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.
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 reheasal 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
When the author Vladimir Nabakov was asked about his novels’ beastly characters, he replied that they were outside his inner-life like the monsters on a cathedral facade, placed there merely to show the demons that have been booted out. Prince uses Camille in a similar way. His gender-fluid alter-ego is not just a pitchshifted voice, it is a vehicle for Prince to exorcise his dark thoughts, or at least launder them into art he can share with the world without the cognitive dissonance of endorsing the message with his birth name. Strange Relationship is one those song dredged up from the darker recesses of his pysche that has its lead vocals attributed to Camille, but it was written years before that character was born. First recorded in 1983, the song’s lyrics portray a relationship that’s more sadistic and unhealthy than strange. Jill Jones has said Prince wrote it about Vanity after he became jealous of her seeing other people – feelings he also channelled into the deceptively viscous Wonderful Ass (although Wendy believes Susannah was the muse for that one). To me, Strange Relationship sounds like the darker cousin to When You Were Mine, where this time the green-eyed monster isn’t fanning the flames of love but instead causing them to emit a toxic smoke that’s captivating to watch dance. The ghost of a sitar synth haunts the background – traces of the time it was in Wendy and Lisa’s care before their involvement was whitewashed out post-Revolution – while a monotonous beat gets a kick out of doing you cold. The effect is beautiful yet sinister, like a young Imelda Marcos. Unlike Wonderful Ass, this song refused to be banished to the vault. It made it onto three abandoned albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) and the same amount of released ones (Sign o’ the Times, One Night Alone… Live!, Piano and a Microphone 1983). It also appeared on a couple of concert home videos and performed live regularly up to and including his final tour. Out of all the intricate gargoyles adorning Prince’s palace, Strange Relationship is the one whose troubled gaze you couldn’t escape.
The utter ridiculousness of creating this ranked list comes into sharper focus when I have to consider songs like this. How can you compare this reservoir of loss, this reminder of grief, next to the sheer funk lunacy of Sexy MF or iconic spectacle of Purple Rain? It’s like ranking emotions. All are part of the full kaleidoscopic experience of life and should be embraced, not compared with each other and found wanting. But it’s too late to question the premise now. Sometimes it Snows in April was much loved before Prince left this realm but has become imbued with a new metaphysical aura since. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy writes about the date of Tess’s death being “a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there.” Tess is frustrated at not knowing what she considers to be the most important date in her life. When you find out that Prince’s recorded his mournful requiem on 21 April 1985, the pre-anniversary of his own passing, you wonder if he, at least on some level, knew his? The song was written years before – at one point it was on the tracklisting for his debut album – but something compelled him to go into the studio on that particular calendar date and put it to tape. Prosaic answers seem inadequate. It was his first week back in the studio after wrapping up a five-month tour, plus he had already alluded to the song earlier that month by using the phrase “sometimes it snows in April” in a released statement saying he was quitting live performing. If, as has been suggested, Christopher Tracy is a coded name for Christ, Prince may have pulled the title out of storage around this time because of a controversy surrounding the final show of his tour, the one said to be his last for “an indefinite period of time” (although in actuality only two months). Local religious groups were outraged that this concert had been moved to Easter Sunday and the resulting news coverage may have reawakened Prince’s own Easter elegy and caused it to became one of the first songs worked on when back in the studio later that month. It’s just a coincidence that the dates match. But the song seems too powerful for mere coincidences. We weave myths to make sense of the irrational but unfortunately Sometimes it Snows in April will always be a reminder of the inexplicable: a Princeless world.
Prince’s debut ran over budget and over time, so with his second album he was eager to show Warner Bros he wasn’t a boy trying to do a man’s job. No messing around with experimental intricate acapella workouts to kick things off this time around. A single drum hit to get your attention and then it’s straight to the best hook he had in his bag. Boom. A glorious disco strut to the face. Lead single. Point made. I Wanna Be Your Lover is primed for the airwaves – sleek pop but with a cheeky wink behind the radio controller’s back via that suggestive pause in the chorus. Here on the album, as soon as he clocks up a radio-edit’s worth of vocals, Prince drops the mic and allows the song to bloom into a funk-disco instrumental for the track’s remaining majority – like the previous album’s Just As Long We’re Together but without the hunched shoulders. That clenched era’s gone. There’s now space in his grooves to climb inside. To roam free and lose baggage in. Without vocals, he gives us an unencumbered view of this majestic expanse so that he’s certain the new Prince – more confident, less over-thinking – isn’t lost on us and then he hits us with the second single immediately after, mindful of his mission to make a quick impression. That in turn is followed by another single on the third track. He’s determined to win us over. We’re being courted and it’s all too easy to believe him when he tells us he wants to be our lover, brother, mother and sister too. Yet, according to Prince’s original liner notes for The Hits compilation, the actual target of those proto-If I Was Your Girlfriend lyrics is the jazz musician Patrice Rushen, who had helped him with the synth programming on his first album. He had a crush on her at the time and reveals that not only is the song about her, but it was also originally recorded as a demo for her. He either changed his mind or she turned it down, but a couple of years later she sent him Forget Me Nots with her sole crossover hit bearing more than a passing resemblence to his intended gift. Luckily, for whatever reason he kept I Wanna Be Your Lover for himself and it became his foothold to the next strata of fame. It was his first proper hit. His first music video. His first TV performance. The world was beginning to wake up to Prince and superstar-dom would soon come… running.
At the start of the 90s, Prince’s new favourite hang out – his Glam Slam club – exposed him to a lot of hip hop, which started to have an effect on the music he was making. He told Spike Lee in 1997 that AMG’s Bitch Betta Have My Money was the biggest club song during this period and he heard it so much he got “swayed by the current”. The month it was released, Prince went into the studio and recorded Sexy MF, a swaggering party track pumped full of testosterone, but with a message that “this ain’t about sex, it’s all about love” – a rap more ballsy than AMG’s tired pimp porn. Any rapper can cosplay a pimp but it takes real bravado to split from the herd and spit bars about not being ready for a sexual relationship. Sexy MF was written while Prince was courting but not yet sleeping with Mayte, who was then 17 years old. He was speaking to her via his music, and as the opening lines of The Morning Papers tell us and her: “he realized that she was new 2 love, naive in every way… that’s why he had 2 wait”. With its explicit chorus and off-brief Harlem Nights-quoting verse by Tony M, the sexual abstinance theme may not be immediately obvious, but Prince’s verses make clear that until they’re ready “to take that walk” he’s drawing the line at a “hug and a kiss”. Sexy MF’s video however walks back the sentiment. Prince writhing in a hotel room threesome, while singing to a fourth girl he’s led up to his room seems to bury the personal message under MTV clickbait (or whatever the offline equivilent word is) – although in this case he actually refrained from giving the video to the music channel, instead selling it direct to fans. I guess with the song having already imparted its message to his future wife, and away from the confines of the concept album where it sits with Love 2 the 9s as an audition for the Egyptian Princess Arabia before their relationship progresses to the next stage, Sexy MF is free from having to adhere to internal logic. Give the paying fans what they want: sex scenes, a topless Prince and comic thrusts of a gold gun microphone between his legs. And who’s paying attention to the verses anyway when the music is this funky? According to keyboardist Tommy Barbarella “it was recorded in about 20 minutes” and he hated his organ solo but Prince wouldn’t let him fix him it. The last album, Diamonds and Pearls, suffered from over-production so here on the first band-recording for the follow-up, Prince made sure he captured the spontaneity, resulting in the most James Brown thing he’s recorded since he reworked the Godfather’s Gravity for 1987’s It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night. While the hip hop world was scouring the founding father of funk’s back catalogue for loops, Prince had a band that could pump them out, royalty free.
The Hits 1 (1993)
Anna Fantastic isn’t the only person claiming to be the inspiration for Pink Cashmere, but she is the muse for whom it will always be associated. She first heard it in 1988 on her 18th birthday, playing in the background of Prince’s house when he gave her a personalised coat of pink cashmere and black mink, along with a cassette of a different song he had written for her called Anna Waiting. She recalls she never recieved a copy of Pink Cashmere, recorded six months previously, and a little over a year later she left his orbit, not hearing the song again until it appeared on her radio out of the blue in 1993 – a single to promote his forthcoming Hits compilation. This greatest hits package included Pink Cashmere as one of four ‘new’ songs, all four beginning with the same letter. Unintended coincidence? Or a flex to show how much unreleased music he has in the vault that he only need open the P drawer? Whether there were other girls and other coats (Carmen Elektra claims to have one) is a matter for the gossip hounds but there is one important person to whom we know Prince gave the song after Anna left Minneapolis – the composer Clare Fischer, who annointed it with orchestral strings, gracing it with a class that the actual coat could never attain. His involvement starts subtly – dipping in and out of crystal blue rock-pools of acoustic guitar and drum machine. A playful ballet. As the track builds, the choreography intesifies and towards the end the orchestra find a new dance partner in the arrival of Prince’s axe. When the electric guitar and strings begin diving in and out of each other, they become the warp and weft of a loom weaving the greatest ballad this side of Adore. A tapestry to make Athena herself jealous. Maybe it’s out of goddess spite that Pink Cashmere was never given a proper home. It was considered for both the abandoned Rave Unto the Joy Fantasic album and Grafitti Bridge, but instead had to live in the shop window of The Hits and the Spike Lee playlist of Girl 6. Even the single bombed, with the newly-nameless Prince refusing to get behind his old material. For further ignominy, a reggae remix was made – a true abomination of a track, which I refuse to believe he’s behind but if so it was surely an act of sabotage. Luckily this monstrosity was never released commercially. Maybe Pink Cashmere’s greatest insult was to see a pastiche, Beck’s (admittedly great) Debra, become more well known and loved, despite not even being released as a single. Because I never play the compilations, Pink Cashmere sits in storage, rarely touched, but on days like today when I remember, I pull it out and marvel at the handiwork. Here I go again, falling in love all over. I wonder if Anna does the same to the coat. Although, having seen the photos, probably not. I’m sure it’s a treasured memento and all, but let’s just say the garment doesn’t share the song’s timeless appeal.
Let’s Pretend We’re Married single (1983) / The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
Did Prince believe he invented rap with Irresistable Bitch? One of his recording engineers quoted him as saying so, but even if he never made this unfeasible claim about something written two years after Rapper’s Delight, he did namecheck the song in an interview to puff up his hip hop credentials. You can see his point. Irresistible Bitch shares territory with hip hop, not due to any bandwagon jumping, but as the result of a convergence of styles he was experimenting with at the time. The beat’s emphasis on bass and drums was a product of the Cloreen Bacon Skin improvisation that also birthed The Time track Tricky, and the half-spoken lyrics continued a style he used on All the Critics Love U in New York and Lady Cab Driver. He forged his own path there and the song later became part of rap history when it became his first to be sampled on a hip hop record. Admittedly, his next two singles were appropriated first – When Doves Cry and Erotic City inspired 1984’s When Doves Cry Rapp and Erotic Rapp, but to my knowledge the first actual sample (ie. not an interpolation) was Irresistible Bitch’s bell-like synth hit, that cropped up on electro records in 1985, before Rick Rubin used it later that year on LL Cool J’s Dangerous. Hip hop had started to embrace Prince and he returned the love with a genuine rap track: Holly Rock. It’s just a shame Irresistible Bitch’s contribution to the rap canon wasn’t more than a one second sample. Despite its misogynistic and agressive-sounding title, its lyrics are suprisingly submissive. Let’s Pretend We’re Married on the A-side is much more akin to the domineering, hyper-sexualised tide that hip hop would begin to be carried away by. Who knows what strange and beautiful terrain hip hop would be in today if Irresistible Bitch had indeed invented rap.
Internet download (2001) / The Chocolate Invasion (2004)
In the midst of Prince’s conversion to his new faith, he wrote When Eye Lay My Hands On U, a song that viciously rejects the idea of an eternal afterlife by describing sex as “the only forever we’ll both obtain, the only joy in this forsaken game”. This blasphemy (which he belatedly attempts to cover up with a “god forbid” disclaimer the second time around) is a cathartic counter-attack of raw sexual energy, the bark of a wild dog refusing to be leashed, and is why Prince warns us in the opening line that his message is “not meant for transmission”. Welcome to his long dark night of the soul where a challenger for the title of one true God steps forth as the primordial Eros – not the nuetered Eros of later poetry, the mischievous son of Aphrodite whom the Roman’s renamed Cupid, but the awesome elemental power that the Greek poet Hesiod described as the most beautiful of all the deathless gods. This divine loosener of limbs enters the arena and teases X-rated lyrics out of Prince, causing him to spin a tale of foreplay that culminates in an homage to the Santana song Europa. This results in what may be the most sensual guitar-playing he has ever committed to tape, but behind the sensuality lies a violent clash of swords. Prince once said he doesn’t feel sexy when he plays guitar, he feels angry. Here we hear him furiously shredding his sexual frustration with every sinew of his body, resisting being ordained by Eros’s intoxicating power, and in the process creating a tender tabernacle for his new Lord to step into. By the end, a defeated Eros crawls back into his demoted role as chubby cherub of the Renaissance and an ashamed Prince buries this profane lapse of lust in a place that only NPG Music Club members could access – first as a download, and then three years later on a compilation which, to date, still hasn’t seen a physical release. In 2009, with the battle for his soul comfortably behind him, Prince relaxed his view that the song’s message “should only be accessed in the privacy of your mind” and began performing it live, most memorably as the opener to his Montreaux appearances, where he skips over the blasphemous line in the first show, but in his second appearance summons the courage to scream it to the sky. The crowd melts when his seduction reaches its apex, the point where his fingers reach the cap stone and the Santana solo is unleashed to mark the explosion of ecstasy, but to those listening carefully they may hear, behind its bars, the beautiful torturous screams of a banished god.
Unreleased (1986) / Crystal Ball (1998)
The Crystal Ball liner notes mention that Movie Star was created for The Time. Of course it was. It’s the most Morris Day thing Prince has ever written, including everything on the first three Time albums. There’s just one problem: he recorded it two years after The Time broke up, and at a point when him and Morris weren’t exactly on speaking terms. With that relationship on ice, Prince had lost the main outlet for a very particular part of his psyche. But like a breastfeeding mother, he still needed to express to prevent a leak. He had just shot a movie where he had tapped into that part of him by playing a gigolo with Morris’s ex valet as sidekick, but conversely that only made the urge to purge worse, as being the lead in your own feature film is hardly a tonic for narcissism – so, as soon as he got his new home studio up and running, he recorded Movie Star, a goofy portayal of the vain side of his personality to readdress the balance and prevent him from taking himself too seriously. Therefore, his message in Crystal Ball is misdirection. Movie Star wasn’t created for The Time, but for his ego-projection that he had previously cast onto the band’s frontsman. No one was around to play this character from his psyche so he takes on the role himself – a role you can tell is intended to be a version of Prince because he namechecks his own head of security, Gilbert – someone no other star would be getting “free reign” from. He just wants you to think it was written for Morris because he wants daylight between the song’s comic persona and his Prince brand. But distancing himself from it didn’t stop Movie Star being a hit with fans. The Crystal Ball liner notes tell us the track is D’Angelo’s favourite bootleg. It’s Questlove’s too, who only placed it behind Baby I’m a Star in a top ten list of Prince songs he gave Rolling Stone magazine. Not a bad legacy for a song that, if we’re continuing the breastfeeding metaphor, was recorded as a pump and dump. It was never performed live and although it was briefly considered for the Dream Factory project, it was shelved for 12 years having already served its purpose as comic relief to prick the ego. Luckily, in a bid to stick one to the bootleggers, the song finally saw a release on Crystal Ball in 1998 with a new Jam of the Year intro. This may have awakened something dormant within him, because a year later he laced up the character’s size-six Stacy Adams once more and stepped out as Prettyman.
Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Prince pursues his Hot Thing over forbidden waters, in a cold drum-machine patrol boat that leaves capsized ships in its wake. His vessel is stripped back and hydrodynamically honed for the hunt. Laser sights locked on. Cruise control engaged. It’s all too easy. Then a stowaway is discovered on board – Eric Leeds with a rogue saxophone that begins to jam the precision technology and threatens to lose the chase. The devil’s horn, wild and organic, turns the sea’s white caps into galloping horses. Fifty Nereids glide under the surface. Spume and spray soak the deck. Luckily Prince knows how to harness this untethered, unpredictable spirit and tames it with freestyle incantations of his own (a scat taught to him by the Coco Boys). By the end of the track the saxophone is at heel and responding to attack commands. It’ll be utilised again on their next voyage – the extended mix – but this time the underlying tension and conflict will be replaced by Sugar Walls sea shanties.
Art Official Age (2014)
I humbly offer you my reading of the Art Official Age album. In its opening track, Mr Nelson’s class are told in Danish that they “have to do something that will change [their] life forever: open this cage.” He wants them to find the knowledge that will free them from the imprisoning illusion of the phenomenal world. The keys to unlock Maya. Morpheus’s red pill. Bill Hick’s rollercoaster. This threatens the power structures invested in the illusion and we hear the teacher being waterboarded, interrogated and finally losing consciousness as track 1 ends HAL 9000 style. Cut to 45 years in the future and Mr Nelson is woken up in a “brand new age” by an agent who says she’s there to help him but the way her voice glitches on that phrase makes you wonder. A breakdown follows as he acclimatises to this “place that doesn’t require time”. He learns about the new standard of funk and re-experiences old feelings of desire, love and heartbreak which he sloughs off like a snake shedding its skin. Solve et coagula. He’s now ready to receive the affirmation that “there are no such words as me or mine”. This leads to the epiphany of Way Back Home and the realisation all he ever really wanted was to return to the all embracing oneness of the universe. Away from ego and concept of self. He tried doing this in the past with apocalyptic funk’n’roll partying and sex, but this obliteration of self was only momentary. A brief respite from the alienation he was feeling. He now sees that time isn’t linear and understands he is “everything and anything [he] can think of”. The agent, now speaking telepathically, leaves him with the words “there really is only one destination and that is you, all of it is you”. The border separating himself and the cosmos dissolves. He has found his Way Back Home and the song reappears to see us out. And if you have the album on loop, the next words you’ll hear are Mr Nelson welcoming you home and telling you “you’ve come a long way”. Time is circular. Rinse. Repeat.
How do you write about Kiss? Kiss is Kiss. It eludes deconstruction. It evades pinning down. Instead you usually hear of the track’s gestation – the oft-told journey to Mazerati and back. An interesting back story but one that fails to capture the song’s sparse oddness. The Hits liner notes attest to its out-of-placeness, describing the track as both weird and strange, and how Prince thought it never quite worked on the Parade album. It was a late addition to the tracklist and the only one he chose not to send to Clare Fischer for orchestration. He wasn’t happy with how it sounded live either, constantly switching up the arrangement but never able to satisfyingly replace or recreate the gated acoustic guitar (the one from his original demo) that makes up the bulk of the track. Yet, like the sculptors Rodin and Brancusi before him, Prince’s totem to the humble kiss is considered some of his best-known and well-loved work. Its ubiquity, as I wrote about Alphabet St, prevents you from noticing its kook anymore. You no longer hear its disparate elements: the three-chord blues; the minimal dead beat; the James Brown turnarounds plucked straight out of papa’s new bag. It all fits together as a glorious whole and can’t be altered without the magic falling apart. If you want to hear how it could have sounded, head to the extended mix where the second half is a far cry from the usual Marie Kondo approach. Bass, synths, tomtoms and horns all get thrown in – discarded experiments that have been tucked away in the 12″ like the tangle of electrical cables and sticky tape stashed in your dad’s odds-and-ends drawer. If this is how he puts to use your extra time then I’d request it back. It ends in discord as Jill and Prince roleplay a couple arguing over the tv channel. A distraction to make you forget the vandalised rainbow you just experienced. There’s a reason why KISS is a common acronym to keep it simple, stupid. At the other end of the scale lies the acoustic demo, a minute-long cloud of an idea. Divine breath lacking the mortal clay that Mazarati’s producer David Z would provide. In between these poles, stands the Kiss that became a leitmotif, appearing on almost every Prince tour since its arrival and repeatedly referenced up until the sample kissing us farewell on his final album’s Stare. Now Kiss’s role is to echo down the ages, greeting and beckoning in newcomers at the gates of Prince’s vast domain.
During my first week learning to snowboard, I went to a festival on top of a mountain. Afterwards, I had the option of either taking the ski-lift down or doing my first black run. I was young, foolish and bullet-proof and never even contemplated taking the safe, sensible option. As soon as my snowboard pointed down the slope I realised my error. Everyone was leaving at the same time and it was so crowded I didn’t have the experience to stop or slow down without taking out the person to the left or right of me. As I hurtled through the melee of people, my conscious mind was so focused on avoiding a collision that it no longer concerned itself with remembering basic technique or unhelpful feelings like worry or panic. It was laser-focused on whatever fate threw my way at increasing speeds. I felt an exhilaration I’ve never felt since. This is what Lovesexy is to me: a gleeful surrender to the present moment. I’ve always found the highlights of Prince’s best songs are the points where he sounds like he’s lost control. The emotional breakdown in The Beautiful Ones; the unravelling desperation at the end of If I Was Your Girlfriend; the blurting out and immediate retraction of smashing up his ride in Adore. However, with Lovesexy it’s less a loss of restraint – an artist letting his emotions run away with him for his art, before carefully corralling them back under control – and more like a complete submission to an ego-obliterating higher power. What part of his life is he revealing to us here? It’s a poorly-kept secret that a bad experience with an ecstasy tablet caused him to pull the Black Album. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to hear him glorify the drug in Superfunkycalifragisexy under the euphemism ‘squirrelmeat’ and he presumably didn’t want that on his conscience. Instead he released his ‘gospel album’ that told you to say no to any drug other than God. The ecstasy incident is most noticeably alluded to on Anna Stesia, where it’s retold as a battle for his soul between the devil (Spooky Electric) and God, culminating in the epiphany that ‘God is Love’ saving him from the numbness of his vices. He appears to reaffirm this divine message in the liner notes where he introduces the title track by defining Lovesexy as “the feeling you get when you fall in love… not with a boy or or a girl but with the heavens above”. However this could be an attempt to recalibrate the balance after the song itself careers wildly into uncontrollable lust, getting increasingly more sexually explicit after Cat’s vari-speed vocals morph into Prince’s Camille voice: a switcheroo that gives me goosebumps every time. The track deliberately blurs the lines between sex and divine love. Both involve a submission of self. A surrender of ego. And it’s in this overlap that Prince paints his concept of Lovesexy. But he’s painting with colours made newly available to him via narcotic means. Lovesexy is the ride before the crash. The acceleration from which there’s no gentle return to Earth. It’s not the everlasting high with no side-effects that Alphabet St paints it as. But the comedown is for later. On the mountain, as I zipped in and out of people, I thought I’d finally ‘got’ snowboarding. I hadn’t. I wasn’t in control. The only way I was stopping was by crashing, which luckily happened without taking anybody else out. It hurt. But I don’t remember the pain. I only remember the blissful surrender to forces beyond my control that preceded it. And if I had the talent of Prince I would have created a track like Lovesexy to memorialise it. Right now the feeling makes him want to dance and want to cry. All in life becomes easier, no question is unresolved. There may be trouble ahead but while’s there’s music, and moonlight, and love, and race cars burning rubber in your pants, let’s face the music and dance.
The Rainbow Children (2001)
If you’re wondering about the title, it describes the ‘theocratic order’ which means any relationship with Prince has to also include God. The Pharoah is implanting this equation in his lover’s mind during her post-coital snooze, shortly before the Banished Ones (introduced in track 3), surround the palace but get chased off by the Rainbow Children, setting up the destruction of the Digital Garden and allowing the ensuing marriage between the Pharoah and Muse that brings closer the arrival of the Everlasting Now. Are you keeping up? Its slightly more complex than the last maths equation Prince used as a song title which was basically him tallying up his band members’ breasts. Like the rest of the album though, you don’t need to follow the narrative to enjoy the music and for me 1+1+1 is 3 is not only an album highlight but one of the last great funk tracks he released. It’s up there with that other 4-digit freak-out, 3121. Two studio tracks that also saw a live release that sounds mediocre in comparison. The One Night Alone version of 1+1+1 is 3 is missing all the off-kilter elements that make the track special: the sped-up guitar, the manic keys, the harmonica, but I’m sensing Camille’s voice is like Samson’s hair. There’s only a small amount of it in this song but once it’s cut all power is lost.
In 2004 Prince brought Michael B and Sonny T back into the studio for the first time since the Chaos and Disorder sessions. In a single, short creative burst they recorded the bulk of the Lotusflower album, some of Planet Earth and Prince’s last great title track: 3121. Within seconds of 3121′s opening bars you know the track’s in safe hands. The power duo forge a solid funk base that allows Prince freedom to really embrace his freak side and indulge in a level of goofing around not seen since the Emancipation album. Effects pedals are in full force. Horn synths bang out a big band solo. And most importantly, Michael B and Sonny T aren’t the only ones brought out of storage: Camille’s back baby! Other than a small cameo on 1+1+1 is 3 (and arguably a couple of tracks on the Slaughterhouse album) we hadn’t heard any new material from the pitch-shifted hermaphrodite since the 80s, a hibernation verging on the criminal. Camille’s vocals are sadly missing from live recordings and without them the beat, previously futuristic funk from an undersea city, gets reduced to the steady workhorse backing for a collection of ragtime numbers or a talkbox effect that fails to ignite the same flames as Prince singing through an effects pedal. On Indigo Nights Prince has to throw DMSR over the top to maintain the crowd’s interest. It’s fine for a stadium opener, but it’s no aftershow in Atlantis.
If Prince’s Bambi was on the Disney+ channel it would be flagged with their warning: “may contain outdated cultural depictions”. Modern ears may find the song problematic and it’s not like the graphic last line was ever in taste, but it should all be taken in the context of the character Prince plays. Yet again he’s playing the role of a sexually-frustrated egomaniac thwarted by unattainable love. And if it’s good enough for Ellen, who asked him to perform it on her show in 2004, it’s good enough for me. Plus it helps that, to quote Dez Dickerson, Bambi is a “pure Hendrixian guitar-fest”. A fire hound of rock, without the glossy coat of I’m Yours but fulfilling the same basic function: a snarling tearing-to-pieces of the album’s pigeonhole-ification. Later, along with the ballad, he would bend and remodel the genre into something new. But here at the tail-end of the 70s he’s summoning up every teen moment spent listening to Jimi – every moment in front of a mirror, miming chopping down a mountain with the side of his hand – and ejecting it with the force of every Jimmy Page solo played at once. In live shows it became less a song, and more just an excuse to unleash the axe. His Rock and Roll Hall of Fame passport. The mid-90s live version on the Undertaker album is just a single withered verse/chorus amid a raging ocean of heavy metal shredding and we don’t get that often enough from Prince. We know he can sing and write so well, but sometimes you just want to hear him play the guitar like he’s ringing a bell. A bell to breach Jericho’s walls.
Dirty Mind (1980)
The first 15 seconds of Dirty Mind are Prince’s heartbeat at rest. The base level of funk that pulses through him when his mind is clear of all thoughts. Then Dr Fink plugs in. His synth riff arrives as the first official non-lyrical collaboration on a Prince record. A Van Halen-esque rock fanfare announcing the expansion of Prince’s universe. Only Chris Moon has shared a co-writing credit before (for the lyrics to Soft & Wet) but this is the first time Prince has acknowledged that the music wasn’t entirely ‘produced, arranged, composed and performed’ by himself. It came about during a rehearsal jam where a chord progression Fink was toying with scored him an invite back to Prince’s house to turn it into a new song. The keyboard player was dismissed in the early evening and by morning Dirty Mind was born, both as the song and the direction of his third album. A new Prince was created that night – probably the most important out of all of his between-album metamorphoses. His naked vulnerability got replaced by a seedy flasher mac and a ‘rude boy’ badge, two symbols that will feature on his next three album covers, showing the endurance of his lewd new sexuality. The song starts off tentatively. His vocals are low; his kick-drum and bass-synth chug along like they’re sizing up the alien element caught in their web. Cautiously the guitars spin their silk around the foreign body and slowly devour its essence. By the end Prince is screaming the chorus while dancing on disco’s ashes. A new funk/rock sex centaur has been born and the 80s stretches out before it, fresh as virgin snow.
In my Under the Cherry Moon entry I mentioned I’d only seen the movie once as I was hesitant to diminish a cherished memory. Since then, I’ve dared a rewatch. There was a free screening at a local street party and it turned out to be an even better environment to appraise the film. Sat on a beanbag in the middle of a road, among hardcore Prince fans who were not only mouthing the dialogue but mimicking the hand gestures too, was one of my top five moments of the year. Under the Cherry Moon is hilarious. I’d forgotten this. The film is a comedic masterpiece. But like all comedy, it works better communally. Scenes that would have been met by bemusement before – like the ‘bats’ scene –were greeted with raucous belly laughter and exchanged glances of “did you just see that!?”. I live in London, UK, where you don’t talk to your fellow rat-racer and only psychopaths make eye contact. Bonding with strangers in the middle of the street felt subversive and healthy. And the highlight of this neighbourly Prince love-in was Girls & Boys, striding in wearing debutant Eric Leeds’ joyful crown of horns. Mountains may be the stronger track but its message that there’s nothing greater than the love between two individuals didn’t capture the mood as well as Prince telling his girls and boys that we were all tres belle. We were his loving congregation revelling in the moment. Forget meeting in another world, space and joy. This one is all we have right now, regardless of whether there’s anywhere beyond the Dawn or not. Prince sung “life is precious, baby” and we nodded, realising it shouldn’t be wasted on hungering for imaginary futures, nor spent sequestered in our apartments being fed Amazon Prime packages and Netflix to distract us from the inner growing chasm that comes from being disconnected from nature, her children and the whole messy pageant of life. This is roughly the message of Goethe’s Faust, which features a great metaphor of communal love being the rainbow caused by light reflecting off multiple water droplets. There’s no denying the fiery brilliance of Girls & Boys but it can only create rainbows when we come together as spray.