Monthly Archives: April 2016

I had been thinking about Prince this week. I’d heard Let’s Go Crazy on the radio and wanted to write about it. Waking up to the sudden news that Prince passed away, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned from him.

Prince’s The Hits / B-Sides Disc One used to play on my car stereo a *lot*. I liked it because those songs were mostly from outside Prince’s “peak” period, and I didn’t know them until I got the disc.

Two things stand out about these 17 songs. One is, a lot of Prince’s writing is I-IV-V blues: examples are Kiss, 7, U Got the Look, Cream, Sexy, M.F., When You Were Mine, Alphabet Street

And the E. A. B. principle from Vinyl thoroughly applies. Every song has a “new” sound element. It’s never a melange of typical instruments. The best example might be “Kiss” – a I-IV-V blues that could have been written in minutes, with a mix that overflows with ear candy. The elongated gated-reverb kick drum interacts perfectly with the rhythm guitar – or is that a synth? My ears can’t tell, and that’s why I love it.

Then there’s 1980’s “When You Are Mine”, which has the quintessential 1980s guitar sound. It’s that sort of breezy, 50s-ish, California post-punk guitar sound, all attack, with the bottom cut out. It’s like a little piece of bubble gum you want to keep popping over and over.

Listening to Prince’s catalog, it’s all so effortless and confident.

But the masterpiece is “Let’s Go Crazy“, a hail mary pass of a song, filled with one astonishing moment after another.

Nothing was ever more radio-ready for 1984 than his preacher’s sermon intro. The over-vibrato’d organ, bananas synth glissando, and strangely beautiful Afterworld where “you can always see the sun, day….or night”…these stood out, to say the least.

When the actual groove starts, it’s a touch over-enthusiastic, but it works because of the mix. This kind of high energy, joyous groove is nearly impossible to pull off. Too much or too little of anything, and you’ve got a “Walking on Sunshine” on your hands.

Minus the extended intro and ending, the actual *song* part of “Let’s Go Crazy” runs under 3 minutes, and makes an ideal study in sustaining momentum. A lot of famous hooks tire a bit by the 3rd chorus. But Prince elaborates his ideas just enough to keep things falling forward. Listen for the background singers’ echoes and doublings, the keyboard drop propelling a section transition, and how Prince’s performance grows increasingly agitated. Even the guitar solo’s genius final lightning riff is like a nitro injection, raising the stakes.

Like Bach’s C Minor Prelude, the song doesn’t end so much as it explodes. The arena-concert finale takes several unexpected twists – the first cataclysmic ritardando, the sudden guitar break, and Prince’s final shout to God – “Take Me!”.

It’s an ending so inspired, so beyond craft, a composer cannot possibly learn from it. One can only admire, and enjoy it.

 

Posted 11 months ago by John Piscitello

A Facebook discussion forum for media composers recently had a conversation about “starting points”. How do you deal with the fact that some composers may have more connections, resources, or advantages than you do?

It developed into a conversation about perseverance and attitude, and reminded me of an experience that taught me about “creating luck”.

Years ago in Boston I was walking with a college buddy to dinner somewhere. I said let’s take Commonwealth Ave, a quiet street. He said no way, if we walk on Newbury Street we’re more likely to run into somebody we know.

We took Newbury, and sure enough ran into a couple of women our age whom we’d met once or twice before. Spur of the moment, they joined us for dinner, making the whole thing a lot more fun.

I remember my friend’s wise counsel that night often, to remind myself to be consciously open and create possibilities. Whatever our relative starting points, it’s a long road for all of us. I figure if I’m trying to get somewhere, it might as well be by Newbury Street.

Posted 11 months ago by John Piscitello

One of my composition professors once told me “don’t be overly pre-occupied with originality”. For years I’ve been trying to understand that advice, but this scene in Vinyl puts it together.

The Nasty Bit’s lead singer Kip gets frustrated while trying to write a song, complaining “there are no more notes”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcRAS95xBV8

Two thoughts on that scene. First, the folks making Vinyl really love and get music, and I hope the show succeeds.

Second, in high school, I thought the exact same thing: I-IV-V was overly simplistic. Despite the fact it occurs in masterpieces over and over, like the first 30 seconds of Beethoven’s Sixth:

So, there you go. Don’t worry too much about originality. Form and progressions are just the foundation for your composer voice. If I-IV-V worked for Berry and Beethoven, you can probably use it as a foundation too.

Posted 11 months ago by John Piscitello