Prince: a decade of genius

Last updated 09:20 20/03/2009

Prince in concertHe was born Prince Rogers Nelson, nearly 51 years ago. And in his first decade making music he exemplified the term "genius" - so often overused, particularly when directed towards artistic endeavours.

I'm not sure when I discovered Prince, I just know I heard songs like Little Red Corvette, 1999, Purple Rain and When Doves Cry on the radio at an early age. I loved those songs instantly.

People would talk about how Prince was creepy, he was weird, he was beyond extroverted, a pervert. (He seems normal these days compared to his pop-chart rival, Michael Jackson, don't you think?) I was young when I liked Prince, really young. The songs from 1999 and Purple Rain were on the radio for the first time, we're talking 1982-1984. And these songs had massive, giant, pop hooks; they fused elements of disco, funk, R'n'B and rock into a happy pop package. It was a merging of black and white styles of music. It was hip and contemporary.

Then there was a period where it was not cool to like Prince - most people know this as the mid-1990s. And for some that period continues. For others there was a "comeback" a few years ago with Musicology and 3121.

I have always liked Prince. Sure, some of his albums are weak compared with others (for me the lame albums are New Power Soul, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic, Emancipation, Graffiti Bridge and Lovesexy - and all of them have fantastic moments in and around the misses. I'm also not a huge fan of Diamonds and Pearls, but this, the second-biggest selling album in Prince's career, will always get a pass-mark for the four huge singles: Cream, Diamonds and Pearls, Money Don't Matter 2 Night and Gett Off).

A favourite Prince album? Generally it's the one I'm listening to at the time - but at the moment it's Sign o' the Times above all others. And that's brings me to this, my first post dedicated to Prince. I have mentioned that I am a fan, but I haven't dedicated a post to what I like about him or why I think he is deserving of any music fan's ears.

I want to look at that magical ("genius") first decade of his career; a run of albums that showed no real holes, a heap of amazing chart singles and stunning live shows. It was also a decade where Prince indulged side-projects, brought on protégés, recorded feature films and established himself as an auteur-like figure, gaining a reputation as a pop-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist but still playing the game of a pop star (when and while it suited).

This is my look at Prince's first decade in music: 1978-1988 - anyone prepared to think of him as just a weirdo and a creep is not using their ears to listen to the music.

Because, remember, it's about the music - the person making it might be the strangest person ever but if the music is good that is what should matter. (And in Prince's case the role he played of an enigma kept fans interested: he was not instantly accessible even though so much of his music was, and the allure was created and kept because of this.)

1978's debut record, For You, is nothing special to hear these day - but as a starting point it still has moments that are remarkable. The album was created before Prince had turned 20 and he performed basically every voice and instrument on the album, writing all of the songs and producing it. That last part is pretty important - an essentially unknown act being allowed to produce himself on a major label's credit card. The other really impressive thing about this album is the way it starts. The opening, title track is just over one minute of Prince's multi-layered, multi-octave-reaching voice basically announcing an unknown player, essentially commanding an audience and setting the tone for Prince's career - an artist who let his music do the talking. There's also Soft and Wet, a pretty cool R'n'B-meets-pop song that made a dent in the charts.

Then we get 1979's Prince which, as is the case with so many second albums - whether it's The Rolling Stones or The Arctic Monkeys - expands on and refines the sound of the debut. For Prince, this meant bouncing out from the speakers with I Wanna Be Your Lover and backing it up straight away with Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad? Songs that have never had to go through ironic appreciation and a retro rethink of what makes them work - these songs have always been cool while sitting outside any hyped bubble of hip. You've also got I Feel for You which would be recast by Chaka Khan (and would be the start of so many Prince covers and soundalikes and protégés - and in fact in the case of this song The Pointer Sisters had already had a crack at it before it launched Khan to the next level of the pop platform five years after Prince's version).

Prince also showcases Prince's skills and interest in rock guitar. Bambi has a relentless, crunching rock riff.

And, if he'd started playing with sexuality and confusing people with songs like I Wanna Be Your Lover then he had a field day with 1980's Dirty Mind covering oral sex (Head) and incest (Sister) as well as pulling out two incredible pure-pop delights with Uptown and When U Were Mine. You hear a song like that and you realise how open this guy's ears have always been - When U Were Mine is a throwback to the early songs of The Beatles, but it also touches on the powerpop and post-punk feel of the time, Prince moving away from any disco novelties in his sound. (A year later Cyndi Lauper would rework it to suit her style, and it worked - mostly because it's an amazing song.)

1981's Controversy is a slight misstep but I have always enjoyed it in the context of Prince's career. The title track is a bold move: for over seven minutes Prince assesses, pulls apart and mocks the media-myth of Prince-as-enigma. And it's damn catchy now. It works very well today as new-wave synths and rubber-punk guitars have fallen back in to the fold. The other reason to hear Controversy though is Do Me, Baby - a classic Prince ballad. It might almost be the classic Prince ballad; over the top vocal whoops and hollers transcend any clichés.

1999, released in 1982, is where Prince becomes a global pop star. The title track and Little Red Corvette see to that. There's also the swinging Prince take on pop-styled rockabilly that is Delirious, an infectious single. And as Prince stretched out with several songs over six minutes, filling four sides of vinyl, you can hear traces of electro-pop and dance music; an influence on the sound that would fill nightclubs for years to come. In the first five years of his professional career Prince had fired out the albums and the hits were starting to come.

1984 saw Purple Rain, both the film and soundtrack. Here Prince really introduces his band The Revolution (though many had appeared on 1999) and the album is, to this day, a masterpiece. But, it felt like a masterpiece as soon as it arrived. Let's Go Crazy shows the bursts of electric guitar again, When Doves Cry managed to be one of the biggest chart hits of Prince's career - in fact it was the biggest hit of that year - and all without the use of bass.

The song Purple Rain features one of my favourite guitar solos of all time - epic, majestic, sweeping and soaring - and the lesser known tracks from the album, Baby I'm a Star, Take Me with U, I Would Die 4 U were (and still are) huge live favourites.

Then there's the film - you can laugh and call it a turkey but it's one of the most influential music-films around and is of its time. If nothing more, it served to showcase the Revolution in action with Prince and there are some great music performances in the film.

The following year, Around the World in a Day saw Prince opening up to collaboration with some of the members of The Revolution and dropping - to my ears - the best pop song he's ever written, Raspberry Beret.

Around the World in a Day sees Prince getting tired of pop too - with the world music-influenced title track and tight, trippy funk of Tamborine. But when he wants to return to pop either pure (Pop Life) or ever so slightly slinky and quirky (Paisley Park) it's as effortless as before.

Parade is the soundtrack to Prince's second film effort - the truly awful Under the Cherry Moon. It's a shame that this album is tied to the film because it's an amazing collection that picks up on the quirk of Around the World but has a couple of Prince's best pop songs in Girls & Boys and Kiss).

And then we get to 1987's Sign o' The Times - a second double album from Prince. And this one is a real statement from the artist as dictator of style, Prince flitting from pop to R'n'B to funk. There are acoustic guitars (Forever in My Life) and flat funk beats (the title track). There's subverted gospel (The Cross) and cosmic jams (It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night).

Over four sides of vinyl Prince would not be pigeonholed, moving from the electro-funk-meets-early-hip-hop of Housequake to the after midnight crooning of Adore; from the perfect pop singles of U Got the Look and I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man to the really rather weird If I Was Your Girlfriend and Strange Relationship (both of which are still accessible musically, almost hiding the darkness of the lyrics).

There was also the concert film of Sign o' the Times - less an actual live showing and more a pieced-together and overdubbed conceptual video for an album-length project. But still cool at the time.

Then we get to 1988 and Lovesexy seems to be the first real letdown of Prince's career - but there were still the singles Glam Slam and Alphabet Street; up there with some of his better work.

And he had written a great song called Manic Monday for a group called The Bangles and had produced and played on solo material for his drummer Sheila E. There was also a wee song called Nothing Compares 2 U - he gave that away to Sinead O'Connor to have a hit with as the new decade started.

You can say what you like about him going off the boil, about being a weird wee man, about the occasional misfires but the first decade of Prince's career is full of hits, big album sales, critical acclaim, constant innovation and kudos from a growing fan base.

The man plays something like 27 instruments and in a now 30-year career the back catalogue and the commitment to putting on stunning live shows is nothing short of incredible.

So, you see, I can play the over-excited fan-boy too....(ah, but you write two blogs that mention popular Wellington acts in two weeks and everyone has you pegged).

What do you think about Prince? Could you never get him? Did you purposely not try? Am I over the top in calling him a genius? And specifically we're looking at that decade 1978-1988 - so what are you favourite Prince songs, albums and moments? And if you don't like him that's cool also, I won't jump down your throat. But I'd be keen to know why you are not a fan. It's also safe to come out of the Prince-fan closet again. So don't be shy.

Picture: Fairfax


Post a comment
Chris   #1   09:29 am Mar 20 2009

I think Prince is awesome.

Reinforcing this is a wicked video (on youtube - I'd link you but I'm at work and youtube is banned) of Prince coming out of nowhere with a face-melting solo during some otherwise innocuous celebrity jam band version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at a Music Awards show or something.

Searching for "Prince While My Guitar Gently Weeps" should bring it up. If you doubted Prince as a guitarist that'll set you straight!!

Kirsty   #2   09:32 am Mar 20 2009

I don't think that Prince likeability and admission of genius have to be mutually exclusive; I'm happy to acknowledge the man's incredible musical prowess, I just never got into it... sure there's some catchy stuff there, and there's no doubting his influence on the pop scene (he'll be one of those historical figures) but then again, so are Abba. And for me it's the same sorta thing - it's not something I'd go out and buy but I can't help singing along when I hear it.

Peter   #3   09:48 am Mar 20 2009

An absolute genius. I cannot argue with anything you said - even you being a true fanboi.

For me, Purple Rain & Around The World In A Day are the goods but generally loved most of his 80s output. Lost some interest around the NPG period but he came back strong in 1993 (?) with 'Peach'and all was forgiven.

Agree on the solo from Purple Rain - I still get a kick out of that one.

Sheldon   #4   10:11 am Mar 20 2009

He was always 5 years ahead of his time, especially in the years you talk about here.

Undeniably a musical genius.

Danny   #5   10:18 am Mar 20 2009

At the risk of being referred to as "Simons biggest fan" again, i have to say I agree with it all....although i possibly hold "Lovesexy" in higher regard than you Simon. Prince is a genius, and i don't think anyone like him had come along since Stevie Wonder ( but thats another blog altogether there!). The psychedlia of "Around The World In A Day" was before psychedlia was back in again. "Parade" is every bit as good as his other work, but maybe suffered due to being connected with the film. And has there ever been a bassline as simple, yet effective as "Sign O' The Times"?. I started to lose interest slightly when the Batman soundtrack came out, but there were still moments of genius that kept opping up. Probably more than i realise, as i tended to not hear whole albums after Batman. I don't think he was that wierd....I would like my privacy too if I was in his position. I would love to see him do an "MTV Unplugged" sometime, so people can see the real genius of those songs and voice, and not just the image! i want to leave work early, and put "Parade" and "Sign O' The Times" on loud. It must be my age, and the fact I worked in music retail at that time, but those 2 albums, and "Lovesexy" were always my favourites. Those were the days!

si   #6   10:39 am Mar 20 2009

I love Prince. If I had to pick one it would be the Purple Rain soundtrack. And the movie is still a wacky delight. I never really understand the term "Genius", does it mean you did something totally new first? If so Prince, while innovative, is not a genius. If it means doing something reall, really well then perhaps. Oh, and Prince fans should check out the Evening With Kevin Smith DVD for some very funny stories about working with Prince. He certainly seems to live on another planet.

Cafe Chick   #7   10:55 am Mar 20 2009

Yes, yes and YES. Prince is a musical genius, almost a freak. His music is not made for elevators (whew!); some of it is challenging and hard to get into. Perennial favourites for me include Purple Rain and When Doves Cry, although 1999 is great entertainment value. To write a brilliant song (WDC) and then remove the bass line highlights the fine line between musical madness and genius; our brains tell us it won't work, but our ears think it does. I also like Manic Monday and Nothing Compares 2U - the hit machine continues, without stooping to the levels of some of his pop contemporaries.

Don 1   #8   11:00 am Mar 20 2009

No doubt about his genius, but what turned me off him was his flightiness. I liked that his earlier albums flitted from one genre to the next (as you have exhaustively catalogued above) but he started to lose me in the early 90s as whatever he was trying to do became too divorced from any context for me. Still love so many of those songs, though, from Do It All Night and Darlin Nikki to Raspberry Beret and yes, that solo is astonishing. It's the sound Slash has been aiming for for years now...

Cafe Chick   #9   11:17 am Mar 20 2009

One more: Kiss. (How could I forget??)

Jack   #10   11:19 am Mar 20 2009

I saw him at work in a recording studio a dozen or so years ago. I couldn't get over how small he was. I'm sure he's not much taller now...

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