Retroactive Review: Parade (1986)

After the perceived commercial failing of Around the World in a Day and mixed response from critics, the safe bet is to get back to basics. The problem is, for Prince, there is no “basics”; his fundamentals are sound enough and his very nature is curious enough that continued experimentation is the inevitable result of his journey. Released on March 31st, 1986, but the next day in the U.K., Parade was not the commercial savior Prince and the label had been banking on. It peaked at #3 on the Top 200, even earning a platinum certification just two months after, but that was a fleeting performance, and the RIAA had even relaxed the sales numbers required to earn such a certification that year; requiring only a million sales as opposed to the two million previously required. Four months later, the album was off the charts, and the reviews were as mixed as Around the World in a Day. Similar to that album, this one is mostly remembered for its one single; unfortunately.

Predisposed to being held back, Prince found himself in early ’85 getting entire films given the green light without a script having even been written. See, once you prove you can make money, a company will give you a grace period allowing you to do whatever is necessary to get the job done. Every situation runs its course, but during this time, to the label, Prince could do no wrong. He had just given them one of the biggest surprise hit films and soundtracks of all time, embarked on a wildly successful tour, had another album on the way, and was bringing forth another movie? Why the fuck not?

Ultimately, it’s what led to the label troubles he would later have, as he proved himself to not always be a safe return on investment, but as always with Prince’s early years, it was about making music, not selling it. It’s why, on his eighth album, his style was still considered avant garde. What other musician could inject baroque pop into their existing sound and still sound ahead of the curve? The album, especially the opening suite, has an undeniable French influence, as the film it supports is set and filmed there, but ironically enough, Prince had never even toured Europe until August 1986; for this very album.

Prior to any pre-production, shit, prior to anything of the film being conceived, Prince had laid out the drum track for the entire suite that consists of the first four tracks of this LP in one take on April 17th, 1985, at Sunset Sounds; five days before the release of Around the World in a Day, a few weeks after the end of The Purple Rain Tour. The grind never ends; using this free time to start recordings for various musicians as well as begin work on a new project. After recording the extended drum track, The Purple One methodically segmented it into four separate tracks; layering other instruments over the drums and percussion, setting the tone for the recording process. Exotic drumming is what lays the groundwork for the record, and considering the work done on this album, it’s safe to say Prince was straying further away from contemporary pop elements. This would eventually culminate with the disbanding of The Revolution, but one plot point at a time now.

Recruiting Clare Fischer for orchestration work was easy as Fischer had already done orchestration work for Prince’s affiliates, The Family, for their self-titled album; pleasing Prince with the results. After layering the first several tracks further with more instrumentation; fleshing them out into developed tracks, he had Fischer arrange and record orchestration for the songs in June 1985 at Monterey Sound Studios. Fischer would stay on for the entirety of the project, providing orchestration work on every song crafted for the album, save for “Kiss”, although not every track features his contributions.

Having this supposed ace up his sleeve, Prince relies more so on his fellow composer than on his own backing band. The Revolution is definitely relegated to the side on this album, and the ensuing overseas leg of the tour only further fueled those hurt feelings1. There’s only three songs that are a full-band performance, and one of them is of the extended line-up that consolidated select members from the imminently disbanded The Family. This line-up only harmed the relationship between Prince and the original members of The Revolution, but once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Busy recording at Sunset Sounds, he tracked both “Life Can Be So Nice”, and “Sometimes It Snows in April”, on April 21st, 1985, during the midst of a creative outburst; tracking 12 songs during a two week process until he had assembled an early configuration of the yet-unnamed Parade. Déjà vu strikes in the spring, as another May rolled around, Prince rented yet another warehouse; this time on Washington Avenue in Eden Prarie, MN. Initially envisioned as where The Family would rehearse for a planned tour, Prince used the warehouse as a headquarters to serve all his means at the time. During this time, The Family2 and other associates would rehearse at the consoleless warehouse, which was only outfitted with a new console during early July; after Prince had decided on the premise, theme, and visuals to his newly titled film, Under the Cherry Moon. A script had been written by a first-timer, and Prince and his managers had scouted locations in France for filming all throughout that June.

It’s worth noting that “Kiss”, the lead single this album has the distinction of being most remembered for, was also tracked during that two week stretch; on April 29th, 1985. The legend of this track tells of how Prince demoed the song the night before to his bassist Brown Mark’s band, Mazarati. Originally composed as an acoustic-blues number, Prince came in the next day to discover they had transformed the instrumentation into what we hear on the album. Immediately reclaiming work on the track, he removed the bass line and vocals, replacing them with the famous falsetto that flows so seductively over the beat. Maybe he felt bad for stealing back the song, since it wasn’t on the first configuration of the album, which he drew up just two days after tracking “Kiss”, but somebody eventually made the wise decision to include the song on the album.

Pre-production had been completed in June, and filming wouldn’t begin until September 16th, ending with the wrap party at Le Grand Escurial on November 21st. Between then, three more songs that eventually made their way onto Parade were tracked at Washington Avenue Warehouse. “Girls & Boys” was the first song recorded at the new warehouse on July 8th, and over the next month, Prince would use sparing assistance from The Revolution to track five more songs, including “Do U Lie?”, on July 14th. The brief instrumental, “Venus de Milo”, was tracked sometime shortly after “Do U Lie?”, but an accurate recording date is uncertain.

Additional mixing was done by Prince around this time from the first batch of orchestration work finished by Fischer. Working separately, in different states nonetheless, Prince and Fischer formed a spiritual bond, working tirelessly towards the same goal, even as the construct of the album was undergoing changes, with three songs (“Others Here with Us”, “Old Friends 4 Sale”, and “All My Dreams”) being cut during the recording process and six new songs taking their place. Only one of the cut tracks (“Old Friends 4 Sale”) was later reworked and used on a future project.

All this suggests is that Prince began forming a concrete idea of how the album should be constructed around the same time the script was finished; straying away from tracks that didn’t lean towards a classical, 40’s-inspired jazz-pop tune. Remember, it was in June when Prince scouted locations in France, implying the feel of the album was going to align with the tone and setting of the film. If Prince’s love for Old Hollywood is the blueprint for the film, then the music must reflect that, much in the same way the music in Purple Rain was completely himself; Parade would be a dedication and commemoration to his vision of a romanticized bygone era.

Shipping “Girls & Boys”, “Life Can Be So Nice”, Sometimes It Snows in April”, “Do U Lie?”, and “Venus de Milo” off to Fischer for orchestral work, Prince himself completed the extended version of “Kiss” around this same time; mid-to-late summer of ’85; likely in early August. After rehearsing for months, The Family made their live debut at First Avenue, the club featured prominently in Purple Rain, on August 13th, 1985. There were plans for future shows, including live orchestration, but they never materialized; likely due to a bad performance, as the group was dissolved just five months later. Before that however, select members of the group, the ones who would go on to tour as part of the extended Revolution3 on The Parade Tour, assisted Prince and The Revolution in crafting “Mountains” on November 30th, 1985, at Washington Park Warehouse.

Principal photography for Under the Cherry Moon had wrapped just nine days prior to the tracking of “Mountains”, and between then, Prince found time to purchase a new house. His father had moved into the old Kiowa Trail home that he had left in January after tracking the last bits of Around the World in a Day in the driveway after his December 24th, 1984 show at St. Paul Civic Center. The new house was situated on Galvin Boulevard in Chanhassen, MN, and until the early 2000’s, Prince called it home. After nonstop traveling, recording, rehearsing, performing, and filming for nearly two years, it must’ve been nice to relax in a new mansion, even for just an evening.

Finding plenty of free time, the band flew out to L.A. to track the final song for Parade, “Anotherloverholenyohead”, at Sunset Sounds, on December 16th, 1985. Fischer spent the remaining days of the month adding orchestral work to “Mountains”, finishing his work in January by adding orchestral work to “Anotherloverholenyohead”; final mixing and subsequent mastering was finished by that February. Oh yeah, also throw in the fact that Paisley Park Studios was finally coming to fruition, as construction broke ground in Chanhassen around the same time Fischer completed his orchestral work, and you’re left with an incredibly busy entertainer who’s stretching the world around him to fit to his wishes.

After almost a year of not touring, it was decided to hit the road shortly before the album was released. However, due to the lukewarm reception of Around the World in a Day, Steve Fargnoli decided to take a different approach to the way the band would tour the U.S. this time out. Dubbing the string of spaced out show dates as a “Hit n Run”, Prince and The Revolution would set up shop and announce a concert days or hours before the actual event. Tensions developed between the band members, and before the band departed for the overseas leg, The Parade Tour proper, Wendy & Lisa threatened to quit. Conflicting reports say either Bobby Z. or tour manager Alan Leeds caught them at the airport and convinced them to stay, but can we talk about the actual music on this inviting, celebratory world that was recorded into existence?

Upon the very first spin, the interconnected drumming of the first four songs stood out to me. I considered them a suite, but it wasn’t until further research, and many years passing by, that I discovered my theory correct. Originally titled “Wendy’s Parade”, after bandmate Wendy Melvoin, it was only after he had recorded the entire nine minute, eight second drum track that takes center stage of the mix on all four tracks, that he decided to separate it into four different, but connected, tracks. As well as the album flows, this opening suite is as organic as it gets, effortlessly switching the pace while somehow simultaneously keeping the mysterious, magical aura established in “Christopher Tracy’s Parade”, the new title the track was given after Fischer had provided orchestral work; one of the few tracks were Prince actually kept the added instrumentation in the mix.

Obviously since the script for Under the Cherry Moon hadn’t been written at the time Prince tracked the suite, he couldn’t have had the idea to name it after his character in the film. I’m sure Wendy was upset about the name change due to the circumstances, but honestly, the general idea of the track didn’t change much in this new context. The line change from “Little girl Wendy’s guitar”4 to “Christopher Tracy’s piano” swaps one character and their preferred instrument for another, but the concept of a grand celebration for doing the best you can as a decent human being is what truly drives the track, and the amazing, filling orchestration enhances that feeling.

Masterfully picking up the tempo, “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” segues into the energetic snare and percussion rolls of “New Position”, a much more mature approach to making love that he had hinted at during the last album. Practically barren, Prince bounces off the drum kit with a sexy howl to his “honey”, using the empty stereo space to power the reverberating vocals and backup harmonies to match the louder mixed snares and percussion perfectly. Originally conceived during sessions for 1999, Prince left the track aside for three years until after he had recorded the drum track; likely upon realizing the second segment of the drum suite he had recorded fit this song ever so snugly. Sex is still a topic, but by stating,

Let’s go fishin’ in the river, the river of life.

Prince effectively demonstrates a new behavior from his earlier work; transforming the lustful line, “I really wanna play in your river”, from “In Love” on For You into something more partnership-inclusive and wholesome. Yes, sex is still the topic, but all he’s really suggesting is that they work together to keep the relationship from getting stale, and a new position usually does the trick. Bordering on self-referential, Prince could also be speaking to his own band, or even his audience; why freak out over the new direction?

“I Wonder U” is a brief, minute-and-a-half quiet contemplation by Wendy, marking the first time Prince isn’t singing lead on a track from his own album. He doesn’t appear at all on the track actually, allowing a band member to have a moment to themselves for once. Fischer reduced the orchestra to a couple flutes on the track, at Prince’s request, but it was The Purple One himself who muted his vocals on the track; bumping up the decibels on Wendy’s vocals to give her the spotlight on the track.

Described by one YouTuber5 I respect as “sexual background music” for a specific scene, I would argue that the scene this song was featured in was probably changed from the original script, as was a decent amount of the film, to better accommodate the music. Two scenes6 were added to the film during shooting, so it’s not like they were filming with a consistent script anyway. It’s not to say I don’t agree with his overall assessment, as the subdued vocals of Wendy are likely due to her originally being tapped as backup, and the song is over rather quickly, but it does its job effectively at creating a sexual atmosphere without much effort.

Ending the suite is “Under the Cherry Moon”, an ode to devotion and nostalgia. The drum fills are magnetic, immediately drawing you in; creating a beautiful synergy with the piano chords that magnificently float in the empty stereo space. Sounding the most like a track that’s actually from the late-40’s, Prince waxes poetry in between the pretty piano keys and reverberated snares.

How can I stand to stay where I am?/Poor butterfly who don’t understand/Why can’t I fly away, in a special sky?/If I don’t find my, destiny soon/ I’ll die in your arms under the cherry moon

…Maybe I’ll die young, like heroes die/Maybe I’ll kiss you, some wild, special way/If nobody kills me, or thrills me soon/I’ll die in your arms, under the cherry moon

It’s absolutely gorgeous, romantic, and unlike anything else in the catalogue at this point. It’s when the heavily reverberated snares of “Girls & Boys” come rolling in that you realize the initial phase of the record is over; encapsulating the energy, tradition, and bittersweet ending of a temporarily joyous occasion. The suite is a condensed version of the entire concept of the LP, and it’s only when it ends that we are allowed to kick back and enjoy the rest of the show, as almost everything past this opening suite serves the primary function of creating a hospitable environment that borders on superfluous.

“Girls & Boys” is a mid-tempo track that feels much faster than it really is due to the masterful rhythm composition. Constantly fluctuating between his natural voice and higher registers, Prince playfully floats around his range; speaking in French and coming to grips with the reality of another unrequited love. It’s a relatable tale; boy meets girl and, in his own words, “…grown accustomed to her style”, and the lush horns provided by Eric Leeds, the first member of the extended Revolution, give it the exotic landscape necessary to please even the most contemporary tastes.

“Life Can Be So Nice” is an interesting track, ramping up the intensity with fantastic cowbell percussion work by Sheila E.; who was also one of many background vocalists filling in any void in the stereo space on the previous track. There’s fascinating instrumentation on this track; one of the most complex grooves The Purple One ever crafted, but it’s almost all for naught. The breakdown of the track is a fourth wall joke to “Tamborine” from the previous album, with Prince slowing the groove down to say,

No one plays the clarinet the way you play my heart.

Which is, just confusing. Why reference a boring song on one of your more interesting tracks? Perhaps there’s a little truth in the criticism from Rolling Stone8 back in the day when they criticized this album for having no lyrics on the inner sleeve, inferring Prince put his songwriting in the backseat for this album. The lack of something to say doesn’t necessarily hurt the album, as it was always intended to be “a parade”, a long-sweeping, celebratory occasion, and it succeeds beautifully; maybe even more so on the tracks with the more uninspired lyrics. “Life Can Be So Nice” is a continuation of that stimulation, breaking down into a dramatic synth-orchestra whirlwind that gives way to the elegant instrumental, “Venus de Milo”, which uses its slow build-up7, only possible by the excellent drum track from Sheila E., to give way to one of Fischer’s more subdued, regal orchestration; shining beautifully like a full moon in the night sky.

Being heavily involved in a process can be frustrating when you’re not given freedom to alter the process in some way. Wendy & Lisa had both by this point been integral components in the success of a record-breaking album, amazing live performances, and essential life experiences in Prince’s career, and on side one they were mostly relegated to backup vocals. It’s like the early phase of his career all over again, except now the band had begun to expand, meaning everyone was replaceable. It’s kind of amazing then that with all that tension, we were given such a remarkably elegant side of music.

Even on the track they helped co-write, “Mountains”, the second side’s opener, Prince essentially took sole credit for the track. The only person given co-writing credit on this album is John L. Nelson, for “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” and “Under the Cherry Moon”, but his actual involvement in the writing process is unknown. It’s a shame too, as “Mountains” is a powerful track that Wendy & Lisa deserve credit for, as their instrumentation they created is the sole reason fans have become so enamored with this fucking song.

You would assume then, relieved of the burden of having to compose a new song, Prince would be free to write a lyrically strong track. He did, using mountains and the sea to represent the deep connection and amazing heights that two lovers can reach together; provided they just see it through. Prince’s falsetto howls like a sexy tea kettle against the grand instrumentation, making the imagery in the first verse even more potent; vivid. The only track to feature the entire extended Revolution, “Mountains” filling instrumentation makes a really strong impression, fortifying the track list with a stadium jam the audience can get lost in.

“Do U Lie?” is much more laidback by comparison, using Fischer’s small-scale orchestra to go full French with the sound. Another sub-three minute song, “Do U Lie?” keeps the proceedings moving, falling back on Prince’s quirk to make the rather banal track work. It does, if only because Parade really has no weak moments on it. Sweeping down the track list like a grand ballerina, the music remains catchy, fun and accessible; further restating the mission statement of the album title. A French-speaking woman introduces the lowkey number, different from the one serenading us on “Girls & Boys”; simply adding to the exoticism of this record’s world. Even the slower, more uneventful moments of Parade have purpose. Also, Wendy and Susannah’s brother Johnathan played drums on the track, adding to its quirkiness.

“Kiss” is one of the reasons people can casually call Prince a “bad motherfucker” without anyone batting an eye. That seductive falsetto effortlessly hits the pitch needed to propel this barren banger to his third number one hit. The backbeat driven, hip-hop influencing bluesy sound of the track is at odds with the lush classicism of the LP, but yet, the sexual energy and obvious lead single appeal gives “Kiss” a snug spot between the understated sentimental “Do U Lie?”, and the uptempo power ballad “Anotherloverholenyohead”; which cuts “Kiss” off on the record immediately after the final time Prince utters the word, rather than allow it the short, guitar strum outro it received on the single and subsequent digital rereleases of this album.

The brimming chorus of “Anotherloverholenyohead” is allowed the space needed to get across the looming desperation; partially due to the excellence to pacing of the record. The tasteful violins and spacey accordion and woodwinds of “Do U Lie?” retreats into the bluesy R&B rhythm arrangement of “Kiss” masterfully, meaning when the first mournful verse of “Anotherloverholenyohead” reaches its climax, the appropriate gravity is given to the situation. Cheesy hooks aside, “Anotherloverholenyohead” demonstrates Prince’s ability to really fuse genres into something that defies definition, as the composition can only be described as vintage Prince, which is funny since this is the first time he had attempted to incorporate classical, baroque-styled pop and hints of jazz into his music.

Ending the proceedings with perhaps his best ballad ever, the ever-sentimental “Sometimes It Snows in April”, Prince discusses his character from the film as a metaphor for anyone who has lost someone close to them. Fittingly, D’Angelo sang the song on The Tonight Show9 just five days after Prince’s passing on April 21st, 2016. The definition of bittersweet, it naturally concludes the album on a powerful, if not anthemic, note. The instrumentation only features himself on the piano and Wendy on guitar, with Lisa adding other keyboard work, and the duo adding backup vocals; resulting in one of the most beautiful songs in Prince’s entire catalog. If you never listen to Parade all the way through, do yourself a favor and listen to this song.

Diehards gravitate to this record and it’s really not hard to understand why. The lush, lively instrumentation will sweep you off your feet, carrying you to another world you previously thought only existed in fantasies. In 1986, the film was weird and off-putting, in 2018, its gif-worthy. Everything about the project immerses you in a world conjured by a master tirelessly at work, and it’s exactly why it only went to the third spot on Billboard’s Top 200 in ’86; near the height of Reagan’s America.

Much like the record itself, this review must end on a rather dour note. On September 9th, 1986, after a month of touring Europe, Prince and The Revolution officially disbanded after the second encore ended with Prince smashing every guitar in the band’s possession after an emotional performance of “Purple Rain”; the flight back home and subsequent October announcement was simply formalities. Whereas most would be upset at this outcome, it’s here where I believe Prince most bought into his own songwriting, for when his band imploded on him, he carried on, leaving us with this message;

Always cry for love, never cry for pain.

Editor’s Notes

  1. Jason Draper’s 2008 biographical novel Prince: Life and Times was updated and revised in 2016, but both versions have Brown Mark quoted as saying, “I was [put] behind the piano, next to Bobby Z. [standing] behind three guys who used to be bodyguards. I started feeling a little under appreciated.”
  2. If The Family seems like a watered-down version of The Time, you’re not wrong for feeling that way. They were fast-tracked as Prince’s supporting group, much in the same vein as The Time, once Morris went solo in early ’85.
  3. Susannah Melvoin, Miko Weaver, Eric Leeds, and Jerome Benton, who was not a musical member. Matthew “Atlanta Bliss” Blistan was a musician of the extended lineup but was obviously not part of The Family. The other two “Stooges”, Wally Safford and Greg Brooks, rounded out the extra entertainment with Jerome.
  4. This line is changed to “Little girl Wendy’s parade” on “Kiss”, before the guitar solo, which was done by Prince. Go figure.
  5. 7:35
  6. Specifically, the scenes where Christopher sneaks into Mary’s mother’s room, thinking it was Mary’s room, and the scene where Christopher and Tricky escape the bar after being scared by bats. Every film makes changes to the script, which is why there’s a spec script and a shooting script, but you often try to adhere to the spec script as close as possible, and I suspect with this film in particular that it was more about what Prince wanted than what the screenwriter intended. The ending of the film was also changed.
  7. Relatively speaking, of course. The song is just under two minutes long after all.
  8. Cowards hide their reviews, and I cannot unearth the original Rolling Stones review with this criticism, but I will say John Rockwell’s New York Times write-up is incredibly fair, and holds up well without being too prophetical.
  9. 4/26/2016 – D’Angelo, “Sometimes It Snows in April”
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