By Michael A. Gonzales
In the spring of 1985, there were two types of Prince fans–those who boarded the violet-hued bandwagon years before Purple Rain (both the album and the film) became the pop culture sensation of the year, and those who were recent converts to the church of soulfully spooky electric funk. What was once a cult had seemingly overnight turned into a crowded congregation of fans who were turned out by the haunting beauty of the single When Doves Cry, which was in constant rotation on MTV as well as Black radio; the release of Purple Rain in theaters two months later marked a new age and millions of new listeners.
Although Princes success had been in motion since 1978 when he was an Afro wearing teen riding his bicycle to go meet Cynthia Horner and posed for the cover of Right On, his debut For You was an alright album that barely hinted at dudes forthcoming genius. A fan since my Baltimore high school days when I discovered him while kickin out the jams in my cousins bedroom, where Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad and Bambi changed my life, Id always admired Princes chameleon styled quality.
Lying in a dark room wearing massive headphones, Id listen intensely to the sci-fi nightmares of Annie Christian or the sex-fantasy of romp of Head; the boy was bold, brash and unpredictable. During that early period, I choose my friends and lovers based on one simple question: Are you a Prince fan? Having gulped the violet flavored kool-aid years before those crying doves were released, it was weird watching folks who, a few years back, had never heard a Prince song before, but now were suddenly going around talking about how the Minneapolis native was their favorite artist.
No longer just the private joy of devoted fans, who bought the b-sides and bootlegs, read album credits in hopes of discovering a crumb of knowledge (I wonder why he calls himself Jamie Starr on that The Time album”) and stood in line at shows for hours chatting with like-minded folks. With Princes use of synthetic horns, funk bottom, rock guitar and superb songwriting, the Minneapolis Sound would become as influential as Motown, P-Funk and Burt Bacharach.
Prince was a mack, but he also had a feminine side he wasnt afraid to reveal. As much as he mightve worshipped at the altar of James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton, he was also checking for and learning from Nona Hendryx, Joyce Kennedy and Chaka Khan. In 1987, Prince wrote the smoking Baby Go Go for former LaBelle member Hendryx.
Nona Hendryx/Baby Go Go:
Although I missed early Prince concerts featuring his funk brothers The Time and girl-group extension Vanity 6 opening for him, friends who followed from venue to venue raved about the sound, the spectacle and the sheer musical force he displayed on stage. Before the mass conversion that came with Purple Rain, I usually found myself in weird discussions about Princes race and sexuality (Is he black or white, straight or gay?), not really understanding why any of that mattered over the music. Each year the brother emerged from various studios with a record that was richer than the last.
While the mainstream tries to portray every Black boy guitarist as the son of Hendrix, it was obvious from the beginning that Prince was a student of diverse sounds. In front of the mic, he was influenced by music that ranged from Elvis to Al Green, Joni Mitchell to Kraftwerk. Like so many fans, whatever he said he dug, that what I dug. As soon as he mentioned the jazzy blues of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, I was listening to that sexy m.f. for hours on end.
Prince prided himself on sounding like no one else; and dont even get me started on the ballads, baby-making tracks like Do Me Baby, International Lover and The Beautiful Ones that made panties drop and boys do tricks theyd never thought of before. Behind the boards, in his role as a producer, he was equally inspired by Brian Wilson, Norman Whitfield, Sly Stone, Phil Spector, Stevie Wonder and others who played the studio as though it were an instrument. Prince mightve had his eye on the pop life prize long before baby became came a star, but he was always experimenting with different sounds, textures and colors to create the most interesting music of his generation.
Like Bowie, the rock star he most reminded me of in those early years, the high-heeled bro switched sounds easily and dared his disciples to boldly follow him through strange soundscapes that progressed from the shiny Black pop of For You to the erotic cock rock of Dirty Mind to the often dark electronic visions heard on 1999. In 1984, with the formation of a new band called the Revolution that included future collaborators keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melovin, he crafted some of the best material of his career.
Released two years later, Purple Rain was both a gift and curse that made Prince a household name and an Oscar winner. It also put him under the magnifying glass with both the mainstream and music critics watching his every move, reporting on what they viewed as his bizarre behavior. On January 28, 1985, when, after winning two Grammies, Prince declined to participate in the star-studded We Are the World recording spearheaded by Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson for USA for Africa, one wouldve thought the man slapped his momma the way the self-righteous media behaved.
While not one of his best b-sides (that honor is something like a tie between 17 Days and Irresistible Bitch, one of the illest love songs ever written) Prince later tackled the subject of fame on Hello. One of the truest and shadiest lines was when Prince sang, Were against hungry children, our record stands tall, but theres just as much hunger here at home. Like a slick haired preacher, sometimes Prince spoke in parables and sometimes he just told the world directly what was on his mind.
Coming less than a year after Purple Rain and three months after the infamous incident, Prince released Around the World in a Day on April 22. Whereas most megastars whod reached the mountaintop of pop would have made the follow-up to the biggest record of their career more of a celebration, Around the World in a Day was put out quietly. The equivalent of todays surprise releases as practiced by Beyonce and DAngelo, the much anticipated album was simply shipped to record stores without much promotion, no singles or videos.
Prince has always done things his own way, New York Times staffer and former Spin magazine editor John Leland says. He has always done things his own way, so the real fans knew that whatever Around the World in a Day sounded like, it wasnt going to be Lavender Rain.
The afternoon Around the World in a Day came out, my roommate Francine surprised me when she came by the bustling coffee shop where I worked, bearing gifts. A small spot in midtown called Miss Brooks, Id been there a few months alongside fellow Prince fan Krystal Kelly, a Detroit native who had seen him many times in her hometown and told me tales about a local DJ named the Electrifying Mojo who played Prince’s music constantly.
The Electrifying Mojo, The Prince Interview
Look what I bought you, Fran said. As I stood behind the counter giving a customer a refill of java, she pulled a copy of a still-in-plastic record and flashed the bugged-out psychedelic album art. For a second, I was tempted to jump over the counter, but somehow I restrained myself. It was one of those what the hell moments that made me scratch my head while smiling broadly. A few months before, when asked about his next album, the always elusive artist mumbled something about looking for the ladder. Now, finally, the ladder was here.
Although I wanted to clock-out at that moment and go sit in front of the stereo for hours as the Black noise washed over me, I instead waited until I returned to the crib after midnight, bringing along Krystal, my homeboy Xavier and a bottle of vodka. Francine, having promised not to listen to the record until I got home, was wide awake and waiting for us.
Thirty years later, I remember that record party” fondly as well as the radical change of style that Around the World in a Day represented for Prince once again. There was a sonic weirdness about Around the World in a Day, especially the Indian sounding soul of the title track, the freak nasty funk of Tamborine and the horniness disguised as pop sweetness of Raspberry Beret, which would eventually become the first single and video from the project. Around the World in a Day was Prince, the man who wrote wonderful songs for The Bangles (Manic Monday), Sheena Easton (Sugar Walls, 101″) and the complete Jill Jones album, at his most femme.
After the heaviness and self-examination that was Purple Rain, its follow-up was a light moon age daydream. The lyrics returned to familiar themes of lust, but also went deeper into thoughts of God (The Ladder) and the vice (Temptation), while musically he was changing before our ears. Although Purple Rain was fictional (to me it was a sci-fi epic similar to The Warriors), many thought it was the real deal. They wanted to believe that he was bi-racial, not just a cat with good hair. After finally triumphing over the evil forces (an abusive daddy, a city full of haters) that were holding him back, Prince was now ready to display his sensitivity, where every single day is a yellow day, as he sang in the mushy love song Condition of the Heart. However, as Ive tried to tell people before, even Princes wack songs during that era were better than everybody at their best. In the battle between the gloved-one and Prince, Im dressed in purple, baby.
Although many music critics were quick to call the album psychedelic, comparing the cover and music to the Beatles masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to this day Ive never agreed. Although Paisley Park, one of my favorite songs on the album (its single b-side Shes Always in My Hair was another brilliant throw-way that was better than anything on the proper album), uses finger cymbals and lyrically paints a rainbow hued picture of a Utopian land, it didnt make Prince the next 13th Floor Elevators, The Byrds or Pink Floyd. The album, had more in common with Joni Mitchell than with The Beatles.
Paisley Park/album art:
Around the World in a Day wasnt a masterpiece, nor was it the creative failure that so many projected it to be, and it would go on to sell three million copies. But, truthfully, I think Prince really didn’t care how many copies the damn thing sold, as long as he was allowed to do his thing. Around the World in a Day sounded as though Prince was woodshedding like an old jazz musician, testing out musical thoughts and ideas that would go towards the making of his upcoming gems Parade and Sign O The Times.
Prince refused to be who you wanted him to be, says John Leland. Weve seen this in artists like The Beatles, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan and George Clinton. It takes balls to be different, not everybody can do that. In 1985, Prince, at least musically, had the biggest balls of them all.
Listen to the full album here: