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How Prince set the pace

The purple pioneer

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long

The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long

David Bennun | April 22nd 2016

In a year that makes you wonder if the grim reaper has traded in the scythe for a combine harvester, Prince is the most shocking casualty yet. Losing Bowie was awful, though at least he had dropped hints, cryptic as they were, that the end was nigh. But it makes no sense for Prince to be dead; no pop artist had ever been more alive in every way. Whatever the furthest point from dead is, Prince was that; at 57, he was seemingly ageless, and was as dynamic a figure as pop music has ever known. 

The last time he made a truly great album, he was pushing 30. (Though this came after a run of truly great albums – I count eight – that began with “Dirty Mind” (1980) and ended with “Lovesexy” (1988), with plenty of wonderful music either side of it, too.) Yet on stage he was putting in epic, extravagant and dazzling performances until the end of his life. I have never seen a better show than his headline slot at the Hop Farm festival in Kent in 2011, when he sent a field full of sunburnt Britons into ecstasies with a set no act in the world could have rivalled.

A light that burned twice as bright

Prince was the first and the last epoch-dominating, titanic genius of music I have seen in my time. I heard “1999”, “Purple Rain”, “Around the World in a Day”, “Parade”, “Sign o’ the Times” and “Lovesexy” as each arrived, and both singly and cumulatively they amazed and thrilled me. No series of records has ever been as vital to me. It was and is personal, in the way only art that defines you can be.

I wasn’t alone in this. In the Eighties, having your conceptions scrambled by each new Prince album was normal, and not just for fans. Prince owned the Eighties. It was a decade crammed with music superstars, and he was in no sense the biggest. But he was by far and away the most influential and ingenious, setting the pace not only for a host of copycats, but for many of his chart rivals as they jostled to attain immortality atop Mount Parnassus.

Other artists spent the decade eating Prince’s dust. By the time they had caught up with him, he was gone, forever two or three albums ahead. “Purple Rain” (1984), which mixed hard rock and futuristic R&B, didn’t so much straddle genres and markets as kung-fu-kick them into a sprawling heap. It took Michael Jackson three years to put out something as interesting (“Bad”), by which point, Prince had reinvented himself three further times, as a psychedelic soul hippie, a suavely monochromatic funk master and a cosmic jazzed-up polymath.

It wasn’t just that his range far exceeded everybody else’s. He did every single thing – from writing, composing and arranging, to recording, producing and performing – as well as or better than anybody else, and he could mix it all up any way he pleased. He was a matchless dancer and an astonishing lead guitarist. Only country and hip-hop, at the opposing poles of pop music, remained untouched; any other mainstream style was his turf. His haul of seven Grammy awards is surprising only because he didn’t win more.

Typically, a pop star teeters on top of a pyramid of producers, composers, players, stylists, publicists and so forth, all of them channelling their energies into his or her image, product and career. Prince inverted the pyramid. Everything came from him – a relentless outpouring of music and ideas, filling up his schedule with not only his own releases, movies and tours but those of sundry satellite acts, some of whose albums he recorded himself, under pseudonyms. He was a tiny Atlas holding up an ever-expanding sky.

His public image, carefully cultivated, was that of an epicurean pansexual who spent all night and day lolling upon cloth-of-gold cushions as lubricated nymphets fed him grapes and nipples. His actual existence centred monomaniacally on the recording studio. He wore himself out in the process, leading to nervous breakdowns and overdoses.

By the Nineties, Prince’s star was falling further and faster than that of any of his peers. Yet even as his artistic imagination ran dry, his marketing strategies became increasingly innovative and resourceful. By the time the millennium rolled in, “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was in better shape than the increasingly self-destructive industry with which he had gone to war over the right to own and release his own music. He spent the last two decades of his life doing as he liked, and on the way, he created templates for other artists to cope with the internet age: employing major labels when it suited him and cutting them out when it didn’t; dealing directly with his core fanbase; tying album sales to concert tickets – and keeping the bulk of his profits.

In the film “Blade Runner”, Dr Eldon Tyrell says to his magnificent and doomed creation, the android Roy Batty: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly.” Perhaps the cost of Prince’s furious creativity and industry is only now apparent. But he lived, and worked, and made, and gave, more in the 40 years of his career than anyone else could have in a hundred.

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