Monday, May 30, 2016

My Name Is...?: When Prince Was Not Prince


In my previous post, I recalled the time Prince’s music first impacted my life and how much the allure of his humour and confidence helped shape my own character. I had shaken off more than a few childhood shackles to the strains of Batdance, Party Man and Thieves In The Temple et all, but what maintained my fascination with Prince, was the ease of his shape-shifting identity, which seemed equally as vital to him as music itself. In seamless succession, the neon-lit bohemian artist-in-nude-sans-gloves from 1999, had apparently slipped out only to re-emerge a few years later as comic book icon The Joker, with total commitment to the transformation. Along the way, he gender-bended from cocky lady killer (Christopher Tracy) to clichéd gay archetypes and everything in between like a care-free child skipping along a stony path – always avoiding the cracks.

Prince unveils Gemini in Batdance
Many Prince fans have a favourite era, or favourite Prince look. For me, the late '80s Batman-era was it. At this stage, he wore his hair long and appeared louche and brooding, even lowering his speaking voice. Still new to Prince’s world, I had yet to discover that he was in fact playing a character – his latest in a long line – who went by the name Gemini. Also the artist’s astrological sign, Gemini remains my favourite of Prince’s identities. Perhaps his most famous dalliance in role-play was Camille, who in 1987 was responsible for the portions of Sign O’ The Times. However Camille was seemingly abandoned in the wake of the planned-and-scrapped Crystal Ball album leaving fans guessing on what triple album of songs by Prince’s female alter-ego might have been.

'Camille' in 1988
While Camille saw Prince firmly embrace an ongoing dalliance with his feminine side, Gemini allowed his hairy-chested masculine self out to play. One of the strongest drawcards for Prince taking on the Batman project was how much he identified with the dark/light struggle within AND between the lead characters. He would never have been satisfied with simply recording a soundtrack to a film in which he did not have a part, and so Prince created roles for himself. Gemini appeared as an amalgam of The Joker and Batman in the promotional video for Batdance, while a black leather-clad Prince helmed an elaborate recording studio deck from which he appeared to urgently maintain control of his creation. Ultimately, Gemini opens fire on Prince before detonating an electric chair – symbolically destroying his guilt – as Prince brings the escalating madness to an end with an understated cry of “STOP!”.

The timing of the Batman project along with Prince’s desire to compose and perform music under several guises went beyond mere experimentation. It’s widely known Prince could perform a multitude of tasks as band, bandleader, producer and writer, which certainly fed into his schizophrenic reinventions. But he saw himself with such rare clarity that frustration was inevitable when it came to the dealing with business of marketing, and by 1990 a decision to end business as he/we knew it was set in motion. That same year, Prince did the unthinkable and returned to a character from his past. In 1984, The Kid had served him well as the protagonist in Purple Rain, and was as far as Prince’s fans were concerned as close to the man himself as you could get. It was only upon his return in Graffiti Bridge that the sheer flimsiness of the character became clear. It was surprisingly difficult to warm to The Kid in his sophomoric years despite his very clear agenda of standing up to The Man.

The sexually ambiguous Gemini in Party Man

Regardless of the challenging aspects of Prince’s characterisations, audiences loved his many faces and happily went along on for the ride. His fragility in Purple Rain quadrupled Prince’s fan-base while his playfulness in merging Camille with Gemini in Party Man sparkled with mad genius. However a thoroughly confounding challenge for his devotees was to come at the start of the 1990s. Following 1986’s Parade and subsequent film, Under The Cherry Moon, the artist suffered a backlash from his black fans, proclaiming he had sold out to white audiences. As rap and R&B were began to take a strangle hold on the charts Prince, for the first time in his career, decided by 1991 to cut in on another’s wave. Pushing his new backing group The New Power Generation to the forefront, he cut Diamonds and Pearls as an indirect reaction to his black detractors, which only served to highlight a chink in his once flawless armor. Prince was no rapper and he knew it.

Saved by a solid portion of smooth R&B grooves, Diamonds and Pearls was let down by the NPG’s frequently awkward rap babbling and ultimately the project began to look a lot like a quest for attention at someone else’s birthday party. Always the pioneer, Prince suddenly seemed unrecognisable in spite of his former ‘masks’, and while his new identity seemed shaky, nobody could have predicted his next move. In what I’ve come to see as a stroke of unbridled genius, Prince was largely met with ridicule and confusion over his sudden announcement - via cryptic messages on 1992’s Love Symbol album, and less subtly on 1994’s Come – that Prince was dead and in his place S was born. Spirituality has always taken equal billing alongside sensuality in his music, thus initially in response to his reasons for changing his name to the glyph, Prince declared his pre-mortem reincarnation as an explanation.

Prince spotters noted variations of his S symbol had been present in his visual output from as far back as the early 1980s. Through his many incarnations it remained an inconsistent constant; an amalgamation of the common ‘gender glyphs’ which fitted nicely with Prince’s apparent gender duality. To adopt it his name was to render himself not only unpronounceable but also unreachable in the eyes of even many long-time fans. The decision left a palpable nasty taste in the mouths of journalists, who saw it as Prince’s attempt to baffle without good cause. Subsequently, he was demonised and even written off as a joke at a time when he was laying plans to regain his pioneering spirit. Perhaps if he had been more articulate in his given reasons, he would not have suffered such prejudice. In the grey world of business, Prince was a purple bolt of lightning which the creaky, inflexible establishment at Warner Bros. had little tolerance for, and as it turned out, a considerable chunk of his audience failed to warm to as well. As his battle for the rights to his back catalogue and complete artistic freedom are well worn stories by now, I find reactions to Prince’s decision the more fascinating angle to review.

In brief, he was under contract as Prince Rogers Nelson. As in most cases of record contracts, his signature ensured the label had a sizable say in various aspects of the money and creative sides to all operations. The pioneer in Prince, after growing frustration, hatched a never-before-known get-out plan which dragged the imbalanced power game of the music biz into the public eye long before reality talent shows did. Until now, his meanderings into alternate personalities/name changes had been seen as a side effect of his feverish creativity, but once the choice to rebrand himself as S became known as a strictly business decision, the public were less forgiving. Under this name, Prince produced duelling bodies of work, which in fairness did nothing to endear him to his audience, as many saw him as losing his mojo; a result of his now very public battle with Warners. Still under contract, Prince went to war with his label offering them offcuts and half-baked albums to promote as he put out rival sets under his adopted – and therefore not contractually bound – name.

Prince as Tora Tora
The overabundance of Prince/S albums, coupled with further mockery to Warners in the form of his disguised character Tora Tora - who briefly fronted a re-jigged NPG anonymously - caused an imbalance in the vein of quantity over quality. The perception was that Prince’s battle had embittered him as he took to writing the word SLAVE on his cheek and his interviews became increasingly abstract. Looking back at that time, it’s easy to write off Prince as behaving like a spoiled child, incapable of articulating himself to any degree. But I always saw an artist finally fighting the David and Goliath battle he had put off for years and dealing with his enemy using highly original tactics never before tried or tested in what is ultimately an extremely unfair business. It was a massive risk to do what he did and many would never view Prince the same way again. However after the dust settled, there was no doubt who the winner was in the end. Not only Prince himself - with his victoriously re-instated birth name – but also artists who had felt unfairly done by through dealing with the money minders.

For the first time, the old music business model began to look very unstable indeed as more and more artists sought smaller, independent labels to promote their work and retain sizable profits, while the Fat Cats were lumbered with fame-hungry lame duck artists, good for two or three hits before contracts were annulled and tours were cancelled due to lack of interest. Attitudes towards Prince’s perplexing rebellion have softened over time, as more and more musicians stand up to take issue over intellectual property ownership. Perhaps in time his overall least popular period will be heralded as Prince’s greatest legacy.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In memory of Prince 1958-2016


By the time he entered my little suburban life as a young teenager, Prince had already recorded the bulk of his most legendary records. Purple Rain, Controversy, 1999 and Sign O’ The Times established this one-man super band as one of the top acts in the world during the 1980s. His very worthy credentials however were unknown to me that fateful morning – a Saturday, in 1989 – when my bleary-eyed adolescent self, decided to switch from my usual morning cartoon fix to a newly discovered music video program. Prior to now, my exposure to music was largely down to my brothers’ KISS records, my parents’ Bony M collection and commercial radio. Yet my hand-me-down tastes were unceremoniously pummeled into oblivion after tuning in just in time to catch the Batdance music video. After those 6 plus minutes, I was convinced I had just witnessed the coolest man in all humanity and sad as it sounds, I wanted to be Prince.

I’m happy to admit that Batdance as a single was hardly Prince’s greatest effort and as my knowledge of the man’s work grew, I discovered this Frankenstein’s monster track was in fact a rush-recorded bastardisation of several other half-finished cuts from the maestro’s Batman soundtrack project. Director Tim Burton famously hated the track and it even caused a rift between to the two artists, but to my ears, Batdance was a game-changer and my personal year dot in terms of a never-ending music obsession. That initial burst of musical puppy love manifested first in daily calls to request radio shows – my voice and singular request became so familiar to DJs, I needed only to say ‘hi’ to get my reward – and secondly in a new found interest in dancing. The Prince/Joker dance routine in Batdance had to be learned. Not having danced anything bar forced, dusty old ballroom style routines before, I like to think my childhood bedroom bore witness to something approaching an enthusiastic funkateer in the making. 

As fans know too well, Prince was never seen in flat-soled shoes and looking back, an elevated heel would most certainly have afforded me the missing ingredient in perfecting my contortions and twitches. There’s no way a boy can request high-heeled shoes from his parents without a long, long conversation, so in a compromise, I decided adopting a pair of found silver gloves would bring me closer to Princely greatness. One’s teen years are of course filled with shame, so this life-changing obsession was a closely guarded secret. After all I was in unknown territory, and how such a passion might be perceived by others bothered me. Prince-inspired dancing in oversized silver gloves was restricted to the bedroom along with the air guitar solos. Naturally, my shame was soon discovered after my father walked in during a three-turn pirouette followed by a knee-drop (Batdance again) and, rather than have him think I was dancing, I pretended I was having a fit. For the first time, I had a ‘thing’ that was all mine and I was enjoying my obsession and wished for it to remain un-scrutinised by the Bony M fans in the next room. 

Apart from owning a copy of the Batdance cassingle bought for me by my older sister, I had no claim on a single piece of recorded music. Then roughly a year after Batdance I discovered the wonderful world of second hand record shops. In those days, well-worn back catalogue albums and singles were dirt cheap and my local outlet boasted an absolute goldmine of Princely gems. It was however, the 12” single of Let’s Go Crazy that came home with me on that first visit, primarily for its evocative and luxurious cover art and a possibly salacious b-side track entitled Erotic City. This latest discovery left me enthralled and did not disappoint. The duet in which Prince writhed around in neon-lit urban sleaze offered a scintillating, funky peak into a more adult world than Batdance. I had not one, but two new dances to learn. Let’s Go Crazy’s over-the-top party cry grew on me instantly and fast became a bedroom dance session staple. Erotic City meanwhile yearned for a completely different expression. Where the idea came from to strip stark naked bar a bed sheet worn as a cape and stomp and writhe around, I’ll never know. The power of Prince’s music is all I can offer as explanation (coupled with a good slew of suburban boredom) and that same explanation will suffice for what possessed my 14-year-old self to take the naked sheet dance into the yard of my parents’ home under cover of darkness. 

So as I grew and started to catch up on the years of music that had come before my awakening as well as the very latest, I began to encounter stories of rock music’s negative influence according to various killjoys, and was reminded of my sheer indulgence and slight hint of shame at how much I enjoyed Prince’s music. The danger element that had apparently been ruffling the squares feathers since the 1950s was well and truly in me now. Prince as an introduction to music it turned out could not have been more perfect. Here I was, already on the verge of disowning the rather lazy Catholic teachings of my childhood, buzzing with a new set of hormones and in possession of a fairly advanced understanding of how to embarrass my parents, and along comes Prince. Unlike the (in my mind) glam metal clowns, KISS from my brother’s collection, who seemed content to parade around looking like your grans’ worst nightmare, Prince to me was a far more relevant icon of rebellion. His playfulness, eroticism and untouchable style equated to the antithesis of all that was bland and acceptable in my world. 

In the wake of the shock news that Prince died at the age of 57 seemingly without a prolonged illness, I was compelled to go back to that period in my life when so much change was happening and acknowledge how much Prince’s music was a part of that time. As the cliché goes, he was an important part of my life, but perhaps less so clichéd is how. I saw wilfulness and abandon in Prince, as well as a strident bucking of the rules and for a time, it was all that made sense to me. I still believe that to make something truly great, these elements are essential ingredients. Ultimately though, through all his triumphs, failings and backlash, he was never contrived or fake, which is why what Prince was, will always be more than enough for me. 


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Suede: Night Thoughts (review)

Night Thoughts
(Warner Music)

Time was NME journalists and the like would devote entire columns to the latest Suede single, marveling all the way and proclaiming them to be the saviours of Brit-pop. Every morsel the band threw to the public was, for a time, a gold nugget rolled in glitter. The established old guard, including Brett Anderson’s musical “parents” Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, couldn’t get arrested when Suede dropped their debut album in 1993. It was a lot of pressure for a young band, and they ultimately those gold nuggets began to take on a decidedly brown hue by the decade’s end. After a stately return in 2013 with Bloodsports, which went a long way to recapturing their glory, teasers for the release of Night Thoughts were peppered with references to early Suede touchstones. Particularly, singer/songwriter Anderson’s fixation with the nightmare of domesticity and Kate Bush’s album Hounds Of Love. Sure enough, the influence of both can be found here.

Take side two of Bush’s album, dubbed The Ninth Wave; a concept piece about the last thoughts of a drowning witch and compare Anderson’s blueprint for the new album; thoughts of a metaphorically drowning man who has found himself in domestic hell. To round out the concept, Suede even commissioned a feature film based on the album. Yet after Bush and later, Fever Ray masterfully addressed similar concepts I was a tad sceptical approaching Night Thoughts. The album opens with When You Are Young, which unsettles immediately. Icy, descending strings coupled with children’s shrill voices buried low in the mix give way to Brett’s typically dramatic, foreboding vocal. No Tomorrow manages to raise a daft lyric-inspired smile, despite being about Valium abuse. It’s also a good, loose rock number vaguely reminiscent of old-skool Suede hit, Trash. Back also is the slow-burning epic Suede on Pale Snow, which hits its mark without falling over the top. Tightrope alternately sees Brett straining his voice, which highlights a flaw in the song’s ill-advised attempt to be powerful. His falsetto rears up with better results on Learning to Be, while first single, Like Kids verges on irritating. Pared down, Night Thoughts could have really been epic, rather than a little overwrought, which has always been a fine line for Suede. The cinematic concept and lyrical theme are impressive in parts, but as a whole, the idea feels stretched making it anti-climactic. Giving the masculine perspective on domestic inertia and paranoia is an original move, but unfortunately so is hearing them burdened by normality.