Friday, April 29, 2016

funk off and die

As I said at the time of the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey earlier in 2016 (a year which statistically is exceptionally celebrity-death-heavy so far, so it's OK for you to say that), which celebrity's death you feel personally affected by will reflect your past life, upbringing and what sort of cultural stuff you were exposed to or chose to expose yourself to.

So, anyway, what I'm building up to is that Prince's death this week is a much more significant event to me than either of the other two, largely because Prince formed a part of my formative music listening habits in a way that Bowie and the Eagles didn't.

I don't know what's a typical age to start buying records (this of course was back in the days when vinyl "records" were the primary medium of music delivery), but I suspect 13 is probably a bit later than most. I think I may technically have "bought" this John Denver album in Korea back when I was about six, in that I was invited to make the final decision and it was paid for with money that was nominally "mine", but I deem my first "proper" single purchase to be Every Breath You Take by The Police in 1983, swiftly followed by I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John and Gimme All Your Lovin' by ZZ Top. All good songs, and choices which I stand by 30-odd years later, but all very white, very male - very gay in Elton's case, as it happens, but he wasn't quite as up-front about it at the time.

So when Prince really became a big thing in the UK around the time of When Doves Cry there was a fair bit of paradigm-smashing going on - black guy, not really conforming to traditional notions of masculinity but still clearly beating off the ladies with a shitty stick in his offstage life, making music with a funky dance-y edge while still being a brilliant rock guitarist, all that sort of thing.

It's interesting to consider how one's musical tastes evolve - everyone likes to think that they just like what they like, as the end result of a completely objective process of listening to stuff and working out what's good and what isn't, but of course this is nonsense, and every single choice you make is influenced to some extent by prior experiences, who you knew, what they liked, where you first heard things and stuff like that. In the case of Prince, my recollection is that my friend Tom had a copy of the 7" single of Let's Go Crazy, and its organ-backed spoken intro, lyrics suggesting transgressive sexy sexy times and squealy rock guitar finale all seemed pungently exotic and exciting to me at the time. But I should apply a bit of self-awareness and add that Tom was a lot cooler than me, so maybe there was an inclination to give this more of a favourable first listen just because it was him who'd introduced me to it? Who knows. In my defence he was also into The Cult in a big way and (She Sells Sanctuary, which is a cracking tune, aside) I always thought they were a bit shit. I suppose the key thing to say is that this marked a move away from being musically influenced by my parents' record collection to being musically influenced by my contemporaries, sometimes moving into the realms of stuff my parents wouldn't necessarily "get".

So I went and bought the Purple Rain album and played it to death for a year or so, with further transgressive thrills provided by Darling Nikki with its references to female masturbation, something my 14/15-year-old self may very possibly not have even been previously aware was a thing. I had copies of the next two albums, Around The World In A Day and Parade, through the magic of home taping (which turned out not to be killing music after all) before buying the double album Sign O'The Times in 1987. We parted company a bit after that, and I don't think I've purchased a non-compilation Prince album since, but there was, in hindsight, lots of good stuff after that, just spread a bit more thinly. Sign O'The Times is the one if you must have only one; if you also had Purple Rain and a comprehensive singles compilation (this one, for instance, which is the one I have, although it only includes stuff up to 1993) that would be a pretty good start.

So here's my favourite ten Prince songs, in no particular order, and written down largely off the cuff, so no guarantee of completeness or definitiveness, nor indeed originality, since a lot of these are the big hits. If you want to know what other people, doubtless more knowledgeable about the unexplored nooks and crannies of his vast back catalogue, think, plenty of other opinions are available.
  • I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man - I think this may be my favourite Prince song of all, just because it's such a joyous summery tune, and in its 6½-minute album version gives Prince the chance for a bit of a rock guitar workout, something he usually kept on a tight rein on the albums. Its lyrical theme of man rejecting a woman's offer of a one-night stand because he knows she won't feel good about it afterwards typifies Prince's generally groovy and empowering attitudes to women and female sexuality, not something you could say about many mid-1980s male artists.
  • Little Red Corvette - cars as metaphor for sex, horse-riding as metaphor for sex. It's about sex, basically.
  • Sign O'The Times - atypical in that it's got a socio-political edge to it, but typical in that it typifies Prince's gift for minimal backing arrangements (Kiss being the classic example of this). Also one of the small group of songs to lyrically reference the Challenger shuttle disaster.
  • Dirty Mind - well this is just pure filth, with the pulsing synth groove humping your leg like a randy Yorkshire terrier.
  • Alphabet St. - a bit of jangly funk guitar, a bit more lyrical depiction of non-vanilla sexy sexy times ("I would like").
  • Pope - a track from the 1993 Hits compilation, this previously unreleased song is a pretty silly throwaway tune that was obviously just Prince mucking about in the studio, but is still sharp, funny and ferociously funky.
  • Cream - well, again, it's just (just!) about sex, but it's an irresistible sinuous groove that owes more than a little to Get It On by T.Rex.
  • Sexy MF - extreme funkiness, liberal use of the word "motherfucker" and some bowel-loosening parpy horn stabs.
  • Purple Rain - yeah, I know, but think of it as a sort of mid-1980s Hey Jude; similar tempo, lengthy coda and all. And it's another one from the more rock-guitar-oriented end of his range, which fits my personal prejudices.
  • Raspberry Beret - another glorious summer tune; boy meets funky scantily-clad hipster girl in the corner shop and they head off to a deserted barn on his motorbike to go at it like knives. The Hindu Love Gods' brutish meat-and-potatoes cover version is worth a listen too.
Of course this neglects all the great songs that he wrote for or had covered by other people as well, from I Feel For You to Manic Monday to Nothing Compares 2 U.


The black rabbit said...

"...what sort of cultural stuff you were exposed to or chose to expose yourself to".

So when you told me (at University) you were brought up exposing yourself to sheep... were you making that up?

electrichalibut said...

only cultural sheep though. You know, ones that read the Guardian and that.