And so they released Piano & a Microphone (1983).
Prince more or less alone at a piano some time in 1983. I think “genius” is a word that is used far, far too freely, but listening to this feels like listening to a genius. Like – and I say this knowing full well who I am comparing Prince too – listening to Mozart jamming late at night in Vienna, 1785.
Listening to Prince one night in 1983.
17 Days. The version he plays on the piano on this album seems, at first, only tenuously linked to the final version he released. All I got is two cigarettes and this broken heart of mine. But it is the same song. The same song but sounding a bit sadder. Or maybe it’s just that the lyrics come through more clearly and the gloss of his mid-80s production is not there to distract. Let the rain come down… been gone 17 days; 17 long nights – main drag is knowing that you’re holding someone else tight. The main riff is now handled by the piano’s left hand and not the bass as it is in the final release. It’s that left hand that is the song’s centre, and the right hand that is playing with the song’s ideas; sometimes opening up to push out the chords into jazz. He had such a good voice, and here it sits on the edge of sad and soulful. As he plays on he begins playing with his voice too; enjoying himself but probably seeing if something he likes comes out that he might be able to use.
One of the highlights of seeing him in concert was hearing him reduce U Got The Look to a funk-piano grind that just went on and on. I suppose it’s something he understood from James Brown: if it’s good you can just ride it on and on and on and it will get better and better and better. He also understood that a song can go ten different ways and that releasing a song is sort of a lie because it locks something fluid into place. Prince was a musician. An excellent one. The new releases coming out are proving that. Again. The new releases are taking one of the most incredible periods of pop in anyone’s career – almost all of Prince’s output in the 80s – and showing that what we got to see was only part of his breadth and depth.
On the deluxe version of the Purple Rain album there are a whole collection of “new” songs and other versions of old songs: it’s simply astonishing. A ten minute version of I Would Die 4 U or Computer Blue? Sure. Or things that he didn’t release: The Dance Electric. On Piano & a Microphone he does a very loose version of Strange Relationship where the piano jolts right out of the riff, and he slurs in and out of lyrics looking for how far you can pull at something before it disappears into something else. In this case the something else is International Lover which, in this version, is a lot sadder, and slower than how it ended up on Sign o the Times. Slowed down the song’s protagonist sounds hesitant rather than smooth and cheesy: tell me, am I qualified?
Mary Don’t You Weep is the blues and he sings the hell out of it. I gotta a bad bad feelin’; he ain’t coming home. This was released with a video posthumously which is very risky, even more risky to attach a political meaning to the words, but the idea of the video supercharges the song’s words.
Strange little things like Wednesday float past with lines like contemplated suicide from 12 o’clock to 2. A great bit of comic funk about cold coffee, cocaine and a black mouse (what rhymes with house?) before Why the Butterflies.
Why the Butterflies is about as simple as you could get on the piano, and the lyrics are slipping into overwrought – Mama! Why the butterflies? On the other hand Prince could get away with most anything in the 80s and he gets away with this. Finding intensity and tension in the spaces between the chords that propel the song he begins to make me wonder with increasing existential dread: “why the fricken butterflies?”
Listening to Prince and looking out across the current top twenty is sobering. Technology has a stranglehold on pop music at the moment and the producer and the sound deck have drained everything and everyone of passion. I’m trying to imagine a hit artist on the top twenty now who could release a I-was-fucking-around-on-the-piano-one-night-and-this-is-what-it-sounded-like album that would sound any good. Almost none of them can play an instrument. Almost none of them could sit in the pocket with a band and trade eights. It’s a disgusting lazy ass disgrace. Good music is built out of LOVING music. The playing off it. By yourself and with others. It is built out of sitting in your bedroom for hours and hours playing riffs, or jamming with your band or your mates for hours trying to make the hooks hang together. It is joy, rage, love, lust and not a endless string of semi-anaesthetised “artists” warbling across pre-recorded manipulated sounds untouched by the hands of anyone.
Unable to say anything in music or words tapped out celebrity artists take off more clothes, get into more fights, or make “controversial” songs that are not in fact controversial but simply and transparently offensive. I Love it by Kanye and Lil Pump? FFS. A tedious backdrop of sounds that took 10 minutes to put together, a sample that gives cover, and a string of offensive, degrading, misogynistic bullshit. You think teenage boys are listening to this ironically?
…as he twirls around the room, professing his love for blowjobs and boob jobs, a gold chain bearing the name of his late mother bounces against his blown-up shirt buttons. It’s a valid, albeit clumsy, attempt to show that the morbid details of his life can coincide with the humor.
Valid. How valid would an 18 year old woman feel at a party as a bunch of 18 year old drunk men sang this song?
Give me back Prince.