Tag Archives: Funk

33rd Favorite: Sign O’ the Times, by Prince

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Sign O’ the Times. Prince.
1987, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Prince.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: A double-album masterwork of songs spanning different genres, from psychedelic to funk to slow jam to guitar pop, all played by Prince, with a little help here and there. Prince finds several characters for his voice to inhabit and plays fantastic guitar throughout. The songs may be grooving, they may be rocking, they may be sing-along cute, but they’re always fun. The man’s creativity was off the charts.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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When I was nine years old, and my taste in music was solely geared towards catchy songs I heard on WLBR AM-1270, I really dug the 10CC hit “The Things We Do For Love.” It’s totally 70s soft-rock shlock, the kind of song I would really dislike today, yet find myself listening to on Sirius 70s on 7 when I hear it because I get lost in memories of bringing my baseball glove and a tennis ball to school and spending recess working on fielding grounders against a brick wall. (It also classifies as a “Pool Song,” a name my sisters and I have for songs we heard as kids while at the community pool in the late 70s summers, a pool that blasted WLBR over the loudspeakers. There’s always a soft spot in my heart for “Pool Songs,” no matter how lousy or uncool.)

I’d sing the song to myself sometimes, but I never took the time to learn all the words, I’d just sing the ones I knew. “Like walking in the rain and the snow/ When there’s nowhere to go/ And you’re feeling like a part of you is dying.” This was the bulk of my lyrical knowledge of the song, a couple lines listing just one of what I imagined were dozens of “things we do for love” throughout the song: a walk in crappy weather when you don’t feel well. I’d sometimes think, “I wonder what other miseries the song lists? Exactly what deprivations will I be signing up for eventually when I’m in love?” I thought maybe I’d gain some insight into the expectations for a person in love. But when I finally took note of the entirety of the song’s words, I was confused because the lyrics only mention one thing done for love: those lousy walks. I figured there had to be more than that. I was right.

To tally up all the “things” we’ve done for love, we first must consider the word “Love.” It’s a weird one. If we use a definition that includes all romantic interest from big crushes, to first girlfriends, and even short-term girlfriends, well, then I can say I’ve embarked on a self-improvement plan, carried books through school hallways, and unwittingly driven an ex and her new boyfriend home from the airport. But were they really done for “love?” Actually, they were done to interest a girl who didn’t know me; to try to get a girl to make out with me; and to try to rekindle a doomed romance.

The definition for “love” can be really broad, so let’s limit it to a form of “love” that will likely stand up to all linguistic scrutiny: long-term commitment. It’s January, 2018, and I’ve now been together with my life partner, J., for almost 25 years. Technically she’s my wife, but that seems so legalistic. Since we started to fall in love a quarter century ago, I’ve found myself doing many things for love in addition to walks in crummy weather. I’m sure she has her list, too.

Pay Off Student Loan: Soon after we got together and rented an apartment together in San Francisco, through a series of corporate-level occurrences at my day job as an analytical chemist, I came into a rather large sum of money. It wasn’t “retire at 27”-type money, but it was “wow, we could have lots of fun with this!”-type money. I started dreaming of a couple weeks on an island beach somewhere. J., however, noted that the amount of dough would pay off the rest of my student loans, with enough left over for a fancy dinner and night on the town. I paid off my student loan. It seemed lame at the time, but I now (grudgingly) realize it put us in a better financial position in the long run.

Go to Clothing-Optional Spa: San Francisco sits in the southern-central area of a tremendous realm of hippy-dippydom known as Northern California. The region has long been home to all sorts of unusual, New Age and otherwise outside-the-mainstream spiritual pursuits. Among these is The Heart-Consciousness Church, which one must join to attend the famous hot-spring spa they own, Harbin Hot Springs. J. had heard of the spa and wanted to go. I thought a hot-spring spa sounded delightful, and, being a nice, young man from rural PA, figured “clothing-optional” meant that, sure, maybe a few freaks would be nude, but that most everyone would be wearing some sort of garment. They weren’t. And neither did we! It was actually very relaxing (after a while), but I probably won’t go back. But I’m so happy to have a story with which to quickly embarrass my teen-agers! (This story basically repeated itself – from initial discomfort to mortified teens – 25 years later, except the words “Clothing-Optional Spa” were replaced by “Zumba Class.”)

While we’re on the topic of teen-agers, now would be a good time to mention this one. Become a Parent: It’s not that I didn’t want to have kids, it’s more that I never really thought one way or the other about it. However, after a few years of surface-level discussion, J. told me that her “eggs are getting old,” and so it was time for me to get on-board with the idea. Of the Things I Did For Love, this is the most important. And there’s probably no better reason to have kids than because you’re in love with someone. I’m really proud of my kids and my family – no matter what I might have said (or continue to say (or will say in the future)) during times of frustration and stress!

Buy House. Work: Okay, this is a little disingenuous, as I’m sure I’d be living somewhere, and I’d definitely have a job, regardless of my Love status. But since I am generally lazy, I’d probably rent an apartment. And since I am generally lazy, I’d probably have a lower-level job, perhaps involving a Fry-O-Lator. And although I’m sure J. would love me even if I manned a Fry-O-Lator and we lived in an apartment, making those choices out of sheer laziness would never fly. So one of the Things She Does For Love is help me to not be lazy.

Drive Around San Francisco Looking for Potential Urban Garden Spaces for a Master’s Thesis While Listening to Sign O’ the Times: When J. and I began dating, in 1993, I had lots of respect for The-Artist-At-That-Time-Just-Recently-Known-As-A-Symbol-Instead-of-Prince. He was clearly a musical genius. And I really loved his soundtrack album Purple Rain. I liked some of his songs, particularly “Raspberry Beret” and “Alphabet St.,” but I wasn’t really a fan. J., who was a fan of music but not interested in obsessing over artists and songs, like I was, had diverse musical tastes that ran from hip-hop and soul to punk and 80s new wave. And she really liked Prince a lot. (She also listened to classical music a lot, which was unsettling to me at the time.)

She was working on her Master’s Thesis, and it required her to drive all over the southeast corner of San Francisco mapping open spaces. I drove her around in her 1984 Chevy Cavalier station wagon so that she could write and think easier. I needed music to accompany the task, the Cavalier had a cassette player, so I looked through our collection of cassettes – nearly all of them dubbed from albums, with hand-written labels. J. honestly didn’t care what we listened to, and since I’d heard all my stuff a bunch I decided to pick one of her tapes for the drive.

She’d been fond of making fancy labels for her cassettes, and they revealed many artist names I recognized, but that I’d never listened to much: Fishbone, X, Jungle Brothers, 808 State, Tom Waits, Stetsasonic. One cassette stated, in capital letters, “PRINE.” I thought, “Oh, that must be John Prine,” another guy I’d heard of but never listened to.

On closer inspection, the label revealed tiny letters below the PRINE: “sign o the times.” It wasn’t John Prine, it was misspelled Prince, and it was a record I’d heard was great. I mentioned it to J., and she said, “Yeah! Let’s listen to that!” I was a bit skeptical, but I pulled it out of the case – for love. Then we headed to the car to map potential gardens all over Bayview Hunter’s Point. We took several trips around that neighborhood over the course of several weeks, and my recollection is that most of the time we listened to Sign O’ the Times. And I became a big fan.

After writing about 67 albums, I have a pretty good idea of the types of records I like. And I’m the first to admit there’s not a whole hell of a lot of variety. But whatever variety there is in my entire CD collection today, believe me when I say that in 1994 there was a whole lot LESS variety. J. has been a big influence in expanding my tastes and getting me to listen to artists I otherwise wouldn’t have delved into. The truth is that even though I gravitate to the basic, guitar-drum-bass rock sound, I really do appreciate variety. And what I really love about Sign O’ the Times is that its songs and sounds are so diverse. It all sounds like Prince, but it’s Prince’s take on different styles.

The first track is the title track, and it’s one of the best on the record. A serious report on the state of affairs in 1987 set to a slow groove and funky guitar.

The groove is set by an electronic kick drum and bleeps and bloops, then a synth-bass riff and snare are added but they back off by 0:30, allowing the power of the lyrics to resonate. There’s a lot of open space in this song, generating the feeling that “this ain’t a song about a cute girl in a purple hat.” In the second verse Prince starts to add some guitar figures into the mix. I love what he does on the guitar throughout the song. For such a flamboyant guitarist, he really serves the song by keeping things subtle here. After the second verse the guitar joins in the riff and the song starts to move. He keeps playing behind the bridge (1:47), too. His voice is excellent and soulful, and despite the dim view of the landscape, the song ends on a hopeful note, advising folks the best strategy in tough times is to fall in love. At about 3:45 a gentle guitar solo finishes things off. It’s a simple song, but he packs so much into it.

That uplifting spirit at the end carries over into the super-upbeat, happy pop of the next song, “Play In the Sunshine.” It’s a frantic, nearly frenzied song with fun bursting through the speakers.

I can’t tell if the drums and bass are programmed or played but either way they’re addictive to the ear. This is the first of several songs on the album in which Prince pulls the terrific trick of making the listener part of the album, for example the multi-voiced background vocals (the first chorus, at 0:53, and throughout) and raw energy to give the listener the feeling of being at a performance. There’s a shredding guitar solo about 2:36, as the fake crowd chants for him to “play.” They keep it up throughout his teasing “No!” responses until he relents at 3:44 with a … xylophone solo? Okay, I’m sure it’s a synth, but imagining Prince pounding the pipes (which I have no doubt he could play) sure is fun. It’s a raucous song about loving your enemies “’til the gorilla falls off the wall,” among other things, with a slow-jam coda. The man’s creativity is boundless.

He can even work wonders with a simple dance beat, as he does next on the full-on electric funk of “Housequake.” I remember J. and me dancing in our seats to this one, drawn into the song by Prince’s insistent lyrics that we do so, and feeling like we were part of the record by his use of studio “audience” sounds. Prince uses horns a lot on this record, particularly on the dance numbers, even on this mechanized beat. He does it again on “Hot Thing,” one of many songs on the album about Prince’s love of women, let’s say. It’s got a Totally 80s sound, but does have a great sax solo about 2:38 and again around 3:20 and 4:40. He blends “real” instruments with synth sounds brilliantly, as on “It,” a cold computer stomp (again about his love of … women) with a surprisingly soulful guitar solo. The beat calls to mind The Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” and throughout the record, the studio vocal tricks give some songs a psychedelic 60s feel.

This sound is explored quite a bit on the record, the prime example being the trippy-lyrics and splash-cymbal pop of “Starfish and Coffee.”

It’s one of my favorite songs on the record. Its four chords, story of kids in school befriending the “weird” kid and singsong melody reminds me of a kid’s song. So it’s not surprising that Prince sang it with The Muppets. The strange snare sound and swirling background sounds add to the psychedelia. He has a gift for melody, such as in the singalong jam of frustration, “Strange Relationship,” and the nifty little “Forever In My Life,” about his love of one woman.

Prince has seemingly thousands of voices inside him, and he continues his focus on the love of a single woman in a falsetto that recalls Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind and Fire, or the old soul group The Stylistics, in the album closer “Adore.” It’s a classic slow jam, with build-ups, releases and a conclusion that sounds like falling asleep in the arms of your love. It’s a style he does well, as heard on the lovely, romanticSlow Love,” where the horns and slow swing recall a standard sung by Sinatra or Ella.

Another bit of psychedelia comes on a song that seems to have its own genre, the weird, wonderful “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”

It’s not about last century’s New York witticismist, but instead about a waitress who (apparently) takes a bath with Prince – but he leaves his pants on (?). Okay, it doesn’t make sense, but it sure is a great song. I don’t know what genre song this is – which makes it perfect for this record. It’s obviously R&B, but it’s got more folk-style lyrics (and does reference Joni Mitchell) and its chord changes seem more like jazz. At about 2:45 he uses a descending melody that he’d build into the hook of a hit song a few years later.

In “Ballad,” and all over Sign O’ the Times, he shows he can use studio tricks to great effect, but just in case you wondered how much of the party he’s created is computer-generated, he also includes the horn-heavy groove of “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” (mostly) recorded live in Paris. It’s a foot-stomping salute to fun, with an 80s-style rap from Sheila E., that plays like an homage to James Brown.

This is a double-album, and the story of its origins is pretty fascinating. But I couldn’t discuss all that, or go into as much detail on all of the songs as I’d have liked. I’d have loved (not really – I’d be too embarrassed) to delve into the psycho-sexual meanings behind the freaky, groovy “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” I’d have loved to spend time on the Gospel/R&B/nearly-Metal “The Cross.” Almost every song on the record has some subtle sound, oftentimes guitar, sometimes sitar or weird synth, that makes it interesting. It’s a really terrific blend of styles and sounds.

And let’s not forget about the hits, either! Speaking of Sheila E., her drums are all over the smash “U Got the Look,” which featured a memorable MTV video. I think it’s a great song.

Yes, it’s boy-meets-girl-in-the-world-series-of-love, but Prince has shown his lyrics don’t have to make a whole lot of sense to be good and fun. The video features an intro, but the song as heard on the record starts about 1:37 with a Sheila E. flourish on the timbales. It’s a goofy, funny song with a great beat and a terrific co-vocal by Sheena Easton. There’s all kinds of guitar squawks throughout, different voices, weird sounds … I love it. And the chorus of “Your face is jammin’/ Your body’s heck-a-slammin’/ If love is good/ Let’s get to rammin'” … well, that’s just comedic genius. The guitar wails (4:44 on the video) all the way to the end.

Another big hit, with wailing guitar, and also with a video all over MTV in 1987, is the rocking pop of “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man,” in which Prince’s honesty about simply wanting a one night stand is actually a decent move.

I like the drums in this song. They sound real, and Sheila E. isn’t credited, so I guess Prince plays them, along with everything else on the song. The cool little bass riff after every line. The power-chord guitar that enters at 0:40, and the harmony vocal that enters along with it. The breathy background vocals and oohs and ahhs throughout. What I really like (surprise!) is the guitar. There’s a solo that starts about 2:43 that turns into a series of frantic, repeated squeals that I love. I used to think the repetition was created using an echo, but I think he actually played each riff twice, as there are subtle sound differences each time. It then goes into a slow, quiet section of Prince’s jamming with himself on dual guitars before the riff returns to end the song.

One of the most important – perhaps THE most important – effects of being in love is getting changed by love, allowing that gravitational pull between you to rearrange you and expose you so you can discover new ideas and see facets of yourself you hadn’t recognized before. Maybe it’s a naked hot spring. Maybe it’s an excellent album. Whether a relationship lasts a long time or a short time, we’re all better off for the experience. Maybe that’s what that 10CC song was supposed to mean.

Track Listing:
“Sign O’ the Times”
“Play in the Sunshine”
“Housequake”
“The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”
“It”
“Starfish and Coffee”
“Slow Love”
“Hot Thing”
“Forever in My Life”
“U Got The Look”
“If I Was Your Girlfriend”
“Strange Relationship”
“I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”
“The Cross”
“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
“Adore”

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71st Favorite: Purple Rain, by Prince and The Revolution

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Purple Rain. Prince and The Revolution
1984, Warner Bros. Producer: Prince and The Revolution
Purchased: ca. 1990

prince album

nutshellIN A NUTSHELL – Classic 80s soundtrack from one of the decade’s biggest stars combines funk, rock, and R&B with some super-catchy melodies. The drums sometimes sound like they’re programmed by Casio, but it’s still an all-time dance party classic album.

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sue prince

A NOTE TO READERS: Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson is quite diligent about removing any versions of his songs from the internet. He’s sued fans for posting videos, his record company sued a mom for posting a short clip of her toddler dancing to his song (the mom countersued and won), and he’s just been generally hostile to the notion of his music (or his versions of others’ music) being played without him being compensated.


Now, as a person who believes art has value and should be valued, I am fully on his side in his wish to get paid. Sure, sure, he’s a kajillionaire and it’s not like he needs more money. But I think anyone who makes art should be compensated. It’s hard to think of any other item besides music that the general public just assumes they should have for nothing.


However, as a person writing a blog about music on a (somewhat) regular basis, the fact that I can’t easily get videos of his songs is super-annoying. So this is my warning to you, dear readers: don’t be surprised if ALL THE LINKS to ALL THE PRINCE VIDEOS in this blog aren’t working when you try to listen.

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box
Cardboard has a very distinctive smell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it just from having a few boxes around your house from Amazon deliveries, and stores like BJ’s and Costco, where they make you cram your purchases into weirdly shaped, practically useless cardboard containers instead of bags.

But if you’ve ever spent a little time in, for example, warehousea 240,000 square-foot warehouse, stacked 30-feet high with cardboard boxes – a warehouse that includes a sizable section reserved for thousands of flattened, ready-to-build cardboard boxes that – as part of your job – you will fold, origami-by-numbers style, into a wide array of box types to contain a broad range of soon-to-be-expired chocolate products – you’ll know the smell of cardboard. Even today, on the morning after a pizza delivery, the ancient brain part I share with muskrats and weasels will immediately extract that cardboard scent from the surrounding pepperoni and sauce; and as I carry the box to the recycling container the smell carries the summer of ’87 back to me in striking detail.

My distant relative reminisces about his youth

I turned 20 in the summer of 1987, and it was a year of transition for me. My sophomore year at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science had just ended, and I had decided that in the fall I wouldn’t return, but would instead matriculate at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

get job I needed a summer job, and I wanted one that paid the most money. I applied and interviewed at several places, and I took jobs and quit jobs at both Sears and Rent-A-Center before I got the call that changed my life: it was The Hershey Company saying that I was the man for their Chocolate Factory job. At $4.50 an hour (75¢ more than either of the other places) it was a bulging wage, the magnitude of which indicated just how much money the chocolate industry was raking in.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many experiences that, when divulged in conversation, spark the imagination of trebekmy interlocutor such that a smile crosses their face and the single word “Really?!?” is spoken, drawn out to a grin, and paired with twinkling eyes, so as to imply the unspoken words “I want to hear more about that!” These experiences include appearing on the game show “Jeopardy!”; being a professional stand-up comic; and playing at CBGB’s with my old band. However, none of these experiences elicits as much excited anticipation from a listener as does the statement, “I used to work at The Hershey Chocolate factory.”
It conjures wonderful imagery in a person’s mind, of drinking from chocolate rivers, eating vibrant flowers and gloriously floating amid bubbles of Fizzy Lifting Drink. I’m surprised I was never asked, “Did you have your own Oompa Loompa?”lifting drink

Chocolate has a strong effect on the brain, and a residue of that effect is the insistent belief, often spoken directly to me, that working with the stuff eight hours a day is some sort of a dream job. However the truth is that after a oompafew 8 hour overnight shifts in a warehouse folding cardboard boxes and stuffing Hershey Kisses into clear plastic tubes, even a jolly little Oompa Loompa will find himself searching Trivago for flights back to Loompaland – Snozzwangers and Vermicious Knids be damned!!

To earn those exorbitant wages I worked third shift at a Hershey Chocolate warehouse, 11 pm to 7 am, from Sunday to Thursday night. At first glance, this schedule sounds terrific! “Why, that’s basically Friday, Saturday and Sunday off!” But in reality, those three days are camouflage for what amounts to, basically, nearly – but not quite – one measly day of rest.

3rdshiftYou see, after four days spent sleeping, and five nights spent awake, you’ll arrive home from work at about 8 am on Friday. Your body will want to go to sleep that Friday morning, as usual. No matter what you try to do to try to manage your body’s need for sleep – nap, exercise, coffee, alcohol – you are unlikely to enjoy a “day off” on Friday. Or if you do stay awake to enjoy the day, you won’t be able to enjoy that Friday night, like all of the other college students at home for the summer. You’ll have to sleep at some point, so you’ll have to choose: Friday night or Friday day. On Saturday the effects of your Friday choice will kick in, either by being unable to get out of bed until mid afternoon, or by falling asleep in early evening, thus wiping out a good deal of that day, too. damocles Then you’ll spend all day Sunday reflexively counting the hours and minutes until it’s time to leave the house at 10:30 pm for your “Monday,” a Sword of Damocles preventing you from experiencing much of anything that could be described as “relaxing.” It all boils down to not quite a full Saturday to relax.

That summer demonstrated that I never wanted another third shift job again. I could tell it was unhealthy and I felt miserable. golfAbout the only positive aspect of it was that my dad was also worked 3rd shift that summer, and so several times during those few months I met him and some of his colleagues after work to play golf. Then again, in retrospect, while it was indeed nice to hang out with dad, I don’t know if the experience really classifies as “positive:” walking 5 miles in the morning heat and humidity, inhaling cigar smoke from dad’s buddies’ cheap-o cigars (smoked to “drive off the bugs,” which therefore chose to swarm around me), frustrating myself by playing a ridiculous game at which I was horrifically bad, all while nursing the compounding effects of irregular sleep patterns. But it was the best thing about the summer of ’87.

The warehouse was uniquely situated with regard to 80s American social groups. It sat in a town, Hershey, with quite a bit of wealth, and it was within a 15-mile radius of both urban Harrisburg and rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. The summertime workforce drew from the populations of all of these areas, so students from Williams and Bryn Mawr anticipating their fall semesters abroad folded boxes alongside Harrisburg Area Community College part-timers and Evangelical pastors-in-training at Lancaster Bible College.

We worked on boring, little assembly lines, syrupemptying large containers of soon-to-expire chocolate products, and placing their contents into smaller containers and specialty displays. For example: if a box of 24 Hershey’s Syrup bottles was due to expire in two months, we’d empty the box and bundle sets of 8 bottles with an ice cream-themed cardboard display box that someone on second shift had origamied. They’d be shipped to stores in the hopes that syrup eaters would find them more enticing if they were presented in a different setting than simply crammed next to jars of Nesquik powder and Fluff on the Giant Foodssugary shit shelves. fluff

We Oompa-Loompoid workers were randomly sorted into teams each factory lineSunday night and each team was assigned a “line” (i.e. “Mr. Goodbar,” “Hershey Kisses,” “Kit Kat”) on which it worked for a week at a time. There were only a total of about 30 people on the night shift and we got to know each other in the shallow-yet-sometimes-too-deep way that one gets to know someone when jabbering together as a means to stay awake all night. goodbarYou’d get to talking with someone, never making eye-contact, just focusing on opening boxes of Mr. Goodbars and sliding the box to the hands next to you, and soon enough the conversation with … Jess? Jen? … you’d never get it straight, but anyway, your tale about a crazy party you attended freshman year might segue into her story revealing she had a bowel resection as a nine year old.

That curly haired girl from Muhlenberg College hasn’t had a solid BM in ten years

One thing we did share was music, as each line was allowed a boom box. boomboxIn those (mostly) pre-individualized music days, we shared music as a group might share a large cauldron of soup. In this diverse group, few people enjoyed the same kind of soup, so at the beginning of the week a general soup-cooking order was established – Bill will make Chicken Noodle Tuesday, Jane and Ted will make tomato on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday we’re all gonna have to eat Gladys’s nasty Borscht with Lentils and Okra – (i.e. Contemporary Christian Music or Christian Rock.)

Most folks selecting the music were, sadly, Top 40 aficionados, so WINK 104 was the usual music choice. I can still recall the hit songs from the summer 87 summerof ’87 without having to double-check my facts on Google. And I still get nauseous from each of them, like someone getting a whiff of tequila the morning after barfing from drinking too much. “Who’s that Girl,” by Madonna. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. “I Want Your Sex,” by George Michael. “Shakedown“, by Bob Seger. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston. “Mary’s Prayer,” by some guy. I think those were the only 6 songs played that summer.

Other people brought cassettes to play, or tuned in to classic rock or Christian rock.

prince singNow, by 1987 I was very aware of the musician named Prince. When I was in middle school he had a hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” that my sisters loved, and that I liked, too, in my 12-year-old disco fan way. By the time I got to high school, he was well-known as a freaky-looking, sexually ambiguous R&B singer, whose hits “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette” were in constant rotation on MTV.

By the summer of ’87, he was just some guy making music that I never really cared for much. It’s true, as my friend Josh had pointed out back in high school, after we sat through a slideshow by Josten’s that used a Prince song as background, that he was obviously a phenomenal guitar player and I was a fan of guitar. But I still wasn’t interested. Apart from the few songs MTV played, I didn’t listen much to R&B, and Prince’s songs were way too sexual-sounding for me to get into. prince guitar

But a whiff of cardboard box today can place me back at the exact moment my opinion of Prince was altered. I was on a line at the warehouse, opening and sliding boxes in the middle of the night, when someone (I think the blonde woman with acne scars – that’s all I remember) who had control of the boom box for a night brought along a cassette of Purple Rain to play. I remember that the energy in the line picked up immediately, and most everyone around me sang along to every song, did little dances as they worked, performed the “I Would Die 4 U” hand motions when appropriate, and generally had a blast. It seemed that with every passing song I thought, “hey that one wasn’t too bad …” then girded myself for the follow-up that I assumed I’d hate. But it never really came. I found myself moving from grim acceptance of that evening’s poor soup choice – a soup I’d never really tasted much of at all – to wondering where I could get the recipe. It really just took one listen. Or maybe two, as I recall that the general consensus was that the cassette should be played again immediately.

prince smokePurple Rain is the soundtrack to a supposedly very bad movie starring Prince. It appears on every list of best-soundtracks-of-bad-movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen the movie, so I don’t know how bad it is, but I do know that the soundtrack is very, very good.

If I were on the staff at Championship Vinyl and asked to name my all-time, top-five Side One, Track Ones, Purple Rain’s opener would definitely be on the list: “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Try this link: [http://www.zippcast.com/video/06763e656dcd371299f&pl=8611c6071c5d84d38ad4e358176249]

It’s one of Prince’s most famous songs, still receiving airplay today on Oldies stations that, for the sake of their vain, faint-hearted listening audience (i.e. me) don’t refer to themselves as Oldies stations. The eulogeic introduction, with steady and swooping organ, oddly sets the stage for the song’s theme of celebrating life. A drum beat enters at about 40 seconds, and the spoken words start to swirl and echo, disintegrating around the instrumentation. The beat is simple and driving, and it carries the song throughout. A good dance song requires that kind of simplicity, and it meshes well with the simple four note hook that the keyboards play. I’m always a fan of the stuff going on in the background in songs, the things you might not notice on first listen. (This is one of the joys of being a Beatles fan.) And what I like in this song is the distorted guitar answering the keyboard’s hook throughout. It’s a simple riff, but it sounds really cool back there. The entire song is fun and bouncy, prince guitar 2and who doesn’t like shouting along to the words “Let’s go crazy!” in any song? Prince also has a knack for knowing where to go – chord-wise – when moving from verse to chorus, as demonstrated at the 1:32 mark. These changes make his songs seem … I don’t know how to explain this well, but almost like they are part of nature, like they existed and he just unearthed them somehow. This is another bit of pop-music genius that he shares with the Beatles.

As fun and danceable as this song is, it’s very much – to me – a guitar song, as well, due to the crunchy riffing and two strong solos. The first appears at 2:40, with Prince wailing like the hair metal boys who were just starting to pop up around 1984. Then he reenters with a stunning cadenza at 3:54. This is the part of the song I remember impressed Josh back in high school. It also helps to bring the song to a dramatic close, one suitable for a song that began with such an unforgettable opening.

prince logoPart of my problem with Prince songs has been – and continues to be – his use of drum machines (or anyway, drums that sound like machines.) Even in a great song like “Let’s Go Crazy,” the drums aren’t much to write about. The second track on Purple Rain, “Take Me With U,” at least begins with some cool drum flourishes:

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The bass drum plays a heartbeat, which is particularly noticeable against the opening lyrics, “I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart.” As with “Let’s Go Crazy,” another catchy, simple riff – this time played by synthetic orchestra – carries the song. The cool, hard-to-detect, interesting bit in this one is the very subtle acoustic guitar (0:21, 0:30, etc) that provides an answer to the riff’s melody, an answer that later in the song is played by violins (or, anyway, synthetic violins.) It’s a prince pointcatchy duet with Kardashianesque 80s personality Apollonia, and again showcases Prince’s ability to create songs with changes (0:47) that have a truly “natural” feel. A great sing-along song about true love, it always struck me that in the bridge, Apollonia sings “I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion …” and not, “I don’t care if we spend the night in your apartment you share with 3 other people, in which you have a bedroom off the kitchen in a converted pantry …,” a living arrangement I once had. It suggested a bit of a gold-digger attitude that confirmed Apollonia probably wasn’t the woman for me.

And maybe the fact that I think of myself as an underdog is why I always liked the next song, and found myself a little surprised that Prince wrote it:

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“The Beautiful Ones” is about a situation that I find it hard to prince jacketbelieve Prince has ever found himself – falling for someone who’s not interested in him. Musically, it’s the kind of song that made me write off Prince for many years – full of synthesizer blips and noises, sung in an overly emotional, falsetto voice. But I came to enjoy the song over the years, mainly because I connected with the lyrics, having spent many teen/young adult years feeling like I always fell for girls who had no romantic interest in me. I never blamed it on The Beautiful Ones, however; I always just figured I was a loser. So, when Prince goes nuts vocally from 3:20 through the end of the song, I could relate to the emotions expressed – the anger, frustration, sadness.

As much as I liked the songs on Side One, Side Two of Purple Rain was always my favorite side. It’s only four songs, but they are great ones.

revolutionMy least favorite of the bunch is probably Prince’s biggest hit ever, the number one song of 1984, “When Doves Cry.”

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There’s not much to say about it. It’s a decent song, but I’ve heard it too much in my life to leave it on the radio if it comes on. However, I’ll say this: it’s pretty cool that a dance song has NO BASS in it! As a bass player myself, I find that pretty astonishing. If you never noticed, give it another listen! Also – Prince is a kook. Who thinks up a creepy line like “Animals strike curious poses/they feel the heat between me and you”? AND makes it sound so good? The line always reminded me of this classic Jonathan Winters bit.

Up next on side two is “I Would Die 4 U”

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prince lisaApart from the fact that it particularly annoys me that Prince always uses “U” and “4” and “2” and “B” for the words “You” and “For” and “To/Too” and “Be,” this is a fun song. There’s not much to it in terms of instrumentation, although I do like the tiny bass glissando at the beginning of the song. Prince again writes a catchy melody, and he delivers its desperate lover lyrics perfectly. I particularly like the vocal bridge from 1:24 to 1:40, delivered rapid-style, harkening back to some train passengers’ lament about Professor Harold Hill.

The song runs directly into “Baby I’m a Star,” its second half.

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Both songs have fake-sounding drums, and limited instrumentation. They have barely a hint of guitar, they’re repetitive and over-produced, with layered synthesizers carrying the bulk of the background. Given my typical taste in music, I should hate these songs. Yet somehow I love them. prince listenBoth are fun, with a bounce-along beat and shout-it-out lyrics. In both songs, Prince absolutely kills the vocals. In “Baby I’m a Star,” he produces some of his signature squeals and screams (2:30 – 2:38), and what sound like several different voices advise a girl to hop aboard his unstoppable train to stardom early.

The title song closes the album. It was another smash for Prince.

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It’s an epic ballad with wailing guitar and lost-love lyrics emotionally delivered. It’s the kind of song that all those bullshit, poufy-haired, over-produced, extra-cheesy, L.A.-hired-gun-songwriter-written, 80s “power ballads” strived to be. But “Purple Rain” is the real deal. Astoundingly, the song was recorded live (with overdubs added later), something I’m sure none of the hair bands who cranked out “power ballads” ever attempted. It’s sometimes mentioned as the best song from the 80s and features more demonstrations of Prince’s guitar prowess, and another shout-along chorus and closing “oh-oh-oh.” I don’t know what purple rain is, but I do know that the early 70s folk band America mentioned it in their big hit “Ventura Highway,” as well. Somehow I doubt Prince lifted it from them.

Before I close this out, it’s worth mentioning the song “Darling Nikki,” a song whose lyrics (well, actually just one word) caused the era’s snooty, Washington, D.C., busybody housewives to insist that records be labeled if “Explicit Content” was found anywhere within – a practice that continues to this day, even online. PMRCIt caused all kinds of hoopla, with congressional hearings that were carried live on the then-new, and still-boring, cable channel C-Span. (If you have the time, please watch Frank Zappa Dee Snider and John Denver testify before congress. They make the goofballs in congress look incredibly silly.) I always found it odd that this one word in one song raised such a ruckus, while in the same era Cindy Lauper had an entire hit song about the word and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a huge hit that offered sexual advice seemingly direct from the Playboy Advisor, yet nobody seemed to care. In 1984, Prince definitely had a firm grip on America’s … mind.prince leap

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the cigar smoke. Maybe it’s just a really great album. Something about the record hooked me that summer. You never know where you’ll find enjoyment. Amid cardboard and chocolate and people whose names I’ll never remember, I discovered a classic, mid-80s funk gem. And I think of it whenever I open an Amazon package or a pizza box.

TRACKS
Let’s Go Crazy
Take Me With U
The Beautiful Ones
Computer Blue
Darling Nikki
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m A Star
Purple Rain

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