15: 1999

1999 (1982)
While on the Controversy tour in 1982, Prince and his band watched a Nostradamus documentary called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. The film spends its first hour priming the viewer to believe that the French astrologer’s predictions have been coming true for hundreds of years. It then turns its attention to the near future. Experts believe, Orson Welles soberly informs us, that Nostradamus predicted World War III by the end of the millennium and in 1999 nuclear bombs will fall, wiping out all of New York City’s inhabitants first. Even with the knowledge of hindsight it’s not a cheery watch, but in the midst of the Cold War it would have been chilling. Not to Prince though. “I just found it real ironic how everyone around me whom I thought to be very optimistic people were dreading those days, and I always knew I’d be cool”, he later told Larry King when talking about how it inspired him to write 1999, “I just wanted to write something that gave hope”.

That wasn’t a hope the bombs wouldn’t fall, but a hope we make the most of our time before they do. Having been raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Prince was taught as a child not to fear the end of the world as it would accompany the Second Coming of Christ. The denomination originated out of several failed predictions of this happening sometime in the 19th century and the Book of Revelation plays a prominent role in its eschatology. ”Can’t run from Revelation” Prince sings, so let’s dance until the end. Or, as instructed at the start of the song, “don’t worry” and “have some fun”. 

The spoken intro, distorted to sound like the words of a divine messager, echoes the Book of Revelation which begins with Christ telling John to not be afraid. Instead of being told to have some fun, John is told to write down everything he sees in his apocalyptic vision. 1999 has Prince, while dreaming, also writing down his vision of the end of the world. In John’s account, seven trumpets are blown by seven angels which sets in motion the return of Christ to start his new reign. In 1999, the fanfare is played by an ARP Omni-2 synthesiser which heralded the return of Prince to the charts and truly announced the beginning of his purple reign. 

Other artists took note. That synthline allegedly inspired Thriller and Phil Collins has admitted he ripped it off for Sussudio. Prince even recycled the riff himself on his 2006 single Fury. The thick chords are the most iconic part of 1999 – pure stadium-fuel – but they’re so ear-catching, so headline-grabbing, I’ve never fully appreciated, until now, what happens underneath. The interplay of the various background voices and wah pedal, especially from three minutes onwards, paint a psychedelic portrait of partydrunk rapture. It must be an aural illusion but I hear the wah guitar in the right channel sing actual words along to the chorus, especially on the remastered version. And that sustained note which starts at 4:08 and nearly lasts until the end of the song sounds like one of Revelation’s stars falling to Earth or Nostradamus’s great king of terror falling from the sky.

Post Cold War, people weren’t looking to the skies so much for their existential threat. When 1999 came around, mankind’s extinction was expected to be launched by computer date-formatting errors. As ridiculous as it sounds today, the millennium bug was a genuine fear to many and I do wonder how much Prince was responsible for this panic. 1999 may be a party anthem intended to spread hope but it conditioned two generations to equate the year 2000 as “party over, oops out of time”. More so than a forgotten documentary about the writings of an astrologer who actually predicted the world wouldn’t end until 3797. Everybody understood the concept behind dancing like its 1999, especially when the song had been playing non-stop that year, and it must have contributed to the pre-millennial tension on New Years Eve. The timing of Nuclear war being launched at midnight was a little too neat to be considered. Armageddon launched by computers resetting to 00 was just stupid enough to be feasible.

As 1999 turned into 2000, neither the millennium bug nor World War III came to pass. And what of Nostradamus’s great king of terror that was meant to have arrived in the seventh month? Not a peep. Although, going by the Julian calendar of Nostradamus’s time that was the month Vladimir Putin came to power. So let’s not write that one off yet.

16: Housequake

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
The Revolution is dead. Its demise was officially announced to the world yesterday. A mutual parting of ways was inferred but there was really only one finger on the trigger. To disband them at their peak is a bold move but as an artist Prince had to follow his gut and fearlessly stride into the messy unknown. Today is a brand new chapter. A new dawn. 

Prince enters the studio and Susan Rogers notices a weird energy about him. “He was off, he was different” she would later recall. With the tape rolling, he faces the world as a solo artist again and tells all the nagging critics, inner and outer, to “sh-shut up already!” He swiftly punctuates with a mild curse and unleashes the Housequake

It’s an apt name. Quakes are caused by sudden subterranean activity creating waves of acoustic energy. They normally follow a geological rupture. After experiencing his own personal rupture, Prince is doing what he does best – converting his subterranean turmoil into acoustic energy. 

He experienced his first earthquake a few months ago in the same building and it scared him in a profound way. He fears losing control and that was a loss on a biblical level. Sign o’ the Times and The Cross were created in the aftermath and show us Prince grappling with the meaning of mortality and death. He returned to Minneapolis shortly after but now he’s back in LA using the earthquake as a handy metaphor for the awesome power of on-the-one funk, similar to Bootsy Collin’s Mug Push.

The Housequake is a dance where people jump up and down to “make the house shake”. The lyrics are packed full of geological wordplay such as rocksteady or the kick drum being the fault. The bassline has the cadence of an earth tremor. The drum machine is a tectonic jack hammer, shaking an errant tom off-beat. A rift between two drum patterns heightening the sense of disruption.

Last month, he recorded the same drum beat on Shockadelica – the song that birthed Camille. Shockadelica didn’t exorcise this character from his psyche, it gave them energy. A hunger for a leading role. Today, Prince isn’t singing about Camille, he’s singing as Camille. Spitting out a volley of demands and questions, calling bullshit on unheartfelt responses or telling everyone to shut up and listen. A new future comes into focus. The next project. Three weeks later, the Camille album will be in the bag. 

On this unreleased lp, Prince will use Camille to explore feelings that are uncomfortable to examine directly – lonely lustfulness, sadistic jealousy, crippling neediness – pockets of vulnerability that the conscious mind tries to repress. And because repressed emotions resurface in unpredictable ways, Camille could be seen as a way for Prince to exorcise control over those dark desires. Understanding them is the first step to keeping them in check. But Housequake seems only concerned with the funk – something Prince can do in his sleep. Why the need for Camille? Are there any uncomfortable corners, ugly truths, being probed? 

It could be spite that is driving Housequake. A need to smite his critics and doubters. It wouldn’t be the last time Camille was used in this way. But the driving motive could also be fear. Fear about not maintaining control. Twelve months ago, Prince held his first ever TV interview and spoke of a formative experience he had aged 11. His stepdad put him on stage to dance at a James Brown And His Famous Flames concert and Prince tells the interviewer that what influenced him most about James Brown that night was his control. Control over his group. Control over his dancing girls. It was what inspired Prince to pursue stardom.

Now, with his world in turbulence, Prince is desperate to regain control. He moves back to LA, cuts his ties, gives his band their marching orders and uses his new fearless avatar Camille to embody the exemplar of control that inspired him at a young age. He’s James Brown and the world is the 11-year-old dancing at his feet. And how does he show he’s in control? He faces and wields dominion over the thing that scared him the most that year. The quake. When the recording studio shook the last time he was in LA he freaked out because events were beyond his control. Today the same studio will shake again but it will be at his command. This isn’t just funk he’s performing. It’s exposure therapy.

17: Darling Nikki

Purple Rain (1984)
Purple Rain was the first Prince album I bought. Chosen partly because I knew and loved the singles, but the real clincher was seeing the title of track five. I’d recently started dating a girl named Nikki and I naively earmarked this song as mixtape material. Remember mixtapes? Those personally cultivated repositories of subtle messages and meaning. Well, that plan was abandoned two lines in, but it no longer mattered because by that point in the album I had already been converted. My future was purple.

Darling Nikki is a sexual fantasy that goes heavy on the fantasy. Prince has a wild night of passion with a castle-dwelling fiend who extracts his signature in a Faustian pact for his soul then disappears, leaving him forever transformed. It’s the dark heart of the album and his character’s lowest ebb in the film, where his performance appalls all onlookers, including his girlfriend who flees humiliated, and the nightclub owner who tells him “no one digs your music but yourself”. Everyone seems oblivious that they’ve just heard rock’s equivalent of a Caravaggio. 

Prince created this song to inject danger into the Purple Rain album which at that point he felt was veering too mainstream. And the danger goes deeper than the opening lines which torpedoed my mixtape plans and Tipper Gore-ed a moral panic within the pearl-clutching heart of America. The danger is present in every beat, in every scream, in every grind. The melody – a gothic reimagining of Vanity 6’s 3×2=6  – sounds like a tentative descending of a spiral staircase into the dark dungeon depths of Prince’s unbitted lusts. And the final throat-shredding screams of “your dirty little Prince wants to grind, grind, grind…” makes every Heavy Metal frontman that has ever lived sound like a tired toddler in comparison.

Of course, after this swan dive into the profane, Prince felt the need to purify the air with a taste of the divine. I’m reminded of Plato’s allegory of the soul being a chariot powered by two winged horses pulling in opposite directions. After letting his primal horse of base desire plunge towards the earth, the driver had to let the noble horse of spiritual aspiration take over and soar towards the heavens lest they crash. Darling Nikki plunged deep and fast. A Christian message hidden in the purifying sounds of Lake Minnetonka wasn’t enough to right this chariot, not least as the message was placed, in part, as a prank to fool those expecting to uncover evidence of satanic corruption. Another hidden element was needed to restore harmony. On the record’s inner sleeve there are printed lyrics at the end of Darling Nikki, not of the backwards prayer, but of an extra verse that is never sung. This verse contains the key to the entire symbology of the album, born out of a spiritual experience he had prior to its recording, and if you’ve not yet spotted it I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing it here.

Prince wasn’t Darling Nikki’s only victim. With the help of the PRMC labelling her public enemy number one, she reached folklore status and lured generations of curious teens into her castle. She beguiled a multitude of rock bands to cover her and showed Michael Jackson how to grind by inspiring him to write Dirty Diana. As for me, she nudged me down this purple rabbit hole and for that I’m forever grateful. Consider this a note from me saying thank you for a funky time… 

This is no one night stand though. My relationship with the real life Nikki didn’t last the summer. Darling Nikki, however, is for keeps. 

18: Crystal Ball

Crystal Ball (1998)
Does anybody listen to music anymore? Or is it always the soundtrack to something else? I’m talking about deep listening. Lights off, filling-your-mind-with-nothing-but-the-music listening. My routine with every new album used to be: first listen on headphones, lying down, eyes shut; second listen would be the same, except eyes open so I could pore over the liner notes. I can’t remember the last time I did that – maybe a decade or two ago – and I’m not sure whether that’s down to age or the Age. Maybe only in your salad days you can make time for that kind of indulgence. Or maybe, in this always-on era, mindfulness isn’t something that can be maintained for the length of an album.

I first heard Crystal Ball near the beginning of my journey as a Prince fan. I borrowed its namesake album from my local library and listened to it in the dark. The first ten minutes and 30 seconds blew my woefully unprepared mind. I couldn’t describe today the world the opening title track transported me to. That world no longer exists. But as memorable experiences go, it’s up there with my first gig. From the outside looking in, I was just a kid listening to music in bed, mouth agape. Internally though, I was being led on an alien safari over bewildering and beautiful terrain. I can’t tell you what it did to me but my body will never be the same

Crystal Ball was first housed on the abandoned Dream Factory project, and then became the title track of the album Prince submitted to Warner Bros in 1986. The label baulked at the size of this triple-disc release and asked him to cut it down, eventually resulting in Sign o’ the Times and this epic orchestral suite languishing in the vault for over a decade – its Clare Fischer strings frequently plundered for other songs: The Future, Push and Violet the Organ Grinder among others. 

The triple-album eventually released in 1998 shares only two songs with the one submitted twelve years earlier – Good Love and Crystal Ball. Good Love had already been released (a slightly different edit appeared a decade earlier on the Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack) but this was the first official outing of the title track masterpiece and it warranted taking that headline slot. Its broad shoulders carrying a project that would soon balloon and swallow a further two albums in order to pacify fans upset by production delays. 

Fans immersed in the murky world of bootlegs may have already been acquainted with this mysterious beast. There are unedited versions circulating that are even longer, with Susannah delivering a monologue about sisters and brothers in the purple underground. “It seems when we’re in danger everything gets black. Don’t you wanna ball?” she asks, leading Prince to sweep us off our feet with some uplifting major synth strings – a ray of sunshine thats ends on a souring minor chord and Susannah rescinding the invite. ‘Maybe not”, she teases as we’re thrown back down into the bowels of an earthy bass solo. After Clare Fischer added his strings, this flow-disrupting section was edited out, along with some jarring lyrics about an elderly couple dying in a missile blast. 

We know something about what sparked its bleaker lyrics, written in what he later called a “deepbluefunk depression”. They were penned during a week of global uncertainty and heightened fear. Prince had his filming trip in France cut short after the US launched an airstrike on Libya in retaliation for a discotheque bombing. He immediately returned to Minneapolis due to safety concerns about terrorism and two days later Crystal Ball was in the can. Its exploration of making love while the bombs drop was an update to 1999’s partying during the apocalypse, and a theme he would tweak further on its replacement, Sign o’ the Times, where love and specifically procreative sex become the antidote to the surrounding carnage. He would also revisit Crystal Ball’s twin themes of sex and fortune-telling on 1994’s Come.

Other details, like the “pictures of sex” line that references a mural Susannah had drawn near his studio, help fill in details but ultimately fail to show us the film that was playing in his head when he wrote this sprawling soundtrack. Even its deleted scenes confuse more than they enlighten. Yet that is part of Crystal Ball’s allure. You’re being swept away by something bigger than yourself. Something permanently on the edge of your understanding. It’s not a song that works well as background music, it’s a song that needs to swallow you whole…. to get your mind, body and soul hitched

If ever a song warranted deep listening, it’s this one. Turn off the lights, turn up your headphones and follow the pounding kickdrum and beckoning panflutes down into a garden of unearthly orchestral delights. An inner sanctuary where exotic orchids bloom and the sirens ward off the darkening night.

19: Black Sweat

3121 (2006)
I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Like a Rolling Stone, I Wanna Be Your Lover when a song has a single snare hit as an intro it rarely disappoints. It takes a certain level of self-assurance to get somebody’s attention with a snapped finger. Black Sweat pulls the same move. No hellos, just a starting pistol for a killer riff. But straight away you notice something’s not right. That’s not a snare. It’s the sound of the Neptunes’ business model collapsing. A smash and grab on the Minneapolis Sound by it’s rightful owner. The purple prodigal son has returned from his jazz fusion hinterland to clear his court of these Timberlake and Timbaland suitors.

But Black Sweat wasn’t always a hydraulic blast of still-got-it machine funk. It started life as an acoustic number sung during the Musicology tour. A cheeky scamp of a lad in need of bulking up. The Prince database princevault.com suggests it was re-recorded sometime in 2004 but my money’s on it happening after a certain Little Richard interview aired in January 2005. Months earlier, Prince had told Rolling Stone magazine the music industry had moved on from the days it “could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken” which upset the 72-year-old Hall of Famer who went on a chat show to vent his ire. “I wish [Prince] was here tonight I’d put him across my lap and spank him real good” he tells the host who responds by suggesting Prince may “scream like a white woman” – a quote of Rick’s from earlier in the interview. With an almost identical phrase added to the re-recorded Black Sweat, Prince clearly wasn’t going to let such disrespect go uncommented upon.

I read somewhere that Prince coined the song’s title after an energetic concert performance caused black hair dye to run down his face. Morris Hayes says the phrase came from Prince’s James Brown impersonation. Both stories could be true. Whatever the origin, the sweat Prince is working up isn’t caused by physical exertion. He glides over the track with an effortless cool that is amplified in the accompanying video. Here, dancer Celestina brings the heat while a reserved Prince oozes sex and humour with minimal movement (a role-reversal of the Kiss video where Wendy is the steady counterpoint to Prince’s unpredictable cavorting). This simultaneous building up and cooling off of steam powers the groove like a piston engine, making Black Sweat one of the most potent dance machines he ever assembled.

For me, Black Sweat is the greatest song Prince recorded after his Sign o’ the Times creative peak. Others have called it the worst track on 3121. This gulf in appreciation previously confounded me but after reading Susan Rogers’ This is What it Sounds Like I now have a better understanding why. Black Sweat ticks all the boxes of my sweet spot in music – staccato and abstract with a below-the-neck emphasis on the groove. If you like your music cerebral and lyrically meaningful Black Sweat will do nothing for you. But if, like me, you prefer your music to one-inch-punch you repeatedly in the loins with a velvet-clad fist, this is your jam.

20: Anna Stesia

Lovesexy (1988)
“Between white and black, night and day” 

Anna Stesia is a dividing line. It sits between the two battling halves of Prince’s psyche and tells the story of his Blue Tuesday – the night a bad trip and an encounter with Ingrid Chavez ended his plans to release the Black Album, and began the more positive-minded Lovesexy era.

On tour, Anna Stesia divided the shows’ first half devoted to lust, and the second half of spiritual material. It arrives after Prince’s Camille character is shot dead and uses stage hydraulics to depict his rebirth and ascension to a higher plane.

The song itself is the concert experience in miniature. Its first half is dark and Godless. Prince is feeling empty and alone, and is looking to numb those feelings via his usual method: sex. He seeks anaesthesia, which seems to arrive in the form of a woman in a nightclub (played in real life by Chavez). But this encounter isn’t his usual palliative of temporary oblivion – it’s the start of a spiritual awakening where he finds the solace he seeks in God. Anaesthesia becomes Anastasia, taken from the Greek word for resurrection. The bleakness dissipates and the song morphs into the most glorious acid-drenched gospel Prince ever wrote. 

The chorus, so full of desperation and ego (the word ‘me is used seven times) only appears once in the second half, distorted into the fading cry of a banished demon. A new refrain takes its place. “Love is God. God is love. Girls and boys love God above”.

Prince may have not been the first person to flip John the Evangelist’s phrase ‘God is Love’ (1 John 4:8) – the German philosopher Jakob Böhme beat him by about 350 years – but he was the first to loop its beautiful symmetry into an Elysian chant which stays with you long after the song has finished. The world isn’t short of dusty theologians arguing how love can never be God, but I can’t think of a more powerful advertisement for monotheism.   

According to Prince, this was his mother’s favourite song of his. There are days when it’s mine too. Who needs to wait in vain to be graced by a spiritual epiphany when you can uncork this bottle of Damascene elixir at will.

21: How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore

1999 single (1982) / The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)
During one of the moon landings, an astronaut dropped a feather and a hammer to show they would hit the ground at the same time. They still lie on the lunar surface in the same place they landed 50 years ago.

In How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore Prince shares the same level of remote abandonment as that single falcon feather, 240,000 miles away from the nearest falcon. He too has been dropped into a cold deserted landscape, and lies discarded next to the only object connecting him to the world he once knew – in his case, the stubbornly silent phone. Nothing exists for him except heartbreak and the increasingly unlikely remedy.

Prince pours overwhelming loss into every corner of this classic B-side. He takes the chord progression from Heart and Soul and tears holes in it, twisting it up in knots. His voice, thrown through the wringer and broken in several places, runs the gamut from wistful remembrance to the tortured scream of a soul in purgatory. The only thing grounding the swelling vortex of pain and stopping it from swallowing everything in sight, is the sound of his foot stomping a rudimentary beat, and a finger-click during the first mention of the title that briefly snaps him out of his wallow.

In early performances, Prince ramped up the feeling of loss by opening up new chasms of silence. 1999 Super Deluxe included a DVD of an 1982 performance where he breaks off from the song and mutely lies down on his piano, pounding the top in impotent frustration. During both live recordings on this release, lyrics get abandoned mid-line and the piano drops out completely for half the song’s duration, leaving us with a sole tambourine metronome and an acapella chant of “how come u don’t call me”, while Prince whips up the crowd into a raw screaming mess. We’re beyond the orbit of entertainment at this point and entering the realm of scream therapy.

Later performances, although similarly structured, lose this searing build up and catharsis. The full band treatment on One Nite Alone… Live puts on a show but the spaces are filled with saxophone and panache, leaving no room for the churning ache of heartbreak. Some of the tricks remain – like when he screams into the mic and leaves the echo reverberating around the hall for an eternity, but when the band comes back in they add a capital G to the loss felt in the original. I’m sure it sounded incredible in the moment, but home alone, on headphones, it can’t touch the very first transmissions from Prince’s pit of despair. 

In 2019, the gods bestowed us with a second studio take. This unexpected gift actually has a proper ending instead of a fade out, offering a resolution its predecessor refuses to provide. It’s neither better nor worse, but its appearance was like discovering Da Vinci made another painting of Mona Lisa from a different angle. On rainy nights I keep a fire lit that a third take may one day walk through the door. That may seem greedy but my yearning has to be directed somewhere and the phone stopped calling with newly-recorded material many years ago.

22: Joy in Repetition

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
If I could live inside any Prince song, it would be within the alluring world of Joy in Repetition. Either the studio recording or the ten-minute-plus live performance released on One Nite Alone… The Aftershow. Other versions exist but only these two go beyond the claustrophobic back-alley you see during its Graffiti Bridge scene, and into a hazy cloudland where bands play year-long songs and the minutes are measured out in reggae bass licks. They conjure a world full of poetry and wordplay, but if you wish to escape your incessant inner monologue there are places beyond the clouds where you can have your monkey brain obliterated by UV blasts of a guitar solo, excuse me… guitar sol. Here in the sky lies the landing place of Prince’s Hohner Madcat from the end of that Rock & Roll Hall of Fame performance. I bet if you threw that axe into the air it would turn into sunshine. 

And why shouldn’t the sun purr with primal passion put through a guitar pedal? We’ve grown accustomed to its silence but there are stories of deaf people hearing for the first time and being surprised the flaming ball of gas in the sky doesn’t hum like an idling car engine. In Joy in Repetition’s world there’s no vacuum of space swallowing that fiery scream. For the people there, its roar is the soundtrack to the giddy terror of falling in love. They bask in its solar sonar embrace and fill their chests with the painful joy of sudden full submersion in another human being. But the route they take is full of pitfalls and trapdoors; the sun liable to duck behind clouds or lose its shine. Back in the club, the band know a different route. They are your sherpas to a sun-drenched summit that doesn’t feed on the diminishing returns of novelty. They lead you to an eternal love so perfect you cherish every repetition. In the words of Raspberry Beret: “I wouldn’t change a stroke”. 

Prince describes getting caught in the undertow of the singer’s vocals. A two word mantra heard behind the beat. Love. Me. Like the Buddhist Om, its chant frees you of worldly desire. He begins to hear his own mind’s expression of that mantra – a voice of anguish, desperation and doubt. “Why can’t u love me… why don’t u love me..?” In the music, he learns to unmoor himself from that needy inner voice and to look behind it. Doubts begin to drip away like rain, along with the false belief in the separation between one soul and another. That’s why the song they play is called Soul Psychedelicide. It kills that hallucination of individuation and reveals a deeper truth. We are all one. In that perfect state of complete unity there is no I. No yearning. No other. Just the brilliant pure light of universal love. In this state of transcendence, holding someone isn’t trying to possess them – its reuniting with the cosmic infinitude. “A love solid as rock” as the dropped note in Graffiti Bridge reads, “a love that reaffirms that U are not alone.”

23: Gett Off

Diamonds & Pearls (1991)
The songs Prince recorded in the 90s have been dwindling as we get to the business end of this list. And here we have the last one. 

Gett Off is a guaranteed floor-filler. A DJ super-weapon. It was one of five records I chose to DJ at my own wedding reception and the hilarious sight of elderly relatives getting down to Prince’s raunchiest single was the wedding gift I never knew I wanted.

Like on Kiss, Prince reaches into his James Brown bag of tricks for maximum dancefloor destruction. It starts with a Get Up Offa That Thing scream – a piercing stop-everything-and-listen fanfare that could be Prince, could be Rosie, could be a climaxing faun. Then The Payback beat kicks in (sampled via En Vogue) punctuated with saxophone kettle squeals from The Grunt to stop anybody’s hips getting too complacent. By the end of the fourth verse he’s mentioning James by name and launching into bars of Mother Popcorn.

It’s not all JB though. The chorus quotes Dyke and the Blazers, and the “Get Up” sample is taken from a JR Funk record, but the biggest interpolation on Gett Off is of Prince himself. He was like a chain smoker around this time, using the dying embers of previous songs to light the next. The more conventionally spelt Get Off from the New Power Generation EP lent its title, but whole verses were lifted verbatim from Glam Slam ’91, which itself was the progeny of Glam Slam, Love Machine, Twelve and Escape

It was a fertile time. Glam Slam begat Glam Slam ’91 begat Gett Off begat the trio of Violet The Organ Grinder, Gangster Glam, and Clockin’ The Jizz. There’s also whispers of a Gett Off’s Cousin hiding in the vault like the illegitimate offspring of a scandalous affair.

Gett Off was only ever meant to be a single. A club promo to generate hype for the forthcoming album. However, it did so well that it barged its way onto Diamonds and Pearls, delaying the release and making a mess of the rapped tracklist on Push. It replaced Horny Pony, a mere radio commercial compared with this real outpouring of unbridled animal lust. Lines like “It’s a sex dance, it’s the new dance, and it’s rockin’ from coast to coast” sound fist-gnawingly bad next to the louche “it’s hard for me to say what’s right when all I wanna do is wrong”.

Who wants Prince as a cheesy radio DJ when you can have him as a randy nature spirit drunk on lust? Throw in the VMAs performance with its Caligula backdrop and assless chaps and you have Prince at his Bacchanalian best. A totem to what one reviewer described as “rampant male sexuality, unfettered by the playful androgyny of the past”.

Eric Leeds’ flute further strengthens the image of Prince as a satyr. The alluring sound of ancient Arcadia harnessed to the testosterone howl of an electric guitar. Maybe then, the James Brown references are a distraction. Maybe the real thrust of Gett Off was Prince channeling his inner Pan, the horned god of male virility.

The pipes of Pan, last heard in rock during the ocarina solo on Wild Thing, still held an ancient command over mortal libidos. Prog rock threatened to forever neuter its power, demonising the instrument in the same way Pan’s cloven hooves and horns were appropriated by Christian artists in the Middle Ages to depict Satan. But Prince wrested the flute from the sexless grasp of Jethro Tull and turbo-charged it with a hard rock riff of pure sex fury.

I was 12 when I first heard this single. It’s sexual lyrics washed over me, like most song lyrics still do, but there was something monstruous in that riff. A glimpse of an adult world beyond comprehension. Around the same time, a friend and I accidentally discovered a stash of porn mags hidden in a hedge. Neither incident seemed particularly shocking at the time, but stay in my memory as the first rumblings of sexual awareness.

Is that why I chose to play it on my wedding day two decades later? I’m now questioning my motives. I thought it was because of its dancefloor appeal but maybe I wanted to complete the circle of my journey to adulthood. Get Off’s riff blows up dancefloors no question, but it also has the same affect on libidos and pre-teen innocence.

24: The Exodus Has Begun

Exodus (1995)
If I was a music-critic, I’d never make the gauche error of sticking my neck out and suggesting this slab of gospel p-funk was on a par with Prince’s greatest material. That’s far too off-script. Safer instead to stick with the agreed narrative that Prince lost his mojo in the 90s after losing a battle with hip-hop and was unable to ever reach his 80s peaks again. However, I’m not a critic. I’m a fan writing about the music that moves me and therefore unburdened by the baggage of general consensus. This is love, not lore, so I’m saying it: I think The Exodus Has Begun funks as hard as any of his big hitters. ALL OF THEM. 1999, DMSR, Controversy – it’s on that level. Fight me!

I offer no qualifying statement to redeem myself in your rolling eyes. No personal memory as alibi to dam my draining reserves of kudos. I genuinely think the song, on its own terms, deserves to be a classic and seeing it gather dust, only available on an obscure deleted release that no-one mentions nor seems to care about, is a travesty.

Out of my top 50 or so Prince songs, The Exodus Has Begun is the only one I don’t own on vinyl, and the only one unavailable on Spotify or Apple Music. Most of my CDs have long been retired to an attic I no longer live under, but (ironically, given its name) the Exodus CD is one of the few that never left. A back-up because ripped mp3s are too ephemeral to rely on. If I accidentally wipe my computer I don’t want to be hunting down lo-fi YouTube rips to get my weekly fix. Shudder.

Although I’d sell off family members to get the Exodus album repressed on vinyl, I don’t mind the gaping void on streaming services. That’s because, although I listen to Spotify, I find myself flailing in the vastness. The psychological gear-shift needed to go from tending a record collection to having immediate access to NEAR EVERYTHING is one a Digital Native couldn’t understand. Yes, the limits of choice have expanded beyond comprehension but those limits defined me. Cultivating a record collection went hand in hand with cultivating a self. You can’t sculpt an identity with a playlist, and yet spending money on music now feels like an indulgence. I’m cursed with an antiquated mindset that desires possession of music in a culture that wants only to lease it. A monogamist in an era of free love.

Soon, having a music collection will be as eccentric as owning a loom. Throw another Shellac on the mangle grandad! But at least I get to hear non-licensed epic p-funk bastards like this, without waiting in vain (sorry, wrong Exodus album) for distant board rooms to agree on licensing deals that will never arrive.

Exodus was Prince smuggling new music out to his fans, free from the confines of his contract which he intended to only fulfil with old vault material. He had done it before with NPG Records’ debut release Goldnigga, but on that album he was careful to hide his involvement. He took more liberties on Exodus, a title which, as Mayte told the press, represented “an exit from a way of thinking and a way of doing… something new”. He promoted it behind a thin pseudonym and an even thinner face-covering, and sung lead vocals on a couple of tracks, including the song we’re discussing now which ends with Sonny T eulogising over the death of the Prince persona. Who knows what legal ambiguities need to be cleared up, what pieces of cut Gordian red tape need reknotting, before this album can grace the streaming world. It’s not like there’s much public demand. Most people don’t even seem to know this Europe-only release exists so don’t expect to see it on Spotify anytime soon. 20th Century Archivists 1 – 21st Century Streamers 0.

Oh. It’s on Tidal. Fine! You win this round young folk. But the Cloud won’t be around forever. When the sky turns purple and the servers go down, I’ll be in my bunker blasting out The Exodus Has Begun while you’re scrabbling down the backs of digital sofas for long-forgotten mp3s to block out the sirens and screams. I just hope it’s reissued on vinyl before then. CDs don’t chime well with my Apocalypse aesthetic.

25: Shockadelica

If I Was Your Girlfriend single (1987)
At first, Shockadelica seems to be the tale of a man-eating vamp that can control men’s minds with her hypnotising sexual allure. A common trope found in rock, especially during 1967’s Summer of Love where a glut of songs about bewitching women casting spells with their Strange Brew and Summer Wine inspired a parody in Bedazzled when Peter Cook bucks the trend by emotionlessly singing “you bore me” and “you fill me with inertia” to the siren-like dancers spinning around him.

Prince has been here before on Come Elektra Tuesday but is Shockadelica really another tale of a Black Magic Woman? In the 12” Long Version we’re twice told that the title describes a feeling of “lonely cold”. If Shockadelica is a feeling, then maybe the seductress is instead called Camille? Lyric sites tend to place punctuation or the chorus break in between the words Camille and Shockadelica, making the first mention of Prince’s alter-ego ambiguous. But in his handwritten notes there’s nothing separating them. Camille is Shockadelica and Shockadelica is a feeling of lonely cold. There is no girl, only a mirage of anthropomorphised loneliness that comes from sleeping alone with lustful thoughts. Prince portrayed these energy-sapping thoughts as a girl that wouldn’t let him play his guitar, revealing he viewed them as a threat to his creativity.

One reason why people want to separate Camille and Shockadelica is because of how the Camille character developed. They point to the Poem of Camille in the Lovesexy programme which explicitly states Camille is a boy, believing he can’t be the girl in Shockadelica. Others square this contradiction by pointing to Prince’s allusion in an online interview that Camille was named after a 19th Century ‘hermaphrodite’ and is instead intersex. But these are mere labels that miss the point. Camille is beyond gender. Supragender. Camille is pure id. A canvas for all the drives that make up Prince, untied by the social constructions of gender, race and class.

In the handwritten lyrics to Shockadelica, the most reworked line is the one where Camille is introduced, suggesting an internal battle to exorcise this demon onto the page. The word Camille is written, then crossed out. Then the word Shockadelica gets the same treatment, followed by crossed-out lines telling us “I’m so in love” and “I want a baby all the time”. When he finally commits to the line “the reason is Camille Shockadelica” (baptised by tenderly dotting the final I with a heart) he’s writing in pencil now rather than pen – has time elapsed or is the name of his inner tormentor too dangerous to be written in indelible ink?

There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle now though. After a hard labour, his shadow self is screaming on the birthing table of consciousness and would become Prince’s muse for some of the funkiest material he would ever write. The new-born Camille wasn’t fully fleshed out yet. Prince had personified a feeling of lustful loneliness, and now he had that vessel he could begin to pour in all the repressed aspects of his psyche, developing the character over time. Camille is many sides of Prince – the lonely and lustful, but also the jealous, spiteful, needy and vulnerable. Fully-formed or not, all of those aspects of Prince can still be found in Shockadelica. He wrote it because he was jealous of Jesse Johnson coming up with the title for his album and wanted to spite him by hijacking the name. This along with the lyrics of lust and loneliness, and the need to silence his critics and reassert his independence in the ashes of the Revolution created the circumstances for Camille’s birth, thus kicking off a four-album psychodrama that would consume him for the rest of the decade.

Several more Camille songs were recorded over the next couple of months and a Camille album was planned for release that would bear no mention of Prince. This didn’t come to pass but Housequake, Strange Relationship and If I was Your Girlfriend all turn up on the Sign o’ the Times album, along with the Camille-credited U Got the Look. On this release (half of which was recorded before Shockadelica), Camille is used as one of many colours in Prince’s artistic palette but that changes on his next solo project.

The genesis of The Black Album is described in the aforementioned Poem of Camille as an attempt to stick “his long funk in competition’s face”. Here Camille is a vehicle to smite his critics in the same way that Housequake, recorded the morning after he officially disbanded the Revolution, was a declaration to the doubters of his Blackness. Prince was forging a new identity to reclaim his crown of funk. He had a point to prove. In the Lovesexy programme he writes “Camille mustered all the hate that he was able. Hate 4 the ones who ever doubted his game. Hate 4 the ones who ever doubted his name. ’Tis nobody funkier – let the Black Album fly.’”

Worried that the inspiration behind The Black Album was less than pure, he then recorded Lovesexy where Camille was recast as a naive, tricked fool, who had been led astray by another character, Spooky Electric. Camille had now become fully subsumed with Prince’s ego and any dark thoughts are instead attributed to his former shadow’s shadow self. This battle between the two characters is the theme running throughout Lovesexy and allowed Prince in concerts to indulge his dark muse in the first half, and then atone in the second by presenting his more spiritual material as Camille’s salvation.

Prince reconciled these two opposing sides more effectively on the Batman album where, after being given archetypal hero and villain characters to write from the perspective of, he identified with both and ended the battle by crafting another alter-ego that synthesised Camille and Spooky Electric into one split personality: Gemini. And this final fusion appears to be the conclusion of Camille’s character arc (he’ll later tell us in My Name is Prince he has “two sides and they’re both friends”). In the Graffiti Bridge film, the protagonist, who in early scripts was called Camille Blue, became The Kid from Purple Rain and Camille went into hibernation for the 90s, only resurfacing sporadically in the new millennium, most notably when Prince again wished to rub his critics’ faces in his spite-tastic F.U.N.K.

Despite Prince’s best rewrite attempts, to me Camille will always be the lust-crazed nymphomaniac of Feel U Up – the one Ween portray brilliantly in their sleazy Shockadelica cover, IWLYP. That’s because the true power of Camille, underneath the vocal effects and backstory, is the pure thrill of hearing Prince’s unrestrained id let loose in the studio, speaking to the repressed Camille that lurks down deep within all of us.

26: DMSR

1999 (1982)
In the summer of 1979, disco was at its peak and The Bee Gees were celebrating their sixth consecutive number 1. The US charts looked ripe for the brand of falsetto-sung R&B that Prince had just finished recording for his sophomore album. Then a rock DJ made headlines when he detonated a crate of disco records at a baseball game and rioters stormed the field chanting “disco sucks” and “death to disco”. Fueled by homophobia, racism and the surge of conservatism that would usher in the Reagan era, this violent backlash soon ballooned nationwide, not only venting its ire at disco, but at any music not deemed white and heterosexual enough. The disco bubble burst. My Sharona replaced Chic’s Good Times at the top of the charts and it was another decade until the tainted Bee Gees got near the top 10 again. Classic rock and country began their long chokehold of the airwaves.

Prince must have sensed these winds of change. On that night of the Disco Demolition in Chicago, he and his band were in Colorado, recording throwback rock songs under the name The Rebels, including a diss on disco written by Dez Dickerson called Disco Away. The songs were deemed too generic though. A creative dead end. If he was to cross over it wouldn’t be by pandering to demand and watering down his sound. It would be on his terms.

A year and two tours later Prince unveiled his new approach for the new decade. Inspired by new wave, he incorporated rock elements into the funk of his childhood and gave birth to the Minneapolis Sound – a genre that would transform the charts by the mid-80s. Introduced on Dirty Mind, and developed further on Controversy, The Time and Vanity 6, it was on the 1999 album where this genre found its perfect form. Despite being omitted on early CD versions of the album, DMSR is the Minneapolis Sound par excellence. A synth and drum machine manifesto to all those about to follow in his funksteps. It resurrected disco’s call to lose yourself on the dance floor, and even featured a tom tom breakdown, but was cloaked in the grit and grime of funk that never would have passed Studio 54’s door policy. Instead of revelling in extravagance, Prince the dance instructor tells us to “work your body like a whore” and how it doesn’t matter what we’re wearing – in fact the less clothes the better.

This wasn’t the disco-world of celebrity excess, this was an invite for everybody to let their hair down and get a-freakin. The White, Black and Puerto Rican Uptowners were encouraged to sing, as were the Japanese albeit over a slightly racist synth hook. New fans attracted by Little Red Corvette’s rock choruses received helpful instructions on when to clap, whereas old fans got Jamie Starr references to dissect. All were catered for. There’s a reason why the word “everybody” is mentioned 21 times. As long as you enjoyed dancing, playing music, sex or romance, there was a space for you in this discotheque of the disaffected.

But as he tells us on the album’s title track, parties weren’t meant to last. Like every memorable all-nighter, DMSR doesn’t peter out but ends in mayhem and someone calling the police. An actual emergency or shut down by a Disco Sucks killjoy?

Disco didn’t die. It retreated underground to be nurtured by clubs like the Paradise Garage. But during its hibernation, Prince knew something that record-makers have known since the days of Chubby Checker. People will always like dancing to dance records about dancing.

27: Mountains

Parade (1986)
Ten weeks after topping the charts with the most sparsely-arranged single of his career, Prince released one of his densest. Mountains, with it’s cavernous handclaps and reverb-heavy snares, couldn’t be further away from Kiss’s spartan funk. Its wall of sound hits with the force of a series of avalanches cascading into the valleys, sweeping away sleeping villages and waking dormant forces beyond anybody’s control.

Prince didn’t come up with Mountains. Mountains had to come to him. Wendy and Lisa were alone in the studio working on the Parade album, when they decided to play around with a piano piece that Lisa had written when she was 13. They experimented with putting parts of the percussion through a delay pedal, resulting in an instrumental demo which, Wendy recalls, floored Prince when he heard it. Within a couple of weeks he had the full extended line-up of the Revolution recording his version, now complete with lyrics extolling the all-conquering power of love.

Like on The Ladder and in Under the Cherry Moon, Prince opens with a fairytale ‘once upon a time’ and then tells us the story is set in “a land called Fantasy” – a line taken from an Earth Wind and Fire song that shares the same theme of love surmounting all obstacles. However, this make-believe setting is soon intruded by the horrors of the real world. In the music video, the line “Africa divided” is shown to reference Apartheid, and while we see gun-toting Klan members during “hijack in the air”, that line was surely influenced by the main news story at the time he wrote it: the deadly terrorist hijacking of an EgyptAir flight. 

In Annie Christian, Prince’s answer to the despair caused by the world’s evils was to live in transit. To build relationships and attachments in this dangerous world was to open yourself up to trauma and loss. Better to live unattached than to put down roots – or to flip the common saying: it’s better to have not loved, than to have loved and lost. By the time of Mountains, Prince ascribes that way of thinking to the devil and in the chorus preaches the opposite view. He now believes there’s nothing greater than love and with it despair can be overcome like physical barriers such as mountains or the sea. The metaphor was hardly original. It had only been three years since Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes sung about mountains being obstacles that their love lifted them over in their chart-topping duet Up Where We Belong. That ballad won an Academy award for Best Original Song, as did Fame which in my opinion was the lyrical inspiration for Baby I’m a Star. For his second movie, was Prince again using tried and tested lyrical themes on his closing song to win an Oscar? I think so. However in a few months, world events would twice again inspire him to further develop this subject, resulting in two of his most profound and original songs: Crystal Ball and Sign o’ the Times.

Mountains’ message of conquering adversity is better illustrated on the extended version. Three minutes in, there’s a polyrhythm created by an errant snare pattern. On the album, this conflict peters out with an early fade, but on the 12” single (and the film’s credits) we’re allowed to stick around to hear the tension get resolved, which triggers an explosion and a further five minutes of sweeping panoramic horn-filled funk. We’re now gliding on love’s wings, soaring over unscalable peaks and terrible depths, and nothing can break nor stop us.

Unfortunately, the same was not true for the Revolution. For Prince, they would soon become an obstacle he’d face, not with love, but with fear. “What if everybody around me split?” he asked Rolling Stone in 1990. “Then I’d be left with only me, and I’d have to fend for me. That’s why I have to protect me.” Out of all the reasons why Prince chose to disband the Revolution, the speculation that it was fear of abandonment chimes the truest, especially given how he reacted to Morris, Jesse and St Paul leaving his stable. His band had long been with him on this crazy ride to stardom but he obviously shared Christoper Tracy’s view that “it’s no fun to depend on other people for rides”. Forgetting the message of Mountains, he reverted back to the character in Annie Christian, running away from attachment and dependence. In doing so, he regained a feeling of control and released the most critically acclaimed album of his career, but at what cost? He would never again regain this kind of mountain-moving momentum.

28: Head

Dirty Mind (1980)
In the chronology of Prince albums, Dirty Mind marks a seismic change, like a ring of a tree after a cataclysmic summer. Lewdness was gauchely toyed with on Prince, but then came the Rick James Fire it Up tour where, as the supporting act, Prince honed the art of shock to steal attention away from the headliner. This gave him a whole new arsenal to deploy for his third album and the big gun was his concert jawdropper Head

This sleaze funk anthem takes an ounce of inspiration from real life – Prince’s ex-girlfriend Darlene was engaged when he first met her – but its lyrics soon descend into a rude boy fantasy from Prince’s dirty mind. This ensured that, despite being the album’s strongest cut, Head couldn’t be released as a commercial single anywhere other than in The Philippines. Frankie Goes to Hollywood may have topped the charts a few years later with an ode to oral sex, but Relax had a thin veneer of plausible innocence to initially slip past the gatekeepers. Head was sculpted to shock from the off. Reinterpretation wasn’t an option, although that didn’t stop an uncomfortable-looking Dez Dickerson pointing to his head when singing the chorus after becoming a born-again Christian during the Dirty Mind tour.

Dez’s new-found faith may have sat awkwardly with Head’s blunt lyrics but in Prince lore, it was keyboardist and coerced shock prop, Gayle Chapman, who is said to have quit the band after she couldn’t square the song’s explicitness – as well as her on-stage objectification – with her Christian beliefs. Nowadays, Gayle refutes this story, saying she left for her own musical growth, but either way, her departure led to the arrival of Lisa Coleman and the future-Revolution member being given this track as an initiation rite. Prince believed if Lisa could sing Head’s lyrics she could handle anything and her cooly understated take on the soon-to-be-wed virgin role scored her a place in his touring band and a co-lead vocal credit on the album.

This acknowledgement, along with Fink’s credit on both the title track and on Head for his lip-biter synth solo, was the reason why, for the first time in Prince’s career, the phrase ‘performed by Prince’ contained an asterisk. Head opened the door for two keyboardists to transcend their concert roles and become more involved in the studio. It may or may not have lost him a keyboard player, but it gained him two new collaborators and paved the way for the birth of the Revolution.

Lisa would even write her own Head-adjacent song for the Time the following year, with The Stick appearing on their debut album. She not only passed her initiation, but would help set a new test for the next term’s intake.

29: Baby I’m a Star

Purple Rain (1984)
In 1981, Fame, sung by Irene Cara, won an Oscar for Best Film Theme Song. Maybe Prince’s eyes were on the same prize, because later that year he took hefty inspiration from its lyrics, particularly its opening lines, to create Baby I’m a Star, and then began to step up his own ambitions to star in and soundtrack a motion picture. He was moderately famous but in the words of his new demo, he didn’t want to stop until he reached the top. This movie, he believed, would be the rocket to take him to that highest strata of stardom.

The following year, after a concert film called The Second Coming was planned, filmed and abandoned, Prince wrote 11 pages of a rough plot outline for a feature film that would eventually – via a relay of two screen writers – become Purple Rain. On the last page he jotted down possible songs for inclusion and topping the list was his Fame-inspired demo. Next on the list was I Would Die 4 U. Every other song from Purple Rain hadn’t yet been written, but here was the film’s party crescendo duo baked in from conception.

In this early synopsis, he details his lead character’s motivation: “Prince wants to make it. Bad. He wants fame and fortune and everything that goes with it”. On Baby I’m a Star his character aims to achieve this by walking the walk. Repeating I Wanna Be Your Lover’s opening line, he tells us he “ain’t got no money” but he self-identifies as a star and acts like the world just hasn’t cottoned on yet. Fake it til you make it.

Prince talks about this power of self-identity in his autobiography. He believed his youthful complexion was because he simply didn’t think himself as wrinkly and he connects this mindset to a technique called visualisation, where you write down what you want to happen in order to make it come true. As a boy, he would write vision lists of all the girls he liked so they would start noticing him. We can only take his word for the success of this approach, but if he wrote Baby I’m a Star to manifest stardom, no one could argue with the results.

In the film, the song arrives as a victory parade. Mission accomplished. Yes, the overdubbed backing vocals channel Sly and the Family Stone and tell us “we are all a star” but that’s just the movie tying up a thematic arc. A bit of housekeeping so we don’t think it’s only the Kid’s boat being lifted on the rising tide. He hasn’t forgot the lesson of collaboration but the main headline is his dream has come true. He is now a star, not just in his head but in the eyes of everyone in the venue, and the wider world will follow after the freeze frame. The Kid, and in the climactic moment his guitar, can’t control their excitement as he struts triumphantly, cavorting under the Broadway lights of newly-won fame. The bookending reversed messages about ignoring criticism (“fuck them! what do they know, all their taste is in their mouth”) now incongruous with this revelling in adoration.

In real life, Baby I’m a Star served the same purpose on the accompanying tour. This is Prince’s moment and he may be basking in it, stretching the track out to ever longer proportions, but he’s giving the crowd everything he’s got in return. Herculean choreography, a well-oiled Revolution put through the wringer, celebrities and entourage joining the jam on stage. He lied about stopping when he reached the top. He doubled down on his craft. By the end of the tour, fame’s hangover will have truly set in but right now, he’s on top of the world and milking every last drop before the party ends.

And Prince did win that Academy award. Purple Rain was voted Best Original Song Score, giving him the only Oscar of his career. In his acceptance speech he said “I could have never imagined this in my wildest dreams.” On the contrary, I believe that after he wrote Baby I’m a Star he imagined that moment every single day until reality caught up with his vision.

30: She’s Always in my Hair

Raspberry Beret single (1985)
Please raise a glass to the under-appreciated and unheralded Jill Jones. Is there a better metaphor of her time with Prince than the image of her being hid behind the stage curtain while performing backing vocals for Vanity 6? She was a better singer than anybody he thrust into the limelight during the 80s, but he wanted her kept under wraps, scared that fame would take her away from him. It’s why her solo lp was delayed for several years and why she’s the only one whose credit is cryptically initialised on 1999 despite being all over that album (including singing co-lead on the title track). Her story arc was cut out of Purple Rain and the same happened with Graffiti Bridge six years later with the added insult of her having to mime to Elisa Fiorillo on Love Machine (despite the song initially having her vocals). Nothing had changed by 2017, with Purple Rain Deluxe ignoring her completely – her song Wednesday, cut from early drafts of the film and album, notable by its absence on the bonus disc of vault material.

Because of this drawn veil over her input, Jill gets overlooked by the wider world in favour of more visible band members like Wendy and Lisa. Yet she was there at the start of the Revolution and her involvement outlasted them. Only Dr Fink and Jerome was part of his stable for longer. On the satellite act albums released between her uncredited appearances on Purple Rain and Sign o’ the Times, Jill features on almost all of them. She was everywhere. The Lady Cab Driver; the beautiful friend in Hello. The sparring partner on the extended version of Kiss. The Automatic dominatrix. She was always there. And what does she get for this loyalty? A song with a title suggesting her constant presence is irritating.

Prince wrote She’s Always in my Hair for Jill as an apology after a spat they had. It didn’t go down well. It wasn’t the title that wound her up, but the teasing “maybe I’ll marry her, maybe I won’t” line. On the whole, its lyrics are infinitely more affectionate than other songs he wrote that also portrayed her as his obsessive cheerleader – such as the suicidal Wednesday, or the starstruck Baby You’re a Trip. She may have identified with her character in those, after all Baby You’re a Trip was plagiarised from extracts from her diary. But singing a funhouse mirror exaggeration of yourself is different than being gifted a song by your first love that details their indifference. That had to hurt. And I’m not sure gaining the enviable accolade of being the muse for one of his greatest B-sides helped mitigate that pain.

After Jill, the next biggest inspiration for She’s Always in my Hair was a track he wrote earlier that year. Prince recreates the chugging effect he used on Apollonia 6’s Sex Shooter (created by putting a Linn drum snare through a flanger pedal) and he borrows the first four notes of its main riff to follow every “she’s always there” line. She’s Always in my Hair may wear the finger cymbals uniform of the Around the World era and have a Paisley badge slapped on its sleeve, but it was recorded deep into the Purple Rain sessions, pre-dating When Doves Cry and Take Me With U, and its stark driving rock sits better against a purple background than it does among its more opulent and rainbow-hued brethren.

It could have ended up even starker with an early yet-to-be-titled draft of its lyrics opening with the proto-Sign o’ the Times line: “a boy got killed at Disneyland today, some say he was trying to be Superman….” Sounds like it started life aimed in the wrong direction but luckily JJ was there, telling him how much she cared.

As an apology, She’s Always in my Hair sucked. But as a song it sits in the top tier of pop rock masterpieces and would be more widely viewed as such if he hadn’t kept it hidden, like its muse, behind the curtain of its more showy A-side.

31: Raspberry Beret

Around the World in a Day (1985)
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Purple Rain, Kiss and Raspberry Beret – possibly the only three songs your average non-fan could name – all outside the top 30. What kind of ranking is this? If this was a content-farm listicle or Sunday paper puff-piece, all three would be top five with any one of them topping it. But I’m not pandering to the expectations of passing tourists or part-time Prince fans. This is for you. The real fam. Those whose top 30 doesn’t resemble the Hits on shuffle. Raspberry Beret doesn’t fit my wonky soul as much as its lesser known B-side but that doesn’t mean I fail to occasionally crumble at its majesty. There’s a reason why the song has travelled beyond the purple orbit and into the daytime playlists of commercial radio and high street stores. It’s catchy enough for mass appeal, but with enough left field charm to still intrigue after decades of hearing it mauled by malls.

The song started life in 1982, being first recorded while Prince was putting together the 1999 and Vanity 6 albums. The lyrics were different at this early stage – closer to Darling Nikki, with the woman vanishing after their night of passion, leaving Prince with just a note and her raspberry-coloured headwear. Two years later, the song was rerecorded and became the version we all know, with new lyrics full of imagery from the Purple Rain movie – especially one of its deleted scenes where Prince and Apollonia make love in a barn during a thunder storm. Now the singer is described as losing his virginity (“they say the first time ain’t the greatest”) and it takes place on Old Man Johnson’s farm – a name often highlighted for its innuendo, but actually intended as a dig in the ribs of Time departee, Jesse Johnson. This updated version also features a harpsichord melody written by Lisa and a string section that she was asked to arrange, overdubbed a few days later.

Its video, the first he directed himself, was initially two separate videos (one filmed, one animated) mashed together and if his hair looks a little strange (Prince thought it made him look like Lou Ferrino) it could be because it’s believed to be a wig, after a disastrous attempt to bleach his hair went wrong. Interestingly, in this video The Revolution are all dressed up as the characters that represent them on the album cover, with Prince donning the cloud suit and cloud guitar of the blonde guy sat in the centre. He told Rolling Stone in 1985 he wasn’t on the cover because “people were tired of looking at me” but if the hair story is true then surely that blonde guy was always meant to be Prince.

The video starts with the intro to the extended mix, but don’t stop there. Listen to the full 12” version if you’re going through the motions in your long love affair with Raspberry Beret and wish to rekindle the magic. Supermarkets and malls may take away our radio edits, but they’ll never take away our extended jams with Prince rocking the harmonica.

32: Sign o’ the Times

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Humans beings aren’t designed to cope with today’s barrage of breaking news. If we keep pace with every single plot twist of hyper-capitalism’s march, does that make us informed citizens engaging on a macro level with the fast-changing world, or are we doom-scrolling dupes destroying our mental health by giving advertisers clicks for another microdose of that sweet dopamine? Sometimes it feels like we’re being forced to read every word of the Earth’s end credits which are scrolling past our eyes too fast to fully take in. A song like Sign O’ the Times or Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire couldn’t be written nowadays. The news is far too relentless to be be pinned down. The turnover too quick. And after having it beamed into our eyeballs, our hearts and our lungs every hour of the day, we want our pop music to be escapist. Before 24-hour news came of age with the OJ Simpson murder case, glimpses of a burning world were doled out in managable bite-size chunks. One such chunk reached Prince when he was in a particularly anxious state and it gave birth to the song that titled the album, tour and movie of his creative peak. Under Sign O’ the Times in the Hits liner notes, Alan Leeds writes “I’d love to know the date so I could look up the newspapers to see what inspired it”. Thanks to Susannah Melvoin we now know it was 13 July 1986. She recently revealed that Prince was in Los Angeles that month, experiencing their worst earthquake in seven years which, in her words, “scared the shit out of him”. On the day of the aftershock, with his belief in a stable world once again literally shaken, he was handed that day’s LA Times with a front page headline about Reagan’s Star Wars program. Read that paper yourself online and trace the seeds of the song’s lyrics through articles on the surge in teen drug use, the AIDS epidemic (including one about a recent conference in France, and another that likens HIV to someone running around with a machine gun), bomb blasts, and a report on how women and children were the fastest growing poverty group in the country. Not all the Signs came from that Times. There’s no rockets exploding but it was only a few months after the Challenger space shuttle disaster. And Prince would have heard about The Disciples in Minneapolis where a murder trial of a leader from that gang was underway. There’s also no mention of Hurricane Annie. Could the destruction of a church be by the hand of his antichrist Annie Christian? It’s a line possibly inspired by an article that day on white supremacist violence being committed in the name of Christianity. Or could Prince be referencing the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the US coast, sometimes referred to as Hurricane Annie, which left a path of destruction in Florida in 1935. Interestingly, back when he recorded this, the only other category 5 to have hit the mainland was called Hurricane Camille. Coincidence? Could he have even got the name from a Rudy Ray Moore record. Or maybe all of the above. Sign O’ the Times wasn’t the first song he recorded after digesting that day’s current events. The healing redemption of The Cross came first. Only by cleansing his soul could he then turn his direct gaze towards the abyss. And after encapsulating the darkness, giving it form, and proposing love, marriage and the gift of God (the Hebrew meaning behind the name Nate) as the antidote, could he then move forward and play in the sunshine.

33: Purple Rain

Purple Rain (1984)
I needed a run up for this one. A couple of days basking in the various performances: the First Avenue debut; Rave Un2 the Year 2000; the Super Bowl half-time show. The song looms so large over Prince’s legacy that attempting to wrap my head around it is like trying to picture the vastness of space. Human minds aren’t equipped for the task. I’m as overwhelmed as Stevie Nicks when she received the instrumental from Prince to add lyrics. In her words: “I can’t do it… It’s too much for me.” Yet, I’ll try.

It’s strange to think Purple Rain – the Revolution’s signature anthem – could have been a country duet with the singer from Fleetwood Mac. Praise be that its destiny, like in the movie, was to become a band collaboration instead. The writing process didn’t quite go like it did on screen, with Wendy giving Prince a tape titled Slow Groove, but she was instrumental in shaping the sound. Late in rehearsal one night, Prince suggested working on something new. He introduced the band to the basic idea of Purple Rain and, as Fink recalls, told them to “play what you feel”. Wendy, a new addition to the line-up and eager to impress, toyed with Prince’s chord progression and turned it into the anthemic opening section that speaks in goosebumps. The rest of the band also worked their voodoo and later that summer they performed it live for the first time which, with a little trimming and polish, is the recording found on the album. The one the rest of the world hears when they think of Prince. His lighters-in-the-air epitaph.

You can divide Prince’s career into before and after the Purple Rain moment. In the movie, this occurs when he performs the climactic title song. The Prince that coughs nervously before launching into it, is different to the Prince that ends it. Never again will he face a sea of blank-eyed faces. Megastardom has arrived. I believe that’s close to what happened in real life too. Once people heard Purple Rain, either as the album closer or the cinematic denouement, their relationship to Prince changed, which changed him too. Its crescendo, along with the iconic intro to Let’s Go Crazy are the defining moments of both the album and movie. Better songs are found therein but none are as irreplaceable. When Doves Cry was the big lead single, but who’s to say one of the B-sides (17 Days, She’s Always in my Hair, Erotic City) wouldn’t have had the same success. The Beautiful Ones is a personal favourite but if the inferior Electric Intercourse had remained instead, the album would still have hit multi-platinum. Swap one of the other songs for any of the hidden classics from that period – The Glamorous Life, Wonderful Ass, We Can Fuck, G-Spot – and the album would still have catapulted him into the stratosphere. But take away the album’s intro where he describes the afterlife, or the closing crescendo where he guides us there, and it’s no longer Purple Rain. There are spiritual references throughout the album, but those two definitive moments – the spinechilling bookends – wrap it up in an embrace that must come from a profound and deeply personal place. It’s no accident they are the two songs he left blank when writing his own (unpublished) liner notes for the Hits compilation – reducing them to a pithy one liner must have seemed trite. Prince is on record saying he had a spiritual experience during the Purple Rain period. One he hasn’t talked candidly about, but it feels like he’s communicating a revelation to us here. That is the true message of Purple Rain.

Too much has been written about how Prince created it in a bid for maximum crossover success – a Stairway to Heaven for the white rock audience that had started to pay attention after Little Red Corvette. It pays tribute to rock’s power ballads, sure – he was worried it sounded too similar to one of Journey’s hits and sought their approval before release – but focusing on its whiteness is to lose sight of its blackness. Purple Rain is heavily influenced by gospel music. The electric grand piano and wordless hosannas provide the song with a spiritual intensity, drawing from Afro-American gospel roots, like Stairway to Heaven drew from Celtic folk. He’s back at the start of the album but now he’s no longer addressing the congregation. He’s addressing the one he loves. An ex-lover? His father (to whom the song gets dedicated in the film)? Is he even singing as a messiah? The lyrics are open to interpretation but on the record sleeve, an extra printed verse to Darling Nikki casts some light on the title. It reads “Sometimes the world’s a storm. One day soon the storm will pass and all will be bright and peaceful. Fearlessly bathe in the purple rain”. In 1999 he linked a purple sky with Judgement Day. The purple rain is God’s cleansing fire during the apocalypse, before the “bright and peaceful” dawn arrives. Prince opens up the heavens and recreates the moment of ascent for us poor souls trapped in our decaying meat bodies.

It was only fitting that it was the last song he performed live in concert, before ascending himself a week later. The preceding song at that show was his mournful elegy Sometimes it Snows in April. He could have left us in sorrow, but instead chose to leave us laughing in the purple rain.

34: Let’s Pretend We’re Married

1999 (1982)
You’ve probably heard how parental advisory stickers on albums were introduced after Tipper Gore caught her daughter listening to Darling Nikki, but their invention can be traced back to another Prince song and a different 11-year-old girl. In October 1983, while listening to the 1999 album with their daughter, two Cincinnati parents were so shocked by Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s lewdness that it caused them to launch a campaign against “porn rock”. This crusade was taken up by the national Parent-Teachers Association who later teamed up with Tipper’s PMRC to pressure the record industry into issuing the stickered warnings. As origin stories go, Let’s Pretend We’re Married is a much more worthy catalyst for a movement of parental pearl-clutching than the comparatively tame Darling Nikki. Both songs contain risqué opening couplets but it’s not until the f-bombs start dropping in the spoken section of Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s climax when you really hear Prince acting out the “pure sex” persona that he once told his band would be his identity. It contains what may be the most sexually explicit line he ever included on an album and if it still shocks today, imagine the effect it had on early-80s conservative America. In a way though, the track reflects the Christian values of its time. Only a culture with strict views about sex before marriage could birth a song that views marital sex as a guilt-free carnal carnival. Nowadays, we’ve been primed by comedians to associate marriage with drudgery and the idea that lovers would pretend to be husband and wife in order to “go all night” sounds more absurd than the reverse scenario – a married couple spicing up their lovelife by roleplaying a one-night-stand. Even back then it was more usual to have songs like Babooshka and Escape (The Piña Colada Song) with lyrics about marriages chasing the thrill of the forbidden. Prince flipping this message into forbidden sex chasing the thrill of marriage is more subversive to us today than any four-letter outburst. Only Prince could make the concept of marriage sound perverted. It’s the polar opposite of John Cooper Clarke’s view that getting married is like having your sexual relationship ratified by the police. Establishment approval has never been as desirable as forbidden fruit, which incidentally is also the reason why the parental advisory warnings that Let’s Pretend We’re Married and Darling Nikki outraged into existence inevitably failed. As Ice T rapped on Freedom of Speech, “the sticker on the record is what makes ‘em sell gold”. If that couple in Cincinnati really wanted to stop kids from listening to the album they should have instead focused on the song’s closing lines and fought for a sticker that read “parental approval, religious content”.

35: I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
On the 34th anniversary of the album recording of I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, the estate released a remastering of the original demo to promote its placement on the forthcoming Sign o’ the Times box set. A surprising element of this previously unheard recording is how the singer’s refusal to “take the place of your man” only lasts until the final chorus when he relents, adding “…but I’ll try, yeah, I’ll sure as hell try”. Probably a bigger surprise though is how this fully-fledged song from 1979 didn’t crop up on his second or third album. It could have slotted seamlessly into Dirty Mind but maybe Prince always had bigger plans and had to wait until his technical chops matched his vision. In 1986 he ditched the song’s new wave garb for a technicolour coat of country, rock, blues and 60s pop, woven with intricate strands of electric and acoustic guitar, and brocaded with handclaps. Everything is held together by the hi-hat that doesn’t let up, even throughout the extended blues coda which helps keep the listener tantrically charged and biting their bottom lip for a third of the song, on the edge of an explosion that finally comes at the six-minute mark when the main refrain returns with a bullet and a scream. Given the lyrics’ original ending, could this be the point in the story where he gives in to the woman’s advances? In later acoustic renditions, such as on the Musicology and Piano and a Microphone tours, I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man remains a firm refusal of a rebound romance. But now I hear the quiet section on the album version as the singer steeling his nerve and shoring up his reserves of will power before his defences finally crumble in a scream of pent-up passion. I’m just glad that he changed the opening line from the intial draft. Keen eyes may have spotted in the handwritten lyrics (released by the estate on the same day as the demo) Prince originally opened with the line “She was only fifteen…” before crossing it out and replacing it with “It was only last June”. The music video with Cat, taken from the Sign o’ the Times movie, could have had a very different vibe indeed.

36: Lady Cab Driver

1999 (1982)
Do you know that Watchmen comic panel which became a meme? The one of Dr Manhattan on Mars saying he’s tired of Earth, people and being caught in the tangle of their lives. That’s Prince in his taxicab solitude. He’s doing exactly what he said he would do in Annie Christian, and using taxis as a transitory, liminal space to retreat into and shelter from the world’s evils. It’s his coping mechanism for fleeing trouble-winds. But he’s not alone in this escape pod and it soon becomes the setting for one of his fantasy conquests, like The Ballad of Dorothy Parker or Darling Nikki, where redemption is delivered via a sexual encounter with a stranger. I say it’s the setting but presumably when we start hearing the bed-springs we’ve left the cab and are at the nameless driver’s “mansion” after she accepted his fare in tears. Or could this sexual fantasy be playing out in the passenger’s mind while he’s still in the back seat, drifting off to the bass-led funk of the cab’s engine? When this section starts three minutes in, Prince’s vocals, previously drained of any emotion other than ennui, suddenly flare up with Yeats’ lust and rage. Jill Jones’ pleasured moans accompany the sound of Prince thrusting out his anger on subjects including jealousy of his half-brother Duane, politicians, discrimination, greed, Yosemite Sam (?!) and, to pick up his theme from Sexuality, Disneyland tourists. Once he hits his stride, he mellows and starts dedicating each thrust to the creator of man, heavenly bodies, and those Disneyland tourists again. He eventually remembers his manners and addresses the woman he’s having sex with – a dedication which, in a lightning-quick scaling of Diotima’s ladder gets expanded out to women in general, and then to platonic love. Prince’s final tribute is to the wind, as he now recognises the cold trouble-winds of the first verse and chorus as the motivating force propelling him onward. Like Dr Manhattan, a sexual partner has helped him reach an epiphany in his solitude. He realises life isn’t something he should be trying to escape from. “This galaxy’s better than not having a place to go” he concludes and we’re returned to the gentle pace of the opening section, now with seagulls and seven chimes of a clock. Could this be the new dawn? Welcome bursts of guitar follow which unfortunately do not spiral out of control and drown out the rest of the track like it does in its initial template: the posthumously released Rearrange. That wouldn’t have fit the narrative of an existensial crisis averted but given the choice of listening to turmoil or inner peace, I would pick turmoil every time. Plus, it beats trying to work out what the sound of a mouth gargle and a trumpeting elephant represent.

37: The Cross

Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Prince’s art rock masterpiece The Cross starts simply: a gentle two-chord strumalong, an occasional sitar-sounding flourish and Prince’s voice naked (except for some reverb) just as God intended. A drum joins in at the end of the second verse, a militant beat on the one and three to sound the procession of a soul heading towards its saviour. And at the song’s halfway point they meet. At Prince’s signal he unleashes heaven. A guitar drone explodes into life, the drums rock out and three of the four verses are repeated again with blazing intensity. With no chorus to provide any release, the tension increases until the final two lines where his vocals no longer stand alone before God and now swell with the sound of a thousand souls in transcendental rapture. It’s the redemption promised in The Ladder and delivered in Purple Rain, only this time without the shroud of poetry. It’s not his first song with a straighforward and unapologetic Christian message. However, tracks like God and 4 the Tears in Your Eyes were kept away from his albums. Prince recited the Lords prayer in Controversy and told us Jesus is coming in Let’s Go Crazy and (albeit backwards) in Darling Nikki but those felt like messages slipped through the back door. I Would Die 4 U came close but hid behind a messiah complex and was muddied by being the words of his father both off-screen and on. The message of The Cross is inescapable – don’t die without knowing Christ – and its symbolism is plucked straight from the Gospels. The title uses the most instantly recognisable Christian symbol and the line “there’ll be bread for all of us” nods to Jesus’s second miracle, a reference within the grasp of most primary schoolers. A little more esoterically, “ghettos to the left of us and flowers to the right” uses a traditional biblical metaphor of dividing people into sinners on the left and the blessed on the right, as described by Matthew (25:33). This has been depicted in art since medieval times, with crucifiction scenes usually placing to Jesus’s right the penitent thief whom he saves (Luke 23:43), while the unrepentent thief is placed to his left. The problem of this by-the-book symbolism is that The Cross was less flexible to roll with changes in Prince’s faith. At an awards show in 1998 he introduced a renamed version called The Christ, while lecturing us about the Jehovahs Witness belief that a single stake of wood was used in the crucifiction instead of the mistranslated cross. As he would later find when he renamed Sexuality, fans didn’t appreciate this messing with the classics. It was easier when he used his own symbolism as that didn’t need updating to reflect the dogma du jour. Larry Graham was not going to pull Prince to one side and tell him his views on the de-elevator were off-doctrine. Personally, I don’t care if it’s The Cross or The Christ, as for me the power of the song doesn’t lie in its lyrics or message. The true power is hearing the mindblowing sonic effect of Prince finally accepting into his life the Velvet Underground.

38: When You Were Mine

Dirty Mind (1980)
Where did Prince write When You Were Mine? Sources vary, although all agree he wrote it in a hotel room during the Rick James tour. Prince’s draft of the The Hits’ liner notes place the hotel in North Carolina, yet the published notes say it was written in Florida while the rest of the band were at Disney World. Fink concurs with this story but in an 1997 interview Prince said he wrote it in Birmingham, Alabama after listening to John Lennon. It could have been worked on across all three states, or memories of hotel rooms have blurred into one. What’s more important is its psychological location. As Prince wrote in his liner notes: “this was not a happy period.” He was stuck on a stressful tour that he was only doing for exposure, bumping egos with the headliner and (early on) dealing with some antagonistic audiences. Therefore the Florida story is the most illustrative. His band unwound from tour pressures by taking in a theme park, while Prince retreated into his music and created his own magical kingdom. When You Were Mine is pop perfection. A new wave nirvana. Shelter from the grey, tedious messy world by climbing inside a bubblegum palace where being cheated on has never sounded so good. Because the Dirty Mind album reinvented Prince as a sexual taboo breaker, critics often peg When You Were Mine as a song about a menage a trois. But I think that’s relying too much on one surely-metaphorical line. There wasn’t somebody literally sleeping between them. The singer was simply aware he was being two-timed and didn’t make a fuss about it, but now that his girlfriend has left him for the other man he loves her even more and begins following them around. It’s more a song about stalking than threesomes but, like Every Breath You Take, you don’t notice because it’s shiny, happy radio nectar. Unbelievably, it was never released as a commercial single but it was the b-side to Controversy and found a second life through a parade of cover versions. The first one, by the British band Bette Bright & The Illuminations, arrived the year after Dirty Mind was released. Two more appeared before Cyndi Lauper recorded what would become the best known cover. In January 1985, she released her version as a single, allowing When You Were Mine to finally roam the happy hunting ground of mainstream daytime radio. At the dawn of the 80s Prince spun gold out of tour-misery straw, but it wasn’t until the midpoint of the decade that somebody dazzled the market with its brilliance.

39: Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)

1999 (1982)
When Prince called Darling Nikki “the coldest song ever written” he had obviously forgotten about Something In The Water (Does Not Compute). This ice-plunge into loneliness and alienation can be found in the middle of Prince’s coldest album, sandwiched between Automatic’s tears and the cool healing zephyr of Free. A depth where even those space-surviving water bears fear to tread. Other than Prince’s voice, the only sounds you hear are a shivering Linn drum, minor synth chords and Prince’s logic board bleeping unsatisfactorily as it fails to compute why every girl treats him so bad. His internal computer will eventually concede that its faulty programming is to blame, but that’s for the next album’s more introspective Computer Blue. For now, contaminated drinking water is the best answer it can grasp at. The ‘original’ version of Something in the Water (posthumously released on 1999 Deluxe) provides an interesting insight into how the song progressed. This first take was a fuller composition with bass and piano and though still powerful, isn’t quite as chilling as the one he re-recorded, where he strips the instruments out and leaves in their place a howling void and a piercing scream that emits from the iron core of his being like a death ray of despair. Few screams in his catalogue match it. And after he delivers it, where can you go from there? Like in Do Me, Baby he’s left depleted. You hear a spat curse and then a mic knock (on what sounds like the phrase ‘second coming’) as Prince stumbles towards the exit, mumbling semi-incoherently. It will take a couple of tracks before he regains the energy to try and flee this desolation with the help of a lady cab driver.