I didn’t think I’d have to do this just 48 hours after giving honourable mention to Victoria Wood, but this year doesn’t give me much choice. So, let’s go back to 1988, eh? The history books will tell you everyone under 30 was digesting E for breakfast and spending all day and night raving away in a derelict warehouse. Of course, that was 1988 for some, but very much a minority, just as the Roxy club had played host to a minority in 1977 and the UFO club had done likewise in 1967. In 1988 I was still entombed in a bedroom at my mother’s house, surrounded by own mini-gallery of pop cultural icons; most were of a generation before my time, as by this late stage the 80s had petered out into a dreary wasteland with Goths at one end and Stock Aitken and Waterman at the other, and not a lot to get excited about in the middle.
One notable and fairly unique exception was a man who still embodied all that had been great about pop’s past, a man who absorbed the spirit of everyone from Little Richard and Sly Stone to Stevie Wonder and Marc Bolan, a man whose nude portrait dominated the wall my bed was shoved against. I only mention this in that the giant poster of the ‘Lovesexy’ sleeve I had somehow acquired from its display at either the nearest HMV or Virgin (I can’t remember which now) proved to be a talking point when my windows were being replaced by a bunch of archetypal gruff Yorkshire workmen.
‘Dunt it make ye feel sick?’ asked one of them when confronted by an image of glorious androgyny that was beyond his own experience. ‘Dunt it make ye feel sick, though, seeing Prince wi’ nowt on?’ I just laughed; I should have said, ‘As a matter of fact, I wank myself to sleep looking at that every night’, but figured it wouldn’t have gone down well; besides, I just wanted the new bloody windows putting in so I could have my room back ASAP. I loved the fact, however, that a contemporary figure rather than someone whose best work was twenty years behind him had provoked a bit of mini-outrage that showed the generation gap was still clinging on for dear life.
That same year, I attended the best live show I’ve ever been witness to by far when my mate Paul and I saw Prince in the flesh (though not quite as abundant as on the ‘Lovesexy’ sleeve) at Wembley Arena. We’d become Big Gig-goers over the past twelve months, seeing Bowie twice and Dylan once; this brief phase would climax a couple of years later when we’d see the Stones, but when we caught the coach down to the capital that summer, it was the only time we ever saw someone who was at the peak of his powers. Unlike the other legends whose concerts we attended, when Prince played songs from his new album, we wanted to hear them as much as the old stuff; he was still ‘present tense’, and if his previous LP, ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’ had been his ‘What’s Going On’, ‘Lovesexy’ was his ‘Let’s Get it On’. We knew we were seeing something that was rooted in the here and now when we spotted Patricia Morrison from The Sisters of Mercy stood outside the venue as though she was waiting for Andrew Eldritch to turn up with the tickets.
Once within the hallowed walls of the Arena, we realised somebody was sat in the shit seats we’d been allocated half-a-mile away from the stage; we then embarked upon a game of musical chairs that eventually took us into the sacred press enclosure when the security guards were too mesmerised by the show to notice our presence. We had the best bloody view in the house as Prince gyrated on a giant bed with one of his impossibly sexy dancers midway through another contemporary classic – and he hadn’t yet reached the stage of his career when his set-list could contain any duff numbers. He was playing his greatest hits and not one of them stretched back further than five years.
Unfortunately, there was an intermission that brought the house-lights up and our lack of press passes meant we had to find somewhere else to sit that wasn’t quite as close. But we’d had a good half-hour with the man himself within touching distance; at that moment in time, there was no other performer under 30 in possession of the genuine otherworldly star quality that had been spread evenly amongst Prince’s predecessors. He was out there on his own and he revelled in ruling the world. As a performer, he remained pretty damn peerless for the rest of his life; but as a recording artist, I think he had peaked. His next project was the disappointing soundtrack for the first ‘Batman’ movie the following year, and bar a few great singles in the early 90s, he never again came close to the heights he’d scaled on vinyl in the 80s.
He’d always operated in his own universe, but the disappearance of the entertaining element of the 80s that died a death at Live Aid left the field clear for Prince to fill the void and he grabbed it with such gusto that no one else came close. It took Madonna until the end of the decade before she approached his greatness on record, and who should she collaborate with on one of the tracks on ‘Like a Prayer’ but the little genius from Minneapolis himself. While she went on to produce her finest album ten years later, Prince concentrated on doing his own thing; if the record-buying public wanted it, fair enough; if they didn’t, he didn’t care; he carried on doing it regardless.
Every online obituary will recite his achievements in detail, but this isn’t a list; it’s merely me recalling how important he was to me and many others starved of stars at a point in pop culture history that seemed bad at the time, yet seems positively golden by today’s standards. Self-contained singer-songwriters who labour under the misapprehension that their trivial middle-class angst is a source of fascination to others beyond their own narcissistic navel-gazing are ten-a-penny these days; but none of them can also get funky, dress like a dandy, ooze sex appeal to both sexes and do it all with such flamboyant witty panache as the man who has inexplicably left the stage at 57. Of course we won’t see his like again; we won’t see the likes of anyone who makes music with more depth than a bloody ringtone anymore. The rules of the game have changed and with every light extinguished, the firmament moves one step closer to total blackout.
© The Editor