So how does an artist react to a new decade when they helped change popular culture forever in the previous one? We take a look back at Prince during his Nude tour period of the ’90s.
By Sam Bleazard
That was the dilemma facing Prince Rogers Nelson in 1990 as he surveyed the breath-taking range of his 80s output. The new wave punk-funk of Dirty Mind and Controversy, post-apocalyptic synth-bomb 1999, the Oscar-winning Purple Rain movie and soundtrack, the jazz-pop of Parade (featuring single Kiss), musical smorgasbord Sign O The Times (and its celebrated concert movie), the idiosyncratic and sexual-spiritual melange that was Lovesexy (plus his critically acclaimed tour in the round), the multi-million selling Batman soundtrack….and this is without considering countless songs given and hits produced, for other artists: Stevie Nicks; Chaka Khan (I Feel For You); The Bangles (Manic Monday); Sheila E (The Glamorous Life); Sinead O’Connor (Nothing Compares 2 U).
A trawl through the media reports of the 1990s would no doubt highlight the various and often bizarre career twists and turns (none of which were particularly well received at the time). A ‘retirement’ was announced in 1993 where he shed the name Prince and adopted the moniker of an unpronounceable symbol (merging the male and female signs), a decision which lasted 7 years. The first retirement was supposedly following the Purple Rain tour, when he mysteriously announced he’d gone off to look for ‘the Ladder’…although cryptically naming a track from his next album Around the World in a Day was simply clever marketing in hindsight. He also signed, if reports were to be believed, a $100m dollar contract, which, whether true or not may have become the final albatross around a creative’s neck. It was a deal that recognised his prolific output in the 1980s, his skill as a hit-making producer but also promised the artist a Paisley Park record label and distribution deal via parent label Warner Bros.
However,those in Prince’s inner circle would no doubt point to the seeds of discontent being sown in the 80s. A legendary work ethic which was producing several albums a year did not allow a major label such as Warner Bros to package and market all of Prince’s output as he would have liked it. Prince would relate to songs almost as if they were newspapers, namely that they needed to be timely, fresh and released in the moment as and when required (but this was the pre-internet era). Initially his approach to his other-worldly productivity was to have side projects whom he would record for, local band rivals in Minneapolis The Time (who famously spawned not only Morris Day and Jerome Benton as stars in Purple Rain, but also super-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who went on to help define the sound of the SOS Band, Janet Jackson, Mary J. Blige and various others), and The Family (which included love interest Susannah Melvoin, and also the first recording of Nothing Compares 2 U).
As successful and critically acclaimed as albums such as Parade and Sign O The Times were (in 1986 and 1987 respectively), they were not as Prince would have originally intended. Having tens, if not hundreds of songs to choose from for each project, during that period the Parade era could easily have spawned a double album called Dream Factory, which his band The Revolution were working on, and Sign O The Times could have been a triple album called Crystal Ball. Would it have been too much product for the general public to digest, still trying to catch up with what he was doing? Quite possibly. Did we lose the chance to hear a lot of his best works when they were box fresh, almost certainly.
On top of this, while Prince was riding high in Europe on the back of some of the best live performances of his career in 1987 and 1988, he was starting to hear some critical voices Stateside accusing him of not being true to who he was. The age old critiques which many artists had had to negotiate along the way, were now his to process, as at some point he got to hearing that his sound ‘wasn’t black enough’. Strange to think of this now in hindsight (given the extraordinary level of influence he’s had over Alicia Keys, Outkast, Frank Ocean, Beyonce and others) but clearly it was a message that bothered him sufficiently inside his recording studio Paisley Park. It led to the recording of a party funk record with no title (an early spin was at drummer Sheila E’s birthday party apparently). The album is a curio, as it kicks off with the chugging bass-popping thump of ‘Le Grind’ and is followed by Cindy C (a horny, but fun nod to a fantasy about pursuing the supermodel, who had iconic status at the time). The Black Album as it became known in time (Prince wanted it to be released with no information at all on it much as the Beatles had done with their 1968 opus The White album), also more controversially had 2 tracks which took a fierce satirical aim at black culture. Bob George is a neurotic pimp narrative spoken in a slurred deep voice to a sparse, taught beat. It would have been as controversial as NWA had it been released in 1987. Amid all expletives, guns and police chases in the story, it does contain the amusing line uttered to silent female protagonist. “Who? Prince? That skinny m-fer with the high voice, please, who do I look like baby?” The second was Dead On It, where he’s overtly critical of rap music…it is played for laughs, but you’re left in no doubt what the message is: “ye see raps first problem, usually stems from, being tone deaf. U pack the house, try to sing, there won’t be no-one left.” Rap caught Prince on the hop, and although he pulled the album at the last minute, he eventually made peace with the form but for the first time in his career in the early 90s he had started to play catch up. Chuck D of Public Enemy eventually became a close musical associate, as did Doug E Fresh. and Q-Tip, but in the early 90s the boat had sailed and the damage was done, Prince, while not quite the old fogey, was no longer the new kid on the block and was looking back over his shoulder.
Listening back to his first official releases of the decade, the work of guest rapper Tony M hasn’t aged well (and very seldom seems to add to what Prince and his band are doing in the studio) with the exception of tracks like Gett Off or Sexy M.F. The latter a clear effort on Prince’s part to keep the shock value high and listeners ears pricked up!
The two words which maybe define the period were quality and control. Prince wanted the latter but Warners felt the quality, if not the level of output, had dimmed. Further complicating matters in ‘89/’90 was a third feature film – following the black and white oddity comedy Under the Cherry Moon, shot on the French Riviera and which sadly no amount of great music or the presence of actors Stephen Berkoff (or future star) Kirsten Scott Thomas could save. Graffiti Bridge was that film, which had long existed as scribbles on Prince’s various notepads, and added in to the mix was a high profile relationship with starlet Kim Basinger and a world tour – “Nude” – to negotiate. Where did he find the time?!
The soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge was his first album of the decade, and as a real mixed bag it set the tone. A double album with songs recorded for heroes such as George Clinton and Mavis Staples, but also appearances by rivals the Time and the introduction of teenage protege Tevin Campbell (remember him 90s RnB heads?). Added to this were re-recorded songs from Prince’s vault such as I Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got, which no doubt dissatisfied fans and confused newcomers. The highlights such as Joy In Repetition, had already been bootlegged heavily years earlier and of the new tracks only The Question of U emerged with credit (going on to be a staple of his live show in 1990 and beyond).
Early reports of the film weren’t positive and when it finally emerged it looked like a vanity project or an extended series of music videos at best. Although certain cast members were retained it lacked any of the excitement, the soul or the spirit of Purple Rain. The emotional depth were largely missing, as were audience members in the crowd scenes, making the whole thing seem empty and whimsical as an exercise. The album subsequently confused and became only a modest seller as a result, especially as very few people attempted, or had the ability, to see the film.
As Prince had done throughout his career he continued to sell concert tickets by the bucketload, a record breaking run of 16 sold out shows at Wembley Arena attested to this. On the Nude Tour he introduced the world to the first configuration of his New Power Generation band, which included powerhouse newcomer Michael Bland on drums, childhood hero Sonny Thompson on bass and the sublimely talented Rosie Gaines on vocals and keys (the latter would go on to be known for the song Diamonds and Pearls, but also breakaway dance remix Closer Than Close, which originated as a ballad on her debut solo set on Motown). There were lots to recommend the shows, Prince was at his funkiest, updating the James Brown sound and with a super rhythm section to boot. However, certain sections of his audience, who’d followed his interstellar rise in the 80s couldn’t help but feel he was reaching for past glories to some extent (by his own high standards). Apart from Rosie Gaines almost stealing the show on occasion, the tour was notable for Prince’s reclamation of Nothing Compares 2 U from Sinead O’Connor and he must have known he was to some degree competing with his own past. When the song was played live it would end with the singer on a metallic heart which may have made some yearn for dancer Cat Glover from the Sign O The Times band.
Like Madonna, Prince had learned from The Beatles, David Bowie, George Clinton et al that re-invention was not only the key to keeping audiences interested and trailing in your wake, but also vital to survival in an increasingly media-savvy age. He would bounce back quickly with possible his most accessible album since Purple Rain, but the seeds of further discontent had already been sewn…
Join us in part 2 as we look at a lot of Prince’s “lost music” from that decade (15 of these albums have recently re-surfaced on Tidal.com), which contain a number of his most underrated songs.