19 May 2007
Prince is the black Bob Dylan. Both men are from Minnesota; both have had some of their biggest hits through performances of their songs by others (in Prince’s case: “Manic Monday” by the Bangles; “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor); both are very bad but somehow weirdly compelling film actors; both reserve the right on occasion to explore the limits of repetition (Dylan’s interminable blues jams, Prince’s interminable funk jams); and both are massively prolific and inventive musicians. Both are, to use the word with due care, geniuses.
The half-time show at this year’s SuperBowl saw Prince, in peach shirt and powder-blue suit on a giant neon-lit stage in the shape of his celebrated bi-gendered phallic symbol, a black chiffon headscarf offering his hairdo little protection against driving rain, effortlessly straddle rock epochs. He segued from “All Along the Watchtower” (by Dylan out of Hendrix) into “Best of You”, by the Foo Fighters, many of whose fans weren’t even alive when Prince first lit up the charts. The choice of covers might have been a deliberate historical framing device to set off the climactic number: “Purple Rain”, that cavernous masterpiece, with one of the most heart-wrenching applications ever conceived of the repeated riff over changing chords in a guitar solo.
Why, two decades on from his commercial pomp, could Prince still whip a stadium of sports fans into a singalong frenzy? Perhaps he reminded some spectators of a time of greater moral certainties (“Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”), or of a time when showbiz was still showy, when pop stars dressed up rather than down in multinational shiny tracksuits or jeans. Certainly his undiminished stage artistry was more authentically shocking than the cynical stunt that was Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”. But just maybe, too, Prince could still personify America itself. As Morton relates, Prince had been picked out by the Soviet newspaper Pravda back in 1984 as a symbol of degenerate young American hedonism. In 2007, perhaps he stood in one fleeting instant for an America that was not justly figured by Dick Cheney: the America of jazz and funk, of epic spaces and joyous multiculturalism. Perhaps to some Americans, “Purple Rain” — a song in which initial melancholy and regret are somehow transmuted into wordless, whooping euphoria, with the almost Baudelairean, inscrutable symbolism of its title phrase — suddenly sounded like a truer national anthem than the one Jimi Hendrix had wrenched into sarcastic curlicues of overdrive all those years ago.
As Morton’s efficient and carefully researched biography shows, there is no mystery to Prince’s background (as opposed to the colossal mystery of his art): Prince Rogers Nelson grew up in a musical household, learned to play many instruments, and worked on music to the exclusion of all else, finding collaborators in the Minneapolis soul scene and honing his skills over several early albums until a record called 1999 made him a mainstream star in 1982. Morton usefully points out Prince’s fruitful early relationships with others, an arranger/producer here, a keyboardist there, who probably had more input into the early work than is normally recognized. But in the end, what counts is the music, so Morton proceeds album by album, relating studio anecdotes and offering his own analyses of the work. He has a nice line in evocation — the atmosphere of the album Purple Rain is said to be that of “post-apocalyptic libertinism” — and he rightly points out that on rhythm guitar — the shiny jigsaw chord fragments that hook the ears into Kiss, for example — Prince is “a — possibly the — unquestionable master”. On the other hand, Morton finds that Prince’s lead-guitar style “has little to do with the blues”, which is a bizarre comment given the soaring call-and-response solo and twanging Memphis blues-picking breakdown of a song such as “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, or the Hendrix/Van Halen-esque eruption that introduces “When Doves Cry”.
Of the latter song, Morton writes:
Musically, it’s astonishing, not least because Prince dispensed with a bassline altogether, virtually unheard of in black music, accompanying his vocal with sparse keyboard stabs and a trademark Linn drum track which has been processed and thickened. Prince’s gospelly wails are the only other embellishment.
Well, it’s not quite so simple, and even more astonishing. There is a lot of tuned percussion along with the electronic drums, providing a gossamer harmonic web, a sustained synthesized string/organ voice appears halfway through, and the song also opens and climaxes with metal-blues guitar soloing. And crucially, there is a kind of bassline, but it’s a very minimalist one, playing the same note throughout, and only on the last beat of every second bar, with two stabs on something like a cross between bass guitar and a tuned drum, the notes falling away rapidly from their original pitch into a sub-bass underworld. And so it seems that Prince invented in 1984 the sound of an entire genre, drum’n’bass, which one had thought born in mid-1990s London.
It’s debatable, though, whether we should really call this a “bassline” in Morton’s sense, as in a traditional constant underpinning, and he is anyway astute to emphasize this facet of Prince’s remarkable sonic experimentalism, often reducing the mainstay of ordinary funk and rock to a subliminal ghost, without ever (this is the remarkable feat) making the song sound tinny and lightweight. The intensely happy, almost lighter-than-air lewd nursery rhyme that is “Alphabet St”, too, has a bassline, a constantly slithering slapped electric bass, travelling between notes as much as it stays on them, but mixed so low that anyone other than Prince would be sent back to the studio to “correct” it. For Prince, the rules don’t apply. No other global pop star has been so consistently avant-garde.
Strangely, though, Morton argues that Prince has not been an influential musician, that he is an “innovator only technically”. Well, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “technically”. The sonic formula of most contemporary hip-hop and R&B — sparse, dry beats; one or two melodic synth lines; stacks of harmonised backing vocals — was invented pretty much single-handedly by Prince in the 1980s. On his most recent album, 3121, he seems smirkingly to reinforce the point by offering a song, “Incense and Candles”, that is stuffed with currently fashionable production tricks such as vocal lines partly roboticized for a syllable or two at a time, yet which is slinkier, catchier and harmonically more adventurous than nearly all the competition — as if to say, “Now now, you young folk, this is how it’s done.”
On the other hand, that was only ever one of Prince’s bafflingly various styles. (He is among the few musicians who can announce that he will “change the show every night”, as he has promised for his London gigs in August, and really mean it.) There is also the remarkable, dissonant electro-jazz of the Parade album (“one of the unsung masterpieces of pop”, Morton rightly observes); surreally crooning Joni Mitchell tributes (“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”) or fiery metal-gospel prayers (“The Cross”); irresistible James Brown-meets-Latin-dance epics (“Get On the Boat”); or addictive devotional folk-funk with vocoded saxophone hook (“The Word”). And let’s not forget Prince’s most joyous pop songs, such as “Raspberry Beret”, an extraordinary marriage of jangly lasciviousness with mournful strings, or “Little Red Corvette”, a daringly downtempo, lolloping plea for chastity shot through with squealing Claptonesque guitar countermelodies — it’s true (and perhaps this is what Morton means) that such songs have not been exactly influential, but only because they are sui generis, daunting obelisks of conceptual perfection on which no purchase can be obtained.
Still, Morton’s book fulfils admirably its most important duty, which is to send you back to the music with fresh ears, and if there is room to disagree with him on analytical details, his conclusion that Prince is “arguably the most important popular musician of his time” is impeccable. No less a musician than Miles Davis, Morton notes, called Prince “the Duke Ellington of the 1980s”. (Prince once wrote a note to Miles suggesting a collaboration, and signed it “God”.) Two decades on at the SuperBowl, Prince, pushing 50, looked as impish, as playfully sparkly and pansexual, as when I saw him play Wembley Arena in 1988. Odd to remember that there was a time when Michael Jackson seemed to be Prince’s rival: now, like Dylan, he has no rivals except his past selves.