Dirty Mind (1980)
I grew up in rural Warwickshire, in a sleepy village whose only bragging rights were a Motown legend had retired there and a dubious probably-easily-disproven claim that it was where Shakespeare went to school. I was surrounded by small towns with even smaller-minded attitudes. Every high-schooler’s eyes were on the countdown clock to their 17th birthday when they could learn to drive and flee the circling, throttling briar of country lanes. Our eyes were on the city. Our Uptown. Like Prince’s Uptown it was a place you could be free, away from “nowhere bound, narrow-minded drag”. With my driver’s licence finally granting me the freedom of escape, I attended art college where vanilla experimentations in style and teenage identity meant I had several of my own “are you gay?” moments whenever I returned to the stultifying, conformist norms of the village. I’m afraid to say, unlike Prince’s snappy retort in Downtown, I would try to inject machismo into my reply, ashamedly taking the question as the slight it was intended to be. Prince’s Uptown arrived too late in my life to help. It found me at University the following year where a hall-mate’s The Hits 1 compilation soundtracked many an after-hours session back at her room. Tangled in a purely-platonic, loving embrace of limbs and sleeping bodies – a pile of mates so comfortable in each others company we’d all fall asleep in each others laps and beds – I was as far away from my provincial Downtown as I could be. The song’s message washed over me but the music seeped into my being and has remained there to this day.
Paradigm CD-R single (2001) / How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent? (2005)
Which is the greatest Prince and George Clinton collaboration? Soul Psychodelicide never lived up to Joy in Repetition’s year-length promises. George’s input on We Can Funk was largely cosmetic, on a par with his 1994 cover of Erotic City. The Big Pump? Meh! The true mind-meld of these two funk colossuses comes in the form of the little-heard, wordplay-tastic Paradigm, a collaboration which in the words of George: “I peed on it, sent it to him, he peed on it, and sent it back”. And boy is it rich in the P funk. I get giddy happy whenever I meet a fellow acolyte and “hey brother, do u paradigm?” has become my equivalent of a Masonic handshake. I’m building a funk army – a support group for the bleak, lean years ahead. We’ve lost Prince, we’ve lost James. When George goes, funk will enter its dark age. He’s already on his farewell tour before he retires later this year so make the most of your time before the sun sets.
Please spare a thought for Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Its title could be questioning a cruel lover or it could be directed towards the song constantly stealing its thunder. I Wanna Be Your Lover was Prince’s first big hit and reached number 11 in the hot 100 – a feat Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? had to directly follow and couldn’t get close. It never even charted. In Germany they shared the same single but guess which track got the A-side? On American Bandstand, Prince’s debut TV recording, he performed both songs but while I Wanna Be Your Lover was the triumphant introduction, Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? had to come on and pick up the pieces after The Awkwardness. And despite being track 2 it’s not even the first on his sophomore album to have the word ‘wanna’ in its title. No prizes for guessing who got there first. So what did our attention-starved protagonist do? The same as any sibling living in the shadow of a golden child. It carved out its own niche. Unable to compete in pop terms, it picked up a guitar and for the song’s final minute bared its soul with an exquisite shredded tapestry of rage borne from a lifetime of humiliation, frustration and rejection. This dark inner sea was often glimpsed on the Dirty Mind tour where the solo was launched by the screamed word “bitch!”, a momentary escape of steam from a boiling ocean, before Prince directed it towards a turbine of exulting rock and roll. Now the track could shine without its nemesis blocking out the light. Dead words lay on the ground like discarded shells but their animating spirit was woven into a message more authentic than any rhyming couplet could muster. By ditching the vocals Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? finally found its voice.
Planet Earth (2007)
On my commute into work, I often walk down an alley used as an after-hours toilet by late-night revellers and the homeless. Two-thirds of the way down, the strong odour of urine and premium-strength lager gets replaced by an aroma of freshly-baked croissants pumped out of a bakery’s vent. It only lasts a few seconds before returning to the previous stench of urban squalor but this momentary olfactory oasis is my favourite smell in the world. What would barely register in its expected setting gets heightened by contrast. It reminds me of one of Prince’s best disco-funk tune sitting in the midst of one of his worst albums. That’s not completely fair to Planet Earth. Many of the songs aren’t bad, they just don’t trouble the business end of this list but if I were to ever compile Prince’s 500 worst songs, All the Midnights in the World and Resolution would be shoe-ins for a top 10 finish. In between these two troughs stands Chelsea Rodgers, a club banger which, in a juster world, would be the standard issue floor-filler for every High Street DJ. Its choppy bass licks are reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Around the World and probably a thousand disco songs before it – including CHIC, making some fans wonder if Chelsea is Niles Rodgers’ daughter. My favourite conspiracy theory is she’s the love child of Prince and Sheila E. The model purported to be her does resemble the two former lovers, and would be the right age. But if they wanted this kept under wraps it would be a pretty ballsy double-bluff to collaborate on and release a promotional single all about her, while parading her face to the world via its accompanying video. Donning a surname that’s a typo of Prince’s middle name would be one extra level of too-obvious-to-be-true subterfuge too. No, the evidence points to a reality far more boring. She’s a model and fashion designer called Chelsea Smith who faded into obscurity after this brief flare-up of fame. However, vocalist Shelby J, the real star of this song, rose in Prince’s orbit, appearing on his next three lps and now has a debut album under her belt. Go ahead now Shelby! Go ahead now!
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
After a bruising break-up in my early 20s, I planned to channel all my confusion and hurt into creating an artwork – a magnum opus perfectly encapsulating my pain with such exquisite detail it would cause my ex to finally realise the depths of my soul and reconsider. It was going to be titled “Me and You Could Have Been a Work of Art.” I never completed it. It never got beyond rough sketches. In my head it was a pure beacon of beauty, shimmering with fractal meanings that would, unfortunately, evaporate on contact with reality. A grandiose vision, that to start would mean to face my artistic folly. For a few days, I was Jodorowsky and it was my Dune. Memories of that time only resurface when I listen to the song from which I took the title. Thieves in the Temple is one of Prince’s incredible cenotaphs of heartbreak, written during the aftermath of his relationship with Kim Basinger. He and Kim could have been a work of art, but their break-up produced this better one. I often wonder if the song was as immaculate in his eyes as he first conceived or did he view it as what novelist Iris Murdoch called every book: “a wreck of a perfect idea”? With hindsight however, I realise being able to paint the pain with crystal clarity doesn’t help the road to recovery. The healing is in the creative process, not the outcome. Sublimating negative energy into creating art is healthy but dwelling on how the finished product will win back a love – or even worse, inspire jealousy – is not. My failure to start my hoped-for masterpiece wasn’t due to any discrepancy between an imagined ideal and its flawed execution. It stalled because I was only drawing energy from the fantasy of recalibrating a power imbalance – a fantasy that was easier to maintain when the fruits of my labour remained in my head. Even Prince, with his ability to take life’s lemons and make the world’s finest lemonade, was not immune to revelling in the thought of the effect his art would have on his subject. In the extended version of Thieves in the Temple he sings: “u done me wrong and everybody knows it / now the sound of my voice is pumpin’ in ur chest”. This is playback as payback. His later Tina-Turner-twisting boasts that he’s “the best, better than the rest” and his screams of “you lie!” sound like cathartic howls into the void, but they’re the battle weapon of a bruised ego. He wants to wound and drapes himself in imagery of Jesus at his angriest to virtue-coat that urge. The closure he sought wasn’t found in lashing out and shaking columns though. The seeds of it were found at the concert where Thieves in the Temple made its live debut. It was there he met future-wife Mayte for the first time. Love came quick. Love came in a hurry.
For You (1978)
Prince’s debut album followed a template he used throughout his career, with clearly defined ballads, a rock track, and a sex song. While he needed little encouragement for the first two genres, the raunchy stuff had to be coaxed out by early producer, Chris Moon. This pre-For You collaborator had struck a deal with Prince, gifting him free studio-time in exchange for setting some of Moon’s lyrics to music. Moon worked in advertising and thought in terms of product (Prince) and audience (teenage girls). Packaging the product up with enough sexual suggestion to keep it on the right side of the radio censors became his marketing strategy, pinned on what he called his anchor song, Soft and Wet. Here he introduced the youngster to the double entendre, although somewhere along the way Moon’s lyrics referencing Angora fur and the Aegean Sea became “hey, lover, I got a sugarcane that I want to lose in you”. The Padawan was yet to master the art of innuendo. The music is less (soft and) wet behind its ears though and easily the album highlight. It became Prince’s first single, released on his 20th birthday – or his 18th birthday if you swallowed the record label propaganda – and is a funky, panting puppy eager to have its belly scratched. On the next album, he’ll push the envelope further, with the bolder, stripped-back Sexy Dancer out-heavy-breathing Soft and Wet in a similar way to how Bambi out-rocks I’m Yours. His technique may get better with age but there’ll always be something special about the first time.
The first time you hear Hallucination Rain it’s Purple Rain with an electric violin. The second time it begins to grow a personality of its own. By the third listen it’s paint stripper to your sense of time. The album version is under six minutes yet seems to span double that length. And still it ends too soon. This aural illusion is due to the four-minute build up – a rollercoaster gently carrying us up to the first peak. Then, when we’re amongst the clouds, Sonny T repeatedly asks “are you ready?” before dropping us over the edge into the storm below. The ride back down is brief but intense. A wormhole through dimensions we’ll never comprehend. Sonny’s voice starts off as a lulling guide but soon melts into a scream, indistinguishable from the cosmic debris whipping past. The skit beforehand where Sonny drinks a witch’s “spooky soup” is woefully inadequate preparation for this brain-bending ordeal. More apt would be a health warning that Prince is about to extract your mind, carry it miles above your mortal clay and then gleefully let go. Are you ready!?
Far above the squirming ghouls, demons and 90s percussion soar 15 bars of shimmering chorus made of eagle wings, where Prince swoops and glides like a pre-hubristic Icarus. He sends down thunderclaps of finger cymbals while angels converse in snatches of sitar and acoustic guitar. Elsewhere a DJ works the Tibetan prayer wheels of steel and a thousand campfires pulse to the heartbeat of God. In 7, Prince’s mission is to assassinate the seven deadly sins like he’s Uma Thurman in Kill Bill but judging by the drum loop, Sloth may have escaped unharmed. If only Michael B had received the phonecall as the sampled beat (Lowell Fulsom’s Tramp, also heard on Wu, De La and Cypress Hill) dates the track but it’s a minor quibble considering the celestial vocal happenings overhead. Let’s not look at the weeds during a solar eclipse. That chorus is one of Prince’s finest. People used to hear the voice of God in earthquakes and volcanoes. The ten commandments were delivered to Mount Sinai amid thunder and the roaring of trumpets which, according to the Hebrew tradition, were heard by all nations. In this globalist era, loudness is not needed to be instantly heard worldwide. An acapella chorus on a platinum-selling album and chart single would travel just as far. I’m not saying 7’s chorus is the voice of the Divine on a par with the Decalogue. But I’m not not saying that either. I didn’t plan for 7 to take this list’s 77 slot and be written and published on the 7th. That just happened. Draw your own conclusions.
EDIT: The day after I posted this I had server trouble which took this site off-line for 7 days. One blasphemy too far perhaps?
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Around the World in a Day is a window to other lands. It’s the window through which we’re offered an outstretched hand and asked to climb aboard Prince’s magic carpet. It’s the window a Big Friendly Giant will pluck us from our bed. It’s the departure point for Neverland. Its panes are Alice’s looking glass and its frame made of driftwood washed up from undiscovered continents. A wonderful trip through all time, and laughter is all u pay. The draftsman of this portal was Lisa Coleman’s brother David who Prince had just gifted two days studio time as a birthday present. He penned this carousel of cello, oud and darbuka, and recorded it with Wendy Melvoin’s brother Jonathan. Prince, never one to pass up an opportunity, pulled it into his orbit, changed the lyrics, added some Minneapolis Sound fairy dust and used it as a peacock-feathered springboard to launch his post-Purple Rain trajectory. Coupled with the album’s cover art the lazy references to The Beatles and psychedelia poured in but this wasn’t some Summer of Love cosplay – it was a celebration of the whole carnival of human being. Open your heart, open your mind…
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Like Computer Blue, the album edit of The Question of U ditches the lyrics after a single verse/chorus and spends the remaining two-thirds of its duration wigging out in an instrumental trance. But unfortunately, unlike the Purple Rain track, there aren’t thought to be a missing ten minutes awaiting our discovery. Just a paltry 60 seconds remain in the can. Is it just me who fantasises over this swamp-funk groove being spun out to symphonic lengths with layers of melody unfolding like an operatic rose? I’ve no need for additional verses as we’ve heard similar on Under the Cherry Moon but there’s so much going on in the music it’s cruel to confine it to such cramped quarters. We need a free-range option – somewhere that can house Clare Fischer’s orchestral input that didn’t make the final cut. A fully instrumental version was later recorded with Eric Leeds and Sheila E, titled 12 keys, but lacked all the elements that make Prince’s solo composition so intriguing – squelchy bass, harpsichord synths, sultry guitar solo, cavernous handclaps from the edge of a growing void. In other words, all the elements that make The Question of U sound like an eerie ballet where Prince attempts to raise an undead army from the Seven Corners mists. I can now see why he didn’t keep the tape rolling – that would make Graffiti Bridge a very different film.
Purple Rain (1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Purple Rain’s fourth track never registered much on my radar – it was a mere transition from the dizzying heights of The Beautiful Ones into the profane depths of Nikki’s castle. This may be blasphemous considering the sublime guitar solo, but with a confusing title and only one verse and chorus (all the lyrics are in the first 90 seconds) there wasn’t much to form a memory around. Especially as any trains of thought were always derailed by Darling Nikki’s subsequent lobby activities. Later I discovered the album version of Computer Blue was just the beginning and end of a much longer track. A cut n’ shut. A Mad magazine fold-in that in its original state has all kinds of interesting, crazy shenanigans happening in its middle section. An unedited version exists over three times the length and is an Aladdin’s cave of Prince tropes and ideas. Therein we find his first mention of The Dawn (assuming it pre-dates 17 Days’ full-length title). There’s a mini morality play about the difference between love and lust (à la Temptation). The computer metaphor is fleshed out (the meaning I couldn’t glean from the album’s scant lyrics is that human are computers and Prince is sad due to his faulty, chauvinistic programming). There’s the infamous ‘hallway speech’, named as such in early bootlegs and officially canon after Warner Bros reused the title for their 2017 Purple Rain Deluxe release. We also hear a guitar rendition of Father’s Song – the composition the Kid’s dad plays on the piano in Purple Rain and co-credited to Prince’s real-life father. And that’s not to mention the two missing verses which are the least interesting thing about the full-length jam. You can see why they were sacrificed, it’s just a shame some of the various interludes didn’t make the album otherwise my memory would have been a bit more than robot Wendy & Lisa bathe each other… some music happens… then the origin story of parental advisory stickers begins.
Art Official Age (2014)
Time’s intro may be all touch-tone beeps, but the beat sounds programmed on an old rotary phone. A lumbering, mechanical rhythm that pauses while the dial resets after each digit. It’s just one of the contradictions that make us feel we’re at the point in the album’s story where the concept of time breaks down and Mr Nelson experiences every moment at once. Previous Prince songs bubble up (I count twelve references, including three obvious ones from this album) and everything that ever was, is, and will be, flood the senses as the doors of perception explode open. You thought that was a funky bass solo you heard? It’s the sound of spacetime being rent asunder. Of course these metaphysical trappings come parcelled up with the album. On any other release, this song would just be a dirty phone call between a lonely Prince in his hotel room and Andy Allo, the “animal half his age”. Here it’s Prince passing on the secrets of time learnt from The Greatest Romance Ever Sold and Chelsea Rodgers.
The Black Album (1987/1994)
Axing the Black Album was a masterstroke by Prince. It meant Lovesexy was then presented on a pillow of redemption and cleansing spirituality while the album it replaced became forbidden fruit – a party record which, like all the best parties, had an air of illicitness about it. I bought my copy of the Black Album at a record fair and initially thought it had the wrong record in the sleeve as the label listed different track titles and gave the name of the artist as Morris Ashbey. The thrill I got on playing when I realised it was Prince’s Black Album made me love this lp even more. I’d beaten the man; discovered the speakeasy; received the rave’s location by ringing the number on the flyer. This was unsanctioned by the label and even the artist himself. It felt faintly subversive like listening to pirate radio. Never mind at this point the album already had an official release and I could have easily bought the CD on the high street. I wasn’t interested in killjoy logic. Le Grind then is the perfect opener to this illicit party. It has the unpredictability of a live jam feeding on the energy of the crowd – Prince corrects his backing singer (“not yet Boni… now!”); Cat inexplicably gives shout-outs to house legend Frankie Knuckles; there’s a hilarious Cockney call and response section – you’d never know that the horn and backing vocals were overdubbed almost a year later, it feels so spontaneous. But what makes Le Grind the perfect opener are the welcoming words “so, you found me, good, I’m glad, this is Prince…” A barely audible message to let you know the album’s recall was a ploy to screen out critics, the incurious and those of a weak mind susceptible to subliminal messages in the Alphabet St video. Greetings. You passed the test. You’re one of us. Now let’s la chantez all night long!
André Cymone says he wrote Do Me, Baby and put a version to tape in 1979, during a recording session with Pepe Willie who backs up his claim. Without hearing this early version it’s impossible to know how much Prince took (if any) for his Do Me, Baby but regardless of origin it’s a Prince song through and through – his ur-ballad that spawned a dozen sequels and marked the arrival of the scream. There were screams pre-Controversy but buried low in the mix and easily missed. Sexuality is the first track that brings his cries to the fore but they’re more like James Brown vocal stabs – warm-up exercises for The Unleashing that occurs next. When Do Me Baby starts, anybody familiar with Prince’s later output knows where it’s heading, but back then there were no clues to the tumult ahead. The first sign you get is at 2:45 where he holds a note and feels the power surge within. Thirty seconds later he takes practice swings at an “ooooh”, each one increasing in intensity. Then at 3:54 comes the first bona fide scream. It’s his “power of Grayskull” moment. What starts out as the word “yeah” ends as a sonic boom of primal pain and desire. At 4:18 he gives it another go – all that he’s got – and it breaks both him and the song. The final three minutes are spent shivering and asking for help. It wipes him out but there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. He’s now able to break the sound barrier of anguish at will and just past the halfway point on the album’s next track he’s ready to go again.
2001’s Supercute felt like the final chapter in a subset of Prince songs where he lusts after a dancing girl. The way he hid behind a third-person perspective (“she comes to see him, him as in me”) you sensed he no longer felt comfortable playing the role of a voyeur of women half his age. He even sung about not wanting to see you dance in The Dance three years later. Then, in the year Sexy Dancer entered her fourth decade, Hot Thing became older than its girl of barely 21 and Sexy MF reached the age of consent in Minnesota, Prince once again pens an ode to a sexy dancer, telling her she gets him hot. The old urges are still there. But unlike on his self titled album where he loses the power of speech and heavy breathes over a simple raw groove, here he retains his faculties to describe the subject of his gaze and her attire in detail while the music gets increasingly more baroque. The power dynamic has changed. He’s not a relatively unknown youngster in thrall of a force of nature beyond his control, he’s a king looking down at a courtesan cavorting for him. It’s the tension between this situation and his latter-day beliefs that make Dance 4 Me one of his greatest songs of the 2000s. The Camille voice is a sure sign he wants to distance himself from the lyrics and he can throw in as many hallelujahs as he likes but it only serves to highlight the funky nastiness that gushes out when Prince overrides the better angels of his nature.
Vanity 6 (1982)
Nasty Girl was kept out of the billboard top 100 as it was considered too raunchy for radio, as was Grace Jones’ euphemism-laden Pull up to my Bumper the year before. Yet in 1977 Stephen Tyler was free to sing about masturbation, threesomes and going “down on a muffin” on Walk This Way. You used to be given a lot more license for explicitness if you were a man. Or if you were submissive. Donna Summer’s orgasmic moans or Jane Birkin purring filth in French to Serge were deemed fine for the airwaves but a woman singing about looking for a one night stand? Absolutely not. Or was it the “seven inches or more” line that threatened radio controllers’ manhood? Despite the pearl clutches, Nasty Girl still reached number 1 in the dance charts. The lyrics are tame by today’s standards and the gyrations and lingerie on show seem positively prudish compared to the softcore porn of your modern pop video but its impact in the early 80s ripped up the rule book and set the stage for Madonna’s chart domination later that decade. Everything from Janet’s Nasty to Beyoncé’s Naughty Girl can trace its roots back to Vanity 6’s only hit. It spawned a thousand covers and became Pharrell’s go-to sample for both Britney and Janelle. You could call it a feminist anthem but just don’t linger on the meaning behind the band name. It takes the shine off.
Art Official Age (2014)
Prince’s screams aren’t the armour-piercing pitch they once were, but he doesn’t shy away from unleashing them in this lasers-and-strings-filled Empty Room reboot. Not since The Beautiful Ones have we seen anything as brutal and beautifully cathartic. Brutalful. Repentant for his past behaviour Mr Nelson beats himself up, allowing everything to land on the one like a punch to the gut. It wasn’t the first song recorded for Art Official Age but I’ll bet it’s the one the album concept and sound grew around. I’ll explain my reading of the album when we get to Way Back Home but I believe Breakdown is the protagonist hitting rock bottom – a necessary low point so something new can be born within him. His screams are a chrysalis, protecting his body as it breaks down and crystallises into a new form. The birth of a new ego-less being. Just your standard third-track ballad then.
Prince’s brief rockabilly fascination started, according to Dez Dickerson, with them seeing the Stray Cats in London and being so in awe of the band they both started styling their hair like them. It ended a year or two later with Prince’s ultimate take on the genre: Delirious. Along the way he churned out several lesser attempts – with B-side Horny Toad and Controversy’s Jack U Off the only two he saw fit to release – but with Delirious he found his sound and could hang up his blue suede shoes (although not his pompadour which would make several later appearances) for good. It’s little wonder why a genre initially deemed too black for country radio and too white for R’n’B stations would appeal to someone trying to escape radio segregation himself. And this may be another reason why he abandoned the genre post-1983. Little Red Corvette proved to be his skeleton key to unlock the pop, rock and R&B charts but if Delirious had bridged the divide instead would Purple Rain have been an album of synthy 8 bar blues and Elvis impressions? I shudder to think. Luckily, in this universe’s timeline Delirious remains the culmination of a flirtation. A quirky counterweight to the scary techno future that’s unfolding around it. The rest of the album casts its hooks deep into your psyche, activating dark, unexplored areas you have no name for. Delirious aims for the big red button in your sternum marked ”goofing off’. Listen to the Indigo Nights rendition and it has the same effect. Break glass in case of dangerous levels of seriousness. You can see why Eddie Murphy borrowed the title.
Diamonds and Pearls (1991)
It gave its name to an album, tour and a pair of dancers but there’s always been something immutable about the song Diamonds and Pearls. Can you even imagine a remixed version? Sacrilege! The downside is it will always sound the same. Repeated listens won’t unearth any surprises because its diamond-like transparency has already revealed its depths. There are no mysteries to be unlocked except how a world containing famine, war and reality TV can also house something as crystal pure as this song. So I keep it in a box for safe keeping. Glad it exists but rarely take it out to play with. Its immaculate, smooth exterior allows no space for the terrestrial grime of life. Others may be able to enclose it like an oyster and make a pearl by coating it with layers of meaning, but to me it will always remain an exquisite glass bead.
They say comparison is the thief of joy but I can’t help measuring Under the Cherry Moon against the similar-sounding Question of U. Which do you prefer? I used to think the peak-Prince aura of the 80s surrounded the first, while the second wore the millstone of the 90s. But that’s a mirage as both were written in 1985. Over the years I’ve grown to prefer the Graffiti Bridge track as the patchwork quality of that album makes me latch on to the peaks with an iron grip. In contrast, there’s not a single bad track on Parade so Under the Cherry Moon blends in against a backdrop of consistent excellence. Setting is important. It’s why I’ve only watched the Under the Cherry Moon motion picture once. It was part of a perfect after-hours moment, cherished due to many reasons not involving the film that I don’t want to rewatch it lest I pollute the memory. I’ve read enough reviews since that suggest a critical eye wouldn’t be kind. This was almost two decades ago so I can’t recall how well the title song was utilised but as it waltzes with an air of the French Riviera and death it sounds thematically on point. Or perhaps the song has slowly supplanted the film in my mind. There’s enough space in the composition to fill with an accumulation of black and white Gallic daydreams over the years. Have I filed them under a plot of a film I daren’t watch back? Maybe I do prefer this Parade track. It could be the closest I’ve come to being a Hollywood director.
Unreleased (1983) / Crystal Ball (1998)
My first listen of the Crystal Ball album took me back to being five years old again. I’m a kid staring at a mound of birthday presents. There’s some I’d hoped for, some less so, and one weird-looking, confusing gift three times the size of the others. Naturally, this is the one I fixate on. Since then mates with more experience of band practise have dismissed Cloreen Bacon Skin as a jam session – nothing special, they’ve heard loads. But nah I know it’s more than that. It may only be a drum kit and bass guitar but the way it builds is straight out the techno playbook, years before the Belleville Three came along. Plus techno has always been too four to the floor for my tastes. This beat spoke to me in my first language of boom-bap hip hop. And the vocals. It was my first exposure to Jamie Starr. His old-man voice in full extempore flow is my spirit animal and last year’s release of Cold Coffee & Cocaine may awaken the same fascination in a new generation of Prince fans. To anybody’s protestations that Cloreen Bacon Skin is not a song, I’ll concede that point. It’s not. It’s molten funk, fresh from the forge prior to being hammered into the rough shape of a song. Listen to Soulpsychodelicide or The Time’s Tricky if you want to hear it sculpted into a familiar form. I prefer the red hot rawness. The liquid, untempered spontaneity. As the Crystal Ball liner notes reveal even the title was thought up a split second before you hear it. It’s rough and even chaotic at times but like Nietzsche once wrote, you need chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. And that dancing star is Cloreen’s finest daughter: Irresistible Bitch. Hearing her conception isn’t the greatest moment on Crystal Ball but it comes a close second.
I’ll be honest, any attempt to pin this ethereal track down with words is futile. There’s no combination of letters that can paint an adequate picture of its majesty. I offer only a well-worn cliche. The Kawa model in occupational theory uses the metaphor of a river to describe the stages of life. At first, it is a babbling brook, lively and energetic yet shallow. Further along, the river gains depth with maturity and settles into a steady flow. With old age, before the point it joins the next realm of the ocean, it’s calm and slow-moving but has broadened and contains a powerful vastness beneath the surface. When We’re Dancing Close and Slow was written while Prince was in the shallow river stage of life but the song has a calm deepness that belies his years. The title is borrowed from one of his idols, Joni Mitchell, but the music is taken from a deep reservoir of introverted world-building. Why try to analyse it? In the words of Lennon: let’s turn off our minds, relax and float downstream.
Following a headliner is always tricky. When an album puts its best foot forward on track 1 should the following track step off and allow a less lofty peak to build? Or is it better to grab that momentum and ride the coattails in a glow of reflected glory? Sexuality chooses the latter and starts with the jolt of a licked battery. This energy can only last so long though and two-thirds of the way in there’s nothing left in the tank. The synths have nowhere to go and the lyrics become a live reading of a teen activist’s button badges. Like most attempted revolutions it peters out with a whimper but for two and a half minutes Sexuality is a battle cry for a sexually-liberated future. Uptown with less clothes. Two decades later Prince would change the lyrics and rename the track Spirituality In live performances. He also appropriated the chorus chant for his religious song Rainbow Children. As his spiritual views became more orthodox I imagine he felt he had to airbrush out his youthful depiction of the Second Coming as an orgy. Luckily it wasn’t possible to alter his back catalogue too otherwise he’d have to change the album title to No Longer Controversial.
Around the World in a Day (1985)
Speaking of the T word, one temptation for Prince in 1985 would have been to end Around the World in a Day with the lighters-in-the-air, anthemic The Ladder. It’s the natural closer. But that would have exacerbated comparisons to his previous album so he sequenced this squalling piece of Kabuki theatre as the finale instead. Of course, he’s not talking about any old kind of temptation though. He’s talking about… he’s talking about… sexual temptation. Out of all his songs marrying the carnal with the spiritual, Temptation is the most on the nose. Five minutes of grunts, screams and lyrics about hot animal lust are then followed by a three-minute beat poem where Prince converses with God, dies and realises the error of his ways. There was only one man in the mid-80s with the balls to pull this off. Seriously, who else could perform, let alone conceive of, such medallion-swinging blues rock which toes the line between cocksure swagger and preposterous pantomime? Even if you roll your eyes at the final three minutes (a section cribbed from his live shows) you have to salivate at the previous five minutes of guitar which has enough delay piled on that the original sound waves must still be reverberating somewhere in our galaxy. I don’t mind the ending but it’s a little like a New Testament morality play stuck on the end of some Old Testament fire and fury. “Rococo of the soul” in the words of Nietzsche. Give me the lusty Prince over the repentant one any day of the week.
Romance 1600 (1985)
In this 80s pop masterpiece, Sheila E and Prince ride a silver swan through the night sky, leaving behind contrails of purple ice crystals as a thousand narwhals carve your name amongst the stars. The album version is over 12 minutes long and whispers messages which can’t be grasped by transient minds. Clear your head of all thoughts and let the saxophone rewrite your genetic code while you unlock new levels of euphoric bliss. It’s the kind of track that could have landed anywhere in 1985: Around The World in a Day; The Family; An early configuration of Parade; The Krush Groove soundtrack. But A Love Bizarre was gifted to Sheila E to rescue her sophomore album from mediocrity. I’m a fan of Romance 1600 but it would be infinitely more listenable if they also gave Dear Michaelangelo this extended treatment and ditched all the other songs to create a Fela Kuti-style two-track album symphony.