As I wrote this tribute to David Bowie just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined I’d be writing another one so soon, for an artist that perhaps more than any other, deeply touched and inspired me. But now, Prince has passed away, and many of us are digging into our musical biographies again, remembering up all sorts of joyful and formative experiences.
Prince was the soundtrack to my teens. His first ten albums, from For You to Lovesexy were on constant rotation until well in the 90s. I wore out the vinyl on my copies of Controversy, 1999 and Around The World In A Day, they are an unplayable mess of crackles and scratches now. I slowed down tracks so I could learn guitar solos, dubbed sections on repeat to tape so I could work out the production tricks and even played tracks backwards looking for hidden meanings!
In many ways, I was as taken by Prince’s image as much as I was by his music. For the cover of Dirty Mind, he wore a long coat, a small pair of briefs, thigh high leg warmers and mid heel boots. I never went that far, but I did don a homemade purple coat for a while and sported the asymmetrical curly haired look that was Prince’s staple for most of the 80s.
Prince was the first musician I knew who addressed his own image and public persona directly in his lyrics. In “Controversy” he sung “I just can’t believe, All the things people say, controversy, Am I black or white?, Am I straight or gay?” He was meta before most of us even knew what post-modernity was. Pop music in the 80s had plenty of lyrics engaging cultural and gender identity. But, no-one seemed to play as freely with ideas of race, gender, politics and religion as Prince did.
He seemed made for the era of music videos. There’s no question they helped forge his career, helped people notice and fall in love with his music. But looking back, many of his videos were relatively simple things, mostly just studio versions of his live show. Even his most famous video, for the hit song “Kiss,” was just him singing and dancing, while his guitarist at the time, Wendy Melvoin, sat on a stool and played. It’s sexy, infectious and more than a little bit funny. Part James Brown Sex Machine, part Charlie Chaplin dancing with a globe in The Great Dictator.
Prince wrote all his own material (though in later years his live shows included heavily reworked covers) and his dedication and work ethic in the studio was legendary. Like many in his era he was fascinated with drum machines. But no-one seemed to make them sound so human, so groovy, so organic. The beat for “When Doves Cry” is an example of his ability to make something mechanical sound as enticing as the best human funk groove. Like so many things he did, it’s a relatively simple part that comes alive in the final recording.
Prince also played bass, he played keyboards, he sung in everything from a wailing falsetto to a deep baritone, then speed up and slowed tape to create otherworldly, psychedelic backing tracks. And, he played guitar.
For a long time, it seemed people didn’t realise quite how good a guitarist he was. His short, blistering solo on “Little Red Corvette” kind of announced this, but it was there from his first album, with the cutting, heavy guitar parts on “Bambi.” By the time Purple Rain came out, I was enjoying the jaw-dropped expression on the faces of all my hard rock and heavy metal liking friends, when they heard the final solo from “Let’s Go Crazy.”
At the time, the guitar solo was a staple of popular music (not just rock), but it was a white man’s domain. We all knew Nile Rodgers was behind some of Bowie and Madonna’s biggest hits but you never saw him in the videos. Vernon Reid was laying down some of the heaviest riffs in metal, but his band, Living Color, never quite made the mainstream. However, Prince was rocking out solos like the best of them, reminding us of the era of Waters, Berry, Hendrix and Santana, when rock was a more diverse genre than what it had become in the age of MTV.
During my early teens I was equally fascinated by guitars and synthesisers. I’d played acoustic guitar since the age of 5, but I couldn’t make up my mind whether the next instrument would be a synthesisers (full of exciting new technological possibilities), or the electric guitar. Even on the day I bought my first electric guitar, I was still looking at synthesisers, wanting to emulate the sounds of “1999” and “Automatic.” Then, in a store display, I saw an arctic white Korean-made stratocaster copy. For some reason that guitar brought to mind Prince’s white guitar in the “Purple Rain” video, then my thoughts skipped to Jimi Hendrix’ guitar at Woodstock and pretty soon I was counting out $20 bills and taking home my new prized possession.
The last time I saw Prince was in 2002 at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. He wore a white suit, a wide brimmed hat, trademark heels and played for nearly three hours. I had spent more than I should’ve for seats near the stage. But as soon as the lights came down and his horn players Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer played their way down the aisle as the first song started, it all felt worth it. Jeff Beck was seated right in front of me and there were well known artists and celebrities all round, everyone in awe of Prince’s performance. He played new and old material, all of it reworked for the show, very little of it failing to impress. At one point, on piano, he played the opening notes from “Diamonds and Pearls,” looked up, waiting for the audience to cheer, then smiled and went onto the next song. The show wasn’t just pop, because pop so seldom allows for improvisation, for expression in the moment. This was something else, part jazz, part cabaret and pure inspired stagecraft.
Prince was our Elvis, our Fred Astaire, our James Brown, our Charlie Chaplin, our Jimi Hendrix, all rolled into one seething, wildly creative, race, gender and genre defying persona. Words like genius are too easily thrown around these days to explain his work. He simply was – Prince.