published: 16 /
In 'Vinyl Stories' Dave Goodwin writes of the impact on him of discovering Prince in the 1980s and talks to seven Pennyblackmusic writers about their favourite Prince songs
“Dearly beloved/We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis, USA on June 7, 1958. After signing to Warner Bros. when he was just eighteen, he went on to sell over one hundred million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. He was subsequently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
Prince taught himself to play piano when he was seven, guitar at thirteen and drums at fourteen and became part of a band called Grand Central, which later became Champagne. One of the most memorable parts of his career came in the 1990s when he became embroiled in a contractual battle with Warner Bros. who didn't want to release the amount of output that he wanted to, so he changed his stage name to an unpronounceable symbol known as the "Love Symbol" and soon began releasing new albums at a faster pace. A lot of people around me at the time thought he'd lost the plot and was on self-destruct, but it proved to be nothing but a masterstroke. I remember at the time the experts reckoned that he was writing enough material to be releasing four albums a year if he wanted. As it turned out between 1994 and 1996 he actually released five albums, before signing with Arista in 1998. It wasn't until the Millennium that he reverted back to being called Prince again, but that didn't stop his phenomenal output. He released no less than sixteen other albums before sadly passing away suddenly at his Paisley Park recording studio and home in Chanhassen, Minnesota on the 21st April aged just fifty-seven.
As if growing up and going to what they called school in the late 1970s/early 1980s wasn’t enough to fry my brain, the music of that era nearly cleaned me out before I had even started. The plethora of genres and styles around at that time was enough to confuse the most hardened and streetwise kid, never mind a scrambled-up, spot-ridden, ginger tosser like me. First of all I was into Alvin Stardust (Yep, I know ), then I was caught up in the Ska explosion, after which I slid into the world of the Mod owning my own pair of original fishtails. Finally I came out the other side as a New Romantic/Futurist type and wore Bowie trews and a box jacket. As the American sitcom of the time ‘Soap’ used to proclaim at the start of each programme, “Confused? You will be, after this week's episode of...”
My record buying knew no boundaries. I was literally eating vinyl. Collecting trolleys at Tesco all day Saturday and Thursday night just about fuelled my habit, along with my paper-round every morning and evening. As you can imagine being into so many different styles in such a short space of time, my record collection grew quite handsomely. I had just about sorted out which way I was heading sound-wise and then along came Prince. Oh, My God. Male femininity at that time in the macho world of the male school kid was non-existent and largely scoffed at, so when this black guy turned up with diamonds and pearls and high heels it was an eye-opener.
I think I had my first fleeting glimpse of Prince when he released the ‘1999’ album along with the single of the same name and ‘Little Red Corvette'. The way I got into him, however, was through the 1984 ‘Purple Rain’ album and the masterpiece that was ‘When Doves Cry’. Some say that that album was his greatest work, but if you look at his vast catalogue after ‘Purple Rain’ there is enough evidence to argue against it. I remember buying 'Purple Rain' on the strength of 'When Doves Cry'. The use of synths at that time was centred around a predominantly white culture. Bands such as Depeche and Yazoo and Erasure were all using synths and nothing but synths. It was left to artists like Gary Numan and OMD to mix in guitars with them. Then along came this skinny chap that provided full on riffing out along with the Moog' and it was a revolution...sorry, 'Revelation'.
After this, I bought much of Prince’s output including 1991’s ‘Diamonds and Pearls’, which is the album I probably cherish most to this day and not only spawned the title track but also ‘Thunder’, ‘Cream’, ‘Get Off’ and the sublime ‘Money’. It is an absolutely huge album. I would also go on to buy 2006’s ‘3121’ which housed the incredible 'Black Sweat'.
My brother-in-law owned a record shop in the West End Arcade in Nottingham and I virtually lived there in the early 1980s. I remember there was a picture disc hanging on the wall of the ‘When Doves Cry ‘single and I was as curious as much anything to what kind of style of music it was, even more than what the music sounded like itself. I likened it in my mind to something like Adam & the Ants, although I'm not exactly sure why. Perhaps it was the flamboyancy of it all. But the record was dripping in colour and splendour and...well...purple. When I did finally buy the single I played it to death, and so invested in the ‘Purple Rain’ album.
This guy dressed like a woman but was into women! Now that confused the hell out of me! I remember keeping the record covered up in my Arcade Records bag on the bus home in case anyone saw the front cover and thought I was a bit strange. Image was so crucial back then it was horrifying! A lot of the kids around me couldn’t give a monkey’s how they were perceived, but me? I had to look cool. I was a bit of a nerd I now reckon. I also remember my dad’s reaction. I had successfully managed to complete my covert operation of getting the album home and upstairs without being compromised, and was sitting in my bedroom listening to my spoils when in walked my dad and said “What crap are you listening to now?” He went straight to the cover of ‘Purple Rain’, picked it up and with a smug grin declared, “Oh, you're into that stuff now, eh?”
I have still got both the album and the single tucked away in my collection. I kept them not just because I loved the music and still do love virtually everything Prince has done (I thought ‘3121’ was brilliant), but also I know my dad is up there somewhere with that same smug grin and I soooo want to get my own back and piss him off with it! My dad was a lover of all black music, and he did, however, in a confidential moment, divulge that he actually did like Prince. I promised not to tell anyone.
As this is yet another ‘Vinyl Stories’ dedicated to one we have lost, I asked some of our fellow writers at Pennyblackmusic to give some of their thoughts and memories of Prince and the records that made him a worldwide phenomenon.
Adrian Huggins also remembers Prince’s single ‘When Doves Cry’. This is a deeply personal account of someone who has spent a long time listening and enjoying the music of a true artist:
ADRIAN: "Writing about a Prince song in light of his death is equally gutting and a privilege but one that I could not pass up. One word that has crept up continuously since his death is “genius" and while this word is somewhat over used I think it is completely deserved when talking of the Prince.
To be honest, I am not even sure if he was human. Have you seen that solo he did on his version of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’? If you haven't, then check it out. I promise you will very quickly cease to look at a guitar again without thinking that it will never, ever be played again as well now Prince is not with us.
The first time I recall hearing ‘When Doves Cry’ on vinyl was after four in the morning one heady weekend back in 2010 following a somewhat raucous night out. In a sudden burst of energy the person whose house we were in felt 4:23 a.m. on a Sunday was probably the best time to stick some records on. And ‘Purple Rain’ was his record of choice. I admittedly enquired: 'Why Prince?' 'Just shut up and listen' was the response, which was followed by the sound of pennies dropping. When ‘When Doves Cry’ came on I suddenly realised not just what a great album this or what a great song it particularly was, but also how it throws up so many contradicting points about Prince.
For a man that exceeded confidence, there is a surprising amount of vulnerability on show within this song. That somehow managed to penetrate my still slightly intoxicated brain or maybe it was the state I was in that made me realise it in the first place. Either way I remember the feeling of ‘getting it’ and have not looked back since.
The other stark contrast about ‘When Doves Cry’ for me is the fact that this is for all intents and purpose a dance song but there is no sign of bass in it at all. It’s a sad song, but could you think of a catchier and more rhythmic and groovy sound? No, me neither. As a stand-alone song, it is both at odds and completely typical of what Prince has become known for.
The other beauty of the song is the amount of space in it. For someone who could pretty much play any instrument better than any other human he managed to know when and when not to completely fill the soundscape, so that when that unmistakable Prince-style chorus kicks in on ‘When Dovs Cry’ everything is instantly boosted.
In no simpler terms we have lost one of the world’s musical greats of all time. It is a sad time but also a great chance for people to discover and rediscover. Rest in peace, you tiny , sexy wonder man."
Nicky Crewe remembers Prince by by reflecting on his ‘1999’ single from the album of the same name from the year 1982.
NICKY: "In the hours and days following Prince’s passing much of his music has played around me and in my memories. When the call went out for our ‘Vinyl Stories’ I was spoilt for choice. My love of his music and appreciation of his talent grew over the years. Other songs are further up my list of favourites but there was something very personal about ‘1999 ‘when I first heard it in the early 1980s. I was born in the mid -fifties, and am just a few years older than Prince. Back in my childhood days I used to calculate how old I would be in the year 2000, finding the thought of being in my 40s incomprehensible. In my late teens it seemed like it might never happen, what with the threat of nuclear war. By the time this song came out I was in my mid twenties and I had more of a sense of purpose. It still seemed a long way off. Then suddenly I was there, partying with my three children to welcome not just a new century but the new Millennium, dancing to this anthem, perfect for the occasion. Like Prince, it was ahead of its time.
I’ve often wondered if he felt the same sense of disbelief as a child that the year 2000 would ever happen and that he would be there to see it."
Maarten Schiethart remembers his early vinyl collecting days, and especially Prince’s 1981 single ‘Controversy’, once again from the album of the same name.
MAARTEN: "I was born in 1961. The first vinyl I bought was Cuby & The Blizzards and ‘Popcorn’ on 7 inch vinyl, and the first LP I bought was ‘Deep Purple in Rock’. This must have been around 1971/1972.
By the time, I bought Prince’s ‘Controversy’ single I already owned hundreds and hundreds of records.
For decades the Netherlands was the largest market ranking after the UK, West Germany and France. It was the stepping stone to enter the UK and Europe. Often records were pressed in huge quantities and dumped quickly.
I bought the 7 inch ‘Controversy‘ for 25 (Guilder) cents the week after it dropped out of the Top 40 in October 1981. It had gone down from 5.95 to 0.25. V&D, the Netherlands' largest department store chain, automatically did this to make room for new entries in its Top 40 displays. I treasured a heap of Parliament (and related) vinyl and was surprised to hear the gritty P-Funk -influenced 'Controversy' in the charts (US #70, AUS #15, NL #27, no UK entry). And so I took a gamble with it and its B-side ‘When You Were Mine’, and then was duly
Alas, a few years later this did not work how I wanted, when Prince’s gorgeous ‘Raspberry Beret’dropped out of the Top 40. There were no unsold versions left. Ironically thirty-five years later Prince passed away in the same week that V&D closed all its shops."
Carl Bookstein also remembers Prince's vinyl escapades from around that era as he talks about ‘Private Joy’ also from the ‘Controversy’ album.
CARL BOOKSTEIN: "The year was 1981. The album ‘Controversy’ had just hit. Prince was an enigma. Questions arose just as quickly as the force with which he hit the music scene.
I was on the dance floor at some sophomore year college party at the University of Michigan. When the song ‘Private Joy’ came rocking over the stereo speakers, it blew my mind. It was a turbo charged, funk driven dance groove and an absolute call to arms to dance, spin and move. I had never heard anything like it.
With a propulsive, blistering beat, ‘Private Joy’ energized the dance floor. Prince was on the money from the get go. It was as good a pure dance tune as I had ever heard. I found this new artist on the scene quite remarkable- a truly original voice.
I have been of late looking back on the 1980s as dance hall days. Prince for me is where all this began. ‘Private Joy’, the first Prince song I ever heard, was a stirring reason to move- a brilliant and mesmerizing dance groove.
I would go on to avidly follow Prince’s career for about the next decade. He was a monolithic talent that kept creating and changing. 57 is too young. With this outpouring of love and attention, it is already clear how much he is missed."
Lisa Torem remembers the ‘Purple Rain’ film and the single of the same name.
LISA: "I saw the movie ‘Purple Rain’ in 1984 on the big screen. I'm certainly not the only one who enjoyed it - The Minneapolis artist brought home an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score with the title song, although I also enjoyed ‘When Doves Cry’. The movie theme song had a universality to it that I found very contagious. Prince had this amazing charisma and I couldn't keep my eyes off the screen. He had a gentle, kind face, yet he could pull off these aggressive moves whilst singing. He was a contradiction, which made him that much more intriguing. I loved the way his performance consolidated total strangers sitting in a dark theatre. He could hold a note soulfully and then transition to falsetto more smoothly than anyone."
Another Pennyblackmusic contributor Mary O'Meara casts an insight into the times that surrounded her favourite Prince track ‘Sign o' the Times’.
MARY: "If the truth be told I didn't actually buy this as a single in 1987 when it was happening on the airwaves. I don't know why because from the first note/word this is a track that stops you dead in your tracks. I loved the record on first listen and it's still as relevant today as it was then, despite three decades rolling by. It hit the planet post-Chernobyl, not long before Thatcher became PM in the UK for a third term, when the threat and reality of AIDS had cast an unwelcome shadow on our lives. Just like ‘Panic’ by the Smiths (a year earlier), ‘Sign o' the Times’ totally encapsulates that insidious fear, darkness and discomfort that this era held in my memories as a young adult. I was living in Shepherd's Bush in a bedsit, with little money and a string of temporary jobs.
The sparse sound, menacing synth riffs and lonely drum machine can't help but make you uneasy but what I really love about this record is the way the refrain explodes with those impassioned lines "Is it silly, no? When a rocket blows and, and everybody still wants to fly/Some say man ain't happy truly until a man truly dies /Oh why, oh why?" How many other songs have you heard on the radio that examine our collective insanity, the fragility of the human predicament and ask such big, desperate questions as this? Those lines truly sound like lift off, the chaos and horror of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster shattering to bits and from there the song slowly climbs back down and the character singing tries to pick up the pieces, as he wades through the rubble offering the hopeful ending lines "We'll call him, Nate/If he's a boy" And that's a great ending, as it speaks of new life but also the recognition that some things are out of our hands. There aren't many records that can sound truly edgy, but super funky at the same time but this absolute classic is one."
Finally our editor John Clarkson remembers his initial interest in Prince by describing Prince’s opening track on the 'Purple Rain' album:
JOHN: "It was the film of ‘Purple Rain’ that kick started everything off with Prince for me. My best friend of the time and I were both working summer jobs in August 1984 when it came out. We were both eighteen, had each just finished first year at university and it was the first time that either of us had any real money in our lives. We spent a lot of it on going to the cinema, sometimes two or three times a week.
It was my friend who wanted to go and see ‘Purple Rain’. “You must know him,” he said about Prince. “The wee guy in the purple suit.” I didn’t. I was vaguely aware of ‘1999’, but had become so hooked on everything else that I had started to discover musically that year and the year before – Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Talk Talk, Joy Division and New Order – that Prince had completely passed me by.
I came away from the film completely entranced, not so much by the its plot which even then seemed hackneyed and clichéd, but by the flamboyant live performances that are dotted throughout it and, of course, the songs.
I went into town to buy the album of ‘Purple Rain’ the day after I saw the film. Thirty-two years later, from its front cover photo which was designed by Ed Thrasher who was married at the time to the actress Linda Gray (Sue Ellen in ‘Dallas’), to its lyric sheet which has on one side of it a face painting with huge purple eyes and lips, to the black vinyl which lies inside, it still seems like a work of art.
I would go on to buy most of the albums before and after it up until the ‘Love Symbol’ album of 1992, after which Prince‘s music began to falter for me as he became lost in legal contracts and I fell out of interest.
‘Purple Rain’ remains possibly my favourite album of his. I love all those songs - the stark bass-less ‘When Doves Cry’; the sexy, sultry ‘Darling Nikki’; the gorgeous, synth pop ballad ‘I Would Die for U’; the epic, scorched title track – but it is ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, which carries most the most resonance.
There is the mock eulogy at the start (“Dearly beloved/We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”). I had never heard anything quite like it before, and have never done since. There is the way it builds ever upwards, a mass of grinding and squealing funk and rock licks, from one euphoric height to the next. And then there are those lyrics, at one level a classic Prince reflection on death and the afterlife, but far more than that, about making sense of this world and grabbing what happiness we can from it. To these ears as well it is about the redemptive power of music.
The opening track on the film and the album that tuned me into Prince, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ began a love affair for me with his music."
While Prince was one of the most talented and dynamic recording artists and performers in music history, it is also worth remembering that he also made a good additional living as a songwriter. The fact is that he wrote so many songs that he sometime gave other recording artists some of his own work. Tracks such as ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinead O’Connor, ‘'Manic Monday’ by the Bangles, '’When You Were Mine’ by Cyndi Lauper, ‘How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore’ and ‘Jungle Love’ both by the Time - Prince’s rival band in the filme ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Stand Back’ by Stevie Nicks, ‘I Feel for You’ by Chaka Khan, ‘The Glamorous Life’ by Sheila E., ‘Round and Round’ by Tevin Campbell, ‘Pray’ by MC Hammer - his second single after ‘Can’t Touch This’ and ‘Love Song’ by Madonna were all written by the man himself. He is artist that will I'm sure, be sadly missed, by a lot of people.
I would like to thank all of the writers involved in this month's ‘Vinyl Stories’ for their insights and recollections into an artist that greatly influenced so many other artists in so many ways.