Prince: A tribute
Our music blogger Mark Perkins tries to come to terms with the loss of the Purple One
Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last. Well, I think this one will. The party that was the music of Prince will certainly be continuing round here for some time. Summing up what Prince achieved is not an easy task. There are dozens of albums, stacks of awards and any number of celebrities telling us what they think they about the man, but underlying every TV clip and behind every accolade is an incredible body of music. Simply put: Prince was unique. He was the most extraordinary artist in the history of pop, rock and dance music.
The albums and his live shows transcended the categories into which journalists like to put music. Hendrix-influenced guitar solos would sit alongside soulful ballads. Funky dance beats would melt into jazz instrumentals. His life was his music, his music was his life and it won’t be put in a box. Playing all his hits to an adoring stadium full of fans would wear out most performers, but Prince’s way of winding down was to turn up unannounced at a nearby small club in the early hours and jam for a few hours more. If all he’d ever done was play guitar, he’d be regarded as a legendary performer. Eric Clapton was once asked what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitarist. ‘How should I know?’ he replied. ‘You need to ask Prince’. But Prince also excelled on a range of instruments. His early albums were just him in the studio, multi-tracked, so when he worked with other musicians they all knew they’d better be good. Whatever your chosen instrument, you knew he could play it just as well as you could.
I need to come clean here before we go any further. I was never a Prince fan, I was a Prince obsessive. One lunchtime in Record Collector in 1982, Tim handed me an album, and said ‘See what you think of this’. Well, I didn’t really know what to think of it. I’d certainly never heard anything like it, with its synthesiser meets funk meets futuristic pop songs. The album was the single LP version of 1999. Warner Bros had decided to play safe and not release the US full double-album in the UK, but after the success of ‘Little Red Corvette’ and ‘1999’ all that changed. If Bowie took on the 70s and made them his own, Prince achieved a similar feat in the 80s. His run of albums from 1999, through Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, Sign o’ the Times and Lovesexy were unparalleled works of a creative genius, each one as unpredictable as its predecessor. But there was more, much more. His success enabled him to nurture a growing roster of side projects, with scant clues to his involvement, which allowed the fans a tantalising glimpse into the creative musical powerhouse that was Prince. The Time, Jill Jones, The Family, Madhouse, Vanity 6 and others released entire albums written by Prince, but credited to others. He built his Paisley Park studios, where he could, and did spend days creating music, much of which is now stored in a secure vault. If not for the efforts of people such as Susan Rogers, his recording engineer, much of it wouldn’t even have been kept. Once he was bored with a project or a song, she’d often have to persuade him not to just wipe the tapes and move on.
I was hooked to the point where I was no longer satisfied with what was available in the shops, I linked up with fans around the world, which was quite an effort in those pre-internet days. Today we’d be sharing mp3’s, but back then we traded live cassette tapes, and copies of a some of the vast number of unreleased songs that had somehow ‘leaked’ out of the vault. I even subscribed to the best fan magazine imaginable, ‘Controversy’, the main appeal of which was obviously priority concert tickets.
Of course, as with any mercurial talent, he had his petulant moments. His spat with Warner Brothers over ownership of his music and his attempts to embarrass the record company in reality undermined his image, which then led to the press mocking him. It seemed that the more bizarre his behaviour became the less inspirational and more self-indulgent his music was. Fortunately, as the century turned he returned to doing just what everyone wanted him to do: play one blistering live show after another. Three solid weeks of shows at the O2 arena confirmed that no-one could touch him as a live performer, although his recorded output has never matched his purple patch from years ago. I saw him several times live, twice in Sheffield, and will be forever grateful to have been there. No-one performed live the way Prince did, and if you need convincing as to why he was without equal as a performer, try to watch footage from his half-time performance, in the rain, at the Super Bowl. It was profound and loud and funky. No hint of self-promotion, just a man and his passion for music. He tore up the script, and did what no-one else would have dreamt of; he threw in a couple of cover versions. And what about that rain? Before the show the producer called him, told about the downpour, and asked him if he was OK with it.’Can you make it rain harder?’ said Prince. The finale, Purple Rain, is breath-taking. Make sure you see it.
Like Bowie, he toyed with the idea of his sexuality, but unlike Bowie, he wrote some very explicit lyrics. He even created a feminine alter-ego Camille, to sing on the songs like ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’. In those legendary vaults, there’s even rumoured to be an entire album of Camille songs. Sex was such a part of his music that at gigs, the concession stand didn’t just sell t-shirts, you could buy ‘Purple Rain Coat’ condoms. Throughout the 80s in particular, he created a look, or several looks that were hard to define but easy to spot. Albums he wrote and played on by Sheila E or The Family had barely a mention of Prince’s name, but just one look at what they wore gave the game away. Every album came with a different look, but one that was uniquely Prince.
Aretha Franklin summed it up by saying what we all know. ‘Prince is gone, but the music will go on’.