22 April 2016

Remembering Prince: 1958-2016

By John McKie

Dig, if you will, the pictures of the 1983 James Brown concert when he brought Michael Jackson and Prince up on stage with him.

Jackson, taken from us aged 50, does roughly what you’d expect. He sings sweetly and pirouettes on a sixpence to squeals of delight. His talent for performing is evident.

Prince also behaves as you’d expect. He keeps everyone waiting – including The Godfather of Soul, who had a tendency to fine members of his band for doing just that. And waiting.

Once the anticipation has built up, Prince borrows a guitar and doesn’t just keep up with the band, but by the end they are struggling to keep up with him. Then he decides he hasn’t shown off enough and sings in a range dogs would struggle to hear and dances in a way that makes James Brown look pedestrian. Yes, James Brown.

Another live clip, where Prince cameos with Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison and Tom Petty to pay tribute to George Harrison, highlights his unique talent. He turns up late, shows up musicians who are meant to be paying tribute to someone else, and leaves. No one who was there would have been talking about anyone else.

These small cameos offer a microcosm of why Prince Rogers Nelson’s passing at the age of 57 is such a loss.

His live shows didn’t always start on time, particularly the aftershow parties which would commence anytime from 1am or later. They certainly didn’t finish on time. As he liked to tell his audience “I’ve got more hits than Madonna’s got kids.” (Like Madonna, he also faced custody battles over keeping hold of them –  in his case the songs – but that’s another article.)

On the passing of any artistic figure, it is understandable for hyperbole to leak into the obituaries. There is nonetheless reasonable justification in hailing Prince as the greatest live performer not just of his generation, but in the history of popular music.

For those of us too young to have witnessed Jimi Hendrix’s incendiary guitar-playing, James Brown hot-stepping around the stage while keeping his band in check, Otis Redding’s vocal gymnastics, there was Prince. He did all three, often in heels. He would often give seasoned musicians a look to keep them in line – all the while helping his audience “get through this thing called life” by forcing them out their seats to dance.

Such individual drive and focus could have repelled serious players. A roll call of his frequent collaborators suggests otherwise – James Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker, Sly Stone’s bassist Larry Graham, gospel royalty Mavis Staples, the drumming force of nature Sheila E, the Grammy award-winning arranger Clare Fischer.

Others who shared a stage or studio space with him include Miles Davis, Kate Bush, Keith Richards, Stevie Wonder and on David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Nile Rodgers.  Davis said he was a mix of Brown, Hendrix and Charlie Chaplin. Prince is also in the unlikely position of having done more for Sheena Easton’s American pop career than even Esther Rantzen.

Part of what made his concerts and his career so special was his cussedness. Cameraphones were banned, and if footage subsequently appeared on YouTube, his lawyers moved into swift Whac-a-mole mode.

Reading between the lines, Prince effectively talked himself out of a headlining slot on the Saturday night at Glastonbury, because he felt, wrongly, the Eavis family were using him for publicity. The director of Clerks and Dogma, Kevin Smith, had an equally frustrating experience when he tried to make a documentary with Prince.

As with any great artist, Prince liked things on his own terms.

The rare journalists lucky enough to interview him soon discovered those ground-rules. No note-taking or dictaphones in his presence, leading to frequent trips to the loo and some frantic note-taking.

All this added to the myth built on the rock-solid foundations he created in the studio. By most yardsticks of contemporary music criticism, Purple Rain, Parade and Sign O The Times are masterpieces. He wrote more era-defining hits not just for himself (Raspberry Beret, 1999, Alphabet Street, Diamonds and Pearls) but songs gleefully grasped by other artists including Chaka Khan (I Feel For You), The Bangles (Manic Monday) and Sinead O’ Connor (Nothing Compares 2U).

For a man who played 27 instruments on his debut album, For You, his 1986 album Parade offers another snapshot of his distinctive gifts. The fact he played drums on the first four tracks ofParade is remarkable. The fact he did so in one take is extraterrestrial.

Word limitations do not allow for an appropriate appraisal of the work of a man who started recording in 1979 and was found in his own studio on Thursday morning.

His habit of calling session musicians in the middle of the night to help him finish a track was legendary.

The small crumb of comfort for Prince admirers is that thousands of those same tracks are in an infamous “Vault” which have yet to see the light of day. Many of them were written when he was at the peak of powers. When his estate clears through the fog of who owns what, Prince could delight for years to come.

John McKie is a writer on music, film and theatre. Or is the former editor of Smash Hits and Q