Prince Rogers Nelson left an indelible impression on popular music. From hit records to films and live concerts, he was both a musical innovator and a performer who earned comparisons with everyone from James Brown to David Bowie. Paul Burston looks back at the career of an original rock showman
In April 2016, a few months after David Bowie died, Prince brought his “Piano & A Microphone Tour” to Toronto. In the first of two shows, he paid tribute to Bowie with a heartfelt cover of ‘Heroes’. A month later, Prince too was dead. As the tributes poured and the obituaries were published, one cartoonist drew the two men reunited on the moon – kindred spirits not quite of this world, gone to a higher place.
The timing of their deaths aside, Prince Rogers Nelson and David Bowie had a lot in common. Both were musical geniuses who produced enough perfect pop moments to justify their occasional bouts of self-indulgence. Both revelled in androgyny and personal myth-making, Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and the various alter-egos who came afterwards, Prince as, well, Prince and the famous squiggle that replaced his name during his famous standoff with his record company. Both were rock showmen who owed a sizeable debt to Little Richard. Bowie started out wanting to be “the white Little Richard”, while Prince blurred racial boundaries as well as gender norms, with the same pencil moustache and pancake makeup sported by the rock ‘n’ roller who also inspired Elvis.
Musically, Prince went though as many changes during his purple reign as Bowie did during his golden years – funk, rock, psychedelia, soul, dance and hip hop. And though Bowie never became a Jehovah’s Witness, he did go down on his knees and pray at the memorial concert for Freddie Mercury, ruffling as many feathers then as he did years earlier when he went down on Mick Ronson’s guitar.
Both Prince and Bowie delighted in stirring up sexual controversy. When Prince first appeared, he was dressed in suspenders, high heels and a flasher’s mac, singing songs like ‘Dirty’ and ‘Controversy’. He scored his first international hit with ‘1999’ in 1982 but it wasn’t until his breakthrough album ‘Purple Rain’ that he morphed into the all-conquering pop-rock pixie we recognise today – pancaked and pompadoured, with the ruffled white shirt and elegantly trimmed facial hair.
Regarded by some as Prince’s magnum opus, ‘Purple Rain’ was a pop cultural phenomenon of enormous proportions. Whether singing in his bathtub in the video for hit single ‘When Doves Cry’ or playing a version of himself in ‘Purple Rain’ the movie, Prince dominated 1984, selling millions of albums and winning multiple awards. At one point that year, he simultaneously had the number one album, single and film in the US charts – the first singer ever to achieve such a feat.
Flushed with commercial success but determined to prove his worth as an artist, he followed up his breakthrough with an album far less radio-friendly and so experimental it must have raised a few eyebrows at his record company. ‘Around The World in a Day’ didn’t fare badly, spawning the hits ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Pop Life’ and topping the album chart for three consecutive weeks. But compared to the 24 weeks notched up by his previous album, Prince’s period of psychedelic experimentation wasn’t a patch on ‘Purple Rain’.
His next album saw a change of image and another change of direction. The Prince of ‘Parade’ was all slick dance moves and slicked back haired, singing songs tinged with jazz, soul and French chanson influences. The album spawned the number one hit ‘Kiss’ and cemented the singer’s popularity in Europe, where sales were higher than in the US. The less said about the accompanying film ‘Under A Cherry Moon’, the better. The film earned Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Actor and Worst Original Song. Like Bowie before him, Prince’s forays into film were sometimes fun but often excruciating, acting as vehicles for the star’s vanity and little else.
One honourable exception is ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’, the live concert film which accompanied the double album of the same name, showing him at the height of his powers. Originally conceived as a triple album, ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’ was Prince’s stab at A Major Piece of Work, combining infectious grooves with serious social commentary. Released at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the title track opens with the line “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name” before the singer turns his attention to teenage gangs, natural disasters and the twin problems of poverty and drug addiction. A huge hit in Europe, the album also saw Prince revive the career of British singer Sheena Easton, who duetted with him on the hit single ‘U Got The Look’. Another track, ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’ was recorded live in Paris before an audience of 6000 adoring Parisians.
It was as a live performer that Prince really came into his own. Madonna may have set the template for today’s pop extravaganzas with her Blonde Ambition Tour, but for sheer musical dexterity nobody beat Prince. The two pop icons worked together briefly in the late 80s. His influence can be heard all over her ‘Like a Prayer’ album – not only on the duet ‘Love Song’ (which he co-wrote) but also on songs like ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Keep it Together’, ‘Act of Contrition’ and the title track, where he played electric guitar.
While Madonna faced criticism for miming on stage, Prince had little trouble convincing people that he was the real deal. Live, there was nobody quite like him. It wasn’t just that his vocal range was impressive. He also combined the guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix with the dance moves of James Brown, sometimes singing, playing guitar and performing the splits at the same time. His concerts became the stuff of legend, often lasting for hours and followed by more intimate jam sessions where he’d continue well into the early hours. The man was a born performer.
The 1988 Love Sexy World Tour was many people’s introduction to Prince as a live artist. The tour lost money due to the expensive sets (a lesson Bowie learned in 1974 with his similarly lavish Diamond Dogs tour) but audiences were ecstatic. Two years later he was back with the Nude Tour, where he applied some of the lessons learned from Love Sexy, and delivered a stripped-down show that relied less on pyrotechnics and more on a set list that was heavy on the hits. A decade into his recording career, Prince had racked up an impressive back catalogue. Early hits like ‘1999’ and ‘Little Red Corvette’ sat alongside more recent chart successes like ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Thieves in the Temple’ and ‘Batdance’, from his soundtrack album to Tim Burton’s movie.
And then he became a squiggle. In 1993, angered at his record company’s refusal to keep pace with his productivity and release a new album as and when he decided, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, later referred to as The Love Symbol. He appeared with the word ‘slave’ written on his cheek and sometimes gave interviews with his face covered and an interpreter by his side to speak his words for him. The Artist Formerly Known as Prince became something of a laughing stock and his popularity suffered as a result. A series of albums followed in quick succession, including the legendary ‘Black Album’. None matched the commercial success of earlier releases.
In 2000, finally freed from his contract with Warner Bros., he reverted back to the name Prince. His later years saw a resurgence of popularity. His ‘Musicology’ album of 2004 earned him two Grammy awards. Top chart placings were aided by the fact that a copy of the album was included with every ticket sold for his ‘Musicology’ live tour, which was seen by over 1.4 million people. He repeated the formula with the ‘3121’ album and tour. In 2007, the tour came to London for his famous 21-night residency at the British capital’s 02 Arena. Such was the level of excitement that one British newspaper came up with the wheeze of sending a different reviewer each night. Sure enough, no two shows were the same.
Prince continued touring right up until his untimely death. It’s a sign of his lasting impact that audiences at his live concerts crossed several generations, from those old enough to remember him in his 80s hey-day to those who discovered his music much later. He’ll be remembered for many things, not least his prolific output and pushing of musical boundaries. In a career spanning four decades, he released a staggering 39 studio albums and mastered more musical genres than any of his contemporaries. He also found time to write songs for everyone from The Bangles to Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper to Chaka Khan. But it’s surely as a showman that he’ll go down in history. As he said himself, his name was Prince and he was funky. That may be the only epitaph he needs.