Prince was, in many ways, the perfect showman. As well as being astonishingly well-versed in the art of songwriting, he was a mesmerising performer, a talented dancer, a virtuosic guitarist, and one of the most charismatic personalities in the industry. Truly, if there is such thing as fate then Prince was destined to light up the world with his music.
But Prince’s talent wasn’t born overnight. As a child, his knack for music was already obvious. Raised on a diet of Santana, early Fleetwood Mac and Larry Graham, the artist formerly known as Prince had already formed his first band at the age of 13. Grand Central, as they were known, performed at local venues and local Battle of The Band competitions, with Prince developing his skills as a performer all the while.
By 17, Prince was in Los Angeles. After singing a solo record deal with Warner Bros. he started work on his debut album For You, which was released three years later in 1978. The record, which was created pretty much single-handedly, would set a precedent that would be followed throughout his career: complete control and nothing less. Here, we’ve bought the fruit of that work ethic, ten of Prince’s greatest songs.
Prince’s 10 greatest songs:
Originally recorded in 1982, this uncharacteristically innocent track was eventually reworked by Prince and his re-formed Revolution backing band, which was then made up of Brown Mark, Bobby Z on, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman and Doctor Fink. This classic incarnation of the lineup would part ways in 1986 but is immortalised in this groove-laden Around the World in a Day single.
Apparently, Prince had planned to release ‘Paisley Park’ as the album’s lead single on February 27th, 1985, the day after he bagged three awards at the Grammys. However, he ended up not releasing anything at all, probably in an effort to avoid negative publicity after he refused to turn up for the ‘We Are The World’ superstar charity collaboration.
‘I Would Die 4 U’
This, the seventh track on his immortal Purple Rain album, sees Prince make one of the most important and revolutionary declarations of his career: “I’m not a woman /I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.”
The song’s origins date back to at least 1982 when it was tried out during soundcheck for a Controversy Tour show in San Francisco. In the studio, Prince used the LM-1 drum machine to programme the reverberant drum track that underpins this innately danceable offering. One of only 500 models, Prince used his faithful LM-1 even when better drum machines came onto the market, running various guitar pedals through the line input to create unique beats.
‘When Doves Cry’
Another track written for Purple Rain now. ‘When Doves Cry’ is arguably the most poignant track in Prince’s catalogue. It sees the musician explore his anxieties about becoming just like his parents while conjuring up a series of incredibly ornate images, ‘An ocean of violets in bloom’ being one of the most intoxicating.
Prince played each and every instrument on ‘When Doves Cry’, later removing the bass part to give the track that characteristic sense of weightlessness. Pegg McCreary, Prince’s engineer on this song, told Billboard that Prince knew he was on to a winner as soon as he decided to remove the bass track:” He felt this was the best and he knew he had a hit song… so he decided to do something really daring. That’s what Prince was all about.”
One of the sexiest tracks in Prince’s red-blooded catalogue, ‘Kiss’ was originally written for the band Mazarati, formed by Revolution bassist Brown Mark. They were signed to Prince’s Paisley Park record label and asked Prince for a song for their debut album. He obliged, dashing off a short blues-infused demo in a break between Parade sessions. Mazarati worked with producer David Z to transform it into something, funky, tactile and utterly new.
After listening to the reworked track in the studio, Prince promptly took the song back, re-recording the vocals and adding a chorus-drenched guitar break in the chorus. He then tacked it onto his Parade album and ran for cover. Mazarati, meanwhile, were left without a hit song or a paycheck.
‘Little Red Corvette’
Prince’s first Top Ten Hit, ‘Little Red Corvette’ helped propel Prince into the upper echelons of pop stardom. The track was dreamt up by Prince after he fell asleep in the back of singer Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder after a long night in the studio. As Prince drifted in and out of sleep, fragments of lyrics arrived in his head. Eventually, he had enough material to finish the song and bring it into the studio.
The track would go on to inspire Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to create ‘Stand Back’. Nicks and her new husband Kim Anderson were driving North to Santa Barbara for their honeymoon when she first heard the single. Humming along to the track, she found new lyrics coming to her, leading her to demand her husband pull over and buy a dictaphone from the gas stations so she could record a rough demo.
What exactly was Prince is a question you often find yourself asking in a multitude of ways. What genre was he? Was he a mainstream star or an avant-garde artist in disguise? Like a little package of purified artistry, he seemed unburdened by any of the external shackles that usually creep into the creative process.
Most musicians would think ‘Well, I have such a catchy radio-friendly riff here, perhaps I should get rid of the odious introduction’, but Prince wasn’t most musicians, and although seems strange to get hung up on the opening seconds of the song, they really do seem to say so much about him. Thereafter, he seems to almost wade into the repetition of house music to whisk up a wild storm with just enough flourishes to keep things as fresh as the North Sea.
The risqué lyrics to Darling Nikki landed Purple Rain in hot water upon release. However, it is a mark of Prince’s uncompromising approach that when a commercially damaging Parental Advisory label was slapped on the record, he refused to yield on his tale of a “sex fiend”.
This lude recital is a daring one and it still gives the song a bristling edge even if his liberated approach to sexual lyricism is now widespread. In truth, Prince was a daring artist and the sparse instrumentation of the track seems to lay that bare. On top of that, you’ve got a groove that would even encourage a condemner’s hips to shake at least a little bit.
‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’
Prince bestrode the 1980s like a little colossus. His dominance was so valiant that even when it appeared that things were falling apart, his glittering purple armour was never chinked. In a few short years prior to Sign O’ The Times, his trusted band, the Revolution, had disbanded and his attempts to craft the alter ego ‘Camille’ had run aground without a release. None of these setbacks even came remotely close to hindering his progress. In fact, he barely even viewed them as setbacks.
His talent was simply bursting at the seams, and that made him inviolable to flippant little things like failed projects or not having a band. His only issue was his own unwavering perfectionism, and that’s the best achilleas heal in the book when you’re on a golden run. Through good grace, determination and pure awe-inspiring artistry, Sign O’ The Times not only kept that run going but, depending on who you ask, sailed it to its peak. The beauteous melody to this jam is such a toe-tapper, that it becomes clear that music merely poured out of Prince like spiritual sap from a tree, and this is some of the sweetest.
‘The Beautiful Ones’
Prince produced, arranged, composed, and performed ‘The Beautiful Ones’ without any external input. For the track he laid down all the vocals, bass, electric piano, synthesizers, electric drum machine and cymbals. And yet, like a freshly pampered poodle, not a hair is out of place in his pine for passion.
Sweet, sparse and sultry, the song comes to a scintillating conclusion when he breaks out with a shredded vocal volley at the end. In a classic post-modern songwriting style, this isn’t just Prince showing off his skills are injecting a bit of pace to the track but telling the story with an uptake of angsty pace.
When Prince asked none other than Stevie Nicks to help him with this track, she simply responded: “’Prince, I’ve listened to this a hundred times but I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s a movie, it’s epic.” Indeed it was a movie and it was cinematic to the nth degree.
This was the measure of Prince as an artist. As Waterboys frontman Mike Scott said, artists like Prince “seemed to see so much and explore issues much more deeply than most people.” Prince’s ballad is not just a timeless radio hit, beyond the catchy and emotive instrumentation is the following motif: “When there’s blood in the sky… red and blue = purple. Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/God guide you through the purple rain.” Not many artists could turn such profundity into an ear-worming success.