A Purple Life – One Man’s Journey with the Minneapolis Genius Prince

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Our man, Martin Gray had cause to be catapulted back in time following the recent release of new material by Prince. His reflections on the little purple genius are below.

As Prince releases his latest offering ‘Screwdriver’, which can be downloaded from his cryptic new website ‘3rd Eye Girl’, I find myself being catapulted back to a different time. A time of 7” singles a-plenty, the top 40 on my double cassette deck stereo (purchased with my first wage packet) and artists with single word names – Jacko, Madonna & Prince.

There was no Lady Gaga, no One Direction and no X-Factor. The sun seemed to shine forever and the girls were well…lovelier.

I’ve tried to pin point the first moment I fell in love with Prince and his music but it escapes me. I’m guessing it was 1982 when his seminal party anthem 1999 hit the shops. By that point my music listening life was spent in a haze of Adam & the Ants, Duran Duran & The Human League.

 

I hadn’t yet been lured away from the New Romantic scene to be seduced by the rock n soul of the diminutive genius from Minneapolis. At that point I hadn’t even heard of the place! So it must have been two years later when his masterwork Purple Rain arrived that I was well & truly bitten by the purple bug.

By this time in his career Prince had already delivered 5 self produced albums that veered dramatically from rock to soul with not just a hint of sexuality but more like a full page spread in the well thumbed pages of some dubious top shelf magazine.

With its’ soundtrack of classic numbers such as Let’s Go Crazy, Take me with U, I would die 4 U and the title track, the world seemed a more colourful place. Suddenly it was cool to use 2, 4 & U in my homework! I was just turning 16, leaving school and thinking of kissing girls…a lot. Songs such as Darling Nikki and Erotic City brought overt sexuality into my bedroom and opened up a whole new world to a shy kid from the West Midlands.

From then on I devoured his back catalogue. For You & Prince passed by in a heartbeat and then I was on to Dirty Mind. Described by one critic as the ‘confessions of a sex junkie’ and recorded in an almost demo like style, I played that tape over and over again as my holiday romance and I kissed, fumbled, licked and groped to brazen tracks like Head, Sister and When You Were Mine. That summer taught me that all I needed was a dark room & a Prince album to make a difference with girls. Caravan holidays in Wales would never seem the same again!

I was a confirmed Revolution fan and in love with it all. His voice, Wendy’s smile, Bobby Z’s drums and THAT guitar sound. I watched every video, read every review, taped every TV performance. I berated by Mum for missing the beginning of his concert in Syracuse because she hadn’t set the VCR to record at the right time. “Oh it’s ok” said Mum “They just came up out of holes in the stage!” Oh is that all? That’s ok then. I sulked for a week!

From Purple Rain it just seemed to get better all the time. Next up was Around the World in a Day, with its colourful psychedelic concoction of tunes that I adored. I ran to Woolworths to snatch the last copy of Paisley Park from the shelves. Back at my grandparents I sat entranced by the spirituality of the lyrics, the drums and a guitar hearkening back to the summer of 1967. Paisley Park was in my heart.

And then Raspberry Beret. Oh my…a song to share with your favourite girl. That’s when I saw her, ooh I saw her, she walked in through the out door. I drove my step-dad to distraction with that song. I played the album to death as I puzzled over the meanings of Condition of the Heart and The Ladder. What did he mean when he said he was looking for The Ladder?

Still the genius continued with Parade, the soundtrack to his second movie Under the Cherry Moon. This was him at the zenith of his song-writing ability. Just look at the songs from that album and you’ll see what I mean – Girls & Boys, New Position, Anotherloverholeinyohead and Kiss. I loved the video for Kiss and fell deeper in love with Wendy, if that was at all possible.

A new album with The Revolution had been announced. The Dream Factory was to be a double album and mooted to be his best yet. And then the party was over. Could it be true? The BBC news said it was and they didn’t lie. Prince had disbanded the Revolution and I was distraught. I loved him still but I felt let down & cheated. I was too young to understand then but I get it now. Genius doesn’t stand still. As an artist you are constantly evolving, challenging yourself and trying out new styles.

The Dream Factory was never released in full and still resides in that mysterious vault of his along with countless other works of art that have never seen the light of day. Some of the Dream Factory tracks went forward to become the framework for another masterpiece – Sign of the Times, a double album no less. It was as if he was saying to The Revolution “Look, I can do this without your help”.

 

I recently heard one of the those officially unreleased Dream Factory tracks called Teacher Teacher. Featuring unmistakeable vocals by Wendy and Lisa, I was immediately transported back to halcyon days when the sun shone, my girl friend wore a ra ra skirt and you could by a bargain single for as little as 10p. Search it out and you’ll see what I mean.

I still followed his career with interest and no matter how good or bad the output there were always one or two stand out tracks. Electric Chair, Can’t stop this feeling I got, Sexy MF and Dolphin spring to mind. Go through his back catalogue and find your favourites. There’s enough to choose from – 33 album releases to this date. God knows what will happen if he ever decides to open the doors to the vault!

So what of his current release Screwdriver? It’s exactly what you’d expect of him. A driving rhythm, suggestive lyrics and a squealing guitar giving echoes of Chaos & Disorder, Baby Knows & Let’s Go Crazy. Do I like it? Of course, I’m a fan and I always will be.
But my heart will forever belong to the summer of 1984. I’m sat on a beach in Wales, my lips locked with hers as the waves crash on the shore and I press play on the cassette…
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” A Purple Life.

All words by Martin Copland-Gray. This is Martins first piece for Louder Than War. His author archive is here.

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  1. “May U Live 2 See the Dawn”

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