Looking back at a most misunderstood Prince classic for its 30th anniversary
Graffiti Bridge was the soundtrack I had always craved for–a more inclusive, musical snapshot from one of Prince’s films, in this particular instance his 1990 self-directed film of the same title.
Purple Rain (1984) should have been a proper soundtrack by including the other incendiary, Prince-produced songs performed in his blockbuster debut film, The Time’s “Jungle Love” and “The Bird,” Apollonia 6’s “Sexshooter,” and Dez Dickerson’s “(I Want 2 B A) Modernaire.” Subtitled “Music from the motion picture Under The Cherry Moon,” Parade (1986) did not include the incredible, accompanying score. So, I was extremely giddy about the release of Graffiti Bridge (an understatement) and couldn’t wait to give it a spin as I scanned every crack and crevice of the illustrated cover by Steve Parke. In real-time, I played the album as repeatedly as any other Prince release. However, has Graffiti Bridge stood the test of time after thirty years?
In a 1991 USA Today interview, Prince foretold, “Maybe it will take people 30 years to get it. They trashed The Wizard of Oz at first, too.” It did take me 30 years to figure out what was “just around the corner,” and it wasn’t a jeep as Prince enthusiast Anil Dash jokingly suggested in the Graffiti Bridge album roundtable discussion at the #DM40GB30 symposium I curated in June to celebrate and revisit Prince’s Dirty Mind and Graffiti Bridge albums, after 40 years and 30 years, respectively.
VIDEO: #DM40GB30 Graffiti Bridge Album Roundtable Panel: Zaheer Ali, Anil Dash, Miles Marshall Lewis, Elliott Powell, and De Angela L. Duff
Monique W. Morris’ #DM40GB30 presentation, “Articulated Manners: Exploring the Imagery of Love in ‘Graffiti Bridge,'” was particularly illuminating. After hearing her reading of the film, Graffiti Bridge’s message finally clicked. Love was just around the corner. Super obvious, now, but there were so many detractions that obfuscated the film’s simple, but powerful message, then. However, this isn’t a retrospective of the movie, but of the album.
VIDEO: Monique Morris, “Articulated Manners: Exploring the Imagery of Love in “Graffiti Bridge” from the #DM40GB30 symposium
While the film aged better over time, whether the soundtrack has is up for debate. At the time, most US critics praised the album, an about-face to their harsh reviews of Prince’s Batman soundtrack a year earlier. The Washington Post review by Geoffrey Himes, “Prince And The Sexual Solution,” was the most effusive:
If the right-wing censorship forces had their wits about them, they would forget about the old-fashioned sexism of 2 Live Crew and go after the new Prince album, ‘Graffiti Bridge’ (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.). Prince doesn’t use four-letter words and he doesn’t describe the sex act in graphic detail, but “Graffiti Bridge” is one of the most erotic, sexually stimulating albums in pop-music history.
Longstanding Prince critic Jon Bream’s review in Minneapolis’ Star Tribune review also glowed,” ‘Graffiti Bridge’ will bolster Prince’ stature as pop music’s most masterful auteur, whether the movie sinks or swims.” In the Los Angeles Times, Chris Willman declared, “It’s better than last year’s gutsy but ill-conceived ‘Batman’ by a long shot, and texturally, it’s amazingly well-recorded R&B; with avant-twists everywhere.” Rolling Stone magazine gave it four stars, while dismissing the Batman soundtrack in the same review.
However, all critics did not applaud the album. In “Burning His Bridges: Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park) **,” a review for UK magazine Select, Paolo Hewitt argued, “If five years ago these sounds were fresh and dynamic, today they lack that power. For the first-time Prince listener, Graffiti Bridge may prove to be a revelation. But for those who know better, to walk this particular bridge is to walk backwards.”
Whether one agrees with the positive or negative reviews, Graffiti Bridge is essential listening due to the inclusion of not one, but two musical jewels, “Joy In Repetition” and “The Question U.” The storytelling of “Joy In Repetition” is just as masterful as “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker,” a song from Prince’s critically acclaimed Sign O’ The Times (1987), which is getting a super-deluxe treatment from Warner Brothers in September. While “The Question of U” is an elegant twist of intoxicating, sublime blues. Imagine hearing “The Question of U” on Prince’s Nude Tour before its studio release with counterpoints of lush Clare Fischer string arrangements, integrated live, but excavated on the album.
VIDEO: Prince “Question of U” Live on The Nude Tour at the Tokyo Dome, Tokyo on 31 August 1990
While he recorded new songs specifically for the Batman soundtrack, Prince refashioned almost all of the tracks for Graffiti Bridge from his vault. John Pareles review, “Sonic and Sexual Updates From Prince” in the 19 August 1990 edition of the New York Times, is ironic within this context, “Prince’s last soundtrack album, for ‘Batman’ in 1989, had a lot of filler; ‘Graffiti Bridge’ has virtually none.”
Graffiti Bridge has a complicated compilation history, exacerbated further by almost every single song’s storied history, save one. The album intertwined with Prince’s 1988/1989 abandoned album project, Rave Unto The Joy Fantastic, an entirely different project than Prince’s Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic (1992) released on Arista Records. “Melody Cool,” “God Is Alive,” “Still Would Stand All Time,” and “Elephants & Flowers,” which Arthur Turnbull of The Music Snobs podcast describes as “Black boy joy,” were all songs on Rave Unto The Joy Fantastic. Like many Prince albums, Graffiti Bridge went through many configurations. Visit its album page on PrinceVault for a deeper dive, as the following overview will not be as exhaustive.
Let’s explore the “Prince” songs on the album, first. Graffiti Bridge begins with “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” a song initially recorded in 1982, possessing the same fun and upbeat energy of “Play In The Sunshine” from Sign O’ The Times. The original, rawer, and more rockabilly-ish version appeared on last year’s 1999 (Super Deluxe), while a 1986 version remains unreleased.
AUDIO: Prince “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got” (1982 version) from 1999 (Super Deluxe)
The precursor to “New Power Generation,” the second track on the album, is “Bold Generation,” which also appeared on 1999 (Super Deluxe). Many Graffiti Bridge tracks are about the groove, and this one is no exception with its catchy chorus and unwavering proclamation of change. Rosie Gaines’s “vocal icing” was perfectly blended in the background, as compared to the co-lead vocals she would command on Prince’s Diamonds & Pearls (1991) and Chaos & Disorder (1996).
AUDIO: Prince “Bold Generation” (1982 version) from 1999 (Super Deluxe)
As for “We Can Funk” on Graffiti Bridge, fans constantly debate if this version is better than “We Can Fu*k” (1983) from 2017’s Purple Rain Deluxe. George Clinton’s vocals always raise the funk meter. So, my allegiance should be clear. Should I dare mention that there is also an additional, unreleased 1986 version recorded with The Revolution in Prince’s vault, as well? This debate will be eternal.
“Joy In Repetition” was considered for the original, unreleased triple-album configuration of the 1986/1987 Crystal Ball project, while there is an unreleased variation of “Tick, Tick, Bang” from 1981. Previously recorded in 1987, “Graffiti Bridge” contains the holy trinity of background vocals, Boni Boyer, Sheila E., and Levi Seacer, Jr., who were all in Prince’s band at the time. Tevin Campbell and Mavis Staples overdubbed additional vocals, later. Clare Fischer also recorded unused, string overdubs. If only we could hear the accompanying string arrangement, Fischer’s contributions would elevate the song. Being the most saccharine track, “Graffiti Bridge” is relegated to the film’s end credits. Enough said.
“Thieves in the Temple” was the only song recorded explicitly for this project in 1990.
While some diehard Prince fans were keenly aware of the recycling of material, most of the critics were not, notably Paul Evans in Rolling Stone (“With Graffiti Bridge and its firm coalescence of his styles and concerns, Prince reasserts his originality — and does it with the ease of a conqueror.”)
However, what was new and refreshing was Prince’s commitment to sharing the album’s spotlight with other artists in his sphere, even though he “produced, arranged, and composed” the majority of the songs on the album. Surprisingly of the five commercially-released singles, only two were “Prince” releases, “Thieves In The Temple,” the first single released before the album, and the third “New Power Generation.” While the second single “Round And Round” by Tevin Campbell fared well on the Billboard Pop & R&B charts. “Melody Cool” by Mavis Staples failed to chart as high. The fifth and final single, “Shake!” by The Time, did not chart, at all.
Surrendering “Round and Round” to “New Jack” flourishes most likely contributed to this single’s success. However, I wish the music gods could magically erase the track from the soundtrack and Tevin’s Campbell’s performance from the film. Hearing a 13-year old on a Prince album was jarring. Kids didn’t exist previously in Prince’s universe. How did we get from “Dirty Mind” to “Round and Round”? Prince had already been producing artists, not in his purple world. Kenny Rogers, anyone? So, “Round and Round” could have been exclusively relegated as a track on Tevin Campbell’s first album T.E.V.I.N. (1991), instead.
Appropriately, “strutting” was the description Paul Evans gave “Melody Cool” in his Rolling Stone magazine review of Graffiti Bridge. Accompanying Mavis Staples on the track was The Steeles, a vocal group consisting of five siblings, J.D., Fred, Jearlyn, Jevetta, and Billy Steele. They not only sang background vocals on “Melody Cool,” but also “Still Would Stand All Time” and “Thieves In The Temple.” As with many of the tracks on Graffiti Bridge, several versions of “Melody Cool” exist, including a variation with a little more guitar and horns in the mix released on Mavis Staples’ second album, The Voice (1993), also on Prince’s Paisley Park Records. The original track with Prince on vocals (“they call her Melody Cool”) is further evidence that a second volume of Prince’s Originals (2019) is merited.
AUDIO: Mavis Staples “Melody Cool” from The Voice, Paisley Park Records 1993
With The Time’s Pandemonium released a month earlier, four additional songs by the group on Graffiti Bridge would normally be cause to celebrate. However, these songs originated from the abandoned 1989 album project, Corporate World, and did not possess The Time’s signature funk except for “The Latest Fashion,” which oddly reused the music from “SummerTime Thang” from Pandemonium. “Jerk Out” should have been The Time’s standout performance in the film instead of “Shake!,” as it became The Time’s biggest selling single.
- The Time, “Shake!” CD Maxi Single, Warner Bros. / Paisley Park Records 1990
Instead of overdosing the soundtrack with music by The Time, bonafide living legends, Mavis Staples and George Clinton, should have had at least two songs apiece. I would have welcomed the unreleased, Prince-produced tracks, “God is Alive,” sung by Mavis Staples, and “Soul Psychodelicide” featuring George Clinton. “God is Alive” was included on an alternate configuration of Graffiti Bridge, and “Soul Psychodelicide” briefly replaced “We Can Funk” on another.
As Morris Day’s “financial backer?” and girlfriend, Robin Power’s self-titled character had more screen time than Mavis Staples and George Clinton. Her dynamic and commanding performance of “Number 1” in the film is a glaring omission from the soundtrack. “New Power Generation II” could have been swapped with “Number 1” and placed on its namesake’s 12-inch single. Recorded too late to be a part of the film, “My Tree” and “A Positive Place” were stellar candidates for the “New Power Generation” maxi-single. Both unreleased songs feature Robin Power rapping and technically use the same music. Considered for the “New Power Generation” maxi-single, “A Positive Place” is a slowed-down version of “My Tree.”
Robin Power was poised to become the first female rap act, alongside The Uptown Dames, signed to Paisley Park Records. This alternate path could have created a different more positive, female rap narrative for Prince’s record label. Instead, Tara Patrick, who Prince rechristened Carmen Electra after Robin introduced her to him, was granted this distinction. Robin Power deserved more, a place on the Graffiti Bridge album or singles with the same reverence afforded her in the film, as well as her own album project.
The formerly-blonde waitress from Purple Rain and the Kid’s girlfriend in Graffiti Bridge, Jill Jones was another female powerhouse who should have contributed to the soundtrack. In her sole musical performance in the film, Jill lip-syncs to Elisa Fiorello on “Love Machine” despite being an incredible vocalist in her own right. Prince wasted an opportunity to showcase the vocal prowess of the incomparable Jill Jones. She should have sung the song since she recorded a version of it, but Prince chose not to use her take. Besides, “Love Machine” pales in comparison to any song on Jill Jones’ self-titled debut released on Paisley Park Records in 1987, anyway. Prince should have crafted another song worthy of Jill’s voice and captivating spirit.
Starting my Prince collection at the age of 12 with 1999, I had grown to expect many incredible unreleased tracks on the b-sides of his singles and 12-inch vinyl releases. With Graffiti Bridge, I was sorely disappointed to receive mostly remixes, many by Junior Vasquez. The “New Power Generation” 12-inch single / CD maxi-single was a tease, featuring six unique titles upon cursory glance that appeared to be coveted b-sides. Alas, they were all loose variations of the title track. Prince had a lot of newly recorded material he could have used instead as b-sides. To name a few, “Grand Progression,” “Heaven Is Keeping Score,” “Oobey Doop” with Elisa Fiorello, and “Seven Corners” recorded with Ingrid Chavez, alongside the aforementioned unreleased tunes. There is more than enough material to warrant a Graffiti Bridge Deluxe box set.
At a little over eight minutes, “Thieves in the Temple (Remix),” is a misnomer. Instead, the “remix” is an outstanding, extended version. You haven’t lived until you hear Prince’s gospel wail, “You’ve Done Me Wrong!” in this definitive version. Prince knew when a track was super funky, as “Put your foot on the rock” not only appeared in this extended version, but also in “Anotherloverholenyohead (Extended Version)” from 1986’s Parade and the unreleased “Soul Psychodelicide.” A veiled Robin Power appears in the video.
VIDEO: Prince “Thieves in the Temple (Remix)”
The album reached #6 on both the Billboard Top Pop Albums and Top Black albums, lasting longer on the former than the latter. Released in August 1990, the soundtrack was certified Gold (500,000 copies sold) in the US on 1 November 1990 in less than three months. However, it peaked at #1 in the UK, but charted for a third of the time. In contrast, the Batman soundtrack reached #1 on Billboard’s Top Pop Albums for six weeks and #5 on Billboard’s Top Black Albums. Batman also reached #1 in the UK and charted for two-thirds of the time. Double platinum (2,000,000 copies) in less than two months, Batman re-entered the Billboard 200 in 2016 after Prince passed, while Graffiti Bridge did not. Even though critics bashed the Batman soundtrack and praised Graffiti Bridge, Batman sold and charted better than Graffiti Bridge. However, charts and sales aren’t everything.
Graffiti Bridge isn’t at the top of many Prince lists, but that does not mean the album is no less relevant in Prince’s oeuvre. Infused with themes he explored his entire career–spirituality, sexuality, and love, both the film and the album were important to Prince. He was proud of Graffiti Bridge, as he confessed that “(It was) one of the purest, most spiritual, uplifting things I’ve ever done.” Despite its flaws, Graffiti Bridge stands all time.
The Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson is not affiliated, associated or connected with the ‘Prince #DM40GB30 Symposium,’ nor has it endorsed or sponsored the ‘Prince #DM40GB30 Symposium.’ Further, the Estate of Prince Rogers Nelson has not licensed any of its intellectual property to the producers, advertisers or directors of ‘Prince #DM40GB30 Symposium.’