Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Around the World In A Day at Thirty Years

Thirty years ago, on April 22, 1985, Prince and the Revolution took us AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY.

Hidden between Prince's breakthrough album (1999 in 1982), his global triumph (PURPLE RAIN in 1984), his reassessed masterwork (PARADE in 1986) and his acknowledged masterpiece (SIGN 'O' THE TIMES in 1987) is the little technicolor waif AROUND THE WORLD IN A DAY (ATWIAD).

I swear ATWIAD arrived completely unannounced. In the Spring of 1985, my friends and I were still in thrall to the purple madness. The real paisley peak hadn't arrived. Prince was about to separate the fans from the rabble and find out who was really along for the ride. This was a polarizing record that confounded critics and fans alike who wanted PURPLE RAIN 2. Instead of 9 super bona fide hits, we got 9 wide ranging tracks that went from wide-eyed psychedelic pop to melodrama to a tight all-percussion percolator to an overwrought religious story-song and back. Well, you could say most of the album is overwrought. But, considering that Prince put most of the LP's songs together during the madness of the PURPLE RAIN tour all by himself, you start to forgive many of ATWIAD's flaws and begin to embrace them.

ATWIAD is the album that produced Prince's most melodic pop number, "Raspberry Beret." "Raspberry Beret" would be a hit for any artist in any generation, even with the heavily adolescent lovers lyric (which is why it worked for us high-schoolers in 1985). It also bears one of the most recognizable musical count-ins this side of "I Saw Her Standing There." The video for "Beret" was shocking! Shocking! Because Prince had cut his hair. This is his most accessible song because anyone can play it on an acoustic guitar. Prince was blasted for diverting from his original audience with songs like this. There is truth to that. Prince has lost more fans than most artists ever have. However, "Raspberry Beret" is a classic.

Side A of ATWIAD is a tour de force and holds up against any of Prince's work. It's side B where things get dicey, but boy do they start with a double-barrel bang. Many critics blasted Prince's "America" for being jingoistic, or anti-communistic, or naive. C'mon. This was "Ronnie, talk to Russia" Prince. He was a pop star, not a champ at Model U.N. Whatever "America" is, it is exciting. It launches with the sound of the record being pulled back against turntable four times before Prince vaults into his best Hendrix impersonation. How did they engineer that? The idea of the recording reversing on your own record-player was disconcerting and jolting. The Revolution's main appearance on ATWIAD is on this cut as they fill out the live feel of the track and it does feel alive and the closest in volume to anything on PURPLE RAIN.

The next track is the lynch pin of the album. "Pop Life" stands Prince's great artistic statement. This was the second single from the LP, a mid-tempo shot of psychedelia with no accompanying video; horrors in 1985. It still hit the Top 10. Prince was forever being blamed for making Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll music. Sex and Rock & Roll music, yes; but not the drugs. He was surrounded by many hangers-on who wound up as drug casualties and he usually and unfairly gets the blame. In the mid-80's, we kids were bombarded with Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" frenzy (and I did). But you know who had more sway on me than Nancy and Gary Coleman? Prince. "Show me a boy who stays in school."

What about the song, the recording, the performance? "Pop Life" shouldn't work. It's Prince with a little help from Wendy & Lisa. It's eerie as hell with echo-filled vocals that bounce from speaker to speaker. The arrangement is bass popping and Prince's piano playing at it's jazziest. Its verses are about the ironies of life and circumstances beyond our mortal control, things we rue and regret. The chorus seems to chide us that "Everybody can't be on top." Prince was on top when he wrote this. Why would he write this? As pop music's reigning outsider, Prince was in a wonderful position to deliver this message. Perhaps he was secretly telling us that it was okay if we weren't the best, the most popular, the prettiest, the richest, the most talented, the most successful. That's powerful. To me he's declaring three things:

1. Someone else has it way worse than you. What are you bitching about? "What's the matter with your life?"
2. We all have a purpose in being alive and on God's earth. We all have a space to fill.
3. You don't need to be on top. Your life just needs that "pop!" You get to decide what that is and don't let anyone take it away.

There are many other moments on this album that move me, like the haunting performance of "Condition of the Heart." It's hard not to skip "The Ladder" on side B. One thing is sure, when this album came out, I knew I was a Prince fan. I didn't leap from the train. In fact, the next stop, PARADE, which was received even more poorly on arrival, is my favorite album of his. ATWIAD is never going to replace PURPLE RAIN or SIGN 'O' THE TIMES in the pantheon of Prince's albums. It sold well and anyone can sing along with "Raspberry Beret." Even today on its 30th anniversary, it won't garner a lot of attention or re-evaluation as a lost masterpiece. But it is a gem and demands a listen from fans who stepped away from it. Paisley Park is in your heart.

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