Let’s Work

I was lucky enough to see Prince play in August 1998, at Wembley Arena.  It wasn’t the best concert of his I would see but it afforded me the chance to actually see Prince working.  The original ticket I had purchased was for one of the gods at the back of the arena and I wondered whether the box-office had anything better left on offer.  Remember, 1998 was the year of NewPowerSoul and GCS and Chaka…I knew it said the place was sold out, but…  There was a front row ticket to the stage right.  I took it.  As it turned out, it was a seat just to the rear of the stage, as you looked at it from the side, and it gave a view of backstage and, I quickly realised, the soundboard station – which was also to the back-stage-right.  I don’t know if any of you were at that show.  If you were, you’ll remember that Chaka Khan and Graham Central Station were the opening acts that night.  Prince guested on stage with Chaka, I think, for a little of I Feel For You and with GCS on Free.  For the remainder of the time, pretty much, he was working the soundboard about twenty feet in front of me…give or take.

I lost sight of the stage.  All I had eyes for was the sound-desk.  Prince and another engineer worked together through both support performances.  They spoke, they bobbed heads, they tweaked.  Their arms kept moving to faders and knobs.  All I could see was Prince from behind and his body language exuded control.  It was obviously a place where he felt comfortable.  But, there was no sense of the prima donna or hierarchy.  There was a relaxed sense of trust between the two of them at the board; the other engineer didn’t back off or kowtow throughout.  They worked together.  It was incredible to watch.

The shows I’d previously seen had been from front and centre, pretty much.  On those occasions Prince arrived on stage via hydraulics or escalator.  On this occasion he walked on stage up over a set of steps at the centre back.  Again, from where I was sitting, I could see this backstage walk towards these steps and up and over, on to perform.  There is currently a short clip on youtube of Prince getting ready to go on stage in Japan in 1990.  He struts along a corridor, all stretches and high kicks, hilariously missing his turn for the elevator.  That purpose, though, that tunnel-vision was there at Wembley just as it was in Japan…the only difference was the Prince wasn’t playing for a camera when I saw him walk toward stage.  There was a steely resolve in his gait.  Very upright and assured.  Ready to give good show.

This was Prince at work.

It’s been interesting, heartbreaking and reaffirming, listening to some of the stories that have surfaced about Prince and his work.  Perhaps what will have taken so many people by surprise is the fact that there were two sides to Prince working: the musician & performer and the altruist & innovator.  The innumerable tales of Prince’s work rate, as far as music is concerned, encapsulate just how drenched in music and creativity Prince was.  The generosity he showed through and in music is also quite startling; seeing the letter he wrote to Suzanne Vega is just beautiful.  Listening to the Van Jones stories, though, simply blows my mind with regards how active he was in the community, endeavouring to make the world a better place.

There have been some public charity concerts and donations he’s made in the past – the famous Marva Collins performance, the food drives at the concerts, the Love4OneAnother website, etc – but to hear Van Jones speak about Prince’s involvement in such a variety of organisations and programmes was astonishing and yet quite believable, and not unexpected.  I may never have completely agreed with Prince’s politics (I mean, Free?) but there was never any doubting the heart of the man.  The comment that’s been made about him not being red or blue but being purple is perhaps the most honest appreciation of his outlook on life.  What appeared naive on Ronnie Talk To Russia, the aforementioned Free, America or Dear Mr Man masked a willing and thoughtful approach to the times in which he lived, it would seem.  It is no wonder that this current president was moved so much as to make a formal comment on his death and the impact, the tangible impact, Prince had on so many lives.

That was also Prince at work.

In the Kevin Smith eulogy to Prince on his Fatman on Batman youtube series, there is a heartbreaking moment as he talks about the time Prince danced with his young daughter.  In the middle of D’Angelo’s performance on Fallon he is overwhelmed by the enormity of the emotions he is feeling as he sings.  The viral video of the teacher breaking down upon playing Purple Rain for his students on hearing the news of Prince’s death is so sad to see.  The moment at the end of the Van Jones interview where he is asked what he’s feeling and he says he feels guilty – that is harrowing.  Reading reactions on The Org, hearing the impact of this man on people I know and don’t know, is devastating.  A friend of mine just called and asked if I was over grieving yet – he laughed.  I’m not.  I never met Prince.  I never spoke with Prince.  I exchanged a couple of tweets with him and that was that.  I helped out in a minor and modest way during the release of Emancipation.  Those are my sole dealings with this man.  But oh my did he affect my life.  Prince made days brighter.  The words, the humour, the imagination, the assurance, the vitality, the confidence, the fear, the love, the notes, the chords, the rhythm, the melody, the magic.  His songs inform my days.  His attitude informs my ways.

That is Prince at work.

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The Revolution

What a welcome diversion.

 

Prince and the Revolution…what will they play?

Is this going to be a classic album for album concert or something more creative?  How cool would it be to hear Purple Rain through Parade?  Song by song, moment by moment.  It would be a wonderful tribute to Prince.  But what about a greatest hits of Prince and the Revolution?  Which would you like to see?

How about a narrated concert?  Alan Leeds to one side talking you through the sequencing of the songs, background stories and indulgences around B-sides and extended versions.  The possibilities are endless.  What about including The Family and some of The Time and Sheila E’s music into the show?

It is terrific that these five have decided to come together to perform and celebrate their creative life with Prince.  Bearing in mind who they are and the strength of their personalities, this announcement was pretty inevitable given the news of Prince’s death.  For all the differences, they’re a pretty tight unit and, I believe, appreciate their place in the pantheon of pop.

I’m sat now picturing what the show will look like… Initially I see a purple hue and a tight five piece ripping through the majority of Purple Rain.  Then I see a more psychedelic palette taking over.  A few strings to see out Purple Rain and then a horn or two ushering us across Paisley Park’s threshold.  Then a blow out… another guitarist and a few dancers, maybe a percussionist, to herald the Parade; primary colours, bold and daring.  When Wendy and Lisa sang of balloons I know they weren’t referring the Cobo Arena, June 7th 1986 performance…they may as well have been… what a celebration.

And the next question; where do they draw the line?  Lisa, Fink, Bobby performed on the earlier albums…1999 was credited to Prince AND the Revolution…do we get songs from these albums too?  Do we hear 1999, Head, Dirty Mind, Little Red Corvette, Possessed, Irresistible Bitch, Sexuality…do we hear the B-sides…17 Days, Erotic City, Another Lonely Christmas?  Do we hear It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night?  How far forward do they go?  Do we hear the Dream Factory music they worked on?  Do we hear All My Dreams?  Oh my…to hear that?  To hear The Revolution’s take on Alphabet Street, 7, Black Sweat, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World, The Work, The Morning Papers, Gett Off, Cream, Partyman, Thieves In The Temple…Strange Relationship, Sign O The Times, If I Was Your Girlfriend…In This Bed I Scream… in all my dreams.

These concerts are going to be immense.  Incredible.  The last concert they did was a beautiful mixture of music and mirth.  These amazing people are performers fully aware of the weight they’re now carrying and they will deliver the most fitting tribute to their erstwhile band-leader.  I’m in awe of their ability and wait in wonder to see what form the tribute takes.

“Let’s go…”

“Yeah.  Let’s get ’em…”

Prince Rogers Nelson

I was often reminded by a friend of mine how much I’d hated 1999 the first time I’d heard it.  He would repeat the story of him and another friend singing the chorus at me, whilst I bayed at them to stop – or, as Prince would have had it, cease and desist.  I have no doubt this is true but I can’t remember doing this.  (They were also constantly singing The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, I seem to remember…I didn’t much like that at the time either…at the time, if the popstar didn’t have a white stripe across the bridge of his nose, they weren’t worth listening to – the folly of youth.)

There was a compilation album released in late 1986/early 1987 simply called Hits 6.  On it were Hollywood Beyond (I still adore that single!), Nick Kamen, The Pretenders, The Bangles were walking like an Egyptian and Paul Young wanted to take you to Wonderland.  One side of the cassette was particularly cool – along with The Pretenders and Paul Young it had The Eurythmics and, I seem to remember, The The.  It also had Prince and The Revolution. (There were a lot of “The”s around back then.)  The song was Anotherloverholenyohead.  It was the first time I realised Prince was a genius.  The swirl of the guitar, the percussion intro and the detail – the syncopated Linn before the first “whoo!” – drag you into the song.  The paean to a spurning lover is pure perfection.  The lyrics, like the music, underplay the desperation in the message being conveyed.  The chord change before the lyrics heighten the dramatic impact of first line – such a line these days – and, well, just go and listen to it.  That it came with a live performance video of such humour, style, charm and fierceness gilded it beautifully.  I kept rewinding and listening, rewinding and listening.

Sitting on a bus winding its way up out of Agios Nikolaos, Crete, in April 1988 was the next time I realised Prince was a genius.  I was flirting with a girl, she was flirting with me.  She was listening to a walkman.  She let me listen to what she was playing.  It was the Sign O The Times album and the song was It.  I picked it up partway through.  What I remember from that first encounter with this song was the sparseness, the rhythm, the driving force.  And the guitar solo.  She grabbed the earphones back from my before the song finished.  There is a coldness about the instrumentation in that song that oxymoronically blends with the heat of the lyrics.  There is a pain in the delivery that seemingly contradicts the passion, the honesty, the divinity of the pleasure and desire Prince is singing about.  It is a startling song.  A compelling song.  It is genius.

The girl from the bus had a birthday.  She mentioned that Prince had a new album out.  I played it through once to make sure it wasn’t scratched.  Of course, Lovesexy is genius from start to finish.  The song Lovesexy, however, is massively underrated.  The layering, the discordant chords, building and struggling against each other – all so high in the mix.  Frustratingly but brilliantly conceived – as it for much of the time on this album – the guitar is low in the mix, so hidden, you really have to listen…of course until you don’t and he brings it to the front, then sends it back again.  Prince’s guitar work on this song is sensational; fruity, fluid, fantastic.  The combative to and fro of the lyrics, the androgyny, the scintillating playfulness of sexuality and sexual fulfilment and the conjoining of faith/belief and sex and the importance of spreading the word, of proselytising helpless in the face of this music and this message.  The album left me gobsmacked.  It is genius.

These were the moments that hooked me.

In 1988, arguably, I’d missed the boat.  Immediately after buying Lovesexy I experienced the live shows, the 1985 Syracuse concert and the Dortmund Lovesexy show, through the TV.  I knew the hits but there were masses of songs that I’d never heard of.  The hunt for the back catalog was intense and, as you’d imagine, found me slack-jawed and wide-eyed on many occasions.  Peculiarly, it was the side projects that thrilled me the most.  The Family, the Madhouse albums, The Glamorous Life, What Time Is It? remain amongst my favourite Prince albums.  They provide a scope to his canon in the way that Bowie’s characters provide scope to his.

I don’t think I did miss the boat.  It was very interesting to be around during the name change – even if that was all for nothing in the end – and it was interesting to be around during his re-evaluation of his career.  The fact that he had agreed to write his memoirs is extremely intriguing and now ultimately maddening – perhaps, although he wouldn’t have liked to admit this at the time, his mortality was beginning to become apparent.  The challenge he had given himself with the piano shows (oh, how I now wish I had managed to find the means and manner to attend the Auckland shows) hinted at so many possibilities at how he was reengaging with music and reenergising his performance.  Following the guitar heavy 3rdEyeGirl work, the piano shows displayed the still constant evolution of Prince as a musician and idealist.

I’m angry his last two albums are what they are.  I’m angry the direction he was now taking himself never manifest itself in the form of a studio album.  I’m angry that at 57 he was still putting songs out about how great he was and how much people were going to be blown away by his next performance.  We knew how great he was.  Prince was a genius.  This new direction may have allowed for the genius to evolve and bloom anew.  Instead, it won’t.  I’m in danger of slipping into the Alan Leeds’ Grieving Paradigm.  I’ll stop.

It’s hard to write that I’m going to miss Prince.  I won’t, of course, because his music and his performance will be with me, with us, for our lifetimes’.  There will, I’m certain, be new/old music released over the coming years.  The new music will thrill and, in his manner – incomparable at juxtaposing emotions and sounds – will make us sad simultaneously.  His name will live on and on and outlive us all.  There’s a little bit of me, though, that wishes life was never-ending.  And whilst many may say good things never last; this good thing will.  Forever.

I Wonder U

Parade is genius.  In the genius of this album is arguably the finest one minute and forty seconds Prince and the Revolution ever produced.

There are two simple elements to this song – which as you read this is now going to appear as if I am stating the obvious – and they are the lyrics and the music.  Ok; I see the sea of perplexed faces, “Of course songs are about lyrics and music…”  Allow me…

“I, how you say, I wonder you, I wonder you.”

Prince exquisitely captures that notion of “lost in translation” superbly.  The song may have been recorded in LA but the European vibe that drenches this album is clearly apparent.  Whatever the influence Wendy and Lisa, Clare Fischer, the script for Under The Cherry Moon, France were having, it’s all there in this song.  The pause between “I” and “how you say” indicates the foreigness of the language or, perhaps, an internal dialogue – a person searching for the right word or words.  And then there is the kicker “I wonder you”.  Wonder – noun, a reaction to something that is beautiful.  A word that indicates thought, consideration, preoccupation.  A simply genius, foreign conceptualisation of the word love.  Easy to understand how a non-native speaker may mistake this word for the one they wanted.  Beyond that, it is also a word often used synonymously with adoration or awe.  The vocalist conveys their sense of complete devotion to the object of their words.

The phrasing of each of the lines indicates this struggle to translate a compelling feeling; love, dreams, a constancy of desire and need.  “Though, you are far, I wonder you, you’re on the mind.”  It’s beautiful the way the struggle is summed up in a misspoken colloquialism that reinforces the fixed presence of the object in the thoughts of the singer.

Finally there is the fact that the vocal is performed by Wendy.  The use of a female voice as a counterpoint to vocals on the rest of the album makes this song stand out.  Reading about the recording of the song, it is interesting to note that Prince played the same trick he used on 1999 – recording a joint lead vocal and then reverting to a single voice…and he chose to leave his off.  There is a sense of exotic in Wendy’s delivery and sense of uncertainty, a nervous longing and hope the “wonder” will be reciprocated.  The intensity of emotion is beautiful.  It is overwhelming.  It overwhelms me still, twenty eight years after I first heard it.

What augments this is the music.  Prince, in 1986, with all the influences around him at work, truly understood atmosphere.  Listen to There’s Others Here With Us or In All My Dreams – he transforms these songs from curiosities through his production and his use of layering of sounds and effects making the first spookily ethereal and the second a carnival.  Atmosphere is pervasive through out this period of Prince’s music – even the playful cliché of Do U Lie sits well because of Prince’s use of mood on this record.  It is, in my opinion, massively ironic that he considered the album or the released material weak.  Forget the rest of the instrumentation, even the segues in and out of this song smack of an artist in complete control.  The flow from the drum pattern into and then the string chord outro seamlessly entwine these songs together.

The laughter, the conviviality of the party is just overdone enough, it sounds harsh, and through this comes the thoughts of the lover, the lyricist, whose words sound a little out of place.  The three note bass sequence before the melody starts in is a beautiful detail.  Detail is perhaps the key word here.  There is an evident measure of care.  The intensity referred to above is also manifest in the way Prince was working at the time – again, in my opinion.  The detailing in the songs on Parade is one of its cornerstones, what makes it a rightly recognised classic album.  The lower register of the flute family supports this discordance between the situation the singer appears to find themselves in – the raucous party – and the desire they have to communicate their love.  The rumble of the bass, though so clear on every note, again reinforces this notion.  The sharpness of the notes give way to a more fluid and flowing expression as the confidence grows.  It is a beautiful arrangement of Prince and Fischer, combining beautifully with the simplicity of the lyric.

One final aspect.  The guitar.  As the song builds to its climax, the guitar builds in the mix.  It takes over the highlighting of the song – toing and froing between it and the repeat of the flute notes.  Points of punctuation between and over the words; pin-pricks of delight in the swirl of noise.  And at the end, the wee solo.  So out of place but so right.  It shouldn’t work.  It comes from a different song – perhaps a different language – but it translates into a perfect full-stop.  A Prince signature.

It is thirty years since this song’s release.  Parade as a whole is still as vital a sounding album now as it ever was.  I Wonder U is a heartbeat in Prince’s musical career but one, I would contend, of the most significant.  I’ve used the word beautiful many times in this piece.  I have done so purposefully.  This song is a work of beauty and sings of a beautiful subject.  It is arguably Prince and the Revolution’s most (beautiful) important song.

*

When you listen to the alternative versions of this song – the one with Prince’s lead overshadowing Wendy’s or the extended version with the further orchestration – you marvel at the decisions artists make.  In 1986, Prince made some perfect decisions.

Oh – and why this song, why now?  When I flicked on the internet and saw Prince had been rushed to hospital and initial reports were a little confused – this was the first song that sprang to mind.  I wondered about him, I hoped he was well.  I’m glad he is.

What’s My Name?

“What’s My Name” is a song that has intrigued me from the moment I heard it on a poorly recorded bootleg of the Ulysses show Prince produced back in 1993.  It captured the essence of Prince from that time quite succinctly but also asked many questions of the mind of the man who composed it.  It is a simple song masking a mixed up mind.

*

Prince was in crisis.  According to one of his album covers, he was dead.  He had the word “slave” scrawled on his face and, fuck, did he look thin.  There genuinely appeared to be a moment of madness about Prince at this time; the gemini in him pulling him this way and that… the other person inside him.  And at the heart of it a letter talking about new music.  Beyond that letter was the songs.

The albums generated by this period of creativity (Come, The Gold Experience and Exodus) remain amongst Prince’s best work outside his 80’s purple patch – although The Gold Experience does suffer if listened to in isolation.  This triple threat contains the rebirth of vivacity in Prince’s music.  Pheremone, Dark, Space, Eye Hate U, Billy Jack Bitch, Shy, The Exodus Has Begun, Return of the Bump Squad, Big Fun – the list grows and grows.  There’s still bloom in this blossom.  The tinniness that would mar much production a few years later hadn’t quite crept in.  There was still an earthiness about the sound.  Songs like Race and Papa challenged and provoked.  Cherry, Cherry, with its doo-wop smile, and Count the Days, with its sinister minister, still play easy on the ears. There is also a secondary layer of songs from this time that received obscure issue through the Crystal Ball venture.  One of those is “What’s My Name”.

My naivety at the time led me to believe Prince’s call for “free music”.  I got caught up in his fight against the corporate.  How dare they stop him releasing music.  How dare they stymie his creativity.  Couldn’t they see what they had on their hands?  Why on earth would they treat genius in this fashion?  Tortured genius at that.  Here was a man searching his soul, seeking identity and experimenting in this journey through his music.  He was inviting us to listen to his internal monologue and a corporate was getting in the way.  A man no longer wanted to be known by his given name.  He was thrashing about, trying to get a grip on reality and songs were pouring out of him.  I wanted to hear these songs.  Prince, sorry, Not-Prince wanted me to hear these songs and Warner Bros. wouldn’t let us.  Boo!  Party Poop!

In the centre of this maelstrom was a song dealing with the very subject upon which his empire had been built.  The name.

The delivery of the lyrics swing between a sulky, spoken, low in the mix murmur to screams and abandonment of sanity.  They open with a casting aside of the name by which we’d known our hero for fifteen or so years, and a dismissal of the fame and fortune that had come with it.  It sounds like the moment Prince, sorry, Not-Prince realised the shift in tastes and styles – curiously on a track that merges these tastes and styles quite superbly (oh, sweet irony).  It is the middle section of the song that still thrills me when I listen to it.

“Take this bass, I can’t play it
It only makes me wish for the way it used to be
You could slap my face, but I got to say it
You never would have drank my coffee if I had never served you cream”

There’s a “Rosebud” feeling about the instrument pealing away from a loosening grip and falling to the floor.  The bass becoming dormant at the feet of the maestro who can no longer see the worth of it.  The spiteful notion of the quality of the music it has produced summed up beautifully in the metaphor that follows – a wonderful use of allusion here, too; Prince pushing the image of the Cream video to the front and centre of the mind of the listener. There is also a political element in this imagery: the coffee is black and isn’t palatable until it has white put into it.  Not-Prince appears to be analysing the need for him to have diluted his music in order to gain that mass-market.  He was, of course, lauded for the bi-racial line up of his band and the music world celebrated the mixed audience Prince played for through Purple Rain, etc.  In this song Prince questions his actions and, maybe, his motives for compromising his music. The song then finished with a judgement sequence of couplets that finish the song off – a mural of Not-Prince’s mysticism which has a faint whiff of Prince’s.  Oddly, however, there is the last line “Do you live a liar, or do you live for love”.

[extra analysis – ALSO there’s the reference to the quality of the music created by Prince in the coffee/cream metaphor.  The simple lyric belies the complexity and ambiguity of its meaning.]

“Live for love” was a refrain of Prince’s throughout the early 90s.  It is a natural continuation of his Paisley Park policy and for a time also captured the altruism for which Prince does not get the recognition he deserves – rightly so, I imagine from his point of view, because you have to look quite closely to see how charitable Prince is – anyway.  The line “Do you live a liar” is the game-breaker here because, in my opinion, Not-Prince was being a little too black and white about an issue which was grey: the name change.

We all know now that Prince’s name change was centred around length of contract with Warner Bros. and in 2000 Not-Prince became Prince again.  The soul-searching and the desperate pleas for him to be able to use his music as a therapeutic method through which to discover who he really was (I’m paraphrasing the argument here, obviously) were ditched.  I recall be annoyed.  More annoyed at myself for falling for it, I suppose, but also annoyed at Prince for playing the game the way he did.

What’s My Name is a toys being thrown out of the cot song of the highest degree, and I love it.  I love the fact he is so sassy about right and wrong of the argument.  I love that he is so petulant.  I particularly love that it manifests itself in a mercurial moment of music; a furious bomb of noise and rhythm.  The sublime bass, which of course he can’t play; the house-style keyboard riff, saturated in rave sweat, and the thunder of percussion neatly encapsulate the crazy of Prince’s mind from the time.  It is a song that still resonates – this is the man who wrote the word “slave” on his face and the man who said, “Albums, like books and black lives, still matter” – the bitter irony here is another article in an of itself.  It is a song for those who want to know who Prince was and is.  It is a song that makes me smile.

*

I’ve wanted to write about this song for quite some time.  Each time I got going though the momentum fizzled out.  Listening to The B-Sides, the other night, reminded me of the massive arsenal of songs Prince has released and hardly anyone knows about.  It is a strong back-catalog this Minneapolitan marvel has at his disposal.  More people should know about this song.  If only there was a way in which Prince could get his music to masses in a easy and accessible fashion?