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Musicology – A Few Thoughts On Prince

April 22nd, 2016 | 5 Comments | Categories: obituaries |

Often when a musician dies, the platitudes that are heaped on them feel like too little too late. Imagine if Terence Trent D’Arby died, and suddenly the whole world rediscovered what a work of god-like genius Introduce The Hardline… was? Or any number of amazing MCs who changed the course of rap but whose work has been ignored for years…

Despite the heartbreaking knowledge that he had DECADES of vital music-making ahead of him, Prince, at least, had the opportunity to read and hear on pretty much a daily basis that the world recognised him as one of the greatest artists of the recorded music age. There’s nothing remotely controversial about stating that Prince was ‘our Mozart’ – perhaps the most hyperbolic of all musical accolades. We’re all pretty much OK with that comparison. Like Mozart, he had a complete mastery of the form that he placed himself in, throughout his life he expanded on every parameter of what ‘pop’ could be numerous times in ways that everyone else then followed, and he had a keen ear for how things were developing and was able to absorb them (just look at what he did with hip-hop and RnB in the 90s).

Having been listening to him since (the single) 1999, on the radio, the first Prince thing I actually bought was the single of Glam Slam – not often talked about in the pantheon of great Prince songs, I was just taken in by the guitar tone at the beginning. SO much about Prince frustrated teenage me. I was wholly wedded to preconceived idiomatic constraints – I couldn’t deal with people inventing their own creative paradigms. I wanted Prince to make ‘rock’ records or ‘funk’ records, things that I could label. That he had this obvious and outrageous instrumental virtuosity but made it completely subservient to The Music – or indeed, on stage, to The Show – drove me nuts. It took me a few more years to embrace and learn from that laissez faire approach to other people’s labels. Lots has been written about him doing that with fashion and gender norms, but for me it was the musical transgression that was most fascinating. Maybe Batman was the first time that I properly understood what that way of thinking made possible…

And at the heart of all of his musical world was his status as one of the greatest – if not THE greatest – multi-instrumentalists of all time. For most people, ‘multi-instrumentalist’ means ‘plays guitar AND keyboards, and can play drums too!’ – there are handful of people I can think of who are genuinely world class on two different instruments (Gary Husband, Mike Keneally etc…) but Prince’s well-documented mastery of SO many instruments, and his invention of a whole new genre application for all of them, was on a unparalleled level. That all of that skill – all of the time it must’ve taken to get THAT good on guitar, bass, piano, synth, drums etc. etc. – was at the service of some completely other-worldly musical vision, making music that was both familiar and completely alien, where the reference points were all in place, but the sum total of them was only ever accurately labellable as ‘Prince music’ – that thing that frustrated small-minded teenage me – THAT was the thing that I looked at when I was at college and went ‘nope, I’m going to put all my energies into one instrument.’

You see, at music college, everyone had to do piano lessons, everyone had to sing. And Prince presented me with a choice – did I want to go that route, and have whatever music my brain came up with channeled through a polymath aesthetic, where I learned to play everything I needed, or was I going to put my energies into doing it all on one instrument? Prince made that decision easy. He made the creation of your own musical world into A Thing. He did it, conspicuously, proudly and without apology. I wanted that, but knew I’d NEVER get there by learning loads of instruments. In the same way that hearing Michael Manring steered me away from trying to play bass as an unprocessed, unlooped solo instrument, Prince shifted my understanding of what multi-instrumentalism meant, and gave a whole lot of clarity to my own path – my passion, my energy, my vision and my sense of where I needed to end up years later was in exploring just how far I could do with this one instrument. Prince’s multi-instrumental virtuosity and mastery gave me vertigo. I knew not to go there.

It was years later that I got to read extensively about his prodigious work ethic, that I got to know a number of musicians who worked with him, and understood what was actually going on behind the media creation. A bloke utterly driven by music making, willing to play two sometimes three shows a night in order to make more music. Who would then go back home and straight into the studio, sometimes with a band, sometimes just with an engineer to record yet more music. God only knows what’s in that vault. It’s highly likely that my favourite music ever is languishing in there somewhere never to be heard. That he released some music that doesn’t connect with me is itself inspiring. He wasn’t beholden to anyone else’s mythology. He made the records HE wanted to make, and was clearly devoid of fucks to be given for how we felt about them…

So what do we, as musicians, do with this? I don’t know about you, but I accept the challenge – the challenge is to make deliberate, purposeful music, to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music, to keep challenging the received wisdom about what music is and what its for (Prince’s infamous struggles with the Internet are instructive for a whole number of reasons, some really great observations and moves, and other ridiculous ones (he thought iTunes should give him an advance, and once claimed to prefer CDs to digital music… errr) ) – but to never let up on the need to make music happen, to build a life in which we get to do the thing that matters to us, and only to us – being wilfully obscure is as stifling as trying to write hits. Just make the music that matters… I have no interest in stadium shows and all night jam sessions in clubs. I don’t make music for that, it’s not a context where the music I need to make can exist – but Prince built that world because that’s what he cared about.

So don’t copy what Prince did, copy why he did it. Build the life that allows you to do the thing that matters. Make the best music you can, then make more of it, make it based on the demands of the music itself, not some bullshit industrial process that’s beholden to release dates and touring schedules. Built a vault of unreleased work if that’s what needs to happen, then find a way to get it out to the public, if that’s what needs to happen. Listen, absorb, synthesise, invent, create, experiment, fail, succeed. But do it deliberately. DO IT.

JFDI – Just Fucking Do It.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Rodney Spiers

    Very nicely put, Steve. Prince was truly a musical genius.

  • Vince Millett

    “I accept the challenge – the challenge is to make deliberate, purposeful music, to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music, to keep challenging the received wisdom about what music is and what its for”

    Bang on! I accept that challenge too.

  • Christian de Mesones

    Great read.
    Anyone who creates art are sometimes driven beyond our wildest imaginations.
    We are all like Prince, a song in our heart, a vision in our mind that sometimes can feel like a curse than a blessing.
    I will be listening to his music till the end of my days.
    Christian “Big N.Y ” de Mesones

  • Jacque

    Thank you for this.
    Fave quote 1: “the challenge is . . . to do A LOT OF WORK, to keep making music.”
    Fave quote 2: “So don’t copy what Prince did, copy why he did it.”
    Both of these resonate strongly with me.
    -Jacque

  • Burkhard Wölfel

    His parting reminded me that as musicians, we can do anything we want artistically. And that it takes an immense amount of courage and dedication.

    Thank you for your thoughts, Steve.