Prince: Purple Legend


The year is 1994. I’m on a bus (that’s right, a bus) on a school History trip travelling from Scotland to Spain. I’m 14. On my Sony Walkman I have a tape of Prince’s Purple Rain that I must have stolen from my older sister, which I’ve just recently become obsessed with, and I play it literally Play> Rewind<< Play> on repeat for pretty much the entire trip round Spain. Whoa. What IS this?

In the hotel room – I’m listening to Baby I’m a Star. On the bus round various Spanish sights – I don’t care, I’m blaring out the echoy, cavernous Purple Rain. Walking round beautiful Barcelona – I’m ignoring my teacher rambling on about historical architecture and instead getting transfixed by Take Me With U. In the hotel lobby – well, I won’t say what I did in the hotel lobby, with or without any magazines… But suffice to say, I am gripped by a sudden and welcome invasion of Prince into my life.

While 1994 was by anyone’s musical standards a fairly dry year, churning out boy band fare like East 17, D:Ream and PJ & Duncan, I was – quite by chance – stuck with a tape of a record that had come out 10 years earlier. I must have seemed like the dork kid, not listening to the new coolest 90s pop sounds, but instead getting engrossed in a 1984 album, from an age when people still had wailing guitars and poodle perms.

At 14, any musical ‘discovery’ is your own, however, and once I’d heard (and memorized) this brilliant album from multiple repeat listenings, there was no way I was ever going to un-hear it or un-love it. It stuck. Wow. I was entranced. I was in love. It said the ‘m’ word! It went on about grinding. It made you want to get up on your feet and dance! It had wailing rock guitar. But it also had a love ballad (The Beautiful Ones) that made you want to cry! It seemed to be sung by someone who had a tremendous amount of energy, and possibly had swallowed some helium balloons. This was my introduction to Prince, and from this summer on I became a committed Prince fan.

So that was the first element to it.
Part 2 of my Prince obsession stemmed from the fact that I was, at the same time, head-over-heels obsessed with an older boy at my school whom I discovered was also an avid Prince fan. He was so cool and stylish and dressed different to all the other kids. He also went on the same school trip and I spent most of my time listening to my Walkman and following him around La Rambla hoping to get close to him, but ho-hum, he never noticed me… This may have had some bearing on my Prince obsession over the years too. These two factors – the Prince tape in a hotel room in Spain, and the boy at school who liked to dress up like Prince – somehow fused in one heady mix in my mind in the year of 1994 to set me up for a lifetime of Prince adoration.

At school as a teenager in the 1990s, I obsessed in my art class over The Most Beautiful Girl in the World (which girl wouldn’t?) and I loved The Gold Experience. I loved the single Gold, a blistering hymn of gold glitter (in my mind) raining down on my school Christmas dance in 1995. At school I was teased by my class mates for liking Prince because “he’s gay” and “because you do know he’s a dirty pervert, he’s had a rib removed so he can give himself a bl**job?” School was made bearable by Prince.

Later I went on to discover the Diamonds and Pearls album and then backtracked into Sign o’ the Times (which isn’t my favourite album but I still really rate it – especially the extended funk jam of It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night at the end.) By now Prince in my mind wasn’t a passé rocker of the 80s, but instead a beautiful, preened, stylish, R&B pop soaring voice that was adept and agile. It still grates with me that I cannot sing either the lowest, or the highest, recorded notes on that stunning single The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. (And believe me, I’ve tried.) How?…he?…eh?!

Some people slagged off his Emancipation megalith from his mid-1990s era, but I could find a thousand gems in that long record to bring me surprise, amusement and joy. Yes, he released a few duffers over the decades but with a musical output as prolific as Prince’s, I think we can follow the law of averages to almost expect that to be the case. In each release, I think he’s being compared and held up to the lofty standards achieved by his Purple Rain offering, which has basically come to define the pinnacle of his purpleness.

Others complain about his risqué lyrics on some of his other albums (e.g. The Black Album, the single Sexy M.F.); although, in his defence it’s not exactly gratuitous in his long career of making music: it’s peppered through his work, rather than over-seasoned by it (which would make it boring and one-dimensional), such as the way many of the gritty expletive-ridden rap artists choose to sing today.

He had songs called, variously, Dirty Mind, Head, Soft and Wet, Horny Toad, Insatiable, Kiss, and – my personal favourite – I Love U In Me. (Surely the most beautiful song ever to be written about having an orgasm.) This is a man who is unafraid (and unashamed) to take risks in telling people about the intensity of emotions. I also had a dirty mind. I loved it.

I became a different level of Prince fan when I heard his live album One Nite Alone…Live! Yes, there he could play funk. Yes, he could certainly jam with a live band, and we know he certainly enjoyed playing live best of all. Everyone I ever spoke to who had the privilege of seeing him play live (particularly latterly) said unanimously that he was Brilliant and Amazing. No one ever said his shows were ‘alright’ or ‘ok’. Apparently he would jump on the piano and be mind-blowing, adaptive/responsive and performance-driven.

He could shout at people, his really proficient band members including Maceo Parker and Candy Dulfer, to ‘honk their horns’. However, where I find most beauty in his music is in his falsetto ballads, his ability to strip a song right back to a quiet, soulful thing, to wear his heart on his frilly sleeve and to make a searing love song sound overtly sexual and horny at the same time; a high-pitched cat’s wail interspersed with his right-on-the-beat low grunts. He was able to fuse ethereal wistful desire for emotional intimacy with raw sexual lust and sensual physicality. The man was erotic, but how can that be a bad thing? It was real and honest. Listen to him play Do Me, Baby on the piano, and you will know what I mean. You want to cry and laugh at the same time: no easy feat, which, incidentally, is what the greatest performers and entertainers of all time strive so very hard to achieve.

This trademark ability to be both randy and sweetly sensitive in the same song was to me absolutely devastating. It was the two faces of the theatrical muses of comedy and tragedy written purple. Prince described in interview about how the element of humour and entertainment, of ultimately ‘getting people to have a good time’, was so fundamental to his work.


So, anyway, fast-forward a decade or two and I will try and explain why I think Prince is deserving of his title of musical genius. There are many able people out there who can make music, but very few musicians. By which, I mean those people who are so ‘naturally’ attuned to their art that they make it look easy as pie, and as though you could 100% trust them to be both beautiful and original at any given time. I reckon Prince was one of this latter group. All of his most adoring devotees and copiers can only achieve some of his brilliance some of the time. But for Prince, it was like this genius switch was ‘always on’. His talent had become naturalized within his body.

Somebody commented the other day that Prince was like “…a conduit for music”, and as I reflected on that analogy, I concluded that is probably quite an accurate description. Music flowed through his mind, body and spirit and he was like a machine that never wanted to stop. He seemed to be able to absorb musical styles and sights and sounds from a wide range of influences, then take it all on board, and rework it in his private, complex head, then he literally exuded music from every orifice and extremity of his body. His fingers, his toes, his thighs, the way he could do the splits on a beat, his mouth, his beautiful lips, all this was music; and yet his shy eyes were poetic. I fell in love with that shy smile.

He had the dancing skills and timing precision of one of the stage greats like Michael Jackson. He sang all those octaves of notes that he was in command of pitch-perfect. I never heard him sing anything off-key. He sang with the grace of a gospel singer. In vocal style, he could be both breathy and raunchy. He could sing about things both sweet and ‘street’ (listen to P Control and Pope.) He could play the guitar like a modern-day Jimi Hendrix if he felt like it. He had the swagger and funk of James Brown. (Question: how did he manage that when he seemed so shy and still off-stage?)

Well then, he could easily have been just a muso dork. He could have been a real guitar geek that looked plain dressed in jeans and white sneakers. But no. Again, he had this element of his existence covered. In his flared trouser suits and flamboyant shiny shirts he had the dapper gentlemanly style, borrowed presumably directly from Larry Graham. He looked stylish and unique. Eccentric? Maybe.

In our pop era he could have looked like just another stage prima donna that loved showing off – and many non-Prince fans are inclined to see him in that way, as a sex-crazed lunatic and show-off. But then again, he wasn’t just that, because he had the geeky obsessive-compulsive bedroom-production/arranging skills of someone like, we would say, today’s Calvin Harris. Who knows just how little sleep the man got when he was in his prized studio working on new songs? But nor was he just a live performer like one of the perfectionist mannequins we see churned off the production line today, trained to act out a fixed ‘routine’ on stage, either; he was the bandleader, he was in charge of calling out the time, he led the band, he knew what he wanted to play (or felt like playing) at any given moment and he directed everyone else.

He could stop a wild, momentum-fuelled beast of a 10-minute funk jam on a dime, if he wanted to. “Stop!” – then –  “I ain’t through.”

He would take charge like the leader. “SING!” he yells at the audience as a barked order, like some dominatrix male choir director, and we all want to be in the choir like a bunch of naughty schoolgirls. Prince was coy and playful. That face. That raised eyebrow.
He was in control, and that’s what makes him seem like a true creative original, not merely a highly trained puppet who learned a lot of instruments. This is a man that knows music. And I mean, knows music, as in lives, breathes, feels, actually, is music.

Simply, Prince was a voracious musicophile. Soul, jazz, country, blues, funk, rock, pop, rap, instrumental, guitar, bass, piano, brass, vocals; Prince was totally unafraid to experiment in any style that piqued his interest and you suspected he could turn his hand to anything creatively. He had mastery. He had that perfectionist gene. He was inquisitive and inventive. He made it all look so easy. So effortless. And his own. And he wanted everybody to have a good time. “Y’all having fun? How late can you stay up?!”

He had the attitude. – The attitude of a truly unique, focused, talented, original human being. He knew what he wanted and he was unafraid to go ask for it. (See him kick Kim Kardashian off stage when he invites someone up to dance with him, it’s hilarious!)

Without Prince, I reckon my musical tastes would still be festering in the Jurassic era along with Ugly Kid Joe and 2 Unlimited. No; there was purple smoke and there was gold glitter above and beyond. He encouraged me to look further afield: away from ‘bog’ standard rhythms and notes of my white upbringing, firstly to soul, which then led me to R&B, Motown, then to funk, then jazz, and back again, and to widen my ears and eyes to the power of performance. Prince was so into creating memorable performance he hired professional ballet dancers to accompany his electric vocal performances, to stunning effect. Even though I don’t read music, I credit Prince with instilling in me the inspiration to ‘lean out’ and try to sing harder things, and to discover new styles of singing: pushing my musical boundaries. For me now, musical discovery is all about that element of surprise and genius which keeps it witty and alive: the precision of timekeeping and the odd blue note. (And if we are not witty and alive, then can we say we are truly alive?)

Listening to Prince’s lifetime’s work is like entering a vast musical library where you can open one book only to find that it leads you to another book, then another, then another, till you find you stay in there all day. You become infected by his musical story and by the seismic energy he conveys which belies his tiny size. His influences were broad and wide-loving, and testimony to the flame of passion that defined his lifetime’s work. He wasn’t a temporary flicker on the music scene confined to a particular period, nor was he an ageing rocker croaking away his old hits; he kept making fun music till the end. Music was his life.

But to me Prince was more than just music: he represented a sense of style and an individuality that most of us can only dream of. In a way, Prince challenges our assumptions about what it means to be human, because he takes notions of personal identity and individuality to their extremes. Precisely, how much personal expression can we get away with? – And how much do we desire? (It is a question I have been wrestling with this week.)

Perhaps it was this apparent lack of obvious concern or giving a damn about what anyone else thought about him that appealed to me, growing up as a young impressionable teenager. Everyone says do it, but in practice it’s incredibly tricky to be your own person and be taken seriously at the same time: yet he coolly manages to pull it off.

Prince was ever keen to carve out his own uniqueness – his artistic vision and personal creativity was paramount to him in his life; and you got the impression that the few times he tried to blend too much into what ‘everyone else’ was doing, a little of his lustre was lost. He did best when he was ‘most Prince’, i.e. musical, flashy, shiny, and theatrically camp. It was the poet e. e. cummings who said, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”


And now to think: do I have a favourite Prince song? – I think it’s almost too hard to pick. I once read it argued by a journalist somewhere that the track Mountains from his album Parade was in fact, the greatest Prince track of all time. Well, I hadn’t heard it at the time of reading so I quickly went off to discover it and I do think in some ways that journalist might have had a point. If I ever want to feel uplifted, Mountains is as worthy a motivator as any – classic 80s power-Prince: anthemic, energetic, high-pitched, squeal-y, full-on, upbeat. Love will conquer if you just believe / There’s nothing greater than you and me” – what could be more funky than that?

But then there are the more intimate moments of Prince that I also love to the point of distraction. Butchered by Sinead O’Connor into a bland and a-musical synth dirge in the 90s, Nothing Compares 2 U by PRINCE* (live, at a push) is arguably one of the finest and most tender wistful love songs ever written, and it also happens to be superbly played by his suite of highly respected backing musicians. Rosie Gaines is a force to be reckoned with – and Prince was always able to surround himself with the most talented of musicians and dancers.
(*And plus, who can sing a rising falsetto arpeggio of the word “rain…” quite like that? Answer: Only Prince.)

The point about Prince as a successful performer is that he totally gets dynamics. He gets what completely passes a lot of modern-day pop and rock artists by, which is the subtlety of varying quality of musical tone; playing around with light and dark, softness and loudness, high and low, crescendo and a bit of cheeky suspense; being both serious and fun (even in the same song); the impact of contrast. “The space between the notes”, as one esteemed musician once so accurately put it. That is why I have no qualms at all about putting Prince in exactly the same prodigal category as the likes of Chopin and Mozart; a unique and supremely gifted musical individual that is so imbued with natural ability and ‘knowingness’ in his field fused with a rabid and frenetic inventiveness that it makes the rest of us mere mortals weep at our own mediocrity and despair at our inconsequence.

In the final analysis though, listening to Prince’s back catalogue, it would be impossible for me to like I Would Die 4 U and Little Red Corvette more. I am so viscerally and primordially attached to these songs: they represent a memory, a time of personal discovery, a freedom, a possibility, an awakening, a longing, a nostalgia for a lost time that I didn’t even experience first-hand – to me they represent my first understanding of Prince. I Would Die 4 U from 1984 is perhaps the ultimate signature of Prince: like the man himself, small yet perfectly formed; uptempo yet enigmatic. Even now you can put this song on your iPod and then play a contemporary offering from today’s electronic dance music scene straight up next it and discover there really isn’t much obvious difference: to this day, it still sounds incredibly fresh and exciting, testimony to the enormous legacy Prince leaves on the contemporary music scene.

I remain unbelievably attached to Prince: his spirit was filled with love. He gave his all to the world, and I will happily bask in it. May his beautiful crazy genius be remembered and revered 4ever:

“‘You’re so cool, everything you do is success;
Make the rules, then break ’em all cos you are the best!’
(You know I wrote this while I was looking in the mirror, right?)”
– Prince


26th April 2016
Annie Copland

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