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.”

74: Thieves in the Temple

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
After a bruising break-up in my early 20s, I planned to channel all my confusion and hurt into creating an artwork – a magnum opus perfectly encapsulating my pain with such exquisite detail it would cause my ex to finally realise the depths of my soul and reconsider. It was going to be titled “Me and You Could Have Been a Work of Art.” I never completed it. It never got beyond rough sketches. In my head it was a pure beacon of beauty, shimmering with fractal meanings that would, unfortunately, evaporate on contact with reality. A grandiose vision, that to start would mean to face my artistic folly. For a few days, I was Jodorowsky and it was my Dune. Memories of that time only resurface when I listen to the song from which I took the title. Thieves in the Temple is one of Prince’s incredible cenotaphs of heartbreak, written during the aftermath of his relationship with Kim Basinger. He and Kim could have been a work of art, but their break-up produced this better one. I often wonder if the song was as immaculate in his eyes as he first conceived or did he view it as what novelist Iris Murdoch called every book: “a wreck of a perfect idea”? With hindsight however, I realise being able to paint the pain with crystal clarity doesn’t help the road to recovery. The healing is in the creative process, not the outcome. Sublimating negative energy into creating art is healthy but dwelling on how the finished product will win back a love – or even worse, inspire jealousy – is not. My failure to start my hoped-for masterpiece wasn’t due to any discrepancy between an imagined ideal and its flawed execution. It stalled because I was only drawing energy from the fantasy of recalibrating a power imbalance – a fantasy that was easier to maintain when the fruits of my labour remained in my head. Even Prince, with his ability to take life’s lemons and make the world’s finest lemonade, was not immune to revelling in the thought of the effect his art would have on his subject. In the extended version of Thieves in the Temple he sings: “u done me wrong and everybody knows it / now the sound of my voice is pumpin’ in ur chest”. This is playback as payback. His later Tina-Turner-twisting boasts that he’s “the best, better than the rest” and his screams of “you lie!” sound like cathartic howls into the void, but they’re the battle weapon of a bruised ego. He wants to wound and drapes himself in imagery of Jesus at his angriest to virtue-coat that urge. The closure he sought wasn’t found in lashing out and shaking columns though. The seeds of it were found at the concert where Thieves in the Temple made its live debut. It was there he met future-wife Mayte for the first time. Love came quick. Love came in a hurry.

79: The Question of U

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Like Computer Blue, the album edit of The Question of U ditches the lyrics after a single verse/chorus and spends the remaining two-thirds of its duration wigging out in an instrumental trance. But unfortunately, unlike the Purple Rain track, there aren’t thought to be a missing ten minutes awaiting our discovery. Just a paltry 60 seconds remain in the can. Is it just me who fantasises over this swamp-funk groove being spun out to symphonic lengths with layers of melody unfolding like an operatic rose? I’ve no need for additional verses as we’ve heard similar on Under the Cherry Moon but there’s so much going on in the music it’s cruel to confine it to such cramped quarters. We need a free-range option – somewhere that can house Clare Fischer’s orchestral input that didn’t make the final cut. A fully instrumental version was later recorded with Eric Leeds and Sheila E, titled 12 keys, but lacked all the elements that make Prince’s solo composition so intriguing – squelchy bass, harpsichord synths, sultry guitar solo, cavernous handclaps from the edge of a growing void. In other words, all the elements that make The Question of U sound like an eerie ballet where Prince attempts to raise an undead army from the Seven Corners mists. I can now see why he didn’t keep the tape rolling – that would make Graffiti Bridge a very different film.

251: Still Would Stand All Time

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Debate rages on as to whether the unreleased The Grand Progression would have been a better inclusion on Graffiti Bridge. Personally, I don’t see the appeal of this outtake and keep expecting it to break out into The Monkee’s Early Morning Blues and Greens, although more than one person has told me that it’s their favourite Prince song. Still Would Stand All Time replaced The Grand Progression as the slow ballad in both the film and album, possibly because it made more narrative sense but to these ears it’s clearly the better song. The gospel touches (courtesy of the Steeles) are divine but the real power lies in the atmosphere. It feels like a frozen moment; a death-knell beat ringing out. Or possibly it mimics the slowed perception of time and prominent heartbeat of an adrenaline rush: the build-up to a high dive; the elongated pause before a winner’s announcement; an imminent marriage proposal. Then the Debussy flute samples flutter in and your heart swells with emotions you have no name for. I wasn’t always a fan. In my youth, I lumped it together with the title track as mawkish gospel schmaltz but the live aftershow version on the infamous Trojan Horse bootleg won me round – memorable for his admonishment “who’s the fool singing ‘will’? It’s ‘would’!” Now the album track soars in my estimation every time I hear it. By the time you read this, I’m probably wishing I put it amongst the double digits.

309: Elephants & Flowers

Unreleased (1988) / Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Born in the Lovesexy era, this lumbering, trumpeting celebration of all the Creator’s creations had to wait until the release of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack before it could be unleashed onto the paying public. And in it crashes like a pachyderm in a florists. The 1988 original features an elephantine bass synth that could feed a sieged city for days but is sadly buried in the mix on the album version. So much for all the talk in the updated lyrics about stripping down. This later version unfortunately also suffers from the same recording glitches heard on Tick, Tick Bang: an accidental ‘fart’ noise seven seconds from the end that somehow fits the adolescent Controversy offcut but is jarring on this scooping of sunny Lovesexy psychedelia. However, what it loses in bass and dignity it gains in finesse and sheer joy. With new screenplay-appropriate lyrics, Elephants & Flowers is an upbeat hymn pumped up on sunshine and steroids. All Creatures Great and Small (Horton Hears a Who mix).

323: Tick, Tick, Bang

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
In Graffiti Bridge this is the last song the Kid performs before the battle-winning ballad. It’s the step too far; the storm before the dawn; the rock-bottom pivot-point of the spiritual journey and it’s refreshingly brattish. Prince delved into the vault to find the perfect carnal shadow to Still Would Stand All Time and settled on this Devo-esque sketch – an ejaculate conception from his Controversy era. He re-recorded it with abrasive guitar squeals, DJ-scratches and sound-effects which break out like acne over a drum-beat lifted from Hendrix’s Little Miss Lover (allegedly sourced from a cassette-tape as a CD couldn’t be found in time). The result is an untied, released balloon of adolescent libido, spluttering punk-rock all over its bedroom walls and if you play it too much you’ll go blind.

408: New Power Generation

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
This two-parter can be found at opposite ends of the Graffiti Bridge album and became its third single after the equally fresh Thieves in the Temple and Tevin Campbell’s Round and Round. It comes in two parts with the second half featuring a curtain call of the album’s guests to deliver what would later become a supernova of various spin-off songs, including My Tree, Oobey Doop, True Confessions and the fantastic Loveleft, Loveright. It also generated a Maxi CD’s worth of remixes and the title (taken from Prince’s first words on the Lovesexy album) spawned, amongst other things, several bands, a record label, website, members club and a shop franchise. Despite all this progeny, New Power Generation is a song Prince quickly abandoned after Graffiti Bridge, never performing it live. I think he outgrew the tone of voice as “NPG in the motherfuckin’ house” was much more in keeping with his next few albums’ image than the prissy “pardon us for caring, I didn’t know it was against the rules”. The track was written in his early 20s, then called Bold Generation, and the lyrics are full of a young excuse-me-for-existing petulance. A Times They Are A-Changin’ rallying call against the older generation with their “old fashioned music” and “old ideas”. Like his earlier Revolution, this is Prince wanting to spearhead a movement, raging against the status quo and fighting for “making love and music” (fifty per cent of the holy DMSR). Speaking of music, this self-described “big noise in the 90s” is not as timeless as his big noise in the 80s and includes what sounds like the “whoa whoa whoa” refrain from U Can’t Touch This, released earlier that year. Retribution I reckon for MC Hammer’s (admittedly sanctioned) sampling of When Doves Cry and Soft and Wet on his Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em album. Or maybe for his spelling of ‘you’? Regardless though of New Power Generation‘s crow’s feet, it still stands up well today as an energised Hadouken of righteous anger aimed at a backward-looking music industry. It ends with an angelic chord and the gentle sound of baptising waters. The NPG has been christened and The Kid is now Daddy Pop.

424: Release it

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Sounding like a startled greyhound struggling to find purchase on linoleum, this percussive beast is a frantic, skittish bag of nerves and bones. Sometimes it feels more like a funky experiment than a fully formed song, with the sampled drums hogging the mixing desk, forcing the bass and sax to take pot shots from afar. Originally recorded for The Time’s abandoned Corporate World album it became one of the four Morris Day stowaways to make it onto and into Graffiti Bridge. It’s my favourite of the guest spots, mainly because the bolshy interplay between Morris and Jerome is The Time par excellence. The band was created in 1981 to channel Prince’s more poppy R&B aspirations, evoking the kind of world your 20s are steeped in: good-time funk, party and bullshit, complete with a heady scent of materialism and egocentricity. Release It’s “party people in the club get hyped” lyrics pull this world off with aplomb and the humour of Morris trying to find a “Stella” is the Frustrated-Low-Status-Guy-Trying-To-Act-High-Status formula all the best sitcoms are built on.

443: Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
At the risk of sounding obscurist the best version of Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got is not the one that saw the (everlasting) light of day. Prince’s earlier unreleased recordings sound a lot less cluttered, especially the Revolution-backed 1986 version which has an unbridled immediacy about it. This is something lacking in the slower official release which is more experimental but can be accused of trying to carry too many bags. The intro pre-echoes 1993’s Papa, the lyrics are retrofitted to give it a cinematic, spiritual air and in the latter half the song gets distracted by acid flashbacks of Purple Rain. These disparate additions don’t always pull in the same direction, yet underneath the gumbo the reliable bassline does its joyful, buoyant shuffle and throws you straight into the never-sedentary action of Graffiti Bridge. As an album opener it’s ballsy and does its job with gusto.

476: Shake!

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Rattling along like a steampunk George Clinton, Morris Day rides this daft Time number all the way to Cheesetown. Shake! is one of the weaker tracks on Graffiti Bridge but anybody doubting the song’s credentials should check out Prince’s Rock in Rio performance of the song. The sound quality of this extended live version does nothing to rescue the cheesy 60’s organ which still retains a faint cologne of cruise-ship, but the track is unwound as a looser Delirious-style shakedown which gets even Christ the Redeemer clapping double time and Day’s original vocal limitations are shown up as Rosie Gaines casts the lyrics in bronze. That’s not to say the studio version is without its charm – the hydraulic beat is rock solid and the pretension-free straight-up party vibe acts as a counterbalance to the album’s more cerebral fare such as the alluring mystique of Joy In Repetition or the soaring cry for help of Thieves in The Temple. It’ll never make anybody’s desert island discs but it rarely fails to raise a smile and a toe tap.

499: Love Machine

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
A misleading pop ditty with lyrics of pure filth. Elisa Fiorillo fires off bubblegum higher/liar rhyming couplets while a lusty Morris Day swaggers around in the background talking about how he’ll “Drink. U. Til. Dawn.” The Highlight being the conversational Q&A style on the final verse, later used on Love 2 the 9s. Like most Time tracks, Prince’s usual tension between sex and spirituality isn’t at play here – it’s more of a tension between sex and cartoon sex. This machine would never pass the Turing test.