The ding-a-ling intro to ‘Kiss’ is one of the most instantly recognisable in music history. From the very first few seconds, it sounds like a hit, but the story of how it came to be is rather more fraught than the instantaneously ear-worming piece of quintessentially 1980s jangling suggests.
The track reached number one in the States and eventually won Prince the 1986 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, but the tale of how it came to be is not without controversy.
The central protagonist in the story of ‘Kiss’ is not, in fact, Prince but rather Mark Brown, better known by his stage name ‘Brownmark’. Brown’s early fame came as a member of The Revolution, Prince’s original touring band. Brown worked his way into favour amongst the plethora of musicians surrounding Prince, owing to his unique heavily funk-based style of musicianship.
Eventually, Brownmark formed the funk-rock outfit Mazarati in 1986. When making the band’s debut album, he reached out to his former frontman and asked if he had any songs that he could spare for their record. Prince, at the time, was recording Parade, the soundtrack for his own bizarre cinematic directorial debut, Under the Cherry Moon, a production that would bear none of the hallmarks of his musicals success with the exception of working a fruit into the title. The movie may well have won the novelty accolade of Worst Picture at the tongue-in-cheek Golden Raspberry Awards, but the soundtrack behind it went on to sell well over a million copies, proving that to be creatively daring you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth. That’s a lesson that would prove tough to take for Brownmark, new to the world of going it alone in music.
Prince gladly took up Brown’s offer and relished a break from the insular world of the studio and he dashed off a minute-long bluesy acoustic demo for Mazarati on a mini tape recorder. Brownmark, his band, and legendary producer David Z reworked the acoustic demo into an upscale funk beat, capturing an irresistible groove and catapulting the song from its humble minute-long beginnings to the glossy chart-topping ’80s heights it would eventually reach.
Prince heard the track and essentially embodied the attitude of ‘I love what you’ve done with the place, I’ll take it’. He replaced their lead vocal, added the guitar break in the chorus and flung it last-minute onto his own LP.
Prince struck a deal with Brownmark to let him record the song in exchange for a writers credit, an offer which would have resulted in an irresistible paycheck for his former bassist. Brownmark agreed, but as he informed Uncut, “I thought that sounded like a good deal. I spread the bad news to Maserati, who were pretty angry. In the end, I didn’t even get paid for it. He totally stiffed me. I quit the band shortly after that. He treated me so bad, but I don’t care. He gave me a ton of opportunities, so I look at the good things.”
Though Prince may well have laid the foundations for the track, all the groundwork and hard yards were put in by a band that only the most monomaniacal funk fans can recall, before Prince applied the finishing touches and presented it to the world in all its glamorous slinky glory. The track, however, does sound unmistakably Prince-like in each and every aspect, so the story is not so much one of theft and more like a slightly shady tale of reclaiming. The fact that at the time ‘Kiss’ reached number one, ‘Manic Monday’ by The Bangles, at number two, had also been penned by Prince proves that the guitar-god had more than enough creativity to share.