Sunday night saw two notable Prince events – one was the tribute to him at the Grammys by The Time and Bruno Mars (the latter increasingly proving he is the best tribute act in town), the other being that – at long last – a vast amount of Prince’s back-catalogue is now on all of the streaming sites.
Today is of course Valentine’s Day, and Prince wrote an awful lot about love (and sex). I’ve been meaning to devote a post to Prince since he passed away last year, but I couldn’t think of a decent subject to wrap it in (particularly as he has so many great songs), until this idea popped into my head this week – once confirmation of his catalogue being made available was made.
There is another reason I wanted to cover Prince, though. His album Lovesexy was the first CD I bought with my own money (it was released, as his albums often were in the latter half of the eighties, around my birthday in August), and I bought a good many more in the following years – although like many Prince fans of old, I didn’t follow him much beyond about 1995. I’d been exposed to his work for a good few years before that, too, thanks to my dad being a long-time fan too. On the other hand, I never managed to see one of his legendary live shows. I missed out on the 3121 O2 shows, and then the Hit’n’Run shows the other year in Camden? Daisy and I decided not to take the risk of paying silly money – but in the event we wouldn’t have done. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
So: here are ten of Prince’s “love” songs, some lesser known than others, others part of the pop canon.
It is easy to forget that Prince first broke through in the late 70s (and was, not even at the age of twenty, given a contract by Warners that allowed him to write and produce his own material, and to have creative control – almost unheard of at the time), and his early material is…of it’s time, that’s for sure. This was his breakthrough hit, from his second album, and while it absolutely owes something to the disco-funk styles in vogue at the time, it also gives the first hints of Prince’s, er, Dirty Mind, which he’d give full release to on the next album which got that title. This song, though, is a plea to a potential lover, who he wants to be everything for, and is willing to plead his case to do so.
Sign “O” The Times
Less than a decade later, Prince was playing with gender roles and analysing relationships like pretty much no-one else (in the mainstream, at least). If I Was Your Girlfriend – a song originally for the aborted Camille project that, like much of it, eventually morphed into the astonishing tour de force of Sign “O” The Times – sees Prince pitch-shifting his vocals to an impossibly high sound, and musing in the lyrics what his relationship with his female partner would look like if he was female. Would the intimacy be different, would they tell each other different things, would the trajectory of their relationship take an alternative route? The song is made all the weirder by the sparse arrangement, the changes in tone and pitch, and the lengthy, dramatic monologue that closes out the song – basically this is Prince trying to look at life from the view of the opposite sex, and to try and understand. There are few other artists who ever did.
Sign “O” The Times
The same album featured, a couple of songs on, one of Prince’s greatest songs, period. A rollicking, six-and-a-half-minute rock epic, it details the story of Prince meeting a distraught woman in a bar, who has been left by her partner (in the lurch with kids and no money), and how Prince refuses to be a “one-night stand”, or as “friends” to make her feel better in the short term. What’s always been interesting about it to me is rather than being the lothario, Prince’s reasoning is intriguingly honest, saying that even being “friends” would simply lead to temptation and frustration later down the line, effectively doing his best not to screw things up for the both of them just for that “one night stand”. It is, too, a tender song, where Prince genuinely has empathy for the female character in the song, and has always had me wonder if this was based upon a real event in his past.
Diamonds and Pearls
– One of Prince’s greatest, most commercially successful ballads, this swooning take on eternal, hopeless love is perhaps made all the more affecting by the prominence of Rosie Gaines’ glorious, soulful vocal range. The twinkling percussion adds a starry night feel to this lovelorn song, and I can’t think of anything wrong with it. This was a hell of a comeback of an album, too, after a few that weren’t up to scratch since Lovesexy (the twin soundtracks of Batman and Graffiti Bridge were, well, soundtracks and hardly gave Prince room to experiment), and this was a sprawling album that spawned no less than five hit singles.
Diamonds and Pearls
The other great ballad on Diamonds and Pearls is one of love, again, but the flipside to the title track. This is where love goes wrong, as money – and the wasting and frippery thereof – becomes the root cause of a relationship breakdown, as the protagonist gambles away, invests badly, and loses in every way. The downbeat theme of the song is carried by Prince’s restrained vocal, and the smooth, subtle classic-soul sound of the song itself.
Ok, so it’s not *quite* a love song, but a fun, oh-so-dirty take on what to do when you’ve been dumped. Find someone else, no strings, and a whole lot of fun. While Darling Nikki (on Purple Rain, of course) was the one that inspired the whole business of parental advisory stickers, it’s kinda amazing that this song didn’t do it a few years before – along with fellow 1999 cut Lady Cab Driver, it is an extraordinarily explicit, extended funk workout that barely hides the filth under the rhythms.
Purple Rain, if 1999 hadn’t already, was the album that made Prince a bona-fide Star. A wildly self-indulgent film that made him the hero (and villain, in some respects), the film was bolstered by the phenomenal soundtrack (including, not on the album – which is all Prince, of course – the hard funk of The Time with Jungle Love) that doesn’t have a single duff second. Not surprisingly, most of the songs see Prince talking about himself, but there are exceptions, such as this track, one of the seemingly endless number of singles from the album. OK, so Prince is still saying how amazing how he is, but he also goes into some detail about the lengths he would go to for his prospective paramour. As the title suggests, it’s a long way.
Watch on YouTube
Hidden away on the second side of Lovesexy – an album that, following Sign “O” The Times, and replacing the then-legendary, canned Black Album, could never live up to the hopes of it – is a tender, strange ballad that really does evoke two people completely wrapped up in their own love and life, to the exclusion of all others. It also has a strange fascination with sex in the bath (or underwater), but hey, each to their own… It turned out to be impossible to add this to the Spotify playlist, by the way, as someone has a sense of humour in licensing his work again – Lovesexy has been kept as the original intended set-up – one track, no index points, for forty-five minutes!
This album was a patchy affair – but still sold five million copies and more – and is perhaps the last album where Prince was still a Big Deal. Elsewhere on the album, he tried -again- to tag onto the coat-tails of hip-hop with iffy results, and the best tracks here were where the rapping and hard-funk were set aside, and his balladeering took centre stage. One such track was this, a sunny-side-up track of Prince (again) declaring his undying love to someone, but questioning just how far they’d go for that love. Of course, it descends into lascivious filth by the bridge, but this is Prince we’re talking about…
Finally, let’s take in one of Prince’s best-loved singles. One where he offers an egalitarian view of love, where he’s not swayed by beauty, by money, by starsign, by how cool they are. Just their time and their kiss. Huh.
But really, this skeletal song, embellished by his falsetto vocals and the choir of backing vocals, bumps along to a strange rhythm that really shouldn’t work – and was added to the Parade album at the last minute, while the label raised eyebrows at it being the lead single. As in pretty much every musical decision in the eighties, Prince was right, and he ended up with one of his most beloved singles in the process.