n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
Of course I\'ve heard Prince before—having lived through Millennium eve it would be pretty hard not to, never mind that I was born in 1979 and thus grew up during the 80s—in fact I\'ve owned Purple Rain and Sign O\' The Times for several years, having bought them while still at university. I\'m aware of his reputation as a tiny purple sex genius, as an outstanding guitarist, composer, and producer. I know about the record-label disputes, the name-changes, the bizarre facial hair, the prescient txt spk song titles, and I\'d comfortably file Prince Roger Nelson in my mental checkbox of “people who are important.” I once vehemently assured the music editor of the student paper that Yes, Actually Prince Is An Artist Worth Attention And Not Some 80s Pop Muppet in the face of a barrage of over-temporal indier-than-thou-ness. The problem is that I\'ve not yet managed to get round to listening to Prince properly.
There are well over 1,200 compact discs lining the shelves of my living room, and that’s discounting the piles of unsolicited and unlistened-to promotional CDs that drop through the letterbox and which I occasionally pass on to a friend who turns them into furniture. I shan’t even begin to mention the MP3s… Of those twelve hundred or so there are probably dozens that I’ve not properly listened to yet—perhaps I bought them for one song, or maybe I listened to them once, distractedly, and haven’t got round to listening again. There are also the dozens and dozens of things that I’ve bought over the years through a sense of musical obligation, things I feel I should own because they are “important” or “influential,” things that have been name-checked as inspirations by artists I love and that I feel I ought to be familiar with too, if only by proxy or some form of bizarre osmosis—merely by having, say, Ornette Coleman in my collection I feel like I’m somehow absorbing his place in music, even if I never listen to him. The same goes for Goldie, The Band, Tangerine Dream, Dr Alimentado, Squarepusher, Joy Division… I could go on. I very rarely listen to these records. I intend to listen to them, just the same as I intend to read the copies of Midnight’s Children and The Invisible Man and Ulysses that I bought in the 3-for-2 at the bookshop… one day, when I have the time…
I remember certain things about Purple Rain from the cursory listen after buying it—I remember being impressed and surprised by the guitar nonsense in “Let’s Go Crazy,” being irritated with the thin, mid-80s-CD-mastering sound quality, and I remember thinking “where’s the tune?” about “When Doves Cry.” Yeah, I know. All I can remember about Sign O’ The Times is that I made it through the opening two tracks of the first CD and no further—maybe I had to go and do something, but I think that really I was appalled by both the dodgy 80s CD sound again, and the fact that the drum-machine made it sound like the kind of hokey lo-fi rubbish my brother makes in his bedroom. “This sold ten million copies? Good grief…”
That’s a worse starting point than complete ignorance, in many ways, because it establishes prejudices of small difference. Is it possible to get over such minor quibbles? Because, in my experience, it’s the small misgivings that are the lasting ones—bigger ones can be tackled head-on, dealt with, or rendered irrelevant by a subjective paradigm shift within your tastes, a listening epiphany. I’ve embraced a lot of 80s music since I first bought my two neglected Prince albums—Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Tears For Fears, Pet Shop Boys—so drum-machines and dodgy, dated synth sounds shouldn’t be a problem anymore (although I’ve still never found the courage to revisit Misplaced Childhood, my joint favourite album with Open Up And Say Ahhh… when I was 10 years old), and I’ve been on enough of a Funkadelic tip lately to key me into the kind of pop-funk grooves that the purple one is famed for. But what about that nasty, thin, 80s CD mastering?
In order to approach my task I reasoned that slow absorption would be better than an intense burst of consumption, and I decided prolonged exposure while my concentration focused on something else would be the best way to do it. So I spent pretty much all day Sunday playing Pro Evolution Soccer 5 with the commentary turned off, cycling through Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times while doing so. By the third time the weird pop dramatics of “Take Me With You” rolled around, I was hooked (and playing better football, too), and forty minutes later was singing along to the guitar solo in the title track of Purple Rain. I enjoyed listening to Prince so much that I nipped to a record shop in my lunch hour today to see if I could find 1999 on sale cheap (no copy in HMV, and in Virgin it was a staggering £18.99, for a 21-year-old back catalogue CD?! That’s about $120US at the current exchange rate, right? And $3,500CAN, yeah?), reasoning from what I’d read that it would be the other album I’d like most.
What do I think of these records then? Purple Rain is tight, focused, star-making funk-pop designed to propel a genius upwards into the stratosphere. That opening track, lashing guitar fills and solos that Hendrix would be proud of over a hard dancing beat, is awesome. “The Beautiful Ones” is dramatic in excelsis, ridiculous but not annoying, likewise the histrionic aspirations-so-loud-they-become-proclamations ego-run of “Baby I’m A Star.” “When Doves Is Cry” does have a tune, obviously, it just distracts attention away by being utterly, utterly bizarre. “Computer Blue” is just funky, “Darling Nikki” lascivious. And the title track is just beautiful, as ridiculous and Cuban-heeled as it may be.
I probably prefer the one-man-band schizeclecto tour-de-force of Sign O’ The Times though, possibly because there’s more to it, possibly because it was the more unfamiliar to me. “U Got The Look” aside, I didn’t recognise anything. At least not directly—“It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” was revealed to me as the source of the “oh-ee-oh!” chanting my friend’s older brother got a gaggle of us doing all the time in the playground when we were 8, and is a wicked live funk jam with riotous horns to boot. The title track is a minimalist funk thing, sounding ultra-modern in 2005, good grief, about AIDS (and crack), and dates from back in the days of television awareness ads for the then-still-rare syndrome. It opens the record. A sign of the times indeed. “Housequake” is what it says on the tin. It starts like Timbaland. 1987. “The Cross” is, what? The only Christian rock worth bothering with? “Starfish & Coffee” just delicious. When he invites the drummer (which is himself, obviously, programming a machine) to do his thing towards the end of “Play In The Sunshine”… well, wow. There’s so much to take in, and Prince is doing it all himself.
And then there’s the guitar. I knew Prince was meant to be an awesome guitarist, but when my friends as teenagers would only go on about Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai it was difficult to conscience how Prince could be, when the only tunes that filtered through didn’t seem to be lavished with riffs and solos like the ones my friends held up as great. But it’s like the first time you hear Maggot Brain and “Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?” or “Green Onions” or anything else by Funkadelic or on Stax in the mid-60s, and realise that, actually, Eddie Hazel and Steve Cropper are better at what they do than any permed metal tosser, because not only have they got chops but they’ve got control and groove too, which is more important. A great guitar solo on its own is nothing. A great guitar fill or rhythm part on a great song though, just blows your mind. And Prince does that all the time, seemingly without centre-staging his instrument (bizarre as its shape may be!) over the context of his songs at any point. And then you realise that every single second of those songs is his work too, that he’s singing, writing, composing, arranging, playing, producing…
I’ve really enjoyed listening to Prince properly for the first time. He’s still playing now, and will do for quite a while yet. But his 80s catalogue needs remastering, and fast, because if one thing has hindered my enjoyment it’s the sound quality of the CDs themselves. In the mid-80s we simply weren’t quite ready for the amount of information and sound that CDs could hold, for the bass they could deal with, and so many CDs I have from this era—The Kick Inside, my old Doors CDs that I don’t care enough about to replace with new editions, Meat Is Murder, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Hot Buttered Soul—sound so thin and reedy next to remastered versions of records from the same time. I want “Hot Thing” and “I Would Die 4 U” to jump from my speakers and demand my attention, to sound as radical and alive today as they must have done 20 years ago, but sadly at the moment this isn’t the case. As soon as Prince’s 80s catalogue gets the kind of treatment Can’s music has recently, I’ll probably buy the lot.