All... well, maybe not all... Most... well, maybe not most... Some successful rock musicians have an album that is considered their masterpiece. It's the release where they perfectly merged their unique personality with the commercial format needed to attract the mindless, drooling morons that make up most of the human population. (But not you, dear reader. You are special!) AC/DC rebounded from the death of original lead singer Bon Scott with "Back in Black," an album literally face melting in its awesomeness. Pink Floyd transcended the mental disintegration of founder Syd Barrett with "Dark Side of the Moon." El Purple One, Prince --- master of psychedelic guitars and geometric grooves --- sired the Academy Award winning "Purple Rain."
But here's the funny thing: the archetypical masterpiece often doesn't contain the artist's most interesting work. Nay, their greatest output is usually found on the various albums preceding the masterpiece. Devo skillfully captured mainstream success with their "Freedom of Choice" album, but its parents, "Are We Not Men?" and "Duty Now for the Future," shone much brighter, highlighting the geek musicians frantic attempts to conjoin futuristic synthesizer beeps with groaning garage guitars. Nirvana kicked off the grunge revolution with "Nevermind" but, before it "Bleach" more explosively captured Kurt Cobain's volcanic pop sensibilities. In the same fashion, as outstanding as "Purple Rain" was, it pales when held against two of its predecessors: "Dirty Mind" (1980) and "Controversy" (1981). (The double album "1999" (1982) can be thought of as the bridge between the two sets of song collections.)
I can still recall the moment I became convinced Prince is the greatest musician of the latter half of the 20th century. It was the mid-90s, and I was watching a video of one of his live concerts. Sweaty and voodoo nubile, Prince launched into a guitar solo showcasing jaw-dropping bluesy pyrotechnics. He then leapt across the stage, picked up the bass and proceeded to knock out a montage of incredible funky riffage of the Larry Graham variety. Setting that instrument down, Prince made his way over to the piano where he capably knocked out a soul number. The entire band came back in for the final song while Prince worked himself into a fervor of undulating, athletic dance moves which oozed sexuality. And, unlike the instrumental cadenzas of so many rock musicians, it was all very musical. Prince, more so than any musician I can think of, has always seemed as if he was born playing music --- as if he required no incubation period to hone his chops.
This unfettered skill is all over "Dirty Mind" and "Controversy." Prince plays the majority of the instruments on both albums, and plays them well. But more than that, he lays down the musical template he has followed into the present day. It's a sound rooted in Black soul and funk, but unafraid to embrace white influences --- heavy metal, new wave and punk. It was this pair of albums that Prince freed himself from the tyranny of expectations. His contemporaries were content to produce middling funk (often written by Prince) aimed straight at the urban R&B crowd; Prince sought to escape the dance charts towards crossover appeal.
This broad approach is all over "Dirty Mind," his third release, and follow up to the album "Prince" (which featured his first breakout hit, "I Wanna Be Your Lover.") While "Prince" was relatively inoffensive pop disco, "Dirty Mind" was, well, dirty. The two songs best exemplifying this are "Head" --- a Chic style funk groove in in which Prince advertises his skills at cunnilingus ("Till your love is red," he promises.) and the upbeat, Knack-ish, "Sister" where he extols the virtues of incest, glossing over any potential biological downsides. (Remember: it was the music of Prince that inspired Tipper Gore to create the Parents Resource Music Center.)
In addition to audio porn, "Dirty Mind" features some great, anthemic tunes. "When You Were Mine" --- later covered by Cyndi Lauper and others --- is a fantastic pop marvel. "Uptown" and "Partyup" (cowritten by frequent collaborator Morris Day) are exactly the kind of dance grooves I would play to keep the party going, if I had parties or could even tolerate people in groups of more than three.
"Dirty Mind" brings to light one of the most fascinating aspects of the Prince character: his unapologetic lustiness. I've always found Prince's hyper sexuality intriguing and I'll tell you why. Manly men, such as myself, invest a lot of time and effort in developing our manliness. We do this in order to get the girls. What's frustrating about an imp like Prince is that he completely defies the rules --- he exudes not a trace of masculinity, and he's shorter than some Smurfs --- but he still gets the girls, in spades. It's not far-fetched to draw a comparison to Mick Jagger, another slight, less than physically appealing performer who had no problem luring women into his bedroom, or behind the tour bus, whichever was closer. (I'm not the first to make the comparison; while reviewing "Dirty Mind" rock critic Robert Christgau advised Jagger to "fold up his penis and go home.")
After releasing "Dirty Mind" and weathering the predictable uproar from the morality police (and some internal strife: keyboardist Gayle Chapman reportedly quit the band over the lyrics to "Head") Prince was perfectly positioned to release a follow-up album entitled "Controversy." On the throbbing title track, first in the mix, he addresses the swirling rumors: "I can't believe all the things people say. Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" Later in the song he offers a tossed off prayer of sorts, "People call me rude. I wish we will were nude. I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules." Similarly provocative themes and lyrics pepper the album. On "Ronnie, Talk to Russia" he implores then US president Ronald Reagan to open negotiations with the Soviet Union to prevent a nuclear holocaust. (History would seem to indicate that his pleas fell on deaf ears.) Prince uses "Jack U Off" to list the benefits of mutual masturbation. But perhaps the most mysterious Prince song of all time is "Annie Christian," a catalog of the evil acts of the 1980s --- the murder of John Lennon, the Atlanta child murders --- which puts the blame on religion, or the devil, depending on how you read the lyrics.
Musically, "Controversy" features several gems. The funk assault of "Sexuality" builds in layers: first jungle-ish drums, then a keyboard riff that would not have been out of place on a Devo album, then a quintessential funk strum. The harmony is limited --- the song uses less than four chords --- but it twists and turns, eventually cooling to let Prince release a straight from the pulpit plea for sexual freedom. On "Let's Work," an up-tempo number perfect for 80s aerobic classes, Prince show off his infamous falsetto. However, as with the lyrics, the musical standout is "Annie Christian." The song lies on a cushion of ghostly, almost atonal keyboard arpeggios. On top of foundation Prince formulates an unpredictable guitar part that's neither rhythm nor lead --- a hybrid of Hendrix and Steve Vai; an eerie demonstration of musical mastery.
I think it's on the "Controversy" album -- particularly on the "Controversy" and "Annie Christian" tracks --- that the ethereal nature of Prince really coalesced. He is a paradox of duality; he admits this in the first song. Is he black or white? Is he straight or gay? Seriously, I'd like to know. Like the other great urban performer of the 80s --- Michael Jackson --- Prince was androgynous and racially, a moving target. On one level, he was challenging simplistic notions of gender roles, sexual orientation and race. But on another level, he was offering himself as a kind of projection screen for the outcasts of world. If you were a kid in the 80s, unsure about your sexuality, or uncomfortable trying to fit in to the limited caricatures available for your race, you could look to Prince and say, "Here's a guy who doesn't seem to match either." (I'm not saying I did this; as mentioned before, I've always been very masculine and self-confident. )
Prince used to this duality to his musical advantage. He could draw from the well of ghetto-grown, Parliment-perfected street funk, while simultaneously drinking from the pool of shimmering, new wave, whiter-than-white Art-Pop epitomized by Blondie and the Thompson Twins. He could lay down a blistering, Hendrix infused guitar solo, then walk over to the piano and lay out a straight up Elton John ballad. Prince did not run from the swirling dichotomies of Western pop music, he embraced them, fornicated with them, and molded them into something greater than their individual parts. And in doing so, he transcended mortality and became our God.
ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY PURPLE ONE, PRINCE! TO YOU WE PROMISE ETERNAL DEDICATION AND FUNKINESS! ALL HAIL PRINCE. ALL HAIL PRINCE. ALL HAIL PRINCE!
Uh, you don't have to actually read this stuff aloud.
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at email@example.com
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!