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.

41: Sometimes it Snows in April

Parade (1986)
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 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.

50: Kiss

Parade (1986)
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.

56: Girl & Boys

Parade (1986)
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.

89: Under the Cherry Moon

Parade (1986)
They say comparison is the thief of joy but I can’t help measuring Under the Cherry Moon against the similar-sounding Question of U. Which do you prefer? I used to think the peak-Prince aura of the 80s surrounded the first, while the second wore the millstone of the 90s. But that’s a mirage as both were written in 1985. Over the years I’ve grown to prefer the Graffiti Bridge track as the patchwork quality of that album makes me latch on to the peaks with an iron grip. In contrast, there’s not a single bad track on Parade so Under the Cherry Moon blends in against a backdrop of consistent excellence. Setting is important. It’s why I’ve only watched the Under the Cherry Moon motion picture once. It was part of a perfect after-hours moment, cherished due to many reasons not involving the film that I don’t want to rewatch it lest I pollute the memory. I’ve read enough reviews since that suggest a critical eye wouldn’t be kind. This was almost two decades ago so I can’t recall how well the title song was utilised but as it waltzes with an air of the French Riviera and death it sounds thematically on point. Or perhaps the song has slowly supplanted the film in my mind. There’s enough space in the composition to fill with an accumulation of black and white Gallic daydreams over the years. Have I filed them under a plot of a film I daren’t watch back? Maybe I do prefer this Parade track. It could be the closest I’ve come to being a Hollywood director.

135: New Position

Parade (1986)
I don’t care it’s only 140 seconds long. Time is relative. A minute on one side of the bathroom door is longer than a minute on the other. That’s science. And an interlude packed full of ideas can create more sparks than a symphony going through the motions. It’s not the length that matters, it’s what you do with it. New Position, a song about spicing things up in the bedroom, is just as experimental with its sound. The percussion is some avant-garde fonky ish and the whole vibe stimulates parts the scientific community have yet to invent names for. Although having said I don’t care about the running length, I’d happily swap your ten-minute Mountains and eight-minute Anotherloverholenyohead (good as they are but what do they say that the originals don’t?) for one extended version of New Position. I’d trade my bloodline for a five-minute mix where the steel drums roam free as Prince spells out more dirty words in a bid to land his lover.

158: Anotherloverholenyohead

Parade (1986)
You know you’ve been writing about Prince too much when Anotherloverholenyohead appears in your phone’s predictive text after only three characters. Parade’s penultimate track and final single has Prince pleading his departing lover, whose eyes have wandered, to stay with him. He tells her she needs another lover like she needs a hole in her head. Is it too much of a stretch to believe this is really a restless Prince toying with the idea of going solo? By the next album, The Revolution would be disbanded and this song’s video is the last they ever feature on. Was he thinking about other bands when he wrote this? Is he reasoning with himself in an attempt to quell his wanderlust? In the second chorus Prince’s vocals almost completely drop out while The Revolution sing “We were brothers and sisters united all for love. Now all of the sudden U try 2 fight it. U say you’ve had enough”. The band would stick together for several more months but if Prince smashing up his guitar at the end of the Parade tour was seen as the final nail in the coffin, this song may be one of the first.

172: Christopher Tracy’s Parade

Parade (1986)
Why does Prince’s seventh album attract all the Beatles comparisons when it’s his eighth that opens with this amyl nitrate cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)? The Fab Four is certainly strong in this one. We stand at the start of a quick-fire round of four songs in nine minutes so there’s barely time to take it all in, but it’s the only album track, other than the incidental Venus De Milo and Do U Lie?, to sport the full force of Clare Fischer’s orchestra. Prince asked the newly-hired composer, fresh from collaborating on The Family album, to add orchestration to every song on Parade except Kiss. But his contribution largely wasn’t used. We hear some brief snatches on Anotherloverholenyohead and some violas on I Wonder U, but Christopher Tracy’s (née Wendy’s) Parade gets the full orchestral shebang and it’s a glorious symphony in miniature. A rousing clarion call from a pantheon of forgotten gods, who whoop and holler on their merry train out of oblivion. It serves as a tantalising yet overselling trailer for Under the Cherry Moon, which would never be able to deliver on these cinematic promises.

209: Life Can Be So Nice

Parade (1986)
One of the catchiest songs about scrambled eggs, second only to the theme tune from Frasier. Life Can Be So Nice is a humanist anthem, like What a Wonderful World, but with a message that’s hard not to take as an AM equivalent to Afternoon Delight. It comes crashing into this world with squealing flutes, makes a lot of reverbed noise, then abruptly finishes mid-sentence. If that’s not a tribute to the brevity and wonder of life then I’m Louis Armstrong.

226: I Wonder U

Parade (1985)
I Wonder U is barely even a song. The pint-sized Parade piece lasts for 100 seconds, and 15 of those sound like New Position hasn’t finished yet. But the atmosphere in its brief timeframe is electrifying. It’s astounding how much work has gone into something so diminutive. At an early stage, the track included a full orchestra before Prince decided to keep only the flutes. He also removed his vocals to leave only Wendy’s, making it the first song on a Prince studio album sung solely by somebody else (or the only one if you discount the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack and the 3rdeyegirl collaboration). Its short duration makes the track almost subliminal, leaving you no time to dwell on the moods it stirs within – eddies of virgin snow and forgotten dreams swirl but we’re onto the next track before they settle – however like eyebrows or a pinch of salt, it’s absence would leave an oversized void.

263: Do U Lie?

Parade (1986)
About 20 years ago I read a magazine article where musicians described their favourite Prince albums. I still remember this because the dumb shock of hearing Do U Lie? described as “throwaway” seared that remark into my memory. This was the first opinion I encountered of this Gallic singalong – a breezy mood lightener that wouldn’t sound out of place in a whimsical comedy set on a harbour (or evidently set in a nightclub on the French Riviera) – and I couldn’t understand how anybody could have anything other than unremitting love for it. To be fair the guy interviewed used the modifier “kinda throwaway” and only then as a counterpoint to how Parade was as close to a perfect Prince album you could get. But still the word resurfaces cloaked in disbelief whenever I hear the song. The track may be slight – all 2 minutes and 40 seconds of it – but it has an outsized impact on the atmosphere of Prince’s 8th studio album. It’s the only song fully in the French chanson style and how many times have you heard that genre thrown about when Parade‘s been mentioned? The interviewee did say he still enjoyed Do U Lie? and that it made him laugh, and with Prince’s over-the-top vocals you can see why, but the feeling that to at least one person it’s a distraction preventing Parade from attaining pure pop perfection makes me want to burn down the concept of subjectivity and install in its place a golden accordion. Besides Venus de Milo is much more expendable.