“You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attitude.”
By the time of his eighth album, 1986’s Parade, Prince Rodgers Nelson was the most influential record producer and arranger of the Eighties and, with song titles like Jack U Off and I Would Die 4 U, the most creative speller in pop (though the slightly less good Slade came close).
No artist since Bowie had swung as fluently from style to style (e.g. stripped-down funk, jazzy deft showtunes, intoxicated rock balladry, dance pop… want me to go on?), and only James Brown put on more incendiary live shows. And if Prince had done nothing but stand stock still onstage and performed other people’s material, he’d have locked up his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the greatest singers and guitarists of his generation.
Undaunted by the criticism 1985’s Around the World in a Day received, Prince continued to pursue his psychedelic affectations on Parade, which also functioned as the soundtrack to his second (sub-par) film, Under the Cherry Moon, a French Riviera folly shot in Nice. Released on 31 March in the UK and entering at four in the album chart a week later (its peak position, in fact; held off by an eclectic triumvirate of a Hits 4 various artists compilation, Dire Straits’ hoary old behemoth Brothers In Arms, and the Pet Shop Boys’ debut, Please), every track shows another element of the multi-talented Minnesotan at the peak of his ‘80s pomp, with The Revolution layering on healthy amounts of funky synths, electric licks and honking horns.
This was the last of a trio of albums Prince recorded alongside said backing group – the first to officially credit them being Purple Rain – but if there was any unrest in the ranks it wasn’t showing. PRN makes good his first use of a full orchestra, and the ensemble shift musical moods and textures from song to song. Witness how the fluttering psychedelia of Christopher Tracy’s Parade gives way to the spare, steel drum insistence of New Position, which morphs into the druggy I Wonder U and even a couple of ersatz cabaret cuts (Venus de Milo, Do U Lie?).
Despite the eclectic veering of styles, the material is wedded to a narrative that makes for a satisfyingly coherent listening experience. Parade picks up steam as it moves through the tracklist, with the longer tracks on side two (subtitled “end”) feeling more like fully formed ideas compared to the shorter vignettes of the first side (‘intro”). The songwriting is on point, the instrumentals are smooth and fleshed out, and Prince’s voice displays a perfect balance of emotion that is never overdone, it just threads the needle in terms of sustaining belief.
Despite the impending demobilising of The Revolution, the band seem determined not to play it safe, and their musical adventures do nothing to undercut the melodic pop sensibility of the record. The amount of ground they cover in the twelve tracks is truly remarkable, particularly on the four 45s, which were:
The propulsive funk workout of Girls and Boys, the slinky, bushy-tailed Mountains — probably Prince’s great ‘lost’ single (it completely missed the Top 40 in Britain), the absurdly styled Anotherloverholenyohead (the title of which he doesn’t quite sing, and which also failed to impact upon any major countdown, presumably because record store assistants couldn’t find it on their stock list when it was asked for)… oh, and one other we’ll come to later.
And there can be no more prophetically poignant set closer than the haunting Sometimes It Snows In April, an achingly tender deep cut that cuts the deepest, particularly since its author’s death in April 2016. Whereas he ignored many of Parade’s cavalcade of songs in his later set lists, this slow, elegiac piano ballad stayed in Prince’s live repertoire right up to his final show.
And has anyone noticed how the cover of Parade seems to be channelling Little Richard at his most flamboyant pencil-moustached pomp?
In many respects, this record actually was a return to form, and released to acclaim from music critics, who viewed it as a creative comeback after the critical disappointment of Around the World in a Day. You’d be hard pushed to find Parade topping many people’s favourite Prince album polls, but what everyone seems to forget was that, unlike his so-called rival Michael Jackson, Prince was the king of the unexpected. While many admirers exalted Purple Rain and longed for a sequel of sorts, the Minneapolis marvel would react against that, refusing to be confined or categorised.
While Prince could be viewed as a little over-cryptic in the lyrical department, on Parade his weird religious and sexual metaphors develop into a motif that actually gives the record weight. If it had been expanded to a double album, it could have equaled the subsequent Sign ‘o’ the Times, but as it stands, it’s an astonishingly rewarding near-miss. Sure, he was doing a lot of stack-heeled strutting and indulging neo classical French fancies, but Parade was Prince in full on peacock mode, and if you’ve ever heard the 12-inch versions of the singles extracted from the album, you already know that he could expand, stretch out, and make an ocean out of a river; for instance, he wastes nary a second of the 10-minute mix of Mountains as trumpets romp across the mix, which accompanies the credits to Under the Cherry Moon). And that was one of the most impressive things about his vision; his incredible sense of economy, and nothing typified that simplicity than on one song in particular.
Guitar strum please.
Ah, yes, Parade’s lead track, one of the Prince’s greatest ever singles. Oh, come on, it’s one of the greatest singles by anyone. Period.
A king amongst 45s, Kiss incorporates the sharp spartan sensibility of the Nu Wave into Prince’s own sex-funk agenda, hitting hard with just a dry guitar, keyboard, drum machine, and layered vocals. But the track almost missed the cut entirely, until he famously snatched it back when he realised its commercial potential.
While he was working on Parade, the Purple One helped bassist Mark Brown (a.k.a. Brown Mark) and David Rivkin (a.k.a. David Z.) with their Revolution offshoot outfit Mazarati by giving them a couple of songs. One was 100 MPH, a catchy joint with a clever little staccato delivery that ended up on the band’s self-titled album. The other was the bare bones acoustic demo of Kiss, a track its author deemed not worthy of further attention. After letting the guys puzzle over it, spending the whole night reworking it, Prince changed his mind and reclaimed the song, either (depending on who you believe), saying, “It’s too good for you guys,” or being taken aback on hearing his protégé’s remarkable results, couldn’t resist taking it back for himself. Then, although he promised to list Rivkin as the song’s co-producer, he ended up being listed only as the “arranger”. In Jason Draper’s book Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution, he further reports that the ”main elements of the song originated from Rivkin and Brown’s version.”
The story reads a bit differently in Alan Leeds’s sleeve notes for 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides compilation. There, Leeds quotes David Z. as recalling the Kiss demo as “just voice and acoustic guitar” and as not having “any real indication of a groove yet.” It was “just the raw idea”. David Z. and company “started a rhythm track and put on some background vocals” but thought the song was too much of an oddball to finish. Leeds goes on to say, “Once Prince was able to gauge Mazarati’s lack of interest in Kiss, he simply reclaimed it and finished it.” Draper too notes that Prince’s final version involved “stripping away a lot of the detail Rivkin and Brown had added” to give Kiss a minimalist funk feel. Nevertheless, there’s certainly significant elements of Mazarati’s recording on Prince’s completed master, including their “aah-AAA-aah” backing vocals.
Still, it would never have occurred to anyone else to make the groove deeper and the arrangement more thrilling by mixing out the bass altogether (cf When Doves Cry) and singing it in a delicate Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto. But that’s why he was Prince and no one else was. If I can paraphrase the diaries of Brian Eno, Prince had “the nerve to be simple,” whereas Bowie just didn’t have it in him.
The rest is, so the saying goes, history: top tens across the globe (and a rash of number ones), a Grammy in the bag and inclusion on every greatest-singles-ever list published since. Kiss is a flash slash in the air surrounded by negative space. Even thirty-three years later, whenever the song is played, it seems to open up a vacuum around it. It’s almost unfathomably funky, but it keeps pausing, going silent, and its silence is what propels the groove forward. Someone said to me at college at the time that Kiss was “barely a song”, which kind of misses the point, massively so.
And have you noticed how the greatest Prince singles all have the most incredible, indelible stop-what-you’re-doing-right-now intros? Kiss, Let’s Go Crazy, Take Me With U, When Doves Cry, 1999 et al, all instantly recognisable within a split second.
Kiss is three and three-quarter minutes of ice cream cool pop at its finest. The third of his five Billboard No.1s in America, and peaking at a respectable sixth place on the UK chart the week dated 22 March 1986. What were the five blocking its entry into the Top Five? A quartet of golden oldies by singers all Prince’s seniors, most of whom had been recording since the Fifties or early Sixties: Diana Ross’s Bee Gees helmed Chain Reaction, David Bowie’s jazz throwback Absolute Beginners, Cliff Richard’s Living Doll retread with the Young Ones, Jim Diamond’s telly theme Hi Ho Silver Lining… and Prince himself, as the author of The Bangles’ pretty pop confection Manic Monday, which the diminutive one penned under the pseudonym Christopher, his character in Under The Cherry Moon of course.
With Kiss as its key and signpost, the core of Parade is its dance tracks, bracingly crisp and airy, with those offhanded register-vaulting vocals and that peculiar rhythmic lurch no other artist could duplicate. Along with the motion picture it supports, it encapsulates an interesting time period in the career of this singer, producer, songwriter, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader. Compared to, and contrasted with, other career points, the era tells us so much about where Prince had been by 1986 and operates as a transition period for events to come. Thirty-three years ago, Prince was only competing with Prince.
And the best man won.
Steve Pafford, Tokyo