When you live in Minnesota, trying to understand the magnitude of Prince’s accomplishment is kind of like trying to talk about the sun when you’re standing on it. Here’s a story that helped me get my mind around the extent of Prince’s musical celebrity.
When Michael Jackson agreed to play a set of wildly-anticipated comeback shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2009—the shows he was rehearsing for at the time of his death—he initially agreed to only ten performances. His advisors pointed to the insatiable demand for tickets, and asked if he’d play more shows for his fans’ sake. Nope, said Jackson—ten shows was it. Then there was the matter of Jackson’s finances: he’d fallen so deeply into debt that he was risking bankruptcy and the loss of his publishing catalog—but money didn’t motivate him either. Jackson stood firm: ten shows.
Finally, his advisors played their trump card. They pointed out that Prince—the artist with whom Jackson had “an intensely competitive fascination,” writes biographer Randall Sullivan—had been the first artist to play the O2, and Prince had played 21 times. That did it: Jackson added shows.
The man born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis in 1958 is one of the few musicians to have entered that vaunted realm of larger-than-life celebrity—like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, and now Beyoncé, he’s not just famous, he’s mythic. Among artists of his generation, Prince may have the greatest natural genius for music: he’s written dozens of hits for himself and other artists, he’s a guitar god and a virtuoso on multiple instruments, he can sing across an epic vocal range, and he’s legendary for his live performances. Not only did he create his own career with protean force, he spawned an entire scene in Minneapolis, and demonstrated a Midas touch writing for artists ranging from the Bangles to Sheila E to Sinéad O’Connor.
We’re naming Prince our Local Current Artist of the Month for July in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Purple Rain movie and soundtrack—the biggest album ever to come out of Minnesota.
Great interviews that get at the relationships among bands, fans, radio stations, music venues, drug use, and changing concert-going habits, among other things.
EELS feat. Steve Perry
Here’s the whole performance from Sunday night. At around 8:45, you just might see me around the third row from stage left. Crazy.
Without warning, Steve Perry—that Steve Perry—reappeared at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul during the encore of an Eels concert. My music-history-loving compatriot Nedison was there.
The Boys in the Band
How can you develop character in boys and keep them out of mischief? The Minneapolis newspaper answered this question by starting the Minneapolis Journal Newsboys Band in 1897 with 55 members. One of the band’s high-profile performances was to march in the October 12th, 1899 military parade to welcome home the 13th Minnesota Volunteers from the Philippine Islands. President McKinley was in the reviewing stand at Nicollet Avenue and 10th Street.
In 1913, the original Newsboys Band members launched the Minneapolis Working Boys Band to give other boys the opportunity they’d had. At age 10, a boy could join the auxiliary band and progress to the concert band when he reached the required musical proficiency. Boys could stay in the band until age 18. By 1944, the band had 150 members and more than 5000 past members.
One famous alumnus of the Working Boys Band was Mike Todd (1909-1958), born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen in Minneapolis. Todd, who was a theater and film producer and the third husband of Elizabeth Taylor, played a horn in the band and also sold newspapers at 6th Street and Hennepin Avenue in 1917.
The History Theater in St. Paul will open a play on the Working Boys’ Band on May 3rd. It runs through June 1st.
Notice it doesn’t say “and look cool doing it at the same time.”
Abbey Road Medley
THE CUTE ONE
Paul McCartney had the great (mis)fortune of rising to unprecedented pop fame alongside one of the greatest geniuses rock has seen. The Beatles changed the rules of rock music. Before them, popular singers weren’t expected to be both kit and kaboodle. With rare exception, you either wrote songs or you sang songs someone else wrote and looked good doing it. After the rock revolution of the mid 1960s (in the wake of Beatlemania), an artist had to write songs and sing, and preferably play an instrument and look good doing it.
But within the Beatles another tidal shift occurred, one even stranger to the popular song. Drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan and the folk movement, the Beatles started doing songs that mattered. They started writing more poetic, more intellectual and more obscure lyrics, addressing (at some times more vaguely than others) social issues of the day. “Importance” and “relevance” became de rigueur; songs had to matter. And while, sure, “Strange Fruit” was an important piece of social commentary and Pete Seeger was already 46 when Rubber Soul came out, being a rebel nearly became a prerequisite to rock’n’roll and being a passionate rebel was mandatory for hippie cred. Before then, commitment wasn’t a question. Let’s face it, nobody cared whether or not Noel Coward meant it.
It is here where our dear McCartney was left in the dust. By his early 20s he had shown himself to be a masterful craftsman with such perfectly sculpted silly love songs as “All My Loving” and “P.S. I Love You” to his credit (even if credited to both John and himself). But then the rules changed and Paul found himself having to be profound – not a good fit for him. Once he had to be worldly (“Michelle, ma belle / These are words that go together well”) or insightful (“blackbird singing in the dead of night / take these broken wings and learn to fly”) he really didn’t have a whole lot to say.
Fast forward a few years (in Beatle terms an eternity) and the band, along with western civilization, was tearing apart at the seams. The Fab Four – one of the primary artistic and financial cultural forces of the decade – was about to implode. Paul had been taking on a daddy role, serving as the band’s unappointed manager since Brian Epstein’s death in 1967, but by 1969 it was clear that the band’s demise was imminent. Let it Be, the Beatles’ penultimate statement, was handed over to Phil Spector to salvage while Paul went about stitching Abbey Road together into a fantastically imperfect swan song and to this date the best selling of all of the Beatles albums.
Abbey Road, and in particular side two of the LP, was where Paul made a discovery which would lead to him writing his greatest songs. Working with the band’s longtime producer George Martin, McCartney edited eight demos and incomplete takes the band had recorded over the previous couple of months into a 16-minute medley. In so doing, Paul set a course for some of his coming decade, and for an almost unprecedented style of pop craft. And this is where our discussion begins.
As the Beatles fell apart, Paul was already working on his first solo album. 1970’s McCartney is a quiet masterwork, finding a new folk form and hitting #2 in Britain and #1 in the States despite yielding no singles. In May of 1971, he followed up with the harder hitting Ram, credited to Paul & Linda McCartney, gaining the top spot on the UK album charts and managing a #1 single, the tuneful “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” in the States. But Paul was a family man. He wanted a band. And by the end of that year, he would introduce his new group to the world.
This is really interesting - speaking as someone who’s never tried to make music in an analogue or digital way. One of the things I noticed in the “what should music writers know?” debates a couple of weeks ago - and I don’t want to reopen them, honestly! - was how the discussion (pro and anti) seemed to default to things like “how are chords made”, “waht is a key”, with very little (if any) discussion about rhythm, let alone the programming and making of rhythm. But if knowing how songwriters build songs around chords is vital, surely knowing the basic techniques and assumptions of digital music-making is just as important for understanding how modern music works and sounds? Not that anyone was arguing otherwise, they just weren’t mentioning that stuff. But ultimately, it seems to me that the reason - or at least a very big reason - for technical knowledge, as a critic, is it allows you to have more informed discussions about the choices made in the creative process.
Popular music and dance almost always reflect the technology of the day. Part of the perpetual anxiety older generations express toward new music has less to do with melodies and harmonies—the core features of which have remained little changed for decades—than with the use of new and unfamiliar technologies to produce those melodies and to express coordinating body movements.
Fred Armisen on ‘Portlandia’ and Minneapolis