Prince

“Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last” – Prince: 1958 – 2016

Like his contemporary Michael Jackson, Prince became such an eccentric figure in later life that his behaviour risked overshadowing his talent and his contribution to popular culture, but look beyond him changing his name to P, writing “SLAVE” on his face in biro and declaring that “the Internet’s completely over” in 2010 and you’ll discover an artist of such prodigious talent that the record industry literally didn’t know what to do with him.

The artist originally known as Prince was born on 7 June 1958 in Minneapolis. His father John had performed as a jazz pianist under the name Prince Rogers, thus his offspring was saddled with the name Prince Rogers Nelson “because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” With his father’s encouragement, the young Prince wrote his first song at the age of 7. Three years later his parents separated; after periods of living with each parent individually, neighbours Fred and Bernadette Anderson took him in, leading to a friendship with their own son André. The two friends played in bands together before Prince signed his first record deal with Warner Bros in 1978. Still only 19, Prince made his first album For You entirely on his own, writing all the songs, playing all the instruments and even handling production duties. For live shows, Prince put together a band including his friend Andre Anderson, now known as André Cymone. His second album Prince included his first huge hit single I Wanna Be Your Lover which reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became his first UK hit where it reached number 41. Over the next two years Prince cultivated an increasingly sexual image, albums Dirty Mind and Controversy featuring notably suggestive material with titles like Head and Jack U Off.

Already finding himself creatively stifled by the requirement to release only one album a year, Prince formed side project The Time; Morris Day handled vocals but the majority of the music was written and performed by Prince himself. Despite his success in his homeland, though, Prince found it hard to crack the UK; his next release, the ambitious double album 1999 at least brought him a UK top thirty hit single in the title track, but despite plenty of radio airplay Little Red Corvette missed the top forty on two occasions. While Warner Bros trimmed the double album down to a single disc for UK release and watched it fail to chart, 1999 became the fifth best selling album of 1983 in the States and Prince’s label agreed to fund his further ambitions by financing a movie.

That movie, the vaguely autobiographical Purple Rain, became Prince’s worldwide breakthrough. Featuring appearances from The Time and Apollonia 6 – another of Prince’s offshoot projects – the film grossed over $68 million at the box office, but it was the soundtrack album that really cemented Prince’s success. The first release to credit his backing band The Revolution, Purple Rain hit number 1 on the Billboard chart and spawned two US number 1 singles, while the soundtrack gave Prince his first entry on the UK album chart where it reached number 7. It also brought him his first top ten hits in the UK: When Doves Cry reached number 4, the title track number 8 and Let’s Go Crazy hit number 7. In the midst of this run of success, Chaka Khan’s cover of the Prince-penned I Feel For You topped the UK chart and a double A-sided reissue of 1999 and Little Red Corvette reached number 2.

As quickly as he had arrived with that flurry of UK hits, Prince seemed intent on losing it again with his next album. Confounding fans who expected either another rock album or a return to his earlier funk sound, Around the World in a Day turned out to be a low-key psychedelic trip, although Raspberry Beret went on to become a Prince standard. Critics were also underwhelmed by Prince’s second movie Under the Cherry Moon in 1986, which failed to break even at the box office, but again the accompanying soundtrack album became a classic, the taut funk of lead single Kiss giving Prince another Billboard number 1.

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Still writing and recording prolifically, Prince seemed at times to be producing more material than it was physically possible to listen to. As well as working on his own side projects he began writing under pseudonyms for other artists – as “Alexander Nevermind” he wrote Sheena Easton’s astonishingly filthy US hit Sugar Walls while Manic Monday – credited simply to “Christopher” – gave the Bangles their UK breakthrough hit in 1986. While working on his projected next three albums simultaneously (including one which utilised his own vocals sped up to resemble a female voice, to be released under the name Camille), Prince dispensed with the services of the Revolution and the material from the three projects was eventually condensed into one, Sign o’ the Times. Another ambitious double set, the album and its title track were top ten hits in both the US and UK, while U Got the Look achieved the remarkable feat of smuggling the ostracised Sheena Easton back into the UK chart.

Attempting to reconnect with his funk roots, Prince’s next album was to have been released in an entirely black sleeve, Spinal Tap style, with no writing at all on the cover apart from the catalogue number. A week before The Black Album‘s scheduled release, however, Prince had second thoughts and pulled the album, recording a replacement set Lovesexy in just seven weeks. Despite its rushed genesis and the rather unappealing nude portrait of the man himself on the sleeve, Lovesexy became Prince’s first UK number 1 album. As a measure of how deeply Prince had already become engrained into pop culture, a performance of Kiss by Tom Jones on Jonathan Ross’s TV show The Last Resort reignited Jones’s career and returned him to the top ten when he recorded it as a single with the Art of Noise. Prince saw out the decade with the release of his soundtrack for 1989’s Batman movie, which hit number 1 in both the US and UK and included another duet with Sheena Easton on The Arms of Orion, although Prince’s original idea of a collaboration with Michael Jackson – Prince would sing the funk numbers while Jackson handled the ballads – fell through.

The 1990s opened with Sinead O’Connor scoring a huge worldwide hit with her version of Nothing Compares 2 U, originally written by Prince for yet another of his extra-curricular projects The Family. Meanwhile Prince took on another movie project, this time starring in the sort-of Purple Rain sequel Graffiti Bridge; again the soundtrack was more successful than the film itself, although it was largely made from unused tracks recorded for previous albums. With his new band The New Power Generation he scored numerous hits in 1991 and ’92 including Gett Off, Cream and the deliberately provocative Sexy MF from the albums Diamonds and Pearls and… well. Despite not having a title but a symbol (indeed most people just called it “Symbol” or “Love Symbol”), Prince’s 1992 album P gave him another number 1.

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After 1993’s comprehensive compilation The Hits, released as two separate CDs or a three-disc set with added B-sides, Prince’s behaviour became less erotic and more erratic. His ferociously prolific output was becoming a problem in a climate where artists increasingly released only one album every two or three years, leading to an infamous rift between artiste and label. Prince insisted that Warner Bros was stifling his creative output and effectively went on strike, scrawling the word “slave” on his face in ballpoint pen and changing his name to the P symbol. Now referred to as “The artist formerly known as Prince”, he unexpectedly scored his only UK number 1 single in 1994 with the independently released The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, although Warners still declined to release the album The Gold Experience from which it was taken. Instead they issued – as Prince, rather than P – his previous album Come, another number 1 despite the confusion and lack of a significant hit single. The ensuing battle prompted a slew of releases as Prince, P, TAFKAP, The New Power Generation or simply “The Artist”, few of which were commercially successful; even the infamous Black Album was given an official release before Warners finally issued The Gold Experience eighteen months after its hit single.

Finally free of his Warner Bros contract, P released the triple album Emancipation which struggled to number 18 in 1996. Reverting to his original name, Prince continued to release music at an alarming rate, from top ten albums such as Musicology and 3121 to download-only releases available exclusively from his online NPG Music Club and even releasing entire albums Planet Earth and 20Ten exclusively as cover mounted CDs with daily newspapers.

For a while it seemed that Warner Bros’ misgivings about saturating the market were not misplaced, but against all expectations Prince returned to the label and began to turn his fortunes around. In 2014 he played a series of unexpected concerts in London and, in typically extravagant style, released two new albums simultaneously: Art Official Age and Plectrumelectrum, the latter recorded with his new all-female backing band 3rdeyegirl. Despite having embraced the internet in the early part of the ’00s and then denounced it at the end of the decade, Prince’s next two albums HITnRUN Phase One and HITnRUN Phase Two were initially available only via the streaming service Tidal before being released for sale via iTunes and, in the case of Phase One, CD. Still regularly playing live shows, Prince was briefly hospitalised in April 2016, apparently suffering from flu; he was seen in public the following day, apparently feeling fine, but on the morning of 21 April he was found unconscious at his Paisley Park home in Minnesota. Medics were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead, aged just 57.

Freed from the ephemera of legal wrangles, name changes and contract-fulfilling releases that became part of his everyday life in the mid-1990s, perhaps now we can focus on Prince the artist and remember and appreciate an astonishing musical talent taken from us far too soon.

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