On Parade, Prince allows an openness to ideas and collaboration to a degree he’d never experienced before, and it brings out the best in him.
Thirty years have passed since Prince’s kaleidoscopic eighth album, Parade, debuted on 31 March 1986, and the sheer joy and exuberance of his creativity and the synthesis with his collaborators is still so palpable you can feel it. Parade is a whimsical fantasy of love, beauty, turmoil and sorrow. It finds Prince traveling new musical paths -- most notably, it's his first album to feature orchestral arrangements. Although Parade tends to get overshadowed by its classic follow-up, Sign o’ the Times, it’s really in a little Princely world of its own and deserves to be mentioned as among his very best work. Nothing else sounds remotely like it.
Prince has always marched to the beat of his own drummer -- he made it very clear that he wasn’t going to be forced into a stylistic box even after he became one of the world’s biggest stars. The young prodigy’s musical progression is easy to trace -- from the lithe R&B of his debut For You (1978) and its self-titled follow-up (1979), to the wicked funk/new wave hybrid of Dirty Mind (1980), then Controversy in 1981 and on to the sweltering double-album 1999 (1982). Each new release brought new paths and diversions, a broadening of Prince’s sonic palette.
Then, in 1984, he dove headlong into a strange new madness: superstardom. Purple Rain the album, film and tour dominated the year in pop culture. The blistering funk rock of songs like “When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Would Die 4 U” and the electrifying “Purple Rain”, a song for the ages, escalated Prince through the stratosphere to an exalted stature touched by very few in rock history. He was hailed as a genius by critics and adored by an ever-increasing legion of fans worldwide.
For his next chapter, though, he shifted to a different universe entirely, one of extravagant psychedelia. Fans didn’t have long to wait. Around the World In a Day was released in April 1985, only three months after the final Purple Rain single, “Take Me With U”, was issued. The new album was a colorful pop odyssey, a swath of 1967 hurtled into the present. It was the last thing anybody would have expected, but Around the World in a Day was Prince’s most defiant musical declaration yet that he would follow wherever his muse takes him.
The album hit #1 and scored two Top 10 singles -- “Raspberry Beret” and “Pop Life” -- but it was never going to come close to the vast commercial success of Purple Rain, and Prince knew it. Rather than trying in vain to replicate something that was lightning in a bottle, he did the smartest thing he could and swerved in another direction entirely. The result created a sense of excitement and mystery of the unexpected with each new release, as nobody could possibly predict what he might do next.
That brings us to March 1986, and his most startling and unexpected work yet: Parade. The album is as far from 1999 and Purple Rain as you can get, but it’s their equal (or very close to it) in terms of sheer brilliance. Parade doubles as the soundtrack to Prince’s second movie, Under the Cherry Moon, but it can easily be enjoyed independently of the film.
Under the Cherry Moon was not well-regarded upon release, to put it mildly. Critics dismissed it as a self-indulgent vanity project designed primarily to stroke Prince's ego. Three decades later, some fans love it, some hate it, some consider it mildly entertaining, campy, and harmless. It hardly matters as we consider the album, because there's zero doubt which holds more weight between the two. At best, Under the Cherry Moon is a curio while Parade is a work of expansive musical ingenuity and creative power.
The orchestral arrangements which bring such color and spirit to the album were penned by the great Clare Fischer. Prince first worked with the venerable composer on his side-project The Family, an album released in 1985 that, in retrospect, seems an obvious arrow pointed straight toward Prince’s stylistic direction on Parade. The Family is best-known for “Nothing Compares 2 U”, a song that Sinéad O’Connor would later pluck from obscurity and send to #1. Fischer would go on to work with Prince many times over the years, becoming an important part of his sound.
Surely the first listen to Parade generated some confusion. There were cries of “what the hell is this?” Prince once again had to know the album wasn’t loaded with hits -- the prolific wunderkind could easily have released a slate of 12 highly commercial songs that would have sold millions more copies -- but instead he went for an elegant collection of endless imagination. It was a shrewd move, because not only did he end up with a classic album, but it was still successful on his own terms, following his own vision.
Parade reached #3 in the US and was a smash in Europe. Yeah, some fans didn’t follow along on the journey, but Prince’s musical daring brought in new listeners attuned to the sophisticated pop he was offering. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself as he’s continued to surprise and sometimes confound. His fan base has been ever-changing over the decades, but there's a large core of die-hards who have, for the most part, been willing to follow him wherever his flights of fancy might travel.
The album opens with a dynamic burst of percussion pealing out of alternating sides of the sound spectrum, a fanfare of trumpets, and a joyous whoosh of strings, flutes and harmonies. Originally written as “Little Girl Wendy’s Parade” (a phrase that Prince ad-libs during the guitar solo on “Kiss”), the track morphed into “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” to jive with Prince’s character name in the film. It’s a perfect introductory flourish, a jubilant little track with an arrangement that takes unpredictable turns and vocal harmonies that flit around the scale like leaves dancing in the wind. It’s Prince, yet it’s something entirely new.
Although Parade is credited to Prince & the Revolution, many of the tracks are largely solo performances. The first four songs Prince built from the ground up, playing all the instruments himself. He started with the percussion as the foundation and then added layer upon layer of sound. He didn’t have much to build on “New Position”, a brief but torrid slice of funk that had been percolating in Prince’s vault since 1982. It’s mostly just Prince’s ribald vocal over the kinetic rhythm with a clanging steel drum and a motoric bass line. Although Parade is the first Prince album that lacks an overtly sexually explicit song, he has by no means left behind his preoccupation with naughtiness -- listen closely at the 1:52 mark and you can hear him spell out “P.U.S.S.Y” in the background.
“New Position” eases right into the velvety dream “I Wonder U”, a surreal interlude that is part of what makes Parade so alluring -- its eccentric, anything-is-possible nature. Wendy Melvoin’s lovely lead vocal glides alongside tufts of flute and celestial whirls of keyboard and strings. That luminous dreamscape leads right into the romantic piano ballad “Under the Cherry Moon”, music for midnight that finds Prince slipping into the role of crooner as if born to it. The song is based on a melody he had been toying with on the piano since the Purple Rain tour. There's a grand sense of impending tragedy and foreshadowing in the multiple mentions of death. It has the elegance of an old-time theatrical ballad with a brief jazzy instrumental breakdown. The movie, which shares its name, begins with Prince languidly playing the main melodic hook on an enormous white grand piano. “Under the Cherry Moon” is a true solo recording -- apart from the orchestral bits, Prince handles all of the instruments and vocals.
Although “Mountains” was chosen as the second single from Parade, “Girls & Boys” delivers the lascivious funk needed to follow-up to a single as great as “Kiss”. It’s playful and sexy, with slithery keyboard riffs, weird jolts of synth, the finger cymbals we remember from “Take Me With U”, squonks of sax (the first appearance on a Prince record by Eric Leeds, who would become a major contributor to his sound), and a chorus catchy enough to stick in your head for days. During the film Prince performs it on top of a piano while putting on some serious moves. “Girls & Boys” is one of three group recordings on the album, along with “Mountains” and “Anotherloverholenyohead”.
There’s a French-language “seduction” performed by Marie France (who is credited as the costume designer in the film) that steams things up during the song’s protracted second half. Could the third line -- “she had the cutest ass he'd ever seen” -- have prevented its choice as a US single? This was still the ‘80s, after all, a time when many freaked out over a song like George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex”, which seems tame by today’s standards. “Girls & Boys” was a single in the UK and made the Top 10, far outperforming “Mountains”. With a proper video it’s easy to envision “Girls & Boys” jetting into the Top 5 in the US as the follow-up to “Kiss”.
Following “Girls & Boys” is the manic percussion workout “Life Can Be So Nice”, a cunning mix of dense multi-tracked drums featuring Sheila E. clanging madly on a cowbell and a complex vocal arrangement with Prince, Melvoin and Coleman. “Life Can Be So Nice” is a massive jolt, a sonic explosion. In the realm of mainstream pop, very few artists of Prince’s stature would dare something so extreme. Out of the major pop stars of the last 50 years, only David Bowie can match Prince in terms of fearless experimentalism. How do you even classify something as outré as “Life Can Be So Nice”? It’s one of those songs that can only be labeled as “Prince”. Nothing else fits. Starting at the 1:56 point until the end, “Life Can Be So Nice” has the relentless excitement of an action movie chase sequence from the fury of percussion, frenzied guitar, and dramatic vocal arrangement.
“Venus de Milo” is a brief instrumental that closes Side 1, an achingly beautiful passage that shows once again Prince’s gifts as a melodist. In typically perverse fashion, Prince chooses to follow the wild cacophony of “Life Can Be So Nice” with the album’s softest moment. “Venus de Milo” is an elegant interlude of piano, strings and brass, with Sheila E. providing the delicate drumwork. It’s an exquisite daydream that offers a moment of brief reflection before we dive into Side 2.
“Mountains” is a dazzling pop confection with pillowy harmonies towering over a loping funk groove and rapid-fire horn riffs. It’s a band recording, featuring the lineup of the Revolution that Prince would take on the extensive tour he’d embark in support of Parade. Melvoin and Coleman were heavily involved in the song’s composition and recording. Indeed it doesn’t sound too far removed from the duo’s self-titled debut released only a year later. “Mountains” contains some of the album’s loveliest lyrics, and Prince delivers them in a whip-smart falsetto that is out of this world.
It was released as the follow-up to the chart-topping “Kiss”, but stalled out at only #23 in the US. It may not have been the strongest single commercially, but as a song “Mountains” is among the very finest moments on the album. The nine minute extended 12” single version is incendiary -- in fact, all of the extended mixes from the Parade singles are first-rate. Prince doesn’t just do endlessly repeated loops of the same instrumental sections and choruses -- he creates long, elaborate arrangements that fully expand the song as far as it can go.
“Do U Lie” is an enchanting chanson that Prince performs with such grace and ease that you’d think he’s in his natural element. Given the film’s French Riviera setting there is a European vibe that courses through much of Parade, with “Do U Lie” the most obvious example. It’s another idiosyncratic wrinkle that adds to the album’s singular nature. The lyrics speak to the recurring theme of romantic anxiety that also pops up in “New Position” and “Anotherloverholenyohead” -- a relationship in turmoil that he wants to rekindle.
Parade’s celebrated lead single, “Kiss”, started life as a throwaway blues number that Prince dashed off on an acoustic guitar and tossed to one of his protege bands, Mazarati. The group, formed around Revolution bassist Mark Brown, was recording its debut album while Prince was in the studio working on Parade. Producer David Rivkin, brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Rivkin and a Prince collaborator since the early days, repurposed “Kiss” into a lean funk workout and quickly recorded a demo. When Prince heard it he wasted no time in snatching it back and claiming it for Parade. He replaced the lead vocal and guitar solo with his own, dropped a popping bass line to give it a more stripped-down feel, and added his slinky guitar licks. He kept Mazarati’s backing vocals, keyboard, some of the guitar and the white-hot rhythm.
There's no question that Prince made the right move by reclaiming this one. Prince nails his falsetto vocal, imbuing it with flirty seductiveness, sly bravado, and audacious charm. It’s a bold funk strut, dripping with confidence. “Kiss” still sounds razor-sharp three decades later. Warner Bros. was spooked over Prince’s insistence that“Kiss” be the first single -- it was just so different than anything else, how would people respond? -- but Warner quickly discovered its worries were for naught. The song blasted straight to #1, and it remains one of the most iconic singles of Prince’s career.
“Anotherloverholenyohead” is another group performance with the Revolution, a smokin’ slab of heavy funk featuring Eric Leeds on sax and Atlanta Bliss on trumpet. Released as the third US single, “Anotherloverholenyohead” limped to #63 on the Hot 100, Prince’s worst showing since he broke through to superstardom. It should have done better. Prince’s commercial star had waned, which is only to be expected if you release challenging material that sounds like nothing else on the radio.
The disappointing reviews and box office performance of the film also tainted the album. The coolness factor that Prince exuded only two years earlier at the height of Purple Rain mania had subsided dramatically among large portions of the record-buying public. Many of the fans who loved “Little Red Corvette” and “Purple Rain” had little interest in songs that didn’t fit in the traditional view of what Prince is supposed to be about. “Anotherloverholenyohead” yielded yet another fantastic 12” remix, though, and that in itself is reason enough to be glad it was chosen as a single. It’s an underrated gem that hasn’t appeared on any of Prince’s hits compilations, which is a shame. It deserves some love.
There are a handful of songs in Prince’s catalog that are something akin to sacred to many fans. “Purple Rain” is one, as is “Anna Stesia” from Lovesexy. “Sometimes it Snows in April” breathes in that same rarified air. It was written and recorded during a single session with Prince and Melvoin on guitar, LColeman on piano, and all three on vocals. One stunning take is all they needed. The three had worked together so long and complemented each other so well that in that moment they created something perhaps as magical as anything they had ever done. It’s an intimate recording -- Prince and Melvoin are so closely mic’d you can hear their fingers slide on the guitar strings, and the creaking of the stools on which they were sitting. Prince’s vocal performance is one of his most stirring and nakedly emotional. At nearly seven minutes, it’s a masterful and sobering conclusion to a fantastical journey.
“Sometimes it Snows in April” isn’t just goodbye to a movie character, the final number on an album, or a beautiful and heartbreaking song about loss. It’s closing the door on a collaboration that created some of the most beloved music in our lifetimes. After the Parade tour, Prince would sever ties with Coleman and Melvoin, as well as most other members of the Revolution. As restless as always, it was time for him to move on. “And all good things they say never last”.
On Parade, Prince allows an openness to ideas and collaboration to a degree he’d never experienced before and it brings out the best in him. Melvoin and Coleman, whose vocals, piano and guitar are plastered all over the album, are a big part of why Parade works so wonderfully well. Parade showcases Prince’s breezy musical versatility better than any other album, with the possible exception of Sign o’ the Times. It’s airy, fanciful, optimistic, quirky, mischievous, in love with life. He merges down and dirty funk with a kaleidoscope of sounds borrowed from multiple musical disciplines.
We saw the hyper-sexual funk wizard, we saw the brooding guitar superstar bathed in purple, we saw the deft ease in which Prince became a pop chameleon. On Parade we got pure imagination and emotion, the thrills and sorrows of living the longest and most important parade of all --- a life of love.
"Goodness will guide me when love is inside me. Until then… life’s a PARADE!"
-- C. Tracy