His fabled thousand-song vault is being forcibly opened, the queue of inheritance claimants grows ever larger, and a bizarre new image rights law is being rushed through in his home state. The Prince headlines will keep on coming; superstars rarely get to rest in peace.
Millions of cellphones blinged with the same world-juddering news on April 21st, 2016, but a (purple) shroud of mystery still surrounds the events leading up to that bewildering discovery. Subsequent rumours about mysterious doctors and prescription drugs took on a surreal air, so reminiscent were they of the stories that followed Michael Jackson’s similarly startling demise in 2009. The two stars’ lives were curiously entwined.
The one noticeable posthumous difference? No mockery here. Jackson’s passing yielded jokes aplenty (just an hour after the divisive singer’s death was announced, Clash watched kneeling festival-goers in a hasty tribute tent jauntily re-enacting his ‘Earth Song’ histrionics… perhaps it wasn’t the ideal tribute track), whereas Prince still commanded widespread respect, despite being a mysterious MF too.
Even those who appeared to care little for the reclusive Paisley Parker found themselves wading into the online eulogies, sharing those tracks that, actually, secretly, they couldn’t help digging. Such was the depth and breadth of his talent.
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Born in Minneapolis in June 1958, the prodigious Prince Rogers Nelson signed a contract with Warner Brothers (who he’d eventually go to war with) at the age of 18, and had already released four increasingly impressive albums by the time LP number five, ‘1999’, catapulted him to proper global superstardom in 1982.
Prince and Jackson would go toe-to-dancing-tiptoe as pop’s most fascinating enigmas during the 1980s, but in terms of quality and quantity, it was barely a contest. In 1987, for example, five long years after ‘Thriller’, Jackson released arguably the most eagerly awaited album of all time, ‘Bad’, which turned out to be… fine.
A few months before that, on March 31st – one year to the day after he released the lauded movie soundtrack ‘Parade’ (the soundtrack was lauded; the movie, Under The Cherry Moon, much less so), Prince launched a double album, ‘Sign o’ the Times’, that would eventually top many a Best Albums Ever list. He released nine LPs in the 1980s, most of which were bloody sensational.
He just nailed it, so often. Where Jackson’s aforementioned save-the-Earth song was an overblown monstrosity, ‘Sign o’ the Times’ – the title track – demands full attention, that minimal instrumentation massively emphasising the power of those words. “In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time / Now he’s doing horse / It’s June,” Prince sang, starkly, with the knowledge that he’d have made two albums in that time.
Even his poppiest songs threw up thought-provoking nuggets. The everyday-racism (“he told me several times that he didn’t like my kind”) that slides by in ‘Raspberry Beret’, for example, swiftly followed one of the great Prince moments: he decided that “leisurely” rhymes with “Mr. McGee,” and nobody argued.
Those mighty singles provided more interesting male/female dynamics than most pop radio playlists manage all day, even the romantic non-starters: just re-listen to the knowing hook-up agonies going on in ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’. And while Prince’s own liaisons remained largely under wraps, his bands were a fertile launching pad for female performers: Wendy and Lisa, Sheila E, Appolonia. Prince compositions would launch and relaunch a number of less-affiliated acts too, from The Bangles and Sheena Easton to Chaka Khan and Sinead O’Connor; although according to O’Connor, she and Prince had a physical fight after their first meeting. Then again, she says an awful lot.
Things went a little awry for Prince, relatively speaking, in the 1990s, as he scrawled ‘Slave’ across his face, changed his name to a symbol and struggled to match the freakish consistency of earlier material. Well, who could? Recent albums – he made 39 altogether – had begun to garner fresh acclaim, however, and he remained one of the world’s most reliably mesmerising live performers. That news really was an emotional gut-punch.
Okay, so there was a little mockery. Two weeks after his death the fine satirical website The Onion posted a mock report: ‘Disappointing Prince Vaults Found To Contain 37,000 Hours Of Billy Joel Covers.’ Disappointing? Nah, we’d definitely want to hear them too.
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Words: Si Hawkins
The Clash team has compiled the ultimate Prince playlist – get involved HERE.
Sometimes It Snows In April: Mourning Prince