Thursday 23 June 2016

PRINCE: Music From Graffiti Bridge

(#412: 1 September 1990, 1 week)

Track listing: Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got/New Power Generation/Release It/The Question Of U/Elephants & Flowers/Round And Round/We Can Funk/Joy In Repetition/Love Machine/Tick, Tick, Bang/Shake!/Thieves In The Temple/The Latest Fashion/Melody Cool/Still Would Stand All Time/Graffiti Bridge/New Power Generation (Pt. II)

The Thursday Prince died – or at least here in Britain it was Thursday – I’d got home from work, following a long, circuitous and tedious bus journey. I still hadn’t quite computed the death of Victoria Wood and Lena greeted me grimly at the door with one word: “Prince.” No, my brain thought, not another one, in this most rotten of years; it’s too much for me to absorb.

But he had died, alone and in the elevator that led to the studio, aged fifty-seven. Yet again, the media moaned about his impertinence in dying without letting them know, but this wasn’t cancer or anything else of long standing – rather it was pills, too many painkillers, another accidental death, like Jimi Hendrix, Nick Drake and Kenneth Williams. Too few hours in any given day, still less to squander on luxuries such as rest and sleep, too much still to prove, to himself, in his otherwise uninhabited boxing ring.

There wasn’t the same level of mourning for Prince in Britain that there had been for N*t**n*l Tr*s*r* Bowie, though I know that elsewhere in the world they mourned him far more deeply. Still, there were the signs, even here; a mural in Brixton, a message on the (side of the) front sign of the Curzon Chelsea cinema.

The back catalogue, or some of it (will return to that qualification shortly), duly, or dutifully, re-entered the charts, but none of his albums went to number one – otherwise I’d have been compelled to write about him already. Hit n Run Phase Two, his “new” album, was no Blackstar, and was drowned out of the top twenty by too many other new, or newer, or more genuinely adventurous, records.

The album that did the best was The Very Best Of Prince, a 2001 compilation containing everything you’d expect, and nothing you wouldn’t; a record which quietly spelled out the real problem that people have with Prince, namely that there was nothing on it that wasn’t at least a decade old; moreover, apart from 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” one song from Graffiti Bridge and four songs from Diamonds And Pearls, all of it was from the eighties.

The eighties, when you knew the name of everybody in your place of work, when you socialised with them outside of working hours, went to each other’s houses, played each other music, read each other’s books, when a city was still cheap enough to be lived and played in, when everything was still in front of you. Like their Bowie forebears, I suspect that most Prince mourners were conjuring up a requiem for their own “living” lives.

The trouble is that the eighties were when Prince “mattered.” At the beginning of the eighties hardly anyone here knew who he was – I went to his November 1981 show at the Lyceum and the place was barely half-full. The hip musician then was August Darnell, next to whose seemingly naturalistic refinement Prince might have seemed confused and overbaked (and how uncool Darnell abruptly became the following year when Kid Creole started having hits!). But I remember that I played and enjoyed Controversy – OK, maybe skipping over “Ronnie Talk To Russia” – more than I did Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places.

But then he gradually became big here, and after Purple Rain that became a lot less gradual. As with Bowie in the seventies, the eighties were Prince’s “imperial phase,” that great apex of pop music where the screamers and critics are actually in agreement about something or somebody. He threw out one WTF classic after another, again with seemingly no effort – and his experiments were happening in clear and plain view of us.

The question is: what happened at the point where The Very Best Of Prince stopped? As you’ll see, he didn’t stop having number one albums – not right away, anyway – but after “Money Don’t Matter 2Night,” there is a quarter of a century’s worth of music which largely remains unvisited territory. Yes, there were the stories of his databank of thousands and thousands of never-released classics – but once you’d snoozed your way through yet another multiple-album set of dull jazz-funk workouts, you could be forgiven for being sceptical of this.

You do wonder to yourself: he died for that stuff?

All the trimmings and presentations have been exhaustively mined with the obituaries; the sex/religion conflict, the gender question, the feeling that he probably was an old conservative stick-in-the-mud whose conservatism expired when he got back in the studio and did what he, albeit with a steadily decreasing quantity of other people, understood better than anything. It’s all there to be read and I’ve no interest in revisiting or reviving any of it.

But this tale has now reached the point, round about the beginning of the nineties, when maybe even Prince was starting to wonder a little too much whether he still had a point – whereas in the eighties he didn’t wonder; he just made his point a hundred times over, and every time different and colourful. Perhaps he found that time of times too much, too good, to let flee his grasp.

And this may explain why the vast majority of the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack is comprised of eighties outtakes – from Controversy (“Tick, Tick, Bang,” originally set aside for Vanity 6 to record) through 1999 (“Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” “We Are Funk”) to Parade (“The Question Of U”) – not to mention sections of (then) unreleased projects such as Dream Factory and Crystal Ball. Even “Still Would Stand With Time” was originally written for the Batman movie (it was replaced on the soundtrack by “Scandalous”).

I have to say I don’t remember ever going to a cinema to see Graffiti Bridge – and I was a very keen filmgoer back in those days (the Tube was cheap and so were cinemas; you could spend entire weekends travelling around beneath London to watch movies. Oh, you kids today don’t, cont. p. 94…); maybe it went straight to video in Britain? Either way it seems to have been as bad a movie as Prince’s other two (though the man never reached levels of such piteous depravity as Elvis, in Double Trouble, shuffling around on the back of a pick-up truck against blatant back-projected scenery interpreting “Ol’ McDonald Had A Farm”) – but who would criticise Purple Rain or Parade as being nothing more than soundtrack albums for crappy films?

I must admit to having a problem with Graffiti Bridge. It’s not the Sleeping With The Past problem of a lazy, complacent album – on the contrary, not having listened to it since 1990, I was astounded by how good and dynamic the songs sounded (perhaps it’s to their advantage that these songs have not been played to death on oldies radio). I was mentally up and bopping to anything involving The Time (“Release It,” “Love Machine,” “Shake!,” “The Latest Fashion”) – “Release It” actually does sound like something that would be played in the club at the end of the 1990 street, and matters are generally helped by factors such as Candy Dulfer, whose alto is considerably and agreeably freer and more bad-tempered than on “Lily Was Here.” As for Prince’s own stuff, initially my view was one of renewed astonishment. “The Question Of U” has him making like a French Associates. "New Power Generation" is as relentlessly and imposingly catchy and determined a march of principles as “Rhythm Nation.”

Then, about half an hour after listening to the record, I found I could hardly remember any of its seventeen songs. I think I was lukewarm at the time because “Thieves In The Temple” was that extreme rarity, a less than compelling trailer single. It still sounds bewildering and pointless to me, but at least I remembered it from twenty-six years ago. But his repeated “don’t stop”s on the opening “Don’t Stop” sound like George Michael impersonating Prince, and from its clunky title inwards, “Still Would Stand All Time” is a pale lagoon of a shadow of his great eighties ballads. And that’s not just sentimental nostalgia; the Prince everybody cherishes, still, is the one who made those world-beating/fucking records in the eighties. Look for “Prince lyrics” in Google and it’s all “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette” etc.

I think that Prince did for my generation what Bowie did for his, that is to say, create a great kaleidoscopic soup of every great record that he just happened to hear and have them all play at once, only be better than that. But even with the most sympathetic ear, there is a feeling with Graffiti Bridge that there is very little in the way of catchiness on offer. I can remember and even sing records like Purple Rain and Sign "" The Times from first note to last thirty-odd years after they came out, down to things like “The Beautiful Ones” and “Adore” – but thirty-odd minutes after listening to Graffiti Bridge it’s a question of: huh? and what?

Even the guest singers perform as though they’ve been cut-and-paste onto Prince’s two-dimensional universal jigsaw puzzle. Tevin Campbell and Mavis Staples could sing each other’s parts without any detriment to the songs, except that Staples sounds increasingly vexed at having to do this. As for “We Are Funk,” George Clinton is supposed to be co-lead vocalist and co-writer, but you’d scarcely know he was there – he lurks around in the song’s sidebars, like a grumpy caged lion placed next to an office party in a Sloane Square restaurant.

Neither can it be a simple question of overabundance. Sign "" The Times was a longer and better record, and moreover a true double album; Graffiti Bridge seems, like an increasing quantity of “double” albums at the time, to be tailored for the extended requirements of the compact disc. Moreover, whereas Sign "" The Times had a terrific cover, all solemn neons and yellows and a worried-looking, bespectacled Prince lurking in the bottom right-hand corner, Graffiti Bridge’s cover is appalling, like a Woolworth’s budget-priced Prince Of Pop! compilation.

Don’t get me wrong; trim all the fillers off the record and you get a fine and adventurously funky thirty-eight minutes or so, just as you could probably compile a couple of knock-‘em-dead CD compilations of his post-eighties work, even if, like Van Morrison’s trademark one brilliant song per routine album routine, finding the jewels became increasingly tougher work. If you’re a devout Prince fan, you’ll love it. There is plenty here that is stimulating and adventurous (even the “Jimmy JAM!” chants on “The Latest Fashion,” together with its author’s maniacal cackle to top and tail the same song). But I note that this album, though a number one, stayed on our charts for only eight weeks. For fans only, and that’s where Lena’s theory comes in – it was particularly palpable during the closing “New Power Generation” reprise – of the Church of Prince being a place which, if you are a member, know his ways inside and out and are unquestionably loyal to his greatness forever, you will continue to understand and get what he is doing. To non-believers, however, it may have become a little too baffling. This is now the era of the connoisseur’s Prince – one for Nick Clegg to tick off, perhaps. But we couldn’t help noticing the end-credits blandness of the closing title song and thinking…this could be off an Elton John album. Somehow I do not think that this is what “Something In The Water Does Not Compute” was working towards.