It is, to coin the title of one of the most brilliant confections of one of the greatest musical artists the world will ever know, a Sign of the Times that I heard of Prince’s passing the way I did. Why is Purple Rain trending on Twitter? Has a remake of the movie been announced, starring some rising Urban figure or music game show contestant I’ve never heard of (and didn’t Eminem do that already, with 8 Mile)? Search on the hashtag and scan down the posts; the top few look initially like Daily Mash-type articles lampooning the ongoing slew of entertainment biz deaths, and the determinedly non-hedonistic, God-fearing, reclusive Prince seems a suitable choice. Still, there’s a disconcerting volume of stuff there. So cross-reference with Facebook, and one or two friends have posted on his alleged demise already. Ok, let’s turn to reliable old Auntie … and there it is, Breaking News on the BBC site: the ‘singer’ (this is just a news flash after all) Prince has died suddenly at 57. And so, on to incredulity and numb shock.
Prince’s death has affected me more profoundly even than David Bowie’s. To be sure, Bowie was a bona fide genius, as was John Lennon and as is (fingers crossed) Bob Dylan. Cultural and social giants, paradigm-shifters, and great songwriters all of them. But, I would argue, Prince was, is, a musical genius seemingly without parallel. I can speak with some insight here as a nominally successful writer/producer/one-man band in his blueprint. Over the years some have told me, in varying degrees of jest, that I should consider giving it all up, but Prince could reliably make you feel you had no business even attempting to be in the same profession each time you took in one of his gamut-running live performances or kaleidoscopic albums. The guy had a breadth of talent which, to quote another of his song titles, Does Not Compute. It’s simply off the scale. A vocalist both acrobatic and sensitive, a showman and bandleader channelling Little Richard and James Brown, a guitarist to rank with Jimi Hendrix (though he preferred comparisons to Carlos Santana), a tight and funkadelic one-man rhythm section, an intimate acoustic performer (adoring of Joni Mitchell), an implausibly prolific crafter of superlative tracks in myriad genres (rock, pop, soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz, psychedelia and any mixture of these), an extraordinary, often evocatively poetic lyricist, a sometime movie star – and a pioneering, massively influential auteur producer, arranger AND engineer (the last, as if this were all too much, sometimes under the alias Jamie Starr). If there’s anyone else who has so assuredly performed all these roles, we’d all like to hear about it. I have two abiding memories of the show I saw during Prince’s triumphant 21-night run at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. The first was my feeling that Sir Elton John, much as I admire his own artistic peaks, was lucky to be sharing a stage with him during a duet on Paul McCartney’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’. The second came during a charming mid-set interlude where the Purple One, alone at the piano, held us in the palm of his hand with playful snippets from his cavernous canon and spontaneous patter which revealed a self-awareness and self-deprecating wit wholly at odds with the aloof, grandiose diva of media portrayals. An affable thirtysomething bloke in the row in front of me turned to his partner and said in mock exasperation, “He’s so talented it’s just annoying isn’t it?”
Yet some people genuinely don’t like Prince, or at least, don’t get him. Many, many do; there is the hundred million record sales cited in the obituaries (how strange it feels to be writing that word), from the peak 1999 – Purple Rain – ‘Kiss’ era and the more intermittent blockbusters that followed as he largely followed his muse, only returning to reclaim the mainstream when he really felt like it (Diamonds and Pearls, ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, Musicology, the 2007 Superbowl performance). But some don’t get him, and my own pet theory is that Prince is actually too good. Too much for people to get their head round, or see more than a single side of his multifaceted genius; flamboyant frontman, capricious pop eccentric, or, often, the lascivious lech wantonly pushing the boundaries of decency. Even the latter, for me his least arresting aspect, was always consummately conveyed – remember how his contemporary Madonna was seen to come unstuck during her early Nineties Erotica sex phase. His celebration of the sensual often attains a spiritual quality, and amid the conservative Reaganite climate of the early-to-mid Eighties it was even somewhat politically subversive; let’s not forget that Purple Rain’s ‘Darling Nikki’ was almost singlehandedly responsible for the censorious Parental Guidance stickers that came to adorn music releases. But distracted by Prince’s colourfully lurid streak, casual observers may fail to appreciate the range of his artistry or his dizzying command of the forms and techniques of popular music. One of my favourite pub games, when among the uninitiated or the sceptical, is by question and answer to reveal the many artists who owe their careers, or significant hits, to the man, among them The Bangles, Chaka Khan, Sinead O’Connor, Cindy Lauper and Rosie Gaines. That their sometimes career-shaping moments were usually early Prince songs, side-works or cast-offs emphasises his extraordinary fecundity as songsmith. Indeed given the legendary reserves of unreleased material in the Prince vaults, had he settled on alternative tracklistings at release times the list of key works being namechecked in the media eulogies would have been almost unrecognisably different.
But among the bewildering cornucopia that is merely the released material, if I had to (and I sometimes do) advise a point of departure beyond the superb but inevitably unrepresentative hits compilations, it has to be 1987’s double album Sign o’the Times. It can be seen as Prince’s White Album (with which it happens to vie for the status of my all-time favourite album); for rather as the White Album largely exhibits The Beatles’ individual voices as the band unit was disintegrating, so Sign o’the Times showcases the diminutive genius as at least four distinct people. There is the romantic, sensual crooner of ballads on ‘Slow Love’ and ‘Adore’, and the heir to James Brown of the extended R&B workout ‘It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night’ and more concise party track ‘Housequake’ (to my ears one of the funkiest tracks ever rendered). Then there’s the confessional pop/rock songwriter tracing conflicted, ambiguous relationships (‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’, ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’), and the spiritual idealist of ‘Forever in My Life’ and, in Velvet Underground-like lo-fi rock, ‘The Cross’ … that’s four already.
Then there’s the social and political commentator of the title track. Not widely known for such missives, there is in fact an admirable thread of serious-mindedness throughout the Prince songbook, from ‘Ronnie Talk to Russia’ to ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite’ and beyond; a strand which should put the young, tirelessly self-referential R&B pretenders to shame. If there’s ever a track I’ve wanted to eulogize, it’s ‘Sign o’the Times’. Imagine all the best bits of all Dylan’s early protest songs compressed into a few economic lyrical salvos, which tell you everything that was going on, and wrong, in mid-Eighties America. AIDS, the crack epidemic, gang wars, urban poverty, hurricanes and space shuttle disasters, the Cold War and attendant nuclear fears; it’s all there in a few short verses. For Prince, this is all a sign of the times portending something, and cumulatively it sounds a lot like Armageddon. The only response, as ever, is love and procreation, here seen as a desperate battle against events rather than a joy in itself. And all this is set not to doleful hobo finger-picking but a sparse, straight-yet-funky Linn Drum pattern and repetitive, insistent submarine echo-like sequencer pulse, punctuated by a synth bass motif and the occasional sparing, searingly expressive guitar lick. Only in the rousing bridge sections does the arrangement build beneath Prince’s impassioned why-oh-whys, before immediately dropping back, like the silence that greets the question. It’s an ‘Instant Karma’ for the Eighties, the ripped-from-the-headlines lyrics and spartan execution suggesting it was similarly knocked off in a few inspired hours – which, knowing Prince’s working methods, it almost certainly was. And, in the midst of those reactionary Reagan years, its uncompromising sound and message still made the US Top 3.
But in 1987 Prince was still churning out at least an album a year when the music industry at large had got wise to milking a release for at least twice as long, and thus the stellar artistic highpoint of Sign o’the Times was initially widely greeted as simply this year’s Prince LP – though thankfully it soon came to be singled out as a towering achievement even by the standards of his (as it were) purple patch in the decade. This unfashionable, increasingly unmarketable weight of output continued into the Nineties, becoming perhaps another handicap to receiving the full attention and respect his gifts warranted. Come the Millennium, with unprecedented creative control after those notorious record company wrangles, his releases came to flit between extended conceptual labours of love and the occasional big Princely statement, to the point where even as a fan it became hard to keep up or to know which was which. Plus, I for one was still digesting the early trailblazing albums, such as 1982’s 1999, a proto-techno work built almost solely on synthesizers and drum machines which has come to sound like a fresher, learner version of the EDM productions recently dominating contemporary pop. The prescience – or perhaps the influence – of Prince’s early recordings increasingly seems profound; I recently heard ‘Controversy’ from 1981, with its bare bones, sharp dry four-on-the-floor kick drum intro, at low volume in a pub and identified it as a track off Daft Punk’s seminal techno-house album Homework, from 1997. Which only reaffirmed to me Prince’s history as an innovator ahead (by at least fifteen years) of his time.
It could just be me, but the generous and at times reverent media coverage of Prince’s death gives the impression, as with Bowie’s, of hands being wrung; that we’ve suddenly been woken to our complacency, to having taken a singular genius for granted just because it’s always been around. With Prince’s hyperactive productivity now thwarted in the only way it could have been, it is a bittersweet notion that we music fans now have the rest of our lives to work through his vast trove with no prospect of any freshly conceived compositions to follow. But what a catalogue to pore over into our dotage. If Sign o’the Times is his patchquilt masterwork, there are the more concise, focused rewards of Purple Rain or Diamonds and Pearls, the raw, libidinous excitement of his early “punk-funk” albums, the elongated jams and virtuoso musicality of his NPG and other side-projects, and the eternal jukebox pleasures of the hits collections – always bearing in mind that he personally executed or minutely directed almost everything on offer, and that there was always something almost as good that didn’t make the cut, remaining (if his executors heed his likely wishes) forever unheard. The beguiling scope of Prince’s abilities, his mastery of performance, of technique and styles, and the many peerless, timeless songs he leaves make him for me – no disrespect to Elvis Aaron or MJ – king. Pharrell, West, Mars – throw your shapes around, I doubt they’ll ever amount to that 5’ 2” frame, or indeed the squiggly symbol he briefly became. Prince is dead, long live the King.