From Doug Seibold: Today's shocking news about Prince arrived just as I was preparing to post this lengthy Q&A I did with Matt Thorne, the British novelist and culture critic whose Prince: The Man and His Music we've just published in its first (and updated) US edition. I am reaching out to Matt now for more of his thoughts about Prince and his career. Still in shock here as we're processing this terrible news. Look to this space for more updates.
Doug Seibold: While I am not remotely the kind of Prince fan you are, I have loved his music since the early ’80s, when I was a college student. The first of his records I heard was Controversy, and at the time I remember that the Stones had asked Prince to open for them on tour, and that many of their concert fans had expressed more than usual displeasure with their opening act. For a lot of teenaged white listeners, like me, Prince was mostly known at that time for being a highly sexed provocateur. 1999 was a huge record for me, and then of course Purple Rain became a huge record for the entire world. I’ve seen him numerous times, most recently in 2013. You, however—you’ve achieved an entirely new level of devotion to his work.
Matt Thorne: I first became aware of Prince at the age of ten, when Purple Rain hit the mainstream, and followed his career from then on, but it wasn't really until the release of Sign O'The Times, when I was a teenager, that I became properly fascinated and went back to get all the early albums, and then started buying vinyl bootlegs. I think the real starting point for the interest that eventually led to the book so many years later was learning the secret reference points in the lyrics on the Sign O'The Times album. For example, discovering that the reference to a Crystal Ball on the song “Hot Thing” was actually referring to the unreleased song “Crystal Ball.” Hearing some of those early bootlegs, and realizing just how many incredible unreleased songs Prince had created, hooked me for life. Around the same time, I was also fascinated by the stories of his nocturnal life and the fact that he would stay up all night writing, playing, and recording songs. To a young aspiring author, his round-the-clock creativity was incredibly inspiring. Because Prince often records songs and then leaves them in the vault for a while, I was also fascinated by the differences and similarities in production sound between albums. My desire to make sense of this by looking at it as closely as I could was possibly the biggest inspiration for writing the book. Most musicians produce records that sound quite similiar, but the extraordinary development between, say, Purple Rain and Lovesexy has always fascinated me.
The actual impetus for beginning writing the book, however, came when I was at a conference on the future of the short story with my editor Lee Brackstone from Faber, and I had to leave the conference early because I was going back to London to watch Prince play a few shows on the 2002 One Nite Alone... tour. I discovered Lee was also a lifelong Prince fan, and when he realized how much I was interested in Prince, he suggested I write the book. It took me seven years, but it only deepened my appreciation for Prince's music.
Doug: Why is Prince so important? My own personal feeling is that he is the colossus of contemporary pop music, whose influence is so great as to be almost imperceptible (unless you’re listening to the latest D’Angelo record—that guy should really be paying Prince royalties).
Matt: The D’Angelo connection is interesting. He’s managed by Alan Leeds, who managed Prince in various capacities (road manager, etc.) during the ’80s. I actually interviewed Alan while he was over in the UK with D’Angelo and I think the way he has handled D’Angelo’s comeback was incredibly impressive.
Getting back to Prince, I would argue his influence is greater than that of any other popular musician, especially if you take into account the breadth of said influence, which extends from every form of dance music to rock. He has also had an important impact on the way the music business is run, on helping musicians get their independence. And the influence goes way up. Aside from the political dimension to some of his songs, he is beloved by many politicians, from President Obama to the UK’s Nick Clegg.
But for me, more significant than any of that is the singularity of his body of work. Aside from a handful of duds, almost every song he has recorded has something of interest, either musically or lyrically, and he has sustained a near daily output of songs for coming up to forty years. It must be a lot easier to record an album when you know that Warner Brothers is going to promote it to the best of its ability than it would be when, to choose an example at random, you’ve already released hours of music that year and there’s no guarantee that anyone beyond the hardcore is going to care. Prince’s body of work is an artistic achievement that will maintain its relevance and value for generations to come.
Doug: How did being a novelist shape your approach to this book?
Matt: I really hate those biographies (and there is at least one like this about Prince) that “fictionalize” the subject—e.g. “Prince walked into the studio. His argument with the Warner Brothers executives had left him feeling raw and determined to record a hit”. But equally I didn’t want to write the sort of dry biography in which the author just summarizes what the critics said at the time and the chart position of various albums. My favorite music books present the life via the work—Paul Williams in his various books on Dylan, for example, or Will Friedwald on Sinatra—but also show the artist in the round as it were. As a novelist, I’m focused on language and how to present the contemporary world in the most “realistic” way (obviously what constitutes “realism” in the twenty-first century is a complex issue and one I continue to explore in my fiction and review work), with a particular interest in pop culture. Prince is the perfect subject to explore changes in popular culture over the past fifty years or so, as he’s usually at the forefront of any new developments. At the same time, the hardest thing for me in writing this book (and the reason, aside from the time it took to set up interviews and absorb Prince’s work in toto, why it took me seven years to write it) was coming up with the right voice.
I’ve been a published novelist for eighteen years, and writing fiction since I was a child. I’ve reviewed fiction for most British newspapers for the same amount of time, and regularly review film and TV for the radio. I’m not a musician, though I am an avid consumer of music and go on average to three gigs a week. I am a fan of a wide range of music. And I’ve always loved music journalism as much as I love music; I love reading along with an album, testing my own thoughts about it with the perceptions of critics and other listeners. My intention with this book was to start out by trying to find anyone who was involved with the music on the actual albums or shows and getting their first-hand perspectives. Then I talked to the people who were working for or with Prince around the time of these shows or recordings to see if there was any more context they could add. For some records (e.g. Emancipation) Prince would do quite detailed interviews about the process of recording the songs, so he was the next source. After that, I generally moved into my own critical reading of the records, taken in relation to his work as a whole. Before I started the book I was a fairly hardcore fan, but there’s a difference between listening for pleasure and the kind of intent, focused listening you need to do to make any wider points about an artists’ work. And the more I sought out the nooks and crannies of Prince’s enormous body of music, the more impressed I became.
One of the things that makes Prince unique is that he seems to truly live in the moment as an artist; he’s likely to produce a moment of true magic at 4.30 a.m in front of an audience of fifty people, or squirrel away a song better than most musicians’ entire careers as a bonus track on his least regarded album. This is the sort of thing that’s been missed in a lot of the previous books on Prince, which focus on the hits. But at the same time it’s just as important to me to look at the biggest successes as well as the obscurities—and to finally answer your question, maybe that’s where being a novelist comes in most useful, as there are so many narratives running through Prince’s career, and as a novelist, it’s these stories that most interest me.,
Doug: What do you see as the highlights of Prince’s career? The lowlights? My own favorite is Sign O’ the Times, and now I’m happy to have the image in my mind of that record connecting with teenaged Matt Thorne. Lowlight might be that whole name-symbol thing, or possibly sitting through Graffiti Bridge.
Matt: The movie or the album? If the latter, I understand. For me, and I think the majority of music fans, the absolute highlight is the run of albums he recorded from ‘78’s For You to ’88 Lovesexy. That stretch of albums represents an achievement you could put against any run of albums by anyone ever. But part of the reason I wrote this book is that I think there is just as much of interest in the records he’s released since then, even if it’s not as consistent when you take it album by album. On the albums from For You to Lovesexy, that first decade of his career, we now know that what he left off those records was as significant as what he included. After ’88, the albums become less consistent (with some exceptions), but some of the highlights are better than anything in the earlier part of his career. As for lowlights, it’s always tricky to say with certainty that any one era of Prince’s music is substandard as it frequently emerges that he was recording great songs at that time, but putting them in the Vault instead of releasing them.
To give you an example: as much as I enjoyed it when it was released, for me Diamonds and Pearls has dated. But when you hear some of the demos of what he was working on around that time, and see the direction he might have gone in, you realize it wasn’t a question of his talents deserting him, but simply that his intention or need at the time (to record a really successful popular album) led him away from the more interesting corners of the sound he was pursuing. For me, that’s the value of writing a critical study of his work: a more conventional biography might focus on the numbers, or merely rehash what the reviewers said at the time. In a critical study of this length, there’s space to look at these records diachronically as well as synchronically.
Sometimes the media campaigns or press attention can detract from the quality of the work as well. The only time I’ve stopped listening to Prince was between 1993–95, and that was mainly because of the way Prince changing his name to a symbol was presented in the press. In ’95, when I became interested in his music again, I went back and listened to that era and realized most of the music was great. This was one of the periods I most enjoyed writing about in the book, but at the time it seemed like a lowlight. Observing how his reputation has risen and fallen over the years is another part of the narrative. Largely because it’s interesting to see how this has impacted on Prince’s creative process.
Perhaps another bleak period was before the millennium, round about the Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album, when nothing seemed good, not even the shows. But that’s me really forcing myself to be critical. It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that because most musicians usually have a rise followed by a long fall, sometimes it has seemed as if Prince’s career is tailing off.. But he’s among the select few recording artists who have produced significant albums throughout their career. Everyone will have their favorite “underrated” Prince album from later in his career, but for me, the four big ones are Emancipation, The Rainbow Children, 3121 and Art Official Age.
Doug: What are your top-three personal favorite Prince albums? Prince songs?
Matt: Album-wise, I can never quite decide whether Sign o’ the Times or Lovesexy is my absolute favorite. Sign o’ the Times is such an extraordinary achievement, but I find it distracting to know about all the songs that got left off the album, and the alternative albums it might have been. If we ever get a proper Sign o’ the Times box-set including all of the songs from that era, then I think that won’t just be Prince’s finest album, but one of the greatest artistic achievements by anyone in any medium. But to stick to what we do have, Lovesexy might just surpass it for me. I love the depth of that album, the way it still doesn’t completely give up its secrets to this day. For me, lyrically, it’s the perfect midpoint between Prince’s clearer, more narrative-driven songs and his more cryptic lyrics. And musically, it has a density that makes it a true headphones album, with more to discover no matter how often you listen to it. The third position changes all the time, but today I’d say Dirty Mind.
For my top three favourite songs, though, I’d like to be greedy and pick a top three well-known Prince songs, and then top three more obscure ones, as this will maybe give readers a sense of my book’s true breadth. My top three well-known songs would be “Thieves in the Temple,” “Anna Stesia,” and “Crystal Ball.” Top three obscure-ish songs would be “Wasted Kisses,” “Beautiful Strange,” and “Electric Intercourse.” And then there are my favorite covers he’s done, or songs that aren’t so good on record that work better live. And so on and so on. Sorting this out has a lot to do with why I wrote the book.
Doug: Do you have a favorite Prince band, or favorite particular sidemen or collaborators?
Matt: Obviously like everyone I like the Revolution, but I am equally fond of the line-up he had from 2002–2012. This was a line-up that went through several changes over the years of course, but I thought that the One Nite Alone tour was one of the best tours he ever did, second only to the Lovesexy tour (and that’s another great band there). After the One Nite Alone tour, I was less keen on the Musicology run, but I loved the one-off shows and aftershows the band did, and then I loved all the aftershows in the mid-aughts, especially the many aftershows I saw during his 21 Nights stint at the O2 in London, which I write about in the book.
My general musical tastes are pretty broad, from free jazz and noise to the most mainstream pop, and what I loved about the band in this era was that it was such a diverse group of musicians, from Mike Philips to Renato Neto, and you never knew what you were going to get. Shows could be ninety minutes or four and a half hours. They might jam or reinvent a song for twenty minutes, then follow up with a straight rendition of a hit. You could have a whole night of Sly Stone covers, or unreleased songs, or forgotten tracks from Prince’s most obscure albums. It wasn’t just the diversity, though, but also the unique sound. It’s a shame that the only official documentation we have of the later part of this era is the Indigo Nights album, which isn’t really a good reflection of that band’s strengths.
Doug. How do you think Prince compares to other pop stars of the past forty years, or the past sixty years?
Matt: Well, the only artist I make an explicit comparison to in regard to their entire career is Madonna, and I think Prince easily comes out on top, even though there have been times in the past when her star has appeared to burn more brightly. During the ’80s, there were lots of comparisons between the three main pop figures—Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. I’ve never been much of a Jackson fan. It’s not that I don’t like his music, it’s just that he was the opposite of artists I like (e.g. seemingly uninterested in improvisation, not very prolific, concentrating on producing a very polished product).
For critics more interested in rock music, the obvious comparisons are to the big guys: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. In terms of interest in image and fashion, there’s a comparison to be made with David Bowie (and it’s interesting that Prince covered “Heroes” recently). In terms of jazz and funk, there’s also a comparison to be made with Miles Davis and James Brown. You could also compare him in his popularity and ability to create pop hits to McCartney, Brian Wilson, the Rolling Stones, etc. In terms of the occasional eccentricity of his output and singled-minded pursuit of his vision, you could compare him to cult artists like Todd Rundgren, Aphex Twin, Kook Keith, The Fall or even (if you were feeling a bit perverse) Jandek. Some people have made comparisons to classical musicians—the obvious one being Mozart, even if Mahler is the one Prince himself makes reference to.
But, ultimately, I’m not sure any of these comparisons get us anywhere. What I find more compelling is looking at Prince’s core influences, which have remained static since he first started recording home demos (Rufus and Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, to name just a few), and then the records and artists that capture his attention when they hit the charts. Like David Bowie and many other great musicians, Prince alternates between trying to compete with the charts and writing less accessible records, and it’s this back and forth that interests me. Some fans don’t like it when he moves away from his core sound to songs that are more likely to date, but those are some of the eras that most interest me. I like it when he gets into a certain drum or keyboard sound that only stays around for a while. It’s seeing what his talent does with these restrictions that really interests me.