I read on the BBC news site this week that whilst 2016 has seen a statistically larger number of musicians die, it is something that we are going to have to get used to. For starters, let me just say that I am using musicians as shorthand for post-rock’n’roll era popular musicians. Classical musicians have been dying for centuries and jazz musicans for a little longer than the rockers. The musicians of the 1950s to 1970s are in their sixties, seventies and eighties now and I know only too well that death takes its toll on those generations.
Prince Rogers Nelson was 57 though and, pre-supposing his autopsy doesn’t reveal anything, appeared to be a vibrant healthy and clean living individual. He was touring regularly and seemed to still have the extraordinary Mozart-like appetite for having to continually make music, something that appeared to be part of his DNA.
It is heartbreaking to have to reflect on Prince’s passing in such close proximity to David Bowie’s. If truth be told, and notwithstanding me being a huge fan, Bowie’s peak preceded my musical maturity by five years or so. Prince was different and his flame burned brightest when me and my friends were in our teenage years – the prime time for musical osmosis. For those children of the late sixties, he was our genre bending musical revolutionary. He was also our go-to song and dance man.
I was fortunate enough to see Prince twice and unfortunate enough for it not to be three times. We saw him at Birmingham NEC on the “Lovesexy” Tour in 1988. We also had tickets though to see him on the “Parade” tour two years earlier, which was cancelled in part.
The NEC gig was spectacular with Prince performing in the round and entering the arena on a car. The show had so many highlights and they weren’t necessarily the hits. The punk thrash through “Sister”, the distorted rap of “Bob George”, the quiet storm of “Slow Love” segueing into “Adore” were all unexpected and wonderful. Other elements were totally predictable. “The Cross” was biblical, a Cecil B Demille production. “Kiss” was a sexy as hell. There was always something going on somewhere on stage – some of it involved Prince, some of it didn’t. When he left stage, again on the car, to “Alphabet Street”, we wandered back into a hot August Birmingham night, knowing that we had seen one of the greatest stars at the peak of his powers.
But maybe not quite the peak. The received wisdom is his “Sign O’ The Times” show was the apex of his live achievement. I beg to differ though based on what I saw (albeit on video) then and I stand by it now.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday about Prince. I mentioned a long lost video of the “Parade” tour that I wished I could see again. It wasn’t long lost – I just hadn’t looked hard enough. The Chinese version of Youtube is where I should have been looking. Unfortunately, because of WordPress limitations, I can’t display the video as a screen shot. However if you click the link it will open up the show in a new window. Do it!
This show is from Detroit in 1986 and celebrates Prince’s 28th birthday. It really is a forgotten gem. I had recorded it from the TV onto VHS and played it to death.
Now normally I hate medleys. They don’t do the songs justice and you end up frustrated as no song reaches its true conclusion. This is different though. The skill and panache with which Prince and the gang do this is phenomenal. It helps that he has a live band in the Revolution to match James Brown’s JBs. They are razor sharp, bang on the money. This is an old time soul revue. It is Prince in prime song and dance form. The guitar genius is for another night.
Don’t tell me Michael Jackson was the man – watch the sequence when Prince wears his yellow suit for the Family’s “Mutiny” (another song given away with love, something that only David Bowie could rival him for) and “Anotherloverholeinyohead”. This is the King of Pop. He’s on his toes, dropping to the splits and back up. There are little asides to the audience. He is completely comfortable in his own skin, so different from his early TV performances. This version of the band could do pop effortlessly. Ignoring the pun but “Poplife” is just joyous. It even has the novelty of a likeable flute solo from Eric Leeds – and I hate the flute!
It helps that the “Parade” material played to these strengths. Ending with a breathless run-through of “Mountains” and “Kiss”, Prince is having the time of his life. And I didn’t mention his hair. This is his best ever coiffure – a tribute to Little Richard, so obviously an influence.
I have to confess that I became a bit more of a hit and miss fan in later years. The increasingly mechanised version of contemporary r’n’b didn’t play to Prince’s strengths. He could programme a drum machine and handle a studio better than an of them. He never completely integrated rap into his repertoire. I bought a few of the more recent albums. Many had highlights but they didn’t hold together like his best work.
His glory years were as great as anyone’s though. The run of albums from “Dirty Mind” to “Lovesexy” is up there with Bowie’s stellar “The Man Who Sold The World” to “Scary Monsters” sequence or Stevie’s “Music Of My Mind” to “Songs In The Key Of Life”. It still stands up and will do so for a very long time.
One just hopes that his legacy is handled with dignity. Hendrix was an equal who died prematurely with unreleased material to burn. There were inter-family and squabbles leaving an unseemly trail of re-releases and outtakes. Much of Prince’s material from the vaults has been available on line for a few years if you look hard enough. The beauty of his peak years though was the context. The great albums were fully formed and an indiscriminate screen dump of his rarities won’t do it justice. It needs to be handled with care.
In the meantime, sit back, pour yourself something nice to drink and enjoy an hour of Prince at his magisterial best.
For the curious, the setlist of the Birmingham and Detroit gigs are below.