“Unmitigatingly mush-brained” or a staggering musical fantasia “like Liberace on acid!”: Lovesexy turns 35 today, 10th May 2023…
Prince – Lovesexy – Paisley Park 1988
Lovesexy holds a very special place in my heart. I was already deeply smitten with Prince, but this album, and the summer 0f `88, and the accompanying concert, all seemed to coalesce into something truly magical. I recall buying the album on its day of release on my way home from college. The HMV in Golden Square, Warrington was almost directly opposite the exit from the bus station, and there was no way I was passing by without getting my hands on it. For me this is the culmination of Prince’s “Imperial” phase.
From the release of Dirty Mind in 1980, through the LPs, Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World In A Day, Parade, Sign ‘O’ The Times, (The Black Album… Shhhh!), and this masterpiece, Lovesexy, Prince Rogers Nelson was absolutely on that hot streak. Every album was an advancement on the last, with a succession of stylistic changes, genre-hopping, and creative breakthroughs that were frankly astonishing. However, for many this album is seen as the start of Prince’s musical decline rather than the peak of that astonishing musical ascent. It’s an argument that’s easy to make given that the previous release was what is now considered is magnum opus, the astoundingly diverse Sign ‘O’ The Times. How could anyone be expected to follow that? For me though Lovesexy is a far more coherent album, in both concept and sonic palette than SOTT. You could look at the 2 LPs as Prince’s “White Album” (SOTT) and “Abbey Road” (LS), with the former’s sprawling diversity, contrasting with a lavishly produced and concise LP.
So why isn’t Lovesexy held in much higher regard? Is it sullied by the withdrawal of The Black Album? Is there a feeling that was the real deal musically speaking, and instead we were given a poor substitute? We can’t really tell the story of Lovesexy without also telling something of the story of The Black Album. If the records weren’t linked by the incredible withdrawal of the one to be replaced by the other, their interconnectedness was made explicit during the “Lovesexy ‘88” world tour, where Prince arranged the show as a battle between the dark and light sides of his personality, between sexuality and spirituality, God versus Satan, Good versus Evil.
Prince was disappointed with the relatively poor sales of the “Sign ‘O’ The Times” album (I know! Mad isn’t it!), particularly in light of the monumental success of Michael Jackson’s Bad, and the shock smash of George Michael’s Faith, especially with the Black American / R&B audience. Prince was particularly concerned that he was losing touch with this fanbase, and so to try and redress this he sought to make a much blacker sounding, dancefloor funk bomb of an album. He set about retooling some tracks that he`d actually recorded the previous year, to be played at Sheila E’s birthday party, and the results were what became known universally as The Black Album. I’m not going to go into a review of that LP here – spoiler alert: I fucking love it! – as it really warrants a piece of its own, but it was put into production, promo double-packs were mailed to a handful of DJs, and it was scheduled for release on December 8th, 1987, with no artist or title information – although the lyrics to Le Grind, and some prior press releases had intimated the title was to be The Funk Bible – and then, with just a week to go until it’s release date, on Tuesday December 1st, 1987, a night that has passed into Prince mythology as ‘Blue Tuesday’ – as it’s referred to in the Lovesexy ’88 tour program – Prince pulled the plug. Rumours abound about what happened that night, but only a few things are known for sure. Most significantly that night, he met the poet Ingrid Chavez for the first time in a bar in Minneapolis called Williams Pub. The pair had an instant rapport, and Gertrude and Dexter – their pet names for each other – then drove, not to Prince’s pad, but the 45 minutes out of town to the newly opened Paisley Park, Prince’s very own Fortress of Solitude, where he set Ingrid up in a candle lit room to write poetry. The two began a romantic and artistic relationship. The other major event that took place that night is that the famously clean-living and almost completely tee-total Prince took ecstasy! This was confirmed by his dancer, backing vocalist, and choreographer, Cat Glover, amongst others, while his producer Susan Rogers noted that Prince’s pupils were dilated. He also spent the night telling those around him how much he loved them, and that he’d experienced some kind of spiritual awakening, so yeah, sounds like E to me! On ecstasy his new album didn’t sound like the upbeat, funky, party record he originally conceived it as – to be honest, even NOT on ecstasy it doesn’t sound upbeat – and in the middle of the night, regretting the darkness that he’d unleashed, he called and woke Paisley Park office manager Karen Krattinger and asked her to stop the release of his hotly anticipated new LP.
Prince immediately began working on a new album, and this would be the polar opposite of “The Black Album” – a glorious, psychedelic, ejaculation of gospel influenced funk, in praise of god and very much against the devil, or ‘Spooky Electric’ as he would refer to him on the record. Think ‘Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat’ meets Sly & the Family Stone on Parliament / Funkadelic’s mothership, with a large dollop of The Staple Singers thrown in just to ‘church-it-up-a-bit”! Prince later referred to Lovesexy as a gospel album, and he certainly ups the ante of tracks like The Cross here. On Lovesexy he’s after converts!
This would be the first Prince LP to be recorded at Paisley Park, although the second Madhouse album had been recorded there. Lovesexy would also be recorded without Susan Rogers, who left, finally having had enough of the relentless work schedule. Prince called Ingrid Chavez in only days after their first meeting to record a track of hers called Cross The Line, with plans for a solo LP, but the first proper sessions for Lovesexy began on December 11th, and the entire album would be recorded in just 7 weeks. That first session yielded the records closer, Positivity, and opening track, Eye No, which was reworked with the input of his entire band from a Crystal Ball outtake called The Ball, into a falsetto led, kaleidoscopic funk masterpiece.
The LPs undoubted standout is Alphabet St., recorded on New Year Eve at Paisley Park, and inspired, and designed as a response to George Michael’s single, Faith. Prince mixed the track while watching Cat dance, also asking her to contribute a rap to it. According to Cat he encouraged / goaded her into a better performance by joking “Salt-N-Pepa ain’t gon’ like dis – you better rap like you mean it!”. Ingrid Chavez also features, reciting the alphabet letter by letter, but omitting the letter ‘G’, apparently ‘distracted’ by Prince in some way. Hmmm …?
Alphabet St. is followed by the track which would be album’s second single, and which would prove a massive flop commercially, Glam Slam. Reworking a phrase from David Bowie’s Suffragette City into an extraordinary song. While the first half of Glam Slam is quite a pop sounding number, the latter half evolves into a semi-classical instrumental, with the orchestra’s string section replaced by Prince playing synths. The track obviously held some significance for Prince as he named his 4 nightclubs after it.
The first side closes with another standout – the incredible Anna Stesia – which apparently retells the tale of ‘Blue Tuesday’ and Prince’s meeting with Ingrid Chavez. It perfectly incapsulates the tension between the lust filled physical world and the spirituality he strives for, with the lyric:
“Anna Stesia come to me, Talk to me, ravish me, Liberate my mind”
Contrasting with the song’s finale of:
“Love is God, God is love, girls and boys love God above.”
Side 2 begins with Dance On, where Prince lyrically treads the same ground as on parts of Sign “O” The Times over a frantic drum and percussion track which has echoes of machine gun fire. The title track is another highlight, with Prince at his absolute filthiest on what is another monster dance number. It has a massive, up-tempo, almost proto-swingbeat sound, with a sample of Prince ‘humping’ used as a synth stab, huge brass riffs, and the most explicit, graphic, and hilarious outro, where Prince’s voice is sped up and slowed down to sound both male and female, sometimes simultaneously, until the point where it literally sounds like Prince has climaxed and dissolved into a puddle of his own excitement!
“Tonight, we make love with only words.Girls first.”
Next is a song saved from The Black Album, the seductive, but also quite filthy When 2 R In Love, followed by the spiritual, dreamlike I Wish U Heaven. This was also a flop on its release as a single, although charting in the UK, and really coming to life on the excellent 10 minute 12” version. The album closes with the first track recorded, Positivity, a song that would sound like some glib, new-age, self-help manual if attempted by a mere mortal, but which Prince manages to conjure into a hypnotic, psychedelic mantra.
Going from his home studio to his new 48 track, state of the art facility, seems to have had an impact on the sound of Lovesexy. While much of Sign ‘O” the Times is sparse, almost demo-like in its simplicity, on this album Prince throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix. It’s almost as if he’s determined to use every track on that new desk, so bursting with life, energy, ideas, and sounds is the finished record. It’s an almost overwhelming, synapse exploding, ‘wall-of-sound-goes-psychedelic experience! A total sensory overload!
The management at Warners were in for further unpleasant surprises. Firstly, when Prince revealed the naked cover shot by photographer John-Baptiste Mondino, illustrating perfectly what Prince was going for with this LP – not so much pop star – more religious icon. It’s almost as though he’s been plucked from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting of the creation of Adam and placed on a bed of giant flowers! The cover would be banned in several US states, and yet has become one of Prince’s most enduring images. Furthermore, Prince wanted the CD to play as one continuous 45-minute track. The tracks on the album all segue beautifully into each other, although you can look at the grooves on the record and see where they begin and end. He wanted it listened to as one suite of music, and despite protestations that radio would hate it, he got his wish. It was later issued with separate tracks, although it still plays seamlessly. Then, lastly, Prince refused to make a video for lead single Alphabet St., although thankfully he changed his mind at the last minute on this, creating a playful, psychedelic landscape made of day-glo letters, and revealing his new look for summer ’88 – of long flowing locks, polka dot covered clothing and a new bright colour palette to replace the peach & black of Sign “O” The Times. The video also featured the 1966 T-Bird which would appear in the live shows, with the dancing, glowing letters containing some hidden messages. At one point they say, “Don’t buy The Black Album, I’m sorry“, and at another the word “ecstasy’ appears. The video somehow managed to both set the tone and plug into the zeitgeist of what was happening in the UK that summer. This was when the burgeoning love affair that UK clubbers were having with Chicago and Detroit house music exploded and became the ‘acid house’ phenomenon that would shape the country for the next decade and beyond. A new type of modern psychedelic style was evolving. Fashion was changing, men were growing their hair long, people were wearing brightly coloured baggy clothes, polka dot shirts were as essential a style object as your smiley face T-shirt.. and Alphabet St. was as much a part of the soundtrack as the gurgling basslines being spewed from the Roland TB 303.
In terms of success, although it performed disappointingly in the US, peaking at 11 before sliding down the charts, Lovesexy was actually Prince’s first #1 album in the UK, heralding the start of a run of 3 successive #1 albums, and also topping the charts in other European countries as well. It’s quite ‘sobering’ (is that the right word?) to think that Batman and Graffiti Bridge were #1 albums, and yet Purple Rain, Around the World In A Day, Parade, and Sign ‘O’ The Times were not. This overseas success may have been a deciding factor in Prince postponing the US leg of the tour, and instead kicking things off in Europe.
The “Lovesexy ‘88” tour was something very special and should really get an essay of its own. It was so massively ambitious and expensive that by the end Prince was almost broke – hence the decision to accept the commission for the Batman album – with the level of performance and hours involved so grueling and intense that this band would never tour with him again. The range of material the band had to learn inside and out meant rehearsals lasted months, followed by production rehearsals which were incredibly tedious, with saxophonist Eric Leeds saying, “It’s not enjoyable for anybody, probably least of all Prince”. The tour was, however, an utter triumph of theatricality and imagination, which promoted the Rolling Stone journalist Neal Karlen to describe the show as “like Liberace on acid.”
Performed in the round, with a flying car (a ¾ size model of his father’s 1966 T-Bird from the “Alphabet St.” video, because the original made Prince look too small – costing $250,000), basketball hoops, and platforms that elevated him above the stage, the whole thing cost $2 million, to put together. The band performed a set which incorporated up to 40+ songs, spread over 2-3 hours every night, and then played after show gigs into the small hours which became just as legendary. The gig itself was split into 2 parts – the dark and the light – with the first half opening in the most dramatic style imaginable. An insistent drum machine beat in total darkness, before the sound of a car engine, then the headlights reveal the 1966 T-Bird, which appears to fly around the stage. Prince emerges, head to toe in his immaculate white with black polka-dot suit, struts into the centre of the round stage and counts us into the stunning Erotic City, during which he performs in a tightly choreographed routine with Cat Glover and Sheila E, straight into Housequake, Jack U Off, and what follows is one of the most incredible sequences of his darkest, most sexually explicit work, including Superfunkycalifragisexy and Bob George from The Black Album, as well as steamy numbers such as Head, Sister, and Dirty Mind, during which the audience is showered with fake dollar bills. The sequence ends with Prince reborn, performing Anna Stesia on a platform above the stage, with the audience singing along. When Prince tells you to sing “Love is God, God is love…” you sing!
The second half of the concert opens with a sound collage of some of Prince’s most beautiful material, segueing into some gorgeous Clare Fischer orchestration and Ingrid Chavez’s Cross the Line, into Eye No, followed by the bulk of the Lovesexy album. This is intercut with a selection of some of his biggest hits, including When Doves Cry, Kiss, The Cross, and Purple Rain. During this half of the show the audience are showered in fake flowers, climaxing with Alphabet St.
I saw this show at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, 2nd August, 1988. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over it. I saw it with my friend Adrian, and when the gig ended, we both found ourselves awestruck, unable to leave for some time. I might have cried a wee bit during the show. I think we both did. I couldn’t listen to anything but Prince’s music for about a month afterwards, and there were a lot of good records to listen to that summer – Public Enemy It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, Boogie Down Productions By All Means Necessary, Mantronix In Full Effect, Sade Stronger Than Pride, shit loads of HOUSE! I then went to see the Sign “O” the Times concert film 4 times in a desperate attempt to fill the Prince shaped void that had opened in my life. Luckily the final gig of the tour was broadcast live on the BBC youth TV program ‘Wired’ on the 9th of September, 2 days after my 18th. My Mum taped it for me, as I was on my way to Paris with Balearic Wife (pre-the-wife part). I watched that tape more times than I’ve watched the Star Wars movies, wearing it out before purchasing the commercially released version on VHS. I’ve never seen another gig which got anywhere near rivaling this. I’ve seen Prince half a dozen times since, and he’s never gotten near it either. He was completely on fire.
…and I haven’t even mentioned the legendary after-shows! One of my life ambitions was to attend one of these, but it never happened. It was during this tour that the after-show really became a huge part of Prince’s mythology – and is probably also a big part of the reason why the band broke up After playing for up to 3 hours they would race off to a club, and play a loose, improvised set for another 2-3 hours. There are legendary live bootlegs of several of these gigs – with Live: Small Club containing a version of Forever In My Life so brilliant that it was further bootlegged as a 12”, and an incredible live recording at Camden Palace after the London shows where he hands the microphone to a stunned Mica Paris in the audience saying, “Don’t you sing?”, and getting her to take over vocal duties on a cover of Just My imagination. Stunning footage of this was included in a BBC omnibus documentary.
If you look at my photos you might think that I was lucky enough to have met Prince and the band on this tour, as I appear to own an autographed copy of Lovesexy. Sadly, I don’t. Soon after starting work in Vinyl Exchange someone sold us the album, autographed by Prince (he signs it ‘Love God Prince’), Cat, Sheila E (I Think?), Miko, and Levi. I loved it and coveted it, but couldn’t afford it, so photocopied it and stuffed it in the PVC sleeve with my copy of the album. It’s now stuck to the PVC! I still have my concert ticket, and tickets to the SOTT film, and all manner of stuff cut from newspapers and magazine. I was totally obsessed by this stage.
Lovesexy still blows my mind. It’s fine that he never quite reached this peak again, because few ever do get that high. He still made loads more wonderful music over the next 3 decades, but he could never make another album this good.
For more from Balearic Mike you can find him on both Facebook and Instagram – @balearicmike.
Mike has a Mixcloud page packed with magnificent, magical, music, and you can catch him live on 1BTN, from 12 noon until 2 (UK time) every 1st and 3rd Friday.
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