Prince's Parade: It's Really All About the Music

A large part of what I love about Prince is his ability to take his influences and synthesize them into a whole that suits his fancy. So it's not so much that he brings a new dish to the table. It's more that he explores new ways to enjoy what's already there.

In 2011, Prince & the Revolution's 1986 album Parade: Music from the Motion Picture "Under the Cherry Moon" marked its 25th anniversary. The Parade album, along with the motion picture it supports, encapsulates an interesting time period in the career of singer, producer, songwriter, composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader Prince. Compared to, and contrasted with, other career points, the Parade era tells us so much about where Prince had been by 1986 and operates as a transition period for events to come. It also provides us with a springboard for our discussion of Jason Draper's biography about Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson, entitled Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution.

Having said that, as a diehard Prince fanatic, Parade is probably not the album that comes to mind when someone interested in Prince wants to know where to start with his music. 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), or The Gold Experience (1995) might be more effective starters. Sign 'O' the Times (1987), which is often lauded as Prince's best album, seems to possess an eclecticism that overwhelms the casual listener. But eclecticism is part of the Prince trademark, as he mixes genres and sounds, compiling and intermingling influences that range from James Brown and Al Green to Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie and Miles Davis. Parade speaks to Prince's genre-bending approach, and the album is situated at the midpoint of the '80s when the music he had already delivered led the charge against musical, and therefore social, stratification and hegemony. Prince sought to take us to places like "Uptown" and "Paisley Park", where you could "set your mind free" and be easily admitted if you would "just say you believe and come to this place in your heart."

At the same time, Draper's commentary on the album in Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution asserts that Parade "doesn't sound like anything else in the Prince canon." The album is a blend of jazz, soul, and a certain French undercurrent, probably absorbed from the film being set in France. Tight but swinging horns ("Boys & Girls") and sharp, punctuating trumpets ("Mountains") share album space with nimble piano playing ("Under the Cherry Moon"), while airy reverb and off-kilter rhythms ("Christopher Tracy's Parade", "Life Can Be So Nice"), keep time with some really crafty vocal arranging ("Do U Lie", "Anotherloverholenyohead") and Clare Fischer's impeccable strings.To this day, I still think of this album in terms of the cassette I bought at the time, so I continue to see each "side" as ending with a poignant simplicity -- the instrumental jazz of "Venus de Milo" on side one, and the tender, almost folksy, ballad of "Sometimes It Snows in April" as the album closer. These songs bring peace to the dense and active soundscapes of the opening numbers of the title track on the first side, and "Mountains" on the second.

A large part of what I love about Prince is his ability to take his influences and synthesize them into a whole that suits his fancy. So it's not so much that he brings a new dish to the table. It's more that he explores new ways to enjoy what's already there. It fascinates me, then, when his work is criticized as being "derivative" or that it "chases trends" since, to me, that was always kind of the point, insofar as Prince absorbs disparate elements and reassembles theminto his own personal construction. "My funk is multilayered," Prince declared in the B-side tune "200 Balloons" -- and he's right. "Don't stop me now."

Parade's differences from Prince's other popular albums show the standards he'd set. For one thing, Parade is not packed with "hits" or "jams". The preceding album, Around the World in a Day (1985), is generally known as being a less accessible entry in the Prince discography, and even there we find "hits" like Raspberry Beret and Pop Life, a "jam" in America (and its behemoth extended version of 21-plus minutes), and interesting non-album cuts such as tabloid-refuter "Hello", the slinky come-hither of "Girl", and the sublime "She's Always in My Hair". Parade's most famous song is kang-a-lang-a-lang-a-lang-a-lang -- "Kiss", the lean funk workout with Prince hitting his scorching falsetto over a sizzling synth groove.

Alan Leeds was Prince's former tour manager and Vice President at Paisley Park Records. In his liner notes to Prince's 1993 The Hits/the B-Sides compilation, "Kiss" and the brief anecdote of its creation, as well as a swell in band size ("Prince and the 'Counterrevolution'", Leeds calls it) are the only things mentioned about the Parade era. Just so I can say I told someone, great additions to that compilation's B-side disc would have been the instrumental "Alexa de Paris" and the delightfully playful "Love or Money" (sometimes written with a heart and a dollar sign on the appropriate side of the word "or"), both of which appeared in Under the Cherry Moon.

The Parade album's opening three song progression ("Christopher Tracy's Parade", "New Position", "I Wonder U") works almost as an extended introduction, as the songs employ Prince's fascination with blending songs into one another, with none of the songs clocking in above three minutes. In Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution, Jason Draper reports, "Legend has it that he had cut the first four songs for Parade on the spot, in sequence." The styles of these songs are different from each other but alsoabout as far outside the typical impression of the "Prince sound" as you can get. That's no small feat, considering how different a song like "Sexy Dancer" sounds compared to "1999", "Take Me With U", or "Around the World in a Day". It's hard to fathom how so many different types of songs can keep coming from one guy but still ultimately sound like they belong to that guy.

Parade's opening tracks contrast greatly with Prince's best known works at the time. Controversy (1981) opened with the monster title track, the rallying anthem of "Sexuality", and the sultriness of "Do Me, Baby". 1999 's first three tracks were the apocalyptic title track, one of the best ever car-songs-not-really-about-a-car in "Little Red Corvette", and the Elvis-like vocal delivery of "Delirious". Purple Rain's opening sequence featured "Let's Go Crazy", a duet with Apollonia in "Take Me With U", and the gorgeously forthright "The Beautiful Ones".

Other aspects of the Parade album make it somewhat of an anomaly. Besides lacking Prince's usual display of a full-on rock guitar solo, he doesn't sing lead on "I Wonder U", leaving that responsibility to Wendy Melvoin. Also missing was a song steeped in attitude, the stuff that we call "swagger" today, wherein Prince would talk about how awesome he is, much like some of the material he was writing for The Time and embodied by the preening and vain-acting persona of The Time's front man Morris Day. There is no "You belong to Prince" line on Parade like there is in Controversy's "Private Joy". Instead of the unabashed ambition to steal the show exuded by "Baby I'm a Star" ("Hey, I ain't got no money / but, honey, I'm rich in personality"), the Prince of Parade is equally dreamy but far less self-congratulatory, as in "Under the Cherry Moon" ("Why can't I fly away in a special sky?"). Speaking of attitude, the 1992 single "My Name is Prince" would have to be mentioned just for the opening verse alone, starting out with, "In the beginning, God made the sea / but on the seventh day, he made me." Is this dude for real?

Furthermore, as much as the Prince of the '80s was known for his racy lyrics, Prince is less of a rude boy on Parade and more of a romantic and a dreamer, a sort of musical Walter Mitty. Where, in 1999's "Let's Pretend We're Married", he once claimed he "sincerely" wanted to "f*ck the taste out of your mouth", his most explicit moment on Parade is "New Position" when he promises to "Do it to you like a big man should" and his background vocals spell out a naughty word.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of the Parade era is its coupling of music and visuals, in the form of the soundtrack and the movie. Purple Rain had done the same thing to greater commercial effect while, in 1989, Tim Burton's Batman would be augmented byPrince's soundtrack, which operated as a vehicle for acting out Prince's musical fan fiction between characters Bruce Wayne, Batman, Vicki Vale, and Joker. In 1990, Graffiti Bridge would turn out to be an ill-advised attempt to resurrect the drama of Purple Rain. In the instances where Prince had his hands in the movie and the accompanying soundtrack (i.e. excluding the Batman soundtrack), the music always won out.

When it was released, Under the Cherry Moon was panned by most critics, as they basically rejected its story of an American gigolo (Prince as "Christopher Tracy") conning the women of France out of their underclothes and their cash and then actually falling for the heiress (Kristen Scott Thomas as "Mary Sharon") of the rich and powerful antagonist "Isaac" (played by Steven Berkoff, who was also the bad guy Eddie Murphy had to take down in the first Beverly Hills Cop movie).I'll go ahead and give away the ending, since Prince himself spoils it in Parade's "Sometimes It Snows in April": "Tracy died soon after a long fought civil war." Actually, Berkoff's character has Tracy killed.

According to Jason Draper, critics thought the movie was narcissistic and self-indulgent. Yeah, probably so. Personally, I think it's got some funny moments, largely because I never took it seriously in the first place. But truthfully, Prince's film performances don't give me the feeling he was born to be an actor. Did anyone ever believe otherwise? He was, however, born to make music.

That's where Jason Draper's Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution comes in, as it chronicles Prince's career in a way that ought to intrigue the casual Prince listener while still satisfying the diehard fan. It is, for those unacquainted with Prince, a rather thorough course in the man's discography, tours, business dealings, and associates. Starting with Prince's birth on 7 June 1958 to former jazz singer Mattie Shaw and band leader John L. Nelson, Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution takes the reader through the career highs and the lows of a publicly fascinating and supremely creative cultural and popular icon.

The book is especially helpful as a resource about Prince's life, as Draper culls his facts and details from multiple sources, including biographies, televised interviews, and articles in newspapers and trade magazines. The events are discussed mainly in chronological order, although there are references to future actions in some spots and then, later on, reminders of previous events. There's even a handy 30-page time line at the backend of the book, along with endnotes and a lightweight index. A real downer is that the book relies on other researchers and biographers, rather than scoring firsthand information. Yet, considering how little Prince says about himself, and also how much of what he does say either contradicts what he previously said or simply makes no sense, the attention to current Prince scholarship is understandable.

Draper's writing is concise and straightforward, with an aim closer to delivering verifiable facts, or at least well-researched ones, than feeding into gossip or wholly unsupported innuendo. Setting the tone in the book's introduction, Draper writes, "This book is not a muckraker, it's not a gossip, and it's sure as hell not bent on setting one man up to knock him down." This is an accurate signpost of what's to follow since, in his reporting, Draper doesn't shy away from potentially unflattering information. Prince's relationships, and his infidelities, are offered up but they're usually part of an overall point Draper is making about a specific time period.

A couple of these are worth mentioning. One involves a recollection from The Time's former guitarist Jesse Johnson as an example of Prince's Purple Rain fame going to his head. Johnson claims Prince was "such an asshole", Prince would call and say, "Jesse, your album sucks" and hang up. Not a cool thing to do, I admit, but that one kind of cracks me up.

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