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Prince - The Bowie of the 1980's?

Updated on February 24, 2019
Dave Flynn profile image

Dave Flynn is a composer, musician, songwriter, educator and curator from Ireland. He holds a Ph.D in music from the DIT, Dublin.


Prince - The Bowie of the 1980's

Maybe it's because I'm an 80's child, maybe it's just a matter of musical taste, but the untimely death of the former artist known as Prince in 2016 impacted me a whole lot more than the death of David Bowie just a few months previously.

Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of Bowie's music and I mourned his passing, but to me, for his 80's output alone, Prince is in another (Paisley) park in terms of creativity, musicianship and pure pop music brilliance.

It often takes the death of a great artist for people to take stock and fully realise the artist's genius. In Prince's case it's particularly true because for most of the past 25 years he hasn't come close to touching his prolific, almost flawless 80's output. He gained more headlines for his personal life and fights against the nasty music business than for any of his inconsistent post-80's music.

Yet his death has made me consider what it is about his work that appeals to me way more than more universally lauded icons like Bowie, Dylan, Springsteen and Lennon. Prince is rarely spoken of in the same terms as these artists and perhaps he shouldn't, because his genius was on another level to them all.

A key reason to why he's not yet appreciated in the same way is the era he became famous in, the era I grew up in. The 1980's have only very recently become 'cool' again. For the entire 1990's and much of the 2000's the 80's just weren't cool. So there was no way music critics would mention Prince in the same breath as the legends of the 50's, 60's and 70's. But just take a sampling of his big and not so big 80's hits and it becomes clear Prince is one of THE great songwriters of the 20th Century, right up there with Bowie, Dylan et al.

1999, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, Sign O'The Times, I Would Die 4 U, Raspberry Beret, Little Red Corvette, Kiss, Alphabet St, Batdance, Girls and Boys, Controversy, Let's Go Crazy, Pop Life - the list goes on and there's plenty of great album tracks too.

Not to mention the career-defining hits other artists had with songs he wrote - Chaka Khan with 'I Feel for You', Sinéad O'Connor with 'Nothing Compares 2 U', The Bangles with 'Manic Monday'.

Much more than a Singer-Songwriter

In the 80's Prince was a hit machine and ALL his hits are enduring classics.

But where he trumps all other pop/rock artists, be it Bowie, Dylan, Springsteen, Lennon and almost any other pop/rock icon I can think of (even Kate Bush) is the pure scope of his creative genius. Just take stock of the following information and consider if any other pop star compares to him.

1. Genius Songwriter/Producer/Arranger

He wrote, produced and arranged ALL his albums, enough said.

2. Guitar God

He was a FANTASTIC rock, funk and pop guitarist with his own recognisable style, capable of the funkiest of rhythms and the most blistering solos since Hendrix. Yet his perfectly placed single ringing guitar note in 'I Would Die 4 U' illustrates how he was always in service of the song. He also turned the art of over-indulgent fret-wank on its head during performances of his controversial song 'Head', where he treated his guitar in a manner appropriate to the song lyrics! Perhaps the most under-rated rock guitarist, he's up there with Hendrix and WAY ahead of Clapton.

3. Virtuoso Vocalist

He was an incredible singer with a distinctive and versatile voice. His voice ranged from a screaming falsetto to soulful tenor to deep-toned croons that he layered in wonderfully creative ways.

4. Magical Multi-instrumentalist

He played nearly all the instruments on his records. Famously, when the record company executive who eventually signed him heard his demo he said to the scout 'Who is this band, they're great', the scout looked at his boss and said 'That's not a band, it's one 17 year old kid playing and singing everything!'.

5. Talent-Spotting Star-Maker

He had a great knack for spotting talent and groomed many of his proteges to become stars in their own right – Wendy & Lisa, The Time, Sheila E and, most incredibly of all, he turned wide-eyed Scottish Eurovision singer Sheena Easton into a funky, sexy 80's icon!

6. Era-defining lyricist

His imaginative politically and sexually charged lyrics defined the era. None more so than 'Sign O' the Times', my generation's 'Blowin' in the Wind'. He also predicted text message speak with songs like 'I Would Die 4 U' and 'I Wish U Heaven'. Prince can also be credited with provoking all those 'Parental Advisory' stickers that have become a status symbol for hip-hop and metal acts. Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore founded the Parents Music Resource Center in response to being offended by the sexual content of the Purple Rain song 'Darling Nikki'. The offending lyric seems so tame by today's standards -

'I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess u could say she was a sex fiend,

I met her in a hotel lobby, Masturbating with a magazine.'

7. The Prince of Performers

He was a master showman and band leader, a dynamic stage presence with a great sense of theatrics. One of my biggest regrets now is that I never saw him live, but the concert films he made are a testament to his brilliance as a live performer. Many people rank him as one of the best live performers of all time. This grainy but brilliant concert from 1982 (just before he went HUGE) explains why -

8. Fashion Icon

One of his biggest hits 'U Got the Look' summed up his visual genius too. He is regularly described as a style icon. The way he styled himself and his band 'The Revolution' was just perfect for the time and his famous purple royalty look is one of the few styles from the 'decade that fashion forgot' that still look good today. Whilst his hit-making ability faded, he remained stylish to the end.

9. Making Odd Mainstream

He created some downright odd song that no one else could've turned into a hit, the prime examples being his extraordinary 'Batdance' and 'When Doves Cry'. His albums also contain some bizarre, almost avant-garde interludes such as the strange backwards vocalisations that follow 'Darling Nikki'.

10. The Trademark Beat

He had his own patented rhythm, heard in most of his 80's songs. A standard 4/4 beat with an accented electronic hand-clap on the fourth beat, so simple yet so distinctive. Once you hear it you know it's Prince, or someone influenced by him.

11. Video Pioneer

His videos were groundbreaking, from the perfect 'band' video '1999' to the stark simplicity of 'Sign O' The Times' and the provocative seduction of 'Kiss' he was always one step ahead of the MTV generation. Duran Duran didn't stand a chance!

12. Orchestrator

He was a master orchestrator whose orchestra was the 80's studio. He combined multi-layered vocals, snyths, drum machines and guitars (and later strings, winds and brass) with a level of sophistication to rival any of pop music's great orchestrators. Brian Wilson, George Martin, Phil Spector you name it, Prince is right up there with them.

13. The Born Star

Prince was his actual real birth name! Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he didn't need a gimmicky stage name, he was simply born to be a star.

14. Creative Integrity

He always fought for creative control, from insisting on producing his first album to changing his name to a squiggle to confound his exploitative record company Warner Bros, to speaking out and acting against the artist-exploiting streaming age of Youtube, Spotify etc.

Prince's Legacy

Whether you're a Millennial who's not so familiar with his work or one of those people who liked his hits but never bought an album, the best thing to do is forget about Spotify and Youtube, just go and buy his great treasure trove of 80's records, Purple Rain, 1999, Parade, Around the World in A Day, Batman, Controversy, Lovesexy, Dirty Mind.

Though his big hits continued through the early 90's, I was never so taken with his 90's New Power Generation. The saccharine 'The Most Beautiful Girl in the World' marked the point where I lost interest in his new releases. Occasionally a new album would come out and be hailed as 'a return to form' by press releases, but this was always a case of hype over substance. His last albums HITnRUN Phase One and Two being cases in point. These albums pale in comparison to his astonishingly consistent run of 80's classics.

The Bowie of the 1980's

Whether you like his music or not, there's no disputing Prince's genius. He was the Bowie of the 1980's, pioneering new sounds, visuals and fashions. Prince defined a decade at a time when Bowie was out of original ideas and turning to Nile Rodgers to revive his career with the kind of funk-pop that Prince could come up with in his sleep.

However the point of this isn't to say Prince was better than Bowie, that's all a matter of personal taste, the point is to demonstrate why Prince Rogers Nelson can and should, at the very least, be mentioned in the same breath as Bowie and all the other pop music icons that the mainstream press worship as music royalty.

Prince is dead, long live the Purple Prince of Pop.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Dave Flynn


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