Friday, July 14, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 024: Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (special CJS edit adding live tracks)

This is the most brilliant black musician since George Clinton. I’d put him in the pantheon with George, and before that James Brown, and before that Ellington. That’s how brilliant I think he is. In the 1980s, a common topic of music-geek argument was the “Michael-versus-Prince” debate, reminiscent of the “Which Side Are You On?” one in the 1960s. Chris Rock got the last word on that in a ’96 HBO special where, in the midst of a rant about Michael’s “non-mammality” (“you know, somethin’ that breathes air and drinks water”) he said “you know how we used about who was better, Prince or Michael Jackson? [beat] Prince won!”

I never thought it was a contest: though Michael as a performer (and as a child prodigy channeling James Brown) was undeniably great, here are all the things Prince did that Michael didn’t:

  • recruited band after band of fantastic musicians and made them all better;
  • wrote his own tunes, tunes for other artists, and literally thousands of additional tunes that were completed and produced but are now archived;
  • developed the most impressive on-stage cuing and performance choreography since James Brown;
  • played all the instruments on many of his sides;
  • was a notable (if derivative) guitar soloist;
  • improvised his dance steps;
  • knew the history of black music better;
  • had a far greater understanding of jazz;
  • produced his own recordings;
  • stayed local and built the scene in Minn/St Paul;
  • heels, makeup, and all, he made grown-up women (rather than just pre-pubescent girls) horny;
  • Oh, yeah: kept his hands off children.

As with so many of my favorite musicians, it’s the live stuff that just completely blows me out of the water. Purple Rain was an awfully silly movie with a creakily-antiquated plot (shit, it was basically The Jazz Singer only without the blackface, and it operated on about Jolson's level of sentiment), but damn those concert sequences were incredible. At the time this record came out, I was (momentarily) playing with an all-black funk/show band made up of 6 ex-cons and junkies, a great keyboardist named EJ Sharpe ("Gotta take my Lecithin, so I be smart for rehearsal"), the drummer Ric Haddad (Jamey’s cousin), and me. We never gigged, but we rehearsed in a halfway house in Jamaica Plain, where my snowflake-ness stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know the music well enough, and I didn’t endear myself to the 4 singers up-front by suggesting we might look into Prince’s music—they were still mired in MJ, the Commodores and the Tempts. I didn’t last long with them, but I did manage to get them to think about playing Let’s Go Crazy, mock-sermonical opening and all. And I have to give it up: those boys knew what a preacher sounded like, even if each one of them had “fallen away” from the church (to put it kindly) and if any competent black preacher would have locked up his daughters, his prescriptions, and all portable electronics if any of these guys came calling.

On PR, it’s the live show-stoppers that are the cream: while Darling Nikki and When Doves Cry, the studio creations, sound rather dated, the hard-rock of Let’s Go Crazy, Baby I’m a Star, and I Would Die 4 U, the incredible R&B vocal fireworks (and stage gymnastics) of The Beautiful Ones, and the titanic gospel of show-stopper and film-climax Purple Rain are fantastic songs, the vehicles for absolutely magnificent live performance, and compositions which both reach back through the history of American pop music and also forge an absolutely distinct trail. And, it’s no coincidence that those five songs are also the backbone of the concert sequences and the material which raises the movie above adolescent bathos.

This version of the band, which he called “The Revolution” (add to the Prince vs Michael list above that Prince always thought of better names for his bands), did not really have any distinctive soloists—in this era, that would be reserved for The Revolution’s sister band The Time, where Jimmy Jam (keys), Terry Lewis (bass), Jesse Johnson (gtr), and especially the great drummer Jellybean Johnson were the powerhouse behind Morris Day and Jerome Benton’s hilarious and sardonic Amos ‘n’ Andy act.

But Prince made The Revolution really play above themselves, and certainly the discipline, tightness, and exhilaration of the stage show directly under his eye were unmatched. To really get a sense of where he was going, you need to watch Sign O the Times (topic of a future post), where everyone in the band (most notably including the legendary—and hot!—drummer Sheila E.) can actually keep up with him, but the seeds are there in the concert sequences of Purple Rain—and we get a little sense of what it must have been like to see them at First Avenue in the early ‘80s.

No doubt about it—Prince really did win. I got fired out of Chances (speaking of terrible band names...), but I was damn sure right about that.

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