Let’s get it right out of the way…
FUNK + NEW WAVE x GENIUS = PRINCE
I was halfway through blasting out the ABC post yesterday when my assistant was once again the harbinger of dread news; Prince was dead at 57 years of age. Like Bowie, I sure didn’t see that one coming. For one thing, he had a clean living rep far different from most rock stars, and any glance at the guy reeked of health and vitality. I first got wind of what he was doing when I happened to see a video or two in the pre-MTV primordial era of late 70s music video from his album “Dirty Mind.” While he was coming from a R+B/funk angle, it was clear even then that he would not be pinned down for too long. He was giving off whiffs of New Wave energy that piqued my interest and by the time that 1981 rolled around and I started hearing material like “Controversy” is was convinced that this guy was the Sly Stone of his generation; able to mix multiple styles of music and cross any real or imagined “color lines” that the industry had erected.
The first Prince record I bought was a US promo 12″ of “Controversy” that was and will always be my go-to Prince track. It never fails to impress me with its hyper-taut, whipcrack funk chops, cut with buzzing New Wave energy. I used to hear this being played a lot on college radio [WPRK-FM] in 1981 and I was sold. I hit the bins at Crunchy Armadillo and started scooping up promo 12″ers and when “1999” dropped in 1982, I was right on it. I recall wanting to see the 1999 tour that came through Central Florida, but the show was at the Lakeland Civic Center; a hour away and I didn’t know any other Prince fans, so I missed getting my mind blown that night. The closest I came to a Prince concert after that was one afternoon when my wife and I were driving back from the Columbia Museum of Art 5-6 years ago, we saw an arena off of the interstate that had a Prince show listed that night on the marquee. I thought if I’d known about this show 2 hours away in the next state ahead of time, I might have gone to it. I seriously thought that one day I would see a chance and take it.
When “Little Red Corvette” became his breakthrough hit, I was thrilled that the minds at Warner Brothers had the good sense to re-release the brilliant single “1999” so that it could take its rightful place at number 12 the second time in the Top 40. Everyone needed to hear this amazing song. Prince had an uncanny knack for creating arresting arrangements with a signature mixture of guitars, drum machines, and synthesizers more common to the New Wave palette at the time. More than any other artist, he was a genius at fusing disparate genres and forms into a fresh, new hybrid. That he could do it all single-handedly in the studio marked him as a Rundgren-esque prime mover. He was fortunate that Warner Brothers never balked at signing a 17 year old and handing him the keys to the studio.
When he moved to the next level with “Purple Rain,” it was amazing to see him connect with a huge audience and a rare instance of an artist really reaching as wide an audience as possible without compromising. As time passed, there were few styles that he did not incorporate into his body of work. It bears mentioning that his body of work is so large that after that album, he left me behind due to his prolificacy. by the time I had missed a few albums he was long gone with me in the dust. I traded in my vinyl with the intent of getting CDs; but that idea backfired since I never saw the early Prince albums I wanted most in the used bins. My cheapness worked against me there! I guess there was a good reason why one simply didn’t find used copies of “Controversy” in the used bins. The early “1999” CD was missing the track “D.M.S.R.” for unknown reasons, so I was gun-shy buying that one for decades. The 1990 remaster finally restored the full sequence to the album.
I started complaining to my wife about not having any Prince music on CD about ten years ago, and finally, last Fall, something snapped. In rapid succession I first bought the excellent 2xCD “Ultimate Prince” collection. This was filled with 7″ edits and 12″ versions. When I saw it had the mandatory full length “Controversy” I bought it, even though “Sexuality” wasn’t part of the program. I was listening to this after it arrived in the mail during a weekend where I was in Charlotte, driving around. Listening to this felt soooo good. I hit Repo Record and saw that I could buy a new copy of “1999” for $6.00! Sold, American! That sounded even better, and the next day, I was in Charlotte’s 2nd + Charles and found a used copy of “Puple Rain.” Boom! It was a retro Prince weekend for me.
I was grateful for the “Ultimate” collection bringing me up to date with music that Prince had released after I stopped watching MTV in the late 80s, and thus even lost track of Prince’s singles. I was impressed that even this later period was shot through with some excellent work, leaving me amenable to grabbing some of those later albums. What I need to concentrate on is locking down the run of albums from “Dirty Mind” through maybe “Sign O’ The Times” and then move on from there.
I have kept my finger on the pulse of the Prince fan forum, trying to see when and if and DLX RMs of his canon would filter down to the masses. When he re-signed with Warner Brothers a year or two back, the thought was that in 2014, the 30th anniversary of “Purple Rain” that a commemorative edition would be forthcoming. Prince even coyly alluded to this, though he seemed to backpedal rapidly when the recent flow of new material with 3RDEYEGIRL took precedence in his eyes. The Artist himself seemed to be notoriously reluctant to release a DLX box of “Purple Rain” with all of the requisite B-sides/12″ remixes and heaven-help-us live shows even though it would have sold a lot of copies. With him gone, it remains to be seen how and when his canon will get the curation that every other superstar’s discography has gotten in recent years. On the other hand, his refusal to kowtow to expectations and “demands” was what helped to make him such an interesting artist. One who lived with integrity from day one to the last.
Now listen to some Prince today!
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