We’re but four months into 2016 and Death has already snatched some big names from us: Bowie, Lemmy, Merle Haggard and today, Prince. He was 57.
You couldn’t move on the FM dial in the 1980s without striking up one of Prince’s hit singles. “Raspberry Beret”, “1999”, “When Doves Cry”, “Purple Rain” and “Kiss” – their status as classics is unassailable. Less obvious is their position as touchstones for millennials checking their imagination into an unremembered decade; their reading of Purple Rain (the movie) is anything but ironic.
Those who were there will remember that Prince was as big as Michael Jackson and, some might say, armed with a more compelling set of pop tunes. Prince’s songs straddled rock n roll, R&B and funk without cliché.
Jackson might have been the better dancer (and singer?) but Prince was the superior musician: boy, could he play guitar. A reporter is rumoured to have once asked Eric Clapton, “How does it feel to be the world’s greatest guitarist?”. Clapton’s alleged reply: “How would I know? Ask Prince.” Huge if true.
And judging by the numerous YouTube clips of his final Piano and Microphone tour (since removed), he was also one heck of a piano player. Prince was the snappier dresser too.
The big hits pre-dated his magnum opus Sign o’ The Times, equal parts playful and dark. I own not one but two vinyl copies. The insistent rhythm guitar of Lovesexy’s lead single “Alphabet Street” is where I checked out. Or maybe it was Diamonds & Pearls.
Whenever it was, it was before Prince re-christened himself as symbol and became known as “The artist formerly known as…”; before albums were released and hastily withdrawn; before his reclusiveness really kicked in; before the record label wrangling; before he changed his name back to Prince and – frankly – before quality dropped. Planet Earth? Shut up already.
Now that Prince is no more: damn.
I often hold Prince up as an example of someone who I don’t enjoy as much as I admire. In other words, it’s not about me. Better a commentator’s personal opinion of music (or audio gear) run as an undercurrent through descriptors of its sound. Telling you I’m a little ‘meh’ on Prince’s Black Album isn’t as helpful as saying it’s one of his dirtier, funkier efforts where beats jack hard under low lit raps.
“Probably my favourite producer is someone who isn’t generally regarded as such, and that’s Prince. He’s this producer’s producer.” That’s how Brian Eno described Prince to Q Magazine in 2001. High praise indeed.
I offer up two tributes to Prince, both from the leftfield. The first is a song by Bill Callahan from his 1995 Smog album Wild Love. It’s called “Prince Alone in the Studio” – I don’t have to tell you what it’s about.
At the opposite end of the serious scale, a Dave Chappelle parody. Part piss take, part tribute, the sketch – or rather the events contained therein – eventually became the inspiration for Prince’s 2013 single “Breakfast Can Wait”.
RIP Prince. There’s no doubt the man’s influence on the music world will live on. As a friend opined earlier: he came in through the out door*. I like that.
Those eyeing 2016 as some kind of freak year for celebrity passings might want to consider that this is how it will be from now on. Someone famous will die every month.
The musicians, movie and TV stars that led us through the 1970s and 1980s are getting on, their chances of death increasing each year. And if we accept popular (youth) culture was born sometime in the 1950s, it’s now at least 60 years old. More people to adore who might soon depart this earth.
It’s a numbers game: an increasing number of celebrities means we will eventually see a higher frequency of celebrity deaths. ‘Eventually’ has arrived.
Further listening: Prince on Tidal
*Raspberry Beret lyric.