Tuesday 17 January 2017

John Meagher: Prince - A creative giant who owned the '80s

Published 22/04/2016 | 02:30

Prince performing in Miami in 2007. Photo: Reuters
Prince performing in Miami in 2007. Photo: Reuters
Prince on stage in 1986. Photo: PA

What is it about 2016? First Bowie, and now this. Prince - a totemic figure of pop - taken from us at just 57. The suddenness of it hurts. What other cultural giant is set to depart from us?

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And he was a giant. Few strode though the 1980s like he did. It was a decade he owned and the incredible music he released then has continued to reverberate.

He was at the very peak of his creative powers while still in his 20s. He was just 24 when he starred in 'Purple Rain', the rock musical that spawned one of 1984's most emblematic albums and the work that arguably defines him more than any other. It sold 13 million copies in the US alone and bagged both a Grammy and Oscar.

In a year when Bruce Springsteen offered a very defined picture of what it was to be a man, here was a wonderfully eccentric kid from Minneapolis who was showing the world masculinity could be anything you wanted it to be. His look - a guitar-toting dandy transposed from the 18th Century - was pure rock fantasy, and his songs were sexy and seductive.

As with so many truly great pop icons, his artistic apex was marked by astonishing productivity. Virtually everything he wrote turned to gold, and his full artistic flowering was achieved on 1987's 'Sign O' The Times' - the album that rivalled U2's 'The Joshua Tree' as that year's most essential sonic statement.

He had signed to Warner Bros in 1977 while just 18 and his precocious talent didn't take long to show.

His rise was helped by the advent of the music video and his 1982 hit, '1999' was on constant rotation on MTV.

One of the songs he knocked out back then was 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. Sinead O'Connor covered it five years later and it helped send her own career into the stratosphere.

Years later, the Dubliner revealed that she had come to blows with its writer soon after her version became a global hit.

Prince had, in O'Connor's telling, summoned her to his mansion where he said he disliked the foul language she was using in interviews. "I told him to f*** off," she recalled. "He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine." Much like O'Connor, Prince was never afraid to say what he really felt.

He waged war against the record industry for most of his life, once famously suggesting that record contracts were a form of slavery.

He changed his name in the early '90s to Symbol and The Artist Formally Known As Prince in a bid to wrest control of his own music. In truth, the great Prince had faded into history by the time he messed with his moniker.

Try as he might, he could never recapture the zeitgeist quite as spectacularly as he had done before.

His songs, with a few exceptions, just weren't as brilliant as those he had magicked up in the '80s.

It wasn't for want of trying, though. He remained astonishingly prolific right to the end.

He released four albums in the past 18 months alone, bringing the total number to 39, but even professed fans are likely to have bypassed them.

But while the quality of the songs had dipped, he could still deliver the goods as a live performer. His show at Malahide Castle in July 2011 offered a reminder of his untouchable charisma. It would be the last time he played in Ireland - but what a parting gift: 30 songs and three encores.

It was a gig that took place two years after he pulled out of a planned headline show at Croke Park. More than 55,000 tickets had been sold and promoter MCD sued for €1.7m. "Tell that cat to chill," Prince reportedly said of MCD supremo Denis Desmond, when the promoter expressed misgivings about whether the gig would go ahead. But he had every right to be worried as Prince pulled out with a fortnight to go.

Plans to play an intimate tour in Europe were shelved last year, but I was lucky enough to see him play a tiny show in Dublin in 2002. It was a hastily arranged gig in the former Spirit nightclub off O'Connell Street and took place in the early hours of the morning following a performance at the Point.

It was about as far from a greatest hits set as you can get, but for two hours in the early morning the diminutive rocker had us in his grip. Even when he was at his most self-indulgent, he could be mesmerising. The true greats always are.

Irish Independent

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