The following year, Prince threw everyone for a loop with the 1960s-influenced Around the World in a Day. Prince’s answer to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Around the World in a Day was the first album released on his new Paisley Park label. A radical departure from his preceding work, ATWIAD found Prince moving farther away from funk and synthesizers, toward a more organic sound that incorporated denser, more grandiose arrangements, Middle Eastern flavorings and real horns.
In addition, songs such as “The Ladder” and “Temptation” represented the most overt religious messages of Prince’s career. It was refreshing to see Prince move away from the insanity of Purple Rain, but ATWIAD was his weakest outing since his humble beginnings. The wistful “Raspberry Beret” was the record’s one truly memorable song. Prince did contribute a winning tune to the USA for Africa’s We Are the World charity album with the spiritual, stripped-down “4 the Tears in Your Eyes.”
Prince contributed significantly less to Sheila E.’s sophomore effort Romance 1600 than he did to her debut. But in producing, writing and performing most of the material on her own, Sheila E. proved she had learned well from her mentor. Just as enjoyable as her first LP, Romance 1600 did include one major Prince boost in the 12-minute-plus funk hit “A Love Bizarre.” Sheila E.’s subsequent albums all have value, but Prince’s involvement was minimal at best.
Another release to emerge from the Prince camp in 1985 was the self-titled debut of the Family, which was in essence the new Time. Comprised of former Time drummer Jellybean Johnson, former Time valet Jerome Benton, saxophonist Eric Leeds, Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister) and St. Paul (who does a great Prince impersonation), the Family disbanded almost immediately after the release of their album. It’s too bad because there was plenty of good music to be found. “Mutiny” is a chunk of meaty funk, while the single “The Screams of Passion” and a pair of instrumentals hit the mark as well. The disc also contains “Nothing Compares 2 U,” later made into a chart-topper by Sinead O’Connor.
Before the year was out, former Time members Jesse Johnson and Morris Day delivered their solo debuts. Johnson’s Jesse Johnson’s Revue was a highly successful record that was heavy on funk. But, whether intentional or not, Johnson never managed to rise above sounding like a second-rate Prince, and his expert proficiency as a guitarist was curiously not evident. The album contained the R&B hits “Be Your Man” and “Can You Help Me,” which on the B-side of its single, featured the best cut from these sessions in “Free World.” Of Johnson’s subsequent releases, 1988’s Every Shade of Love was easily the most worthwhile.
Morris Day’s The Color of Success was a flat, uneventful effort that featured the hit “Oak Tree.” The rest of Day’s solo catalog has been equally disposable. The fact that both Johnson’s and Day’s LPs posted solid sales was probably due more to the fact that Prince decided not to be funky that year than because they were outstanding recordings. In a fence-mending move, Prince donated the hit song “The Dance Electric” to Andre Cymone’s otherwise forgettable second album, A.C.
The next year saw the release of another Prince film (Under the Cherry Moon) and accompanying album (Parade). The movie, a comedic tragedy, was a travesty and a dismal flop. But, the LP was quite an impressive bit of work that required repeated listening to unravel. Parade continued the de-emphasis of electronics and the deployment of intricately layered arrangements that characterized ATWIAD. Only this time the music had a jazzier quality, the religious overtures were muted and the eclectic excursions were broken up by Prince’s funkiest tunes since 1999.
“New Position,” “Girls and Boys,” “Anotherloverholenyohead” and the No. 1 smash “Kiss” served notice that Prince was embarking on an exciting new course, one that would not include the Revolution, which he cut loose (except Dr. Fink) later that year. Even the waltzes “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Do U Lie?” were intriguing. However, the ballad “Sometimes It Snows In April” was annoyingly underdeveloped.
In yet another attempt to replicate the magic of the Time, Revolution bassist Brown Mark produced the eponymous debut of the seven-piece glam-funk outfit Mazaratti. Not up to the specs of the Time, but considerably better than the Jesse Johnson or Morris Day projects, Mazaratti was highlighted by the Prince-penned down-tempo funker “100 MPH.” The song was a substitution for “Kiss,” which Prince had pulled back for himself at the last moment. Mazaratti turned out to be another of several Prince-affiliated one-shot wonders.
Freed of the constraints of a band, Prince unleashed the landmark double-disc Sign ‘O’ the Times in 1987. Originally earmarked as a three-LP set, this tour de force was not only the ultimate achievement of an already brilliant career, but it was also arguably the greatest album of the rock era. A more impressive fusion of funk, rock, pop, folk, social commentary, romance, dance, spirituality and quirky eclecticism had never been borne, and when it was, it was realized almost entirely by a single individual.
There wasn’t a single throwaway among the discs’ 16 compositions. The title song was hypnotic; “Housequake” was the epitome of funk; “U Got the Look” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” were pop perfection; “If I Were Your Girlfriend” was enchantingly spooky; and “Forever in My Life” and “The Cross” were earthy and exhilarating. Sign left no doubt that Prince’s best work manifested when he was left alone in the studio with no outside help or contributions. Other musicians simply diluted his gifts.
A concert film documenting the Sign ‘O’ the Times European tour was also released. This terrifically photographed and performed movie features Prince’s most impressive band and is highly recommended. The lineup included Sheila E. on drums and sexy dancer Cathy (Cat) Glover as Prince’s stage foil. Prince also teamed up with Sheila E., bassist Levi Seacer Jr. and sax man Eric Leeds for the jazz ensemble Madhouse’s debut 8. The act went on to record a second album before subsequent releases were simply credited directly to Leeds. All were competent, but unspectacular.