to 18-year-old Tevin Campbell for his I’m Ready album, but later reclaimed the ballad because why ask a boy to do a man’s job? Now the only trace of its previous teenage owner is the line “do you after school like some homework” – a phrase a late 30-something will never be able to pull off. Prince’s Shhh starts with an energetic intro that sounds like a news theme – coming up tonight: candlelight accused of mood killing – but soon settles into the type of slow jam he’s been perfecting since Do Me, Baby. Steel threads of guitar are delicately interwoven with orgasmic gasps and a hint of a scream that never arrives, all to keep you on the edge of satisfaction. Two thirds of the way in we get another dramatic news fanfare – sex on kitchen tables: passionate spontaneity or unhygienic degeneracy? – and then a guitar solo swoops in to chaperone us to the song’s sweet and gentle conclusion. The delicate touch of an experienced hand. In comparison Tevin’s Shhh is a fumbled dry hump behind the bike sheds.
Little comes up when I dredge my memory for a childhood awareness of Prince. He was just a flamboyant figure in my periphery that didn’t occupy my thoughts. His first song I paid attention to was Batdance, followed by Gett Off. These were taped off the radio top 40 chart countdown and played to death but the artist behind them didn’t really register. The first Prince video I saw however stopped me in my tracks. It was on Top of the Pops and featured a man with gold chains obscuring his face, screaming his name was Prince. That look didn’t square with the few images I associated with the Minneapolis Prince – the Purple Rain frilly shirts or the Lovesexy cover – this was hard as nails. And frightening. Like a blinged up Predator. It must be a different guy with the same name, after all why would the well-known Prince introduce himself so adamantly at this stage in his career. This is somebody coming for his crown. It was a statement of intent. A yelled calling card. I need to keep an eye on this upstart, he’s got my attention. He makes Michael Jackson’s Bad video look like The Sound of Music. The song would soon lose its power, due to a combination of familiarity, Bart Simpson and the realisation that yes it was that Prince. But for at least a week an awestruck 13-year-old thought it was the coolest thing he had ever seen and heard.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Bob Dylan’s Mr Tamborine Man has people arguing to this day over what the tambourine represents. Is it drugs? Inspiration? Distraction from existential loneliness? His poetry is beautifully ambiguous enough that people can relate on many levels. With Prince’s tambourine I think almost everybody’s in agreement as to what he’s singing about. Let’s just say Dylan’s line “my hands can’t feel to grip” does not apply. But who needs nth dimensional lyrical dexterity when Prince runs the gamut of emotion from yelled frustration (“too bad we’re not allowed to scream”) to comically condescending (“yeah, yeah, too bad”) all in the same line. Tamborine is laugh out loud funny and yet the claustrophobic arrangement of drums, bass, triangle and, yes, a tambourine makes for an unsettling experience. The weird mix of joy and self loathing that comes with playing your own tambourine. Boomers can keep their jingle jangle morning.
Once upon a time poodle-haired lizards with loud guitars roamed the charts. Then God said “let there be rave” and the immaculately-coiffed dinosaurs were hit by an MDMA meteor of electro energy. Those least able to adapt were wiped out by the yellow smiley-faced fireball but the resilient absorbed the blast and mutated into something bigger, faster, stronger than they were before. Loose! was once a heavy rock number soundtracking Hades in Prince’s dance production of The Odyssey. It wasn’t terrible but probably best left in the Land of the Dead. A year later Prince reworked it into a pandemonium of hoover synths, industrial guitar and rave abandon – music for the jilted generation – and outlines of its impact can still be found scorched onto walls in Pompeii. A choir-sampling dub version called Get Loose turned up on Crystal Ball five years later – a leftover from a Loose! single that never happened (So Dark also comes from this non-release). Despite its screamed obscenities and Prodigy-style “let’s go!” samples it had its day-glo battery acid drained. Come’s version still sounds as devastating as the day it hit Earth.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
I couldn’t get into The Rainbow Children when first released, although I now struggle to think how. I gave the album several goes but my younger self must have carried too many naive expectations to meet it on its own terms. It was too experimental and had no obvious singles. Nowadays I rate the lp his second best since reverting back to Prince (behind the equally experimental Art Official Age) and how the hell did I miss The Work pt. 1 which has killer single written all over it? With this album Prince said he wanted to retreat from pop and make music he was happy making, which in this track’s case was classic funk born from a childhood spent idolising James Brown. Will a part 2 ever surface or was the second part of The Work the door-to-door evangelism he practiced with Larry Graham and other Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or is he handing over the baton: “I’m willing 2 do the work; tell me now, what about u?” What’s likely is the title was aiming for an air of funk A-side authenticity. One half of a dusty rare-groove 7″ slipping through a wormhole and landing in the wide expansive fields of wherever the Rainbow Children live. The Digital Garden? MendaCity? I admit my grasp of the plot is sketchy – it’s just as baffling as it was in 2001.
Unreleased (1984) / The Family (1985)
Prince often used his satellite projects to experiment with new ideas and directions before incorporating them into his own work. Saxophonist Eric Leeds and composer Clare Fischer made sizeable contributions to the purple catalogue over the years but both debuted on The Family album where they (Fischer especially) are played with like a new toy. A year later with Parade Prince would practise more restraint, leaving the majority of the orchestral overdubs on the cutting room floor – a ruthless fate that should have befell The Family’s Desire. Their album closer is a beautiful, jazzy, late night seduction of a soldier’s wife. Dreamlike and highly polished but lacks the fire and rough-cut robustness of the unreleased demo. Prince’s early take is less a song and more a container for Leeds’ saxophone that squeals and claws at the walls like caged desire. There’s a fight in there which gets refined away into coloured sand when later subdued by strings and good taste. It’s raw and messy but so’s life. The fact Prince provides the vocals only helps to enshrine it in my eyes as the definitive version.
The Black Album (1987)
The Hammer horror funk of Superfunkycalifragisexy starts with synthy Psycho stabs and a Thriller laugh by Prince. Then we get some of the weirdest and most intriguing lyrics in his whole canon. They’re often interpreted to be about ecstasy (a reading which ties in a bit too neatly with the rumours surrounding the album’s non-release) and it may well be, but not in my head. I don’t want my “bucket of squirrel meat” to be metaphorical. The imagery is pure b-movie along with its Vincent Price laughs and Wilhelm screams. The song is like a cross between the Gett Off video and a schlock horror production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or a porno Rosemary’s Baby. Camp and nightmarish in equal measures. It runs out of ideas halfway through but that’s probably for the best. Where do you go after singing about the aphrodisiac effects of drinking squirrel blood?
I don’t care it’s only 140 seconds long. Time is relative. A minute on one side of the bathroom door is longer than a minute on the other. That’s science. And an interlude packed full of ideas can create more sparks than a symphony going through the motions. It’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it. New Position, a song about spicing things up in the bedroom, is just as experimental with its sound. The percussion is some avant garde fonky ish and the whole vibe stimulates parts the scientific community have yet to invent names for. Although having said I don’t care about the running length, I’d happily trade your ten-minute Mountains and eight-minute Anotherloverholenyohead (good as they are but what do they say that the originals don’t?) for one extended version of New Position. I’d trade my bloodline for a five-minute mix where the steel drums roam free as Prince spells out more dirty words in a bid to land his lover.
The Gold Experience (1995)
Two studio versions of Endorphinmachine exist. One recorded in 1993 which out-Aerosmiths Aerosmith with a raw slab of screaming RAWK. And the other released on 1995’s The Gold Experience where Prince beefs up his earlier track with overdubs and makes you smoke the whole pack of cowbell. Your preference may depend on which you heard first (the original was never released but regularly performed in concerts and on TV before the album dropped) or it may depend on your tolerance for cowbell. Either way you’re treated to some primo Prince screams and for once they’re not all kept in his pocket until the song’s crescendo. Straight out the gate we’re hit with banshee wails as he grabs the horns of the devil’s music and rides it like a rodeo bronco. Another two orgasmic, neuron-popping screams grace the climax, one so powerful it blows the music out. This is what the Endorphinmachine does to you. It’s clearly based on The Excessive Machine – the contraption in The film Barbarella which pleasures you to death. Is this how he killed off his Prince persona? The “Prince esta muerto” sign-off makes painful listening today but its placement here suggests his first incarnation was bumped off with a turned-up-to-eleven endorphin overdose.
Bright Lights, Big City (1998) / Crystal Ball (1998)
With every Camille song there’s something delightfully maladjusted in Prince’s delivery. Whether it’s the spiralling neediness of If I was Your Girlfriend or the dive-barfly sleaze of Rock Hard in a Funky Place, his alter ego does not sound a well bunny. Good Love starts off differently. The first three verses are pure of heart and playfully childlike. Lennon-esque in its wordplay. But then Camille’s manic streak comes out in an over-enthusiastic outro which sounds more coked up than Michael J Fox in the film it soundtracks. The bubblegum psychedelia turns dark as its peacock-feathered sun sets to become something more like Superfunkycalifagisexy‘s frightening neon night. Good Love gone bad. The track makes several references to Gustav Mahler, a composer whom Alex Ross describes in The Rest is Noise as “a kaleidoscope of moods – childlike, heaven storming, despotic, despairing” and you could say the same about Camille. Good Love shows the character’s childlike side, while “heaven storming, despotic, despairing” in turn sum up the unreleased album’s opening three tracks: Rebirth of the Flesh, Housequake, and Strange Relationship. Camille may just be Prince with his vocals pitched up but underneath rages a dazzling symphony of neuroses.
This posthumous leak showed the vault’s gold hadn’t all been mined and whets the appetite for what further delights lie within. Come Elektra Tuesday is prime perv pop in the Shockadelica mould and if recorded a year later would almost certainly have been sung by Camille. I’m not sure whether Tuesday is Electra’s surname (Ruby’s sister perhaps?) or whether that’s solely the day on offer to hook up. When my mom started dating my dad they only met on Tuesdays before he promoted her to his Saturday Girl. That’s when she knew things were serious. Maybe things with Elektra hadn’t got to that stage yet and she was behind Darling Nicki, Bambi, Scarlet Pussy and Dorothy Parker in Prince’s weekly rota. He probably ditched Elektra for the next girl that put him in a trance, the aforementioned Shockadelica, but as Tara Leigh Patrick will tell you he never forgot her name.
At an NPG reunion party Michael B and Sonny T chill with Prince in a lava lamp lounge. Enwombed in beanbags they put the world to rights with 4am epiphanies that fade with the morning sun. Luckily for us the tape was rolling. That may not be how Colonized Mind came about but the song inhabits the same late night / early morning world. A time that’s neither day or night, nor today or tomorrow. A hazy calendarless cusp that allows the mind to float into less temporal climes. You need to be in the right headspace for Colonized Mind. In the cold light of day it’s all smoke and guitar pedal mirrors. But if heard as the sun hugs the horizon you become Odysseus entering The Land of the Dead on a quest to find out the answer to the riddle of Prince’s will.
It’s easy to see why Lust U Always never got released. Its hydraulic synth-funk more than justifies an album call-up but the lyrics go darkside quick. It feels like an exorcism. Or a fun ouija game gone wrong. Prince taps into his libido’s vast reservoir but dark forces pull him under, causing what should be a low-status character rendered helpless by desire to become something much more threatening. The first line warns “touch me at your own risk, I’m not responsible for anything I do” and the helter skelter ride into psychopathy begins. Surprisingly it was offered to Robert Palmer to record in the late 80s but was obviously too monomaniacal for Mr Addicted To Love to consider. Instead it’s doomed to linger in the darker recesses of the vault. An exorcised demon shocking newcomers with its poisonous, lascivious tongue.
The Truth (1998)
I’ve never been a fan of acoustic singer-songwriter albums. Well that’s not true; in my teens I went through a Dylan phase and a Melanie phase, trying on my dad’s and my mom’s idols on for size. Neil Young is still a thing now. But generally with every modern album of that ilk I’ve fallen asleep by track 3. The two exceptions are Fink’s Biscuits for Breakfast and Prince’s The Truth. I like to think that’s down to their superior songwriting but it could be the leftfield studio effects that nudge the tiller away from your average stone circle or open mic night performance. The Truth begins with the best intentions. Before its opening title track Prince clears his throat to let you know this is live and intimate y’all. Raw, unpolished realness. Just you, him and his guitar. And the pretence is kept up for a good ninety seconds before his trigger word “time” has him reaching for his beloved ticking clock sound effect. “Just the one” he tells himself and “that doesn’t count” a few seconds later when he lets out a little digital flutter. The end of the track is in sight, he nearly makes it, but the abstinence proves too much and the digital dam breaks with a scream that rips a hole in the spacetime continuum. That’s not a synth wash you hear, it’s a portal into the seventeenth dimension of Blues. And now Prince is suddenly singing about moving back to Neptune. You don’t get that with Jack Bloody Johnson.
HITnRUN Phase One (2015)
I keep listening to this song planning to rate it lower, thinking well OBVIOUSLY I love it but come on, let’s put your critical hat on here. Get your eye in the game. It’s scientifically and objectively inferior to the X number of Prince songs I have left to review. Serious music heads will frown. It can’t compare. But then I play it. Loud. Through speakers. Like God intended. And it makes me feel funny. Like I could topple governments with my mind. Or fire nightclub lasers from my fingers. Unusually for a Prince composition X’s Face isn’t improved by headphones. It’s a song you have to be punched in the gut with. If dubstep hadn’t already been invented this track would have birthed a movement.
Unreleased (1983) / Jill Jones (1987)
In 1982 a new word entered the common lexicon with widespread publication of a book called The G Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality. Predictably it was only a matter of months before it became the title of a Prince song. G-spot is cold, robotic funk in the 1999 mould. The lyrics describe the singer searching for this newly-popularised erogenous zone as the exploration dispassionately spells out the word F.I.N.A.L.L.Y. The song was on Purple Rain before Darling Nikki replaced it (which should give a clue to its high quality) and was considered but ultimately rejected for Apollonia 6 (which should not). Eventually Jill Jones released a reworked version but the hypnotic, mechanical vibe had been lost. It’s certainly not the greatest track on her self-titled album – Mia Bocca wins that accolade – but if her lp was to be made up of all the original demos instead, G-Spot would rule them all.
Prêt A Porter (1994) / Exodus (1995)
The Exodus party kicks off with this hedonistic cathedral built on sacred pagan soil. On the surface it may revere Versace and seem overly concerned with your outfit but underneath the high fashion lustre lies the sweat and beer of the mosh pit. Mosh Chic. The co-opted power of the old gods lies in the promise of the ego-stripping moment when the crowd consumes the self and you become a multi-limbed organism throbbing to the room’s heartbeat. But the only way to get that sensation is to be deep within a thronging mass and I fear the window has now passed for this song. My only faint hope is to hear a DJ pluck this NPG single out of obscurity, and galvanise a primed crowd to fuse into a unified consciousness. Only then can I truly say I’ve heard Get Wild.
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.