The 21 April is a sad day for music. Five years ago the genius that was Prince Rogers Nelson died an at his Paisley Park home-studio part way through a tour for his then unreleased Piano and a Microphone album.
And our world is worse for it. That might sound like an over-the-top statement, particularly given the year we’ve had. But for many people creative arts—even though we haven’t been able to experience them live—have been central to helping us through, from online sets by performers, to podcasts and more. This isn’t really a review of Prince’s life or of his greatest hits, but hopefully you’ll want to explore his work after reading it.
However you measure it, Prince achieved more than most in his life. Purple Rain, the album that really took his career to a stratospheric level, sold over 20 million copies and won him an Oscar for best original song score. Overall, he sold more than 150 million records, got seven Grammys, seven Brits, six American Music Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards and a Golden Globe to sit alongside the Oscar. Prince was the first ever singer to have a US number one album, number one single and number one film at the same time. He released 39 albums, and there is reputed to be a vault full of unreleased material at Paisley Park—already three albums have been posthumously released. He was known for writing songs for other artists, or giving them ones he thought would work better for them. He played guitar for Stevie Wonder—with En Vogue as backing vocalists—and performed to an audience of over 140 million at the Super Bowl. This is a mere flavour of his accomplishments.
Prince wasn’t a one-genre man either. He was influenced by the US midwest area he grew up in—of course by the soul classics like James Brown, but also by Miles Davis and more. He toured as support for Rick James, who complained that Prince copied him, and the Rolling Stones, where he was pelted by an unappreciative audience with chicken innards. That says more about the audience than Prince.
So his work spanned a variety of styles from funk, pop, jazz, hip hop, psychedelia, rock and more. He had studio skills, working production on many of his own songs and for other artists and was central to his videos, stage sets and performances. On his first album, For You, released at the age of 20, Prince wrote, produced, arranged and composed all the songs apart from one where he shared writing the lyrics. He also played all 27 instruments, layering one recording over another for the finished product.
Artistic control and integrity was important to Prince. Many people will remember him appearing with the word SLAVE written across his cheek, changing his name to a symbol, the “love symbol”, and being described as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. This was because of a dispute with Warner Bros, the label he had been signed to since he was a teenager. It was about the artistic and financial control of his music and part of his attempt to get out of his contract with them. In the contract, Warner Bros had ownership of his master tapes, and they controlled the pace his work was released. Not only did Prince want his masters, but he wanted an almost constant release of his work. Whereas Warner Bros wanted a slower, controlled release so that they could exploit singles and accompanying tours to the max. While Prince found this contract restrictive, he had more artistic freedom and control over his publishing rights than most artists. Which just reinforces the constraints on creativity when cash rules everything around.
After reaching a settlement with Warner Bros and releasing the obligatory ‘contractual’ album, Prince started his own NPG/New Power Generation label and released a triple album, Emancipation.
“One advantage of writing SLAVE on my face back then is that when I meet with a label now, they already know they’re not going to be owning anything,” Prince said. He was meeting with Colombia Records to sign a distribution deal. “Maybe at one time they could get Little Richard for a new car and a bucket of chicken. We don’t roll like that no more.”
Surprisingly, Prince signed a new deal with Warner Bros after an 18-year gap, but this time even more on his terms. The label announced the release of a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Purple Rain, and then returned ownership of all his recordings. Although he had reverted to using his name Prince, the love symbol regularly continued to feature on stage and as the shape of some of his guitars.
Prince was a dazzling live performer, not just the stage sets but the whole event. One of the times I saw him was at the O2 arena, during a 21-night residency. He was taken to the stage—the love symbol in the middle of the arena—hidden in a flight case and then rose up out of the middle. He proceeded to sing, dance and play instruments whilst looking cool and wearing heels in his early 50s, no mean achievement. When the set finished, the lights came up and thousands left the arena. Without announcement up popped Prince again, to sit at the keyboards and play another set, this time acoustic. When that was over, you could then go to the ‘after party’, a third gig in a small venue across from the arena. He did this for most of the 21 nights. For a little flavour of him live, look at the video from the Super Bowl.
And for a full-length gig look at this link for his first arena gig for 10 years, the opening night of the Musicology tour in 2004.
Prince was born and died in Minnesota, with his Paisley Park home and studio only a few miles outside his birthplace in Minneapolis. An amazing studio, it also had a gig venue where Prince would often perform for fans, other musicians or even journalists. He was a famously uncommunicative interviewee despite having lyrics pouring out of him for over 40 years.
Throughout his life, he created an image of rock star perfection that to be honest he lived up to. His influence was massive—without Prince there probably would not have been Frank Ocean, or Pharrell Williams’ Frontin’. Timbaland idolised Prince. And said when he first heard I Wanna To Be Your Lover, “To this day I don’t really know how he created this unique sound, and that’s why it’s so dope. He’s in his own world and nobody else can get there, although I’ve tried”. Trap artist Future called his mixtape Purple Reign to acknowledge the impact Prince had on him. And Prince’s approach to controlling his music and image paved the way for recently split Daft Punk, whose deal with Virgin gave them total control over theirs.
One other legacy from Prince was the “Parental Advisory—Explicit Content” label that started appearing in 1990 thanks to the Parents Music Resource Centre and its founder, “Tipper” Gore. It was Gore hearing her daughter singing the lyrics to Prince’s Darling Nikki, the everyday tale of a woman masturbating in a hotel lobby, that started that ball rolling.
All that did for me was indicate which records were worth a second look at in the shop. So probably not the desired outcome—who goes record shopping with their parents anyway?
But Darling Nikki wasn’t a one off. Let’s face it, Prince wasn’t a man to be subtle about sex and sexuality. The Dirty Mind album alone featured reciprocal oral sex, threesomes and incest. Have a listen to Head, a chance encounter between Prince and a bride-to be. Quick synopsis—after oral sex she marries Prince, who wasn’t the planned groom.
The list is pretty much endless from the more lyrically upfront Sexy MF and Gett Off, the one night stand of Little Red Corvette, to tracks that are visually sexual from the videos. To be honest, I reckon that Prince’s response to most things was that sex would make it better, or at least make it go away for the time being. As he sang in On The Couch, “It’s undignified to sleep alone,” and you feel that’s how his musical persona lived his life. Quite how he squared the circle with his late conversion to be a Jehovah’s Witness isn’t exactly clear. He certainly didn’t tailor his image post-conversion, although he did sometimes knock on doors to spread the word.
But there were some other responses from Prince. 1987’s Sign O’ The Times is probably his best-received social commentary song. It was the title track of his ninth studio album, which itself was essentially the product of him and his sound engineer, Susan Rogers. Unlike his first solo album though, Prince had nothing to prove and as ever was constantly moving forward, trying to innovate. This was the time of the first wave of hip hop, with its gritty, socially conscious lyrics, and the track is Prince acknowledging that. More recently, Prince released Baltimore, his musical response to the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of Freddie Gray. There have been a lot better artistic reactions and interpretations of Black Lives Matter. And really what Baltimore shows is how deep the movement goes and how it’s impacted on US society as a whole when an artist such as Prince gets involved.
One of the areas where Prince was ground-breaking though was in his collaboration with women. In the industry women are on the whole rigidly kept in a few roles, lead and backing vocalists being the main ones. But Prince’s entire musical output involved women in his bands as drummers, guitarists, bass players, saxophonists, keyboard players and more. He also worked with women as sound engineers and producers. The Graffiti Bridge and Diamonds and Pearls albums were produced by Sylvia Massey, and Susan Rogers was the sound engineer on Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day, Parade, Sign O’ The Times and The Black Album. They talk about how Prince was demanding—he expected them to be workaholics like he was, but also listened to them and gave them chance to develop.
Similarly, for an artist obsessed with having control over his output, Prince was exceptionally generous with his creativity. He gave songs to other artists who he thought could do them better than he could.
He also gave fans his music, with Planet Earth and 20Ten CDs given away for free, and he was an early embracer of free streaming his music, earning him the industry nickname The Artist Formerly Available In Record Stores. In the last couple of years of his life, Prince had been touring small venues with his latest band, 3rdeyegirl doing pop up gigs announced at short notice on Twitter. Queues formed round the block for them all, and his gigs for the incomplete Piano and a Microphone tour were sold out.
Who knows what Prince would have done next—but it would have been innovative, probably filthy, and worth listening to because the man was a genius. Sylvia Massey summed him up well, “He was better at everything. It was just like the rest of the world was just kind of slowing him down.” In particular, she remembers Prince once picking up an untuned Fender Telecaster with rusty strings. “He played it in tune by shifting his fingers on the fret board so that the chords were in tune,” she said. “I’d never seen anything like that before, someone who could play an untuned guitar and make it in tune. It was mind-blowing.”
And finish by watching and listening to just how well he plays a guitar.
Can existential dread also be funny?
Real interviews with the first casualties
A new book by James Poskett