This is from my new tribute book to Prince, Purple Reign.
If the 1980s had belonged to Prince, the 1990s threatened to get away from him almost from the start. Having ended the decade with two albums of shiny pop simplicity in Lovesexy (1988) and the soundtrack to Batman (1989), both of which gave him his first No. 1 albums in the UK, it seemed as though Prince had now positioned himself firmly in the mainstream. It wasn’t just about pulling The Black Album from the schedules because of its ‘negativity’, even the social comment of Sign o’ the Times was now only hinted at in passing on otherwise cartoonish tracks like ‘Dance On’, which mentioned Uzis the way others might mention lollipops. No more songs about the big disease with a little name or gangs’ of ‘disciples’ out of their minds on crack and shooting guns. Lovesexy came with an all-white cover with a naked Prince depicted like a sylph shyly concealing his breasts with his hands. The only thing missing was a halo. That and any real hit singles. ‘Alphabet Street’ was a neat Top 10 hit but nothing else released from the album stuck.
The accompanying tour was a hit, though. No longer bending over backwards trying to fill stadiums, Prince shrewdly gained more column inches for the multiple nights of sell-out arena shows he laid on in London (seven nights at Wembley), Paris (four nights at the Bercy), four nights in Milan, two nights each in Los Angeles and New York. The stage show was so elaborate though, the stage in two moveable tiers, the props complicated and expensive – including a fountain, a basketball hoop, white trellis fences and a full-size replica of the singer’s Ford Thunderbird – that the tour only finally went into the black financially when it reached the final seven-show leg of the tour in Japan.
Prince affected not to care. Why should he? His next project was even more lightweight, the soundtrack to the Tim Burton reboot of the Batman movie franchise, starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger. The movie was the hot ticket of the summer in the US, where its opening-weekend gross of $46.3 million beat that of the previous record holder, Ghostbusters. But purists argued about the plotline, many couldn’t understand the Prince soundtrack, and even Burton later admitted, ‘The whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.’
Prince fans lapped up the album, though, thrilled by the video for the lead-off single, ‘Batdance’, which featured several Bat Girls in skintight costumes and bat ears and Prince himself as a strange good–evil hybrid of the white-faced, green-haired Joker and the heroic, black-faced Batman figure, pointy black cape flapping as he dances around, the whole set bathed in – you guessed it – a fluorescent purple light, and was directed, interestingly, by Albert Magnoli, the first time the two had worked together since the Purple Rain movie.
The single went to No. 1 in America and No. 2 in the UK, and the following summer, his commercial fortunes transformed seemingly overnight, Prince embarked on his biggest, most successful tour yet, three months of mainly stadium shows in Britain and Europe, where he had struggled just the year before. Dubbed the Nude tour, it took in sold-out football stadiums across Europe before landing in London for twelve nights at Wembley Arena. Gone were the surreal costumes and over the top paraphernalia of the Lovesexy tour, replaced by a leaner, meaner greatest-hits show built as a crowd-pleaser of epic proportions.
With his commercial star back in the ascendancy, Prince decided the time was right to try his hand again at being a movie star. Under the Cherry Moon may have bombed, but with his name attached to Batman it was a good time to parlay a new film deal. To sweeten the deal still further he came up with the ultimate movie producer bait – a proper sequel to Purple Rain, no less, along with the return of Morris Day and The Time, plus cameos from Mavis Staples and George Clinton – and, of course, a beautiful new starlet named Ingrid Chavez to play The Kid’s love interest, Aura.
Written and directed by Prince, if he’d been hoping that lightning would strike twice, he was sorely mistaken. Instead, the film, titled Graffiti Bridge, and shot over the early weeks of 1990, was based on a reed-thin plot essentially just a vehicle to get Prince and his onscreen rivals The Time fighting for musical superiority in a club and moral superiority in Prince’s and Morris Day’s inevitable squabble over a girl – spoiler alert: the good guy, i.e. Prince, gets the girl and defeats the baddy, Morris, with a song.
Released in November 1990 it was a face-shaming flop that made less than half the meagre money Under the Cherry Tree had. Prince would never make a film again. The seventeen-track CD soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge, released four months ahead of the film, also struggled to make an impact, its only hit single, ‘Thieves in the Temples’, which reached the Top 10 in Britain and America, dragging the album to the upper reaches of the world’s charts in its wake.
As had happened before, Prince took this setback the only way he knew how – by making damn sure whatever he did next was a success. 1990 was also the year when Sinéad O’Connor took her even-better-than-the-real-thing version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ to the world in a way not even Prince had imagined possible. O’Connor had reconfigured the lyrics away from a simple breakup song towards a deeper meditation on loss, the singer dedicating the song to her mother, who passed away the same year. It went to No. 1 in America and Britain, and fifteen other countries around the word. It was also nominated for three Grammy awards. Prince, who rarely commented on the success other artists had with his songs, was ecstatic. ‘I love it, it’s great!’ he said happily. ‘I look for cosmic meaning in everything. I think we just took that song as far as we could, then someone else was supposed to come along and pick it up.’
Fascinated by the Grammy award-winning video that O’Connor filmed to go with it – a remarkable one-shot of O’Connor’s face, as she emotes her way through the song, anger, devastation, shock and simple heartbreak all registering like forked lightning across the surface of her moon-shaped face, the sort of deep-contact, bare-bones experience Prince had never achieved on film or video – he invited the famously uncompromising Irish singer to Paisley Park. Prince had always worked so well with female artists, went the thinking, perhaps he had another song he wanted Sinéad to sing, or some other form of collaboration?
But things started to go wrong almost immediately, O’Connor later claimed. ‘I did meet him a couple of times. We didn’t get on at all. In fact we had a punch-up.’ She explained: ‘He summoned me to his house after “Nothing Compares 2 U”. I made it without him. I’d never met him. He summoned me to his house – and it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman – he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off.’ After which, she said, Prince became ‘quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.’
It became a story O’Connor told more than once in media interviews over the years, though Prince always denied anything like she described took place. Speaking to the Irish music paper Hot Press, she said she and Prince had actually had a fist fight. “He’s a very frightening person. His windows are covered in tin foil because he doesn’t like light.” Finally, though, in a TV interview with chat show host Graham Norton, O’Connor insisted the story was ‘much exaggerated by the press’ and referred to Prince instead as ‘a sweet guy’.