Saturday, October 10, 2009


For most of my youth Scope was South Africa's premier, if not only, man's magazine with a mixture of features and pin-ups and I guess it kind of aspired to be a local Playboy. The sad part was that it was published in a country that had and enforced strict censorship on political and sexual issues and the naughty bits of the pin-ups were inevitably covered either by invasive black bands or, later, cuter little stars. None of the girls were fully nude, but visible nipples on sexy White chicks were anathema to the guardians of our morality.

The other thing about Scope was that it did its best to cover the local music scene, such as it was back in the Seventies and early Eighties, and there was usually a page or two of record reviews. I bought Scope surreptitiously, hiding it like contraband from my mother, even if it was not quite tame, and cut out the pin-ups and pasted them into dedicated scrapbooks, which I also carefully hid. I guess this was a sad activity, but I was a lonely, alienated, horny teenager with scrambled and raging hormones. I also cut out the record reviews, as I also made scrapbooks of articles and reviews I cut from NME, Melody Maker and other British rock publications, and whatever was published in South Africa at the time, mostly from Scope and some from Kerneels Breytenbach's column in the then Saturday Byvoegsel to the Burger, the local Afrikaans daily.

Scope went from perhaps a single page with some reviews to a double spread with plenty of reviews, mostly quite brief, and with a small picture of the album cover. I guess the magazine did not have a dedicated rock writer or reviewer and the records were given to various staff members. One such was Martin Hendy who also wrote reviews under the name Herman Tindy; why I never fathomed, unless it was that the editor did not want to let on that one guy was writing most of the stuff.

Anyhow, Martin Hendy seemed to be a man of a certain age who perhaps liked rock (or maybe he just listened to jazz or classical music at home and wrote about rock only because it was a job) but who had a fixed, old-fashioned approach to what he liked and did not care for anything new.

This view of mine was corroborated by the review (by either of the noms de plume) of Prince's third album, Dirty Mind (1980). It was perhaps the briefest review I'd ever read in Scope and it basically and simply made the point that Prince was making disco shit and that the album was useless. That was about it. It was disco and therefore crap. Obviously Hendy or Tindy either did not listen closely, did not have the funk in him or was simply turned off by the cover (a semi-naked Prince in black g-string and coat), quite in your face salacious lyrics of some of the tunes and could not appreciate the tunes, the fact that there was quite a bit of funky rock on the album and that even the one long funk jam was danceable if the lyrics were disposable. I guess the P-funk or futuristic variations thereof were not to the Scope's taste and the reviewer was not clued up enough to distinguish between disco and funk. Hendy/Tindy also complained about the exceedingly brief duration of the album or perhaps he was relieved that it was so short.

The guy who reviewed Dirty Mind for NME had quite a different view. He raved. The music was funk with hefty doses of New Wave influenced guitar rock, and the lyrics were "dirty" but probably also not meant to be particularly serious. This was a fun album and the mark of genius was on it.

I always wondered what Hendy/Tindy made of Prince's later ubiquity.

During 1980 I bought the album at a record sale at Sygma records and was totally thrilled by it. On the one level the horny twenty one year old in me appreciated the sexy naughtiness of Head and Sister, but the music fan in me really dug the grooves. By then I was already in the P-funk thing and Prince made absolute sense to me in that context. This was no disco crap, this was big fun. I was also immensely impressed by the fact that Prince not only wrote the songs but also played just about every instrument on the record. He was young and he was enormously talented.

I must admit that I had seen one of the two earlier albums around in record bars in Stellenbosch and had not been impressed. The name and front cover photograph of a chipmunk faced Prince with silly little moustache (he still had it for Dirty Mind) also made me think that this artist was the disco dork Martin Hendy thought he was. Even after I bought Dirty Mind I made no effort to buy that earlier album; it just did not look right.

Even though I was very fond of Dirty Mind it did occur to me that this guy would be a major talent. The music was fun but the lyrical content was so thin it seemed to me he would be just a flash in the pan relying on sexual controversy and risqué songs with diminishing returns before he would fade away.

I read the reviews of the follow up albums, Controversy and 1999 and particularly from the NME views realised that rock critics were taking the man seriously and that perhaps there would be more of a career for him than merely being a kind of perverse low level funkateer.

With Little Red Corvette Prince finally had a hit single that even got airplay in South Africa and when I ran across the 1999 double album (1982) somewhere in early 1984 at a discount price I could not refuse, I snapped it up. This was no Dirty Mind, which has the distinction of being succinct. With 1999 Prince had the then very fashionable and soon to be dominant Minneapolis funk-rock sound down pat and I found that it was a musical style that had limited appeal to me. I preferred the more old school P-Funk approach. This new fangled jerky funk thing with the trebly guitars and lots of synths quickly bored me.

1999 is not a bad album, but it is not a favourite. I listened to it because I had it and wanted to be hip to Prince but my heart was not in it

Between 1984 and 1987 I bought Controversy and Life In A Day, the two albums that respectively preceded and followed 1999 and were quite different to each other. The earlier album had that proto funk rock Minneapolis approach and the latter had a more psychedelic pop inclination that was much more to my taste. Prince had moved away from a certain orthodoxy and was now going to do what he wanted to do, all the way.

The NME thought Life In A Day was a work of genius and I am inclined to agree, the accent is on tunes and joy and the jerky rhythms are gone. The jams are songs and the songs are jam packed with goodness.

In the year of 1984 Bruce Springsteen and Prince, and perhaps Madonna, reigned supreme in their special spheres. Prince starred in the movie Purple Rain and released an album of music from the movie, had a monster hit with When Doves Cry and suddenly became ubiquitous. I went to see the movie, was impressed with the music and never bought the album until the late Nineties. I do not quite know why I did not buy Purple Rain then unless it was because it was so ubiquitous that I decided it would not be hip or cool to buy something everyone else was buying. I did not buy Born In The USA either.

Sign O' The Times (1987) was the monster hit album of 1988 and the title track was a big single. This time around I did make the effort and spent the money on buying the album when it was released and this is the first Prince album I ever bought that was not on sale at a record store. I loved the title track and the whole package seemed to be something worth having. The musical content was more sophisticated than that of 1999 and the funk jams were a lot more loos, tuneful and appealing than the earlier album offered. Prince had discovered that a pop sensibility is no bad thing to employ even in the heaviest of funk scenarios. Not all the songs were that great, to be honest, but by and large I like this album.

The next big Prince song on the local radio was Alphabet Street off the single album follow up LoveSexy (1988), once again with a quite controversial semi nude picture of Prince, and this tune made me buy the album when it came out. Alphabet Street is a perfect pop funk song and is right up there with Kiss and When Doves Cry as the three best songs Prince ever wrote. The rest of the album is more of the same, with lively funky tracks and limpidly beautiful pop songs. As a single album I rate this my second favourite after Life In A Day, with
Dirty Mind a close third.

As it happens LoveSexy is where my Prince record collection peaked and came to an end. Prince went on to lead the New Power Generation, abandoned his "slave" name and adopted a symbol as his name, which led to a great deal of ridicule from the rock press, and continues releasing singles and albums and to my mind became less and less essential, just another guy cutting his own groove with no truly compelling argument for me to keep on buying his product even if heavily discounted. This is no critique of the value or quality of Prince's music; I simply lost my taste for it.

I did however buy a DVD Prince Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas, of a performance for his fan club in 2002. The man wears a sharp suit and leads a band of equally besuited musicians, with Sheila E on percussion, Maceo Parker on saxophone, a female bassist and Nikka Costa as guest vocalist. The music sounds a tad like Las Vegas showbiz lounge funk to me, though Prince resists running through a simple greatest hits set. I guess it is funky and entertaining enough though one has the feeling that he is now no longer any kind of market leader and will therefore concentrate on this kind of lucrative gig for big bucks where the line between cheese and parody is very thin. The music is entertaining and Prince hams it up and the crowd had a good time. I guess that is all one can ask

The thing is that the jams at the end of the Purple Rain DVD (amongst the bonus materials) are much more vital, alive and truly funkifying. It must be that he was so much younger then and on the cusp of a big breakthrough. Now there is little left to prove. Prince is one of the greats, a natural successor to James Brown and will be in the Hall of Fame for sure for his innovative music and attitude of the Eighties.

Someone dubbed Prince the Imp of the Perverse, partly because he is a very small guy. In musical stature he is a giant, perhaps he is the most iconic symbol of a Black superstar who helped define a distinctive style of Black music that fused funk with contemporary rock elements and added dashes of electronica, and had little to do with the blues background of most earlier styles of Black music, and who convinced a mass audience that this was the new serious dance music of the age, before hip hop conquered all. Prince's greatest hits are astonishingly good and even groundbreaking and for this alone he must be given kudos for achieving what few Black solo artists before him could achieve – do something that is radically different yet also popular with a mass audience.

Michael Jackson, who was about Prince's age, is now well nigh entrenched as the King of Pop but who's to say that the Prince of Pop is not in fact the real monarch of all he surveys?

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