The purple Perfect Ten then.
That loveable English eccentric Tom Baker once said, “I’ve never been burdened with the idea of being subtle”. And in an odd way neither was Prince.
Born 65 years ago in Minnesota, Prince Rodgers Nelson was a game-changing artist whose mammoth musical talent and beyond prolific output was matched only by his capacity for pushing boundaries of what one could do with music while constantly blurring the lines of normalcy. It’s that unquenchable desire to stand out that made him a visionary vanguard and the obvious heir to ’70s Bowie, that other unconventional behemoth that contributed so much to popular culture in the late 20th century.
Danger is an overly mythologised quality in pop, but when Prince burst onto a slightly sterile American music scene his outré eccentricities were apparent right from the outset: who else would dare to call his first release Soft And Wet (from the 1978 debut LP, For You); or to plug I Wanna Be Your Lover (from 1979’s self-titled sophomore set), with the tasty tagline, “I wanna be the only one you cum for.” The rum bugger. In Yewtree talk he was hiding in plain sight all along.
A masterpiece of contradictions, there was always something of the profane and the spiritual about Prince: a bit like the triptych of Madonna whose name evokes the Virgin Mary, and the fallen one with the Muppet face. At the dawn of the 1980s the Minneapolis marvel embodied something so thrilling and genre-defying that within five years he’d all but turned pop on its head. Of the four solo stars who bossed the decade — add in Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen and you have the quintessential quartet — Prince strutted proudly as the only true maverick in the pack. As for MJ, who I used to shrug was just Prince for kids, of course that stinging missive carries more context to it now than it ever did at the time.
It took awhile to totally perfect the art of the auteur, mind. Not only could Prince could play any instrument he laid hands on, but he could write, arrange, produce, act, and he made a mean Yorkshire Tea, according to Wendy Melvoin. And once he hit that purple patch he was utterly unstoppable.
It’s his ten most essential albums I’m focusing on, in my debut feature for stevepafford.com. Trying to whittle the list down to under a dozen may seem a trifle harsh on the post ’80s output, but even until the dreadful day he departed, during that year of the cultural holocaust, 2016, Prince was still knocking out the odd gem even that late in the game. Are you sitting comfortably?
Dirty Mind (1980)
Anyone who saw Prince perform in 1981, either in the States or the single sparsely-attended show he played at London’s Lyceum, will surely remember how electrifying he was. A sprite-like hybrid of Hendrix and Bolan, the 5’2” prodigy was as kinky as he was funky, as mesmerisingly sexy as he was musically dextrous. Attired in bandana, thong and legwarmers, he was outlandish and garish, mildly revolting and wholly riveting.
The thong was on display on the cover of the third Prince album too. He cropped his gauzy Afro, bought himself a trenchcoat and a 2 Tone ‘Rude Boy’ badge, and — in two weeks in a tiny hometown 16-track studio — whipped up the lo-tech punk-funk fusion that was his Dirty Mind.
Its minimalism is its key; a demoish mix of gritty guitar and plastic keyboards that gives off a taut, disciplined, and bluster-free vibe. Lyrically, it’s a guttural frenzy that aims for below the belt, quite literally. Head? Well that’s obviously about oral sex, and Sister is about, erm, keeping it in the family.
Then there’s the epicurean Do It All Night and When You Were Mine, the latter alluding to bisexual troilism. The whole thing is over and done in half an hour — the album I mean, not the.… Then again.
After 1981’s Controversy, the wee one found himself enamoured by British synthpop, with Gary Numan a particular favourite. But for me Prince employed electronics with much more heart and soul than New Romantics like Soft Cell or the Human League ever did.
Performed by Prince and his new band The Revolution, album No. 5 sets out the ’80s right there and then with the brontosaurus hybrid — how to party in spite of looming disaster. With its threat of nuclear annihilation, the synth-fried opening of 1999 still sends shivers down my spine; the Elvisly be-bop swing of Delirious is another highlight, as is the brilliantly slinky Little Red Corvette — his first Top 10 hit — and Let’s Pretend We’re Married, a relative flop 45 soon to be covered by Tina Turner, despite its string of vulgar suggestions. My favourite song, though, is probably the quintessential Princeian comic-erotic Lady Cab Driver — it’s gaslightingly seedy like a danger wank somewhere you shouldn’t be.
Having graduated in record time from post-disco garage rock to high-tech studio wizardry, Prince works like a colourblind technician who’s studied both Devo and Afrika Bambaataa, keeping the songs constantly kinetic with an inventive series of shocks and surprises. Indeed, the LP had already gone gold before American rock stations opened their eyes. After white radio and MTV came around, the pint-size founder of the “Minneapolis sound” was starting to look like the most influential music man of the eighties. As a double album, 1999 might feel slightly sprawling (ten of its 11 songs clock longer than five minutes), but then Prince was always audacious. In retrospect you could say it was more a dry run for….
Purple Rain (1984)
What is there left to say about this landmark release?
Lyrically this epoch is all “masturbating with a magazine”, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand” — it was mind-blowing for a 16 year boy like me to hear all this (actually this sixth Prince album was released the day before I turned 15 so I’m the spring chicken here — chortling Ed.). I felt excited and defiled by it all in one go. He was Little Richard, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, and Bowie in one theatrically camp but butch little package. A true enigma.
On one hand, we get Prince the preacher on Let’s Go Crazy, intoning about a utopia that is there for us all. Songs full of charm and great poise. The Beautiful Ones is arguably his first truly epic ballad. And epochal singles like Take Me With U — the duet with Apollonia, stepping in for the newly departed Vanity — and the incendiary genre-bending spareness of When Doves Cry.
Prince wasn’t just breaking boundaries he was inventing a new lexicon for music, and Purple Rain was when Prince the singer became Prince the phenomenon, thanks in no part to the movie. Hot Chocolate sang “Everyone’s a winner, baby” but I think there’s only Computer Blue I’m not all that enamoured with, but, still, it’s hardly The Frog Chorus.
Around The World In A Day (1985)
This is where Prince donned the paisley, making it his corporation trademark, and would take ’60s psych-pop and soul in a new direction that baffled some. Indeed, on an episode of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, Andy “crusty” Kershaw warned viewers, “Don’t buy the new Prince album, it’s psychedelic rubbish.” Well, sorry Andy but that was right up my street. In fact, I play this Beatles-inspired oddity far more than its revered predecessor.
Whereas Purple Rain slapped me in the face to the adult world of sex and pain, Around The World In A Day reminded me that everything would eventually be alright, because life just wasn’t funky unless it had that ‘pop.’
A cornucopia of Eastern modules, opulent textures, and fruity epics, there’s something about its nursery rhyme charms, where certain colourful cuts are vaguely reminiscent of Strawberry Alarm Clock more than Sly and the Family Stone. And there wasn’t anyone in 1985 who wasn’t singing along to Raspberry Beret. Admit it.
Also worth it for the title track, Conditions Of The Heart and the criminal under-performing Pop Life 45 (later covered by Dead Or Alive, though they hardly breathed new life into it), the second side feels like half a kaleidoscopic concept album, opening with the sardonic socio-funky US single America, and closing with the writhing Temptation, and one of my favourite Prince lines, “A hot flush of animal lust.” Sunshine ’60s pop in a cynical material world.
Parade: Music From The Motion Picture Under The Cherry Moon (1986)
Having largely dispensed with the neo Sgt. Pepper pop garb (semi-title track of Christopher Tracy’s Parade excepted), Prince was now moving at breathtaking speed. Parade, his eighth album (and the third and final opus with the Revolution), is an often baroque blend of jazz, funk, soul, and a certain chanson undercurrent, knowingly absorbed from being the soundtrack to a film set on the French Riviera where that Steve Pafford guy resides.
With its stripped clipped guitar, and a chorus that sounds like it was bequeathed from Zeus on high, sexy lead single Kiss is an irresistibly minimalist ditty that celebrates the virtues of a damn good snog, but sounds like a man having a damn good orgasm.
With its pounding Jamaican steel drums, New Positions comes on like Grace Jones meets Joni Mitchell, but with the climactic line of “You want a shot of new spunk” for extra zing. The startlingly austere I Wonder U is more of the same, a kind of skeleton arrangement, more like a Dali sketch than a fully formed song.
Witty ballads (Do U Lie?) keep time with crafty vocal arranging (Anotherloverholenyohead), while airy reverb and off-kilter rhythms (Life Can Be So Nice) share space with nimble piano playing (Under The Cherry Moon) topped off with Clare Fischer’s impeccable strings.
There’s everything here, and special mention must go to Mountains. Armed with falsetto stylings over sharp, punctuating trumpets, it wasn’t something of a flop 45 but I would still suggest is one of Prince’s most magical musical moments, even if it feels like it was shoved on the end of the film to reward us for sitting through a frankly dire South of France flabfest.
Inexplicably, Girls & Boys wasn’t even a single in the US, though in the UK it was a bona-fide summer smash, and rightly so. With its tight but swinging horns punctuated by a seduction segment spoken by Marie France in Français, and a Prince proto-rap he’d explore fully on later works, it’s a cracker. And by Sometimes It Snows In April (still my favourite Prince ballad), you’re practically on the floor. Just don’t bother watching the monochrome movie, watch the LP’s promo videos instead. Boo!
Sign O’ The Times (1987)
Great double albums — the White Album, Blonde On Blonde, Songs In The Key Of Life — were generally made by artists who felt their talent couldn’t be contained to a mere 40 minute record. For here is an artist not only on top of the world, he is the world.
The Sign O’ The Times’ title track is, according to Chuck D, one of the greatest rap records ever made. If you imagine a sexier condensed version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, it’s a five minute total state of the nation address, its raw bareness is its necessity, as stunning now as it was then.
For me, the Joni Mitchell styled Ballad Of Dorothy Parker is a sequel of sorts to When Doves Cry, a highlight on an album that quite frankly is a collection of standouts. There’s the heartbreakingly beautiful If I Was Your Girlfriend, the whimsical charm of Starfish And Coffee (wot no chocolate?), the gorgeous P-Funk grooves of It, Hot Thing, and Housequake.
Props too to Play In The Sunshine, a fabulously upbeat tune in the style of Delirious, with an incredible breakdown. While the obvious sequel singles were I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man and U Got The Look, the latter — a sassy duet with former For Your Eyes Only singer Sheena Easton — has got more shake than the San Andreas Fault. Taking in everything from rock, pop, funkadelia and gospel, and even dipping a peach-painted toe into the newly emerging house, this is unmistakably Prince Rogers Nelson’s magnum opus.
What comes up must come down, as Shirley Bassey once sang.
It’s quite crazy is Lovesexy. Some people cite it as the start of the rot, though I’d suggest that came with Batman the following year.
Opus ten’s theme is a Faustian pact between good and evil, the redemption of rebirth.
It all kicks off with a fabulous first single in Alphabet St. (one of George Michael’s fave raves, so he told me — namedropping Ed.), which is apparently about going down on some young vixen. The full version with Cat’s rap on it, well its one of his greatest achievements — mangling Tennessee blues through an ’80s filter and coming up with a stone cold classic.
Glam Slam is really just a bit of fluff when you consider this is the same guy who invented Raspberry Beret. And yes, ???? No, with its intro courtesy of future Mrs David Sylvian Ingrid Chavez, is nice, though When 2 R In Love and I Wish U Heaven are better. Both are subtly spiritual offerings, but once Prince flew now he seems like he’s coasting a bit.
There’s less to love on Lovesexy, ironically enough.
More: Prince’s Batdance and the Michael Jackson collaboration that never was is here
Diamonds And Pearls (1991)
A New Power Generation? Not as good as The Revolution, but then how could they be?
After 1990’s Graffiti Bridge was deemed by critics as (pun alert) “a Bridge too far”, Prince’s commercial fortunes took a bit of a nosedive. But ta-da! Here comes Diamonds And Pearls. Lucky for some, his 13th album went triple platinum in the UK, double that in the US, and top ten in 30 different countries. More personal to the Purple One, it swung its way to No. 2 on the R&B charts, thereby reconnecting him with the black audience that had probably moved onto Bobby Brown, gangster rap, and Hip Hop.
Alas, it feels like a hollow victory, as if he’s chasing the trend rather being it — Daddy Mack in high heel shoes. There are some moments of absolute joy, though: Cream cops a load from T. Rex’s Get it On and is so devilishly delicious it could start a fight in an empty house. More Carry On Camping as opposed to say Darling Nikki’s Debbie Does Dallas. The title track is an epic ballad in the style of Purple Rain, but I have a feeling most of the songs on here are more tailored to the approval of Warner Brothers, with whom he had a strange relationship with. (No shit Sherlock! — sarcastic Ed.)
Get Off is superb though, and effectively makes every James Brown record redundant. It’s arguably candidate for the best set of lyrics on here, BUT I preferred the Houstyle mix that was on the maxi single to the more Urban version here. On the rest of the album he flirts with a more muscular sound, as if he’s trying on other people’s suits. Though one thing always intrigued me, what are the 21 positions?
The Gold Experience (1995)
Better? Oh, there’s a picture in a 1970s magazine called the Unexplained. A Mrs Smith from Doncaster spontaneously combusted on the toilet and the only thing left was her foot. I felt I’d spontaneously combusted the first time I heard Pussy Control, the opening piece of filth on Prince’s 17th album, except he wasn’t called that any more because on June 7, 1993 — his 35th birthday — the Purple One informed the world that he was now to be known as O(+> — an unpronounceable moniker that had entered his iconography. (It was the title of his 1992 LP, generally referred to as the Love Symbol album.)
Having killed off his Princely identity with 1994’s contractual Come, The Gold Experience was the first album released under the new name. P Control, as it came to be retitled, still sounds amazing, rather like a Camille offshoot. Indeed, whatever the name he’s as sex-obsessed as ever, only with more juice. It’s what Prince does best, with a hint of Lovesexy theology but always playful, proving to any doubters that he still had it.
Endorphinmachine? One word: raucously brilliant. Oh, that’s two. The hilarious Billy Jack Bitch purrs with the kind of synth-led funk jam that he built his career on, and which years later would be sonically approximated on on several 5ive singles (all classic poptopia of course). Talking of 45s, everyone remembers the featherlight Most Beautiful Girl In The World, Prince’s only UK chart-topper (released, ironically, on the indie Bellmark label). It’s a rich, lush lost Philly classic. Dolphin, too, with its refashioned Britpop sound and cross-panning guitar, should have been a single, and perhaps it almost was as he bothered to make a video for it.
Remember in Rocky 4 how the Siberian Train has our fictional pugilist on the ropes? He’s yesterday’s man, he’s nearly out of the game. Then — pow! He rises like a lumbering phoenix and gives him a damn good pounding in the ring. And wins the fight. And it proves one and for all that the champ is back. That is The Gold Experience. Shhh.
And so to the 19th album, and the tenth and final choice in this P10. The world had slightly given up on PRN by the late nineties. There was an avalanche of albums, and it kind of diluted his stock somewhat. He’d also been going around with the word ‘Slave’ scrawled on his face, which was jokily referenced by Blur’s drummer Dave Rowntree having ‘Dave’ dubbed on his. Oh, the wag.
Most of the stuff on Emancipation is pure R&B, and it some ways it works better here than it does on Diamonds and Pearls. And for an exhausting three-hour triple set there’s a surprising amount to love about it. The Erica Badu-strutting neon funkapolitan Jam Of The Year is a funtime party anthem that could have happily slid off an Angelo album. More highs? Right Back Here In Your Arms has serious Jam and Lewis vibes, while The Human Body sounds like Prince doing S’Express. Get Yo Groove On reminds me of the joyous bits of Parade with some Jagger swagger, The Plan is Prince filtering Brian Eno in his Music For Films era; and We Gets Up has a punchy James Brown-like brass section and some fizzing Hip-Hop energy.
As it ploughs on, there’s a discernible dip into poundshop Barry White (the cover of the Stylistics’ Betcha By Golly Wow!, his last major hit in Britain), and beigeness you’d expect to hear from Toni Braxton or Sade. Of particular note, My Computer is essentially rewrite of the second disc’s Emale that adds some pretentious arrangement wankery (strings, lots of keyboards), even sampling from the AOL opening screen. Alas, not even the additional vocals of fellow royalty like Kate Bush can elevate it to greatness.
Still, I may be biased, but to my ears, Emancipation’s first disc is almost equal to anything from his most commercially successful purple patch, circa 1984-1987. But, now and then, with such an untameable talent, perhaps Prince needed to hit rock bottom before he could get fired up enough to create great art again. Peaks and troughs? That’s this thing called life.
Long may he reign.
Talking of album art…