Today I pay homage to the music/pop culture icon known as Prince. He had the look, the voice, the soul, the rock, the funk, the pop perfection, the guitar chops and so much more that combine to make a person into a legend. Given Prince’s famous aversion to websites like YouTube, it’s anyone’s guess how long the videos I have been lucky enough to find will remain online before being removed by his estate and/or record execs so for now please listen, watch and enjoy.
1. “Controversy” (music video; studio version appears on the album Controversy, 1981). I’m pretty sure that my aunt had a copy of Prince’s Controversy album on CD, so that’s where I first heard the title track, years before iTunes or music-sharing websites. It might be considered Prince’s ultimate anthem: who is he? Do we know? How many things can this one artist represent? How well do sex and religion – the two most potentially taboo subjects on the planet – mix? And why should any prospective “controversies” matter (or they might still matter, but not in a career-destroying way) as long as the music has meaning(s)? The man had an appeal that transcended every label or barrier imaginable.
Regarding Prince’s religious conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness, a cause for which he was known to go door to door in Minneapolis, one fan wrote (and could not reiterate enough) in a forum online: “It’s Prince! I’d invite Prince in my home to discuss the Dewey decimal system. It’s Prince!”
2. “Little Red Corvette” (music video; studio version appears on the album 1999, 1982). Like “Controversy,” I first heard “Little Red Corvette” on CD, as part of the compilation The Very Best of Prince (2001) if I recall correctly. Put simply: it’s a flawless pop song. In the paragraph that accompanies its ranking as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (at #109), the tune is described as “an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.”
3. “When Doves Cry” (music video; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). This is definitely the first Prince song that I have any memory of hearing. Even without the amazing guitar solo that ends the album version of the song, the music video is as exciting as it was for me when I was a kid. True to the name of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, there seemed something so rebellious and thrilling in the imagery that opens the clip: Prince in the bathtub, then crawling across the floor. Did men in the pop world do such things? (As I imagine ten-year-old me asking myself.) Wasn’t it always the women – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher – who were tasked with providing sensuality for the viewers? Was this the moment, the little click in my brain, when I understood the power of male sexuality in popular music?
4. “Kiss” (music video; studio version appears on the album Parade, 1986). I think I actually knew the 1988 cover of “Kiss” by Tom Jones/Art of Noise before I heard Prince’s recording, but once I heard the original song, it instantaneously became the only version that mattered. If anyone else had made this music video, the dance moves and outfits (or lack thereof) probably would have looked completely ridiculous, but Prince could do it.
5. “The Cross” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988; studio version appears on the album Sign o’ the Times, 1987). A guitar-and-sitar sermon intended to sear your skin off with sheer rock-and-roll strength. Great to see Sheila E. on the drums as well.
6. “Electric Chair” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 1989; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Batman, 1989). A weekend update: SNL’s Prince tribute show on April 23 featured this funky gem.
7. “Summertime” (live during a soundcheck before a concert in Japan, 1990). During a rehearsal for a show in Osaka, Prince improvises some impressive piano licks on this cover of the Gershwin jazz classic.
8. “Purple Rain” (live on TV; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). In a way my recollection of “Purple Rain” is of not hearing it rather than hearing it; on the night of the 2004 Grammys, when I was 11 years old, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house with my parents – probably a normal dinner get-together – and when I got there I was met by the two girls who lived next door, raving about some performance that had opened the Grammy show. It was the biggest thing possible, Prince and Beyoncé duetting on “Purple Rain” and other songs in a medley, and I was too late to have experienced it. When you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense: “Purple Rain” as a theme to missing out, wanting something you almost had but have now lost, even though you have hope that one day you’ll finally be able to attain it.
9. “Gett Off” (live at the MTV Video Music Awards, 1991; studio version appears on the album Diamonds and Pearls, 1991). I think my favorite assessment of this VMAs performance comes from a YouTube comment: “Everyone thought 2004 Janet Jackson and Justine Timberlake’s nipplegate halftime show at Superbowl XXIII was raunchy, huh…think again. This was a Sodom and Gomorra Whorehouse on stage and in 1991.” Orgy aside, “Gett Off” might not be as great a song as another definitive Prince track from the early 90s, “Sexy MF” – the music video for which I got a kick out of seeing on VH1 Classic at 6:00 pm on Saturday, when any susceptible child (or adult!) might see it – but as far as MTV showmanship goes, he deserved all the points for creative costuming.
10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004). At the same ceremony in which he was himself inducted into the hallowed music organization, Prince performed with a who’s who of rock musicians in tribute to inductee George Harrison, who had passed away in 2001. Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) lead the pack, but when Prince’s electric guitar solo kicks in at the 3:27 mark, it’s like the theater has only just come alive. Has there ever been a cooler sight or sound? And while we’re at it, where on Earth did that magical guitar go at the end after it was tossed up to the heavens?
11. “Black Sweat” (music video; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). I remember when this video came out ten years ago and it was a pretty excellent feeling, knowing that Prince was so effortlessly modern. Although I couldn’t be sure that everyone who had already loved Prince for years would necessarily dig the song (perhaps contingent upon the genres you prefer – it’s not a magnet for the rock crowd), I figured it would undoubtedly draw younger generations. If ever the term dope jam could be applied, this would be the place.
12. “Fury” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2006; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the zenith.
Every weeknight from Monday to Thursday, Comedy Central broadcasts reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” and some time ago – a few weeks ago, I would say – the channel showed the episode from February 2006 which featured Steve Martin as the host and Prince as the musical guest. Prince’s rendition of “Fury” became an immediate classic for me when I first saw it ten years ago, so when Comedy Central showed it I knew I had to see it again and I knew the performance would be 100% as superb as I remembered it. Wailing with a voice full of passion, shredding the guitar like Jimi Hendrix reborn. When Prince bounces off the stage at the end, the reverberations of his guitar still echoing through the space, you know that you’ve just witnessed something special. It’s hard to process the fact that he’s gone when the fire of that show still burns so bright.
With the digital universe continuously crying out for our exponentially divided attention, we are living in hyperbolic times. So it’s good to be reminded what The Best Thing Ever truly looks, sounds, shimmies, shakes and shrieks like.
That would be Prince.
– Chris Richards, Washington Post (2015)