It was 1984, I had not long turned fifteen. I was reading music magazines or maybe comics in a newsagent’s in Stirling, radio playing over the shop’s speakers. There was a sound then, over those speakers, a flurry of fuzzed up notes, melting into a weird vocal – guttural and wordless – all serving to introduce a sparse, utterly original, quite brilliant record that held me transfixed till its finish. Singular lyric, great guitar solo, audacious keyboard arrangement. Like nothing I’d heard before. Like nothing anybody had heard before.
When Doves Cry. Prince.
I’d been playing guitar for around three years, it was mostly all I thought about. I’d been teaching myself, wearing new grooves in old vinyl, lifting the needle from the end of a solo back to its start and again and again. I was one of several budding guitarists at my school. We were all trying to do the Eddie Van Halen double-tapping thing, some AC/DC, some Zeppelin. But here was something else. Something … other. A wildness, a fluidity, an attitude at once familiar and new.
As soon as I could, I bought Purple Rain, the perfect album. 1999, Dirty Mind, Prince and Controversy followed, as and when I could afford them. For You wasn’t available in the UK at the time but a friend went on holiday to the USA and brought me back a copy.
When I was sixteen I got to go on a school trip to the south of France, despite having already left school. Paisley Park was never off the radio. That’s how I remember it. Once back home, I got Around the World in a Day, I think for my birthday. By now, Prince was my favourite musician. Not necessarily as a guitarist, where in honesty he had some competition for top spot, but across the board – composer, keyboard player, bassist, drummer, singer. He could do it all and frequently did. By the time Parade came out, an album on which he played comparatively little guitar and virtually no lead, I didn’t care. It was wonderful.
In 1987, I first heard Sign ‘O’ the Times on a car radio as I was getting a lift to work. I had to ask the driver to please shut up so I could listen to it properly. It sounded like Gil Scott-Heron collaborating with Albert King and it turned out to be the title track from one of the Great Albums. Not that I could have known that at the time. I just knew it was something special.
In 1988, a nineteen year-old me and some friends went to London, on a trip fraught with missed coaches and wrong trains, to see Prince on the Lovesexy tour. I was lucky enough by then to have seen what are now considered some of the all-time greatest live acts: Thin Lizzy, Queen and Iggy Pop as well as other great musicians and showmen. But that Prince gig was, again, something else. Yes, the showmanship was phenomenal – two sets performed in the round, the huge stage featuring a basketball court, on which Prince proved his skills, and a car. However, in amongst all the lights and the dry ice and of course the dancing, it was the music that made it so special. Great songs. Great band. And, ohdearlord, the guitar playing. Transcendent.
In 1990, for my twenty-first birthday my mum gave me concert and train tickets for my girlfriend and I to see Prince on The Nude Tour. I remember being in a bad mood before the gig started. Then, expecting a Lovesexyesque extravaganza (it was the same venue, Wembley Arena), it turned out to be a stripped-down affair. Basic lights, standard stage set-up, no real “show”. I was disappointed. Until, that is, a couple of minutes into the set. Then the music took over. This tour was between albums – after Batman, before Graffiti Bridge, heavy on tunes from both. My abiding memory is of a massive blues ballad ending up with Prince on top of the piano, blasting out an epic guitar solo. I had to wait till the release of Graffiti Bridge a few months later to find the name of the song – a favourite to this day, it was The Question of U.
Throughout my twenties I drifted away from listening to a lot of the sounds I’d enjoyed in my youth. I suppose that’s what you do. Prince, however, was an exception. Maybe his newer albums were not all as vital as his earlier work but in 1993, three days after my twenty-fourth birthday I, again with some good friends, saw him rock Celtic Park in Glasgow (the ticket was another birthday present). Stadia make awful venues but that show was perfectly judged and had the best outdoor sound I’ve heard. Before the main set there was a screening of the video for the as-yet unheard single Sexy MF – irreverent, funny and cool as, well, F.
The album that followed was one of the best of Prince’s ’90s releases, bursting with ideas. Its title was the symbol which Prince would soon adopt in place of a name, marking the beginning of his much publicised break away from the major label system. The final time I saw him live, with another good friend, was during this period, as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” at the SECC in Glasgow, in March 1995. I was twenty-five. Basically this was The Gold Experience tour although we didn’t know that at the time as the record company was apparently refusing to release that album. A couple of hits and a cover of Sex Machine aside, almost all the music that night was new. Prince played bass on a few songs. It was fantastic. On the way out, venue staff were handing out free cassettes (probably The Gold Experience though they might have been an unreleased New Power Generation album. The tapes were all gone before we could grab one).
Of course, as his relationship with the industry fractured, his own business model changed beyond recognition. Now, he could release as much music as he wanted, with mail-order only cassettes of demos and oddities and limited release jazz-fusion instrumental albums interspersed with more conventional mainstream fare. Albums were released very differently territory-to-territory, several major US releases only available elsewhere as imports, UK releases given away free with newspapers, CDs included in the price of a gig ticket. Hard to keep track of and often frustrating but at the very least remarkable. Also inspirational.
After leaving school, with the exception of the occasional unfortunate but brief detour, I had worked almost exclusively in and around music. From working in record shops to gigging in bands to busking. When I finally committed to full-time musicianeering, Prince’s practical deconstruction of the music industry encouraged me to make that final push at the grand old age of thirty-eight. Since then, on a very small scale, I’ve been releasing albums, EPs and the occasional single through my own label on various formats, some for sale, some for free, while having tracks out there on free-to-download and magazine cover-mount compilations. It’s no Paisley Park but the influence is undeniable.
On Thursday, April 21st, I got a text from one of my best friends, the one I was with at that 1995 SECC gig. It read simply “Prince just died”. Later that night, watching Purple Rain, I found myself in tears. I am forty-six years old.
Prince’s work was integral to many of the best times in my life, his music varied enough and deep enough to score some of my darkest as well as happiest hours. It may not be immediately apparent but his music informs mine intimately. He changed forever the way I would not only play but listen to and actually hear music.
It all comes back to that one time when I heard a sound I’d never heard before, reading music magazines or maybe comics in a newsagent’s in Stirling, radio playing over the shop’s speakers. It was 1984 and I had not long turned fifteen.