Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Another One Bites the Crust

With the suspicious death of Prince a few days ago, the title of this blog post may seem cold and inconsiderate of his passing, but it’s not meant to be. It’s taken from a line of dialogue in a 1997 Muppet Show skit where Prince is challenged to write a song based on food and Another One Bites the Crust is thrown out as a facetious suggestion. He accepts the dare and comes up with Starfish and Coffee at the spur of the moment.

With the worlds of Queen and Prince coming together in that skit, one can’t ignore the unintended irony of that Queen song being referenced. Prince’s death follows an unusually long string of notable celebrity deaths over the past five months: Lemmy Kilmister (Dec 28), Natalie Cole (Dec 31), David Bowie (Jan 10), Glenn Frey (Jan 18), Paul Kantner (Jan 28), Vanity (Feb 15), George Martin (Mar 8), Keith Emerson (Mar 10), Merle Haggard (Apr 6), and Lonnie Mack (Apr 21). Wow, another one bites the dust is an understatement.

Besides Freddie, the most notable celebrity deaths from 1991 were Dr Seuss (Sept 24), Miles Davis (Sept 28), Tennessee Ernie Ford (Oct 17), and Gene Roddenberry (Oct 24). Freddie was the only casualty from rock music from what I can find. Fast forward to 2016...we’re only four months into the year and pop music has taken some serious hits.

I remember when I first heard Prince with Little Red Corvette and 1999 back in the early ’80s, I thought it was curious that another musical artist had adopted a royalty moniker, not unlike Queen. Then, a year or two later, a new wave band called King arrived on the scene and the entire royal hierarchy was now represented on the radio.

Theres no denying that like Queen (and their song!), Prince had staying power. His Purple Rain film and soundtrack was huge in 1984 and he continued his prolific output which, by all accounts, surpassed every mainstream pop songwriter — well, maybe not Diane Warren — with an estimated catalogue of between 500 and 1,000 songs he’s written over his career.

Although Prince struck me more as a Jimi Hendrix clone, many people saw a parallel of sorts between Freddie and Prince back in the 1980s. One Prince fan wrote on the site that Freddie was:

“…a big admirer of Prince, and loved Kiss. I know these things as fact. Also, the feeling appears to have been somewhat mutual, as according to the butler who worked for Prince during UK rehearsals for the Sign ‘O’ The Times tour, Prince spent a considerable amount of time in his room watching Queen shows on video when relaxing.”1

The same Prince discussion group is also quick to claim that Prince was far-and-away the better songwriter and performer compared to Freddie. In fact, one contributor was so bold as to say:

“The songs Prince wrote from 1981 to 1987, including unreleased ones, are better than anything Queen could have possibly written...Freddie did some awesome songwriting with Queen, but I can take 50 [Prince] songs from 1981–1987 that can top damn near anything.”1

And, apparently, he explored musical territory that Freddie was afraid to try:

“Prince’s musical palette dwarfs Freddie’s in every way possible. Whether his compositions were as complex or not, I couldn’t say. But I could never picture Freddie undertaking anything like Sign ‘O’ The Times or WTWIAD or PARADE and then giving us the Symbol Album or The Truth. In every way I can imagine, as much as I like Freddie, Prince simply has the upper hand in songwriting.”

I’m not entirely convinced that Prince could go from March of the Black Queen to Bring Back that Leroy Brown to Mustapha to Barcelona. Maybe he can...I’ll have to give those Prince albums a listen and find out for myself. I will be pleasantly surprised if he changed genres as much as Freddie did. As for performing, again this same person claims Prince is superior to Freddie.

“Yes, Mercury had the costumes and the flare. Yes his performances (like Live Aid) are regarded as classics. So what. Prince’s performances were always tighter and more eye-popping than any rock ’n’ roll act (Kiss cheats with make-up and pyro). Prince never needed anything more than motion and attitude. Think he didn’t? Place two screens side-by-side. Prince Sign ‘O’ The Times movie on one side and any Queen concert you want on the other. Mute the sound on both, and tell me which one catches your eye more.”1

Nice try. If I wanted to watch a tightly choreographed and eye-popping performance, I could bring up any Madonna or Janet Jackson video. But I typically don’t watch music performances for the visuals; I’m there for the music and the spontaneity it brings. Besides, it’s not fair to compare an edited movie with concert footage, is it? Nonetheless, this is something we can measure if we look at Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, as noted in the earlier quote:

“Queen’s performance on that day has since been voted by more than 60 artists, journalists and music industry executives as the greatest live performance in the history of rock music, while Mercury’s powerful, sustained note during the a cappella section came to be known as “The Note Heard Round the World.”2

Obviously, we'll never know how Prince would have performed at Live Aid since he didn’t participate in person but sent in a pre-recorded video instead.

I shouldn’t be whining about a Prince vs Freddie comparison since they’re both gone now and the world is ultimately a better place because of their legacies. Both were unconventional musicians who died too young. I wonder if they ever met. I didn’t see any evidence of it on Google but I found this image, which may be the closest they got to each other:

One last thought...maybe Prince was onto something with his adoption of a symbol and the resulting industry’s coining of his unofficial new name: “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” With all the vitriol leveled at Brian and Roger when they went on the road with Adam Lambert recently, maybe they should have called themselves “The Band Formerly Known as Queen.” That would probably have satisfied most of the critics and Queen purists who had a problem with them using the name.