I WAS TEN YEARS OLD when I first saw Prince on Top Of The Pops, and my immediate impression was of a man who’d been beamed in from another altogether more purple planet.
It was 1984 and Madonna and Prince were arguably the two most iconic pop stars in the world at that point. Michael, meanwhile, was having a well-deserved break from pop life, which allowed Prince to come in and release a killer song of the same name. (Weirdly, although a hit in the US, ‘Pop Life’ only reached number 60 in the UK. But it was a rare blip.) MJ sensibly didn’t return with ‘Bad’ until ’87: Prince and MJ were always super-competitive, even when playing table tennis together. Tellingly, it was Madonna and Prince who recorded together, co-creating ‘Love Song’ for ‘Like A Prayer’.
His run of single releases, meanwhile, took pop’s Imperial Phase to a whole new military level. ‘When Doves Cry’ peaked at 4 in 1984 and was followed by ‘Purple Rain’ (8, although it may be number 1 this week), ‘I Would Die 4 You’ (58!), ‘1999’/’Little Red Corvette’ (2), ‘Let’s Go Crazy’/’Take Me With You’ (7), ‘Paisley Park’ (18) and ‘Raspberry Beret’ (25). And of course, by the time we got to ‘Lovesexy’ in 1988, the Prince aesthetic had reached its logical artistic conclusion: or as Chris Heath wrote in The Telegraph this weekend: “He was naked apart from the cross hanging on a chain around his neck. Looking back, I’m not even sure that I was consciously making what was a fairly obvious point about a recurrent theme: the intertwining of the sexual and the spiritual.”
And while many see ‘Lovesexy’ as the end of his Imperial Phase, for anyone growing up the 90s, he peaked again with four of the five singles released on ‘Diamonds And Pearls’: ‘Gett Off’ (UK 4), ‘Cream’ (15), ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ (25) and ‘Money Don’t Matter 2 Night’ (19) were as sexy and lovable as anything he’d released in the 80s, but crucially he looked and sounded as effortlessly on point as ever – and with glam-slammed videos to match. As someone who started their career in a record store (not a second hand store), I knew that Warner Brothers viewed Prince as premium product. In an era of hyped singles and buy one get one free deals to ‘gently massage’ Top 40 chart positions to higher echelons with a cheaper dealer price, Prince was never less than a top tier commodity, which may be why some singles charted lower than expected. I’ve always said that you can judge an LP by its cover, and ‘Diamonds And Pearls’, with its initial hologram cover of Nelson with Diamond and Pearl flanking him, duly went platinum in the UK.
And while the LP quality dipped after ’91, his albums in the 90s were always worth checking: as Gilles Peterson said to me the afternoon after his sudden departure, having spent time with his catalogue again, every later album had at least one great song on it. But this was an era pre-playlist, so fans bought the music anyway and suffered in silence as mediocre albums like 1994’s ‘Come’ and ‘96 LP ‘Chaos And Disorder’ came and went, and it wasn’t until ‘Musicology’ that he made an album that even came close to ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ for repeat playability. (The title track might well be the song that Peterson referred to: on 2014’s ‘Hit And Run’ tour, the song reappeared in set-lists and I saw the song soar in Manchester). Later albums in the 2000s would do the same thing: ‘Rainbow Children’ had ‘She Loves Me 4 Me’ and ‘3121’ had the incomparable ‘Black Sweat’, where Prince looked and sounded as good as he had done during his mid 80s Imperial Phase, only this time, he’d kept up with the times and sounded like he’d been making notes on N*E*R*D and Timbaland productions. But ‘3121’ also had ‘Ti Amo Corazon’, which showed that his sweet, sultry side hadn’t ebbed with age; the video starred Mía Maestro and was directed by Salma Hayek. As I write this, I’m listening to ‘HiTNRUN Phase 2’, which, like his three previous albums, contains nuggets like ‘Stare’ but also bucks the one song trend by featuring further nuggets like ‘Groovy Potential’ and ‘Big City’.
Of course, HitNRUN is a reference to the run of shows he took on in 2014, and as a true super-fan, I attended as many shows as I could physically and financially afford. (It was 4 and should have been 5 but my phone had died before I got the 10PM Camden Batcall: on such blistering live form that February, I decided that you could never have enough Prince). The first was at Shepherds Bush on a first date on February 9th. The gigs were announced during the day and I was so concerned about not getting in that I almost ruined the enjoyment of the evening because there wasn’t a guest list. But a half an hour after arriving at SBE, we were in and instead of tickets being £75, we were charged just £10. It was the best first date in the history of first dates, and he played almost 40 songs including an unforgettable piano medley that peaked with – yes, ‘Diamonds and Pearls’. In fact, it was so good that a week later we were back in the queue for yet another show at Koko, only this time we were just ushered in for free at the door! And as we hit the ground floor running, he ripped into ‘U Got The Look’. I came to the conclusion that Prince and I were karmically connected, and further shows in Manchester and at The Roundhouse confirmed what I’d been saying for years: that he was the best live performer on the planet. Of course, after that initial run of super-budget priced shows, ticket prices went up to a more suitable price of £70. As I said before, Prince is premium product: one taste of the ‘Batdance’ buffet and you’ll gladly come back for more. I’m still sad he didn’t play the oft-discussed Royal Albert Hall, but in 2014 he had played pretty much every London venue of note, including King’s Place, Ronnie Scotts, and a charity show at The Hippodrome for the cast of the movie ‘Belle’. It was a movie he’d admired from Paisley Park: proving what a purple charmer this pop pixie could still be.
The day after his death, he was on the cover of every single paper bar The Daily Mail, proof that his particular Prince had even outclassed the Queen on her 90th birthday. It was a headline I’d hoped I’d never see. Tragically, his death now means that he’s stamped 57 in the same way that Amy and Kurt helped coin The 27 Club. A full week later, it’s almost impossible to accept or believe that this supposedly super-human superstar is gone: his raw, uncut rock energy was legendary and anything less than a 3 hour show from Nelson was rare indeed. As is the way, the price of his Warner/NPG catalogue has sky-rocketed online, the music still isn’t streaming and there’s so much music hiding in Paisley Park that it’s inevitable that some of it will finally be unearthed. (Let’s just hope that it’s done with pride and sensitivity.) Of course, his music will outlive us all, it’s just sad to be living in a world where he isn’t writing, performing or being. And it’s also true that nothing will ever beat seeing Prince live as a first date in this lifetime. Prince, I Wish U Heaven.