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Alphabet St.: How One Song Reset Prince’s Career Path
In Depth

Alphabet St.: How One Song Reset Prince’s Career Path

With the hit song Alphabet St., Prince apologised for ‘The Black Album’ and introduced his ‘Lovesexy’ era in playfully funky style.

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Released as the lead single from his Lovesexy album, Alphabet St. was Prince’s positive-minded corrective to The Black Album, a record that Prince had shelved just months earlier, but which had been gaining in notoriety ever since it appeared on the bootleg market. The song’s promo video featured a hidden apology and its lyrics teased an explanation of the cryptic “lovesexy” concept, as Prince encouraged listeners to follow him to a place where his spiritual and sexual sides could coexist in harmony. Here’s the story of how Alphabet St. led Prince to “a better day”.

Listen to the best of Prince here.

The backstory: “I was very angry a lot of the time back then”

After wrapping up his Sign O’ The Times obligations in the summer of 1987, Prince made quick work of putting together a follow-up album. Initially titled “The Funk Bible”, but later pressed up as The Black Album, it was, Prince’s former studio engineer Susan Rogers told this author, for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, compiled of songs originally recorded for a birthday bash Prince threw for his then drummer, Sheila E.

“It was never intended to be an album,” Rogers revealed. “We just wanted stuff to dance to at the party.” However, realising that the straight-up funk of songs such as Le Grind and Rockhard In A Funky Place could be used as riposte to critics who’d puzzled over the increasing complexity of his music as it developed across the Around The World In A Day, Parade and Sign O’ The Times albums, Prince had what Rogers called an “I’ll-show-them moment” and readied The Black Album for official release – only to cancel it at the last minute.

“I was very angry a lot of the time back then,” Prince would later tell Rolling Stone magazine, explaining his decision. “I suddenly realised that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we’d left behind.” Susan Rogers confirmed that Prince felt “remorse” about The Black Album: he wanted his music to be “proactive”, not “reactive”, she said, so “he yanked it off the loading dock”. Within months, he’d finished a whole new record and readied its first single, Alphabet St., for release.

The recording: An ever-expanding sonic palette

Like the chart-topping hit Kiss before it, Alphabet St. started life as an acoustic blues song, Prince asking his recording engineer to turn the lights down in the studio, setting the mood for him to strum out the basic rhythm and melody beneath a raw yet slinky vocal. Finding his way through the almost-there lyrics, he hummed guitar lines, blew a kiss and sang upbeat “Aaah”s where the later, Beatles-indebted “Yeah, yeah, yeah”s would sit in the chorus.

On 30 December 1987, in his own Paisley Park Studios, Prince looked forward to the new year and a new creative era when he recorded the version of Alphabet St. that would be placed as track two on the Lovesexy album: five minutes and 38 seconds of clipped guitar riffs and stop-start percussion underpinning an ever-expanding sonic palette of multi-tracked vocals, saxophone and trumpet runs, and car sound effects, across which Prince’s vocal now ranged confidently from matter-of-fact declarations (“I’m gonna talk so sexy/She’ll want me from my head to my feet”) to playful asides and joyful anticipation of what lay ahead. By the time he calls backing dancer Cat Glover forward to deliver a rap, the anger of the previous months is all but forgotten; having sneered at hip-hop on The Black Album track Dead On It, he’s now welcoming it into his latest sound.

The meaning: Alphabet St.’s lyrics shift in meaning depending on the listener

As with many of the best Prince songs, Alphabet St.’s lyrics seem to shift in meaning depending on the listener and how they’re listening. Prosaically, “Alphabet St.” was a colloquial reference to a part of Prince’s Minneapolis hometown where the east-west roads cut through streets arranged in alphabetical order – among them Aldrich, Bryant and Colfax Avenues. To many, however, Prince’s opening declaration – “I’m going down to Alphabet St.” – and a later, moist-lipped recital of the alphabet by Ingrid Chavez (new to the Prince fold, Chavez received credit as “The Spirit Child” in Lovesexy’s liner notes) are a clear indication that Prince was once again slipping coded references to sex into radio-ready pop songs (check out Little Red Corvette for more of that). Why did Chavez miss out the “G”? See if you can spot it for yourself…

And yet Cat Glover’s turn on the mic does as much to confirm this as it does refute it. “Straight up, it tastes good/It makes you feel clever,” she asserts, before channelling lyrical imagery which would later resurface during Prince’s Diamonds And Pearls era: “Then you jerk your body like a horny pony would.” Certainly, Prince cultivated his reputation as a stallion, boasting even in Alphabet St. of driving his “daddy’s Thunderbird/A white rad ride, ’66/So glam, it’s absurd” (a downsized replica of the car would take him to the stage nightly on the Lovesexy Tour). But Glover’s rap also hints at the spiritual concept behind the song’s parent album: “lovesexy”, she says, “Was the glam of them all/You can hang, you can trip on it/You surely won’t fall.”

Speaking to Minneapolis music historian Andrea Swensson, Ingrid Chavez, whose presence on Lovesexy earned her an album credit as “The Spirit Child”, addressed rumours about her alphabet recital – namely that she missed out the “G” as a deliberate reference to God (or, as some have suggested, the female G-spot). “He would sometimes just ask me to talk or just say stuff,” she explained. “One time, for lack of anything more interesting to say, I just started reciting the alphabet, and next thing you know, there’s Alphabet St… And as people may have noticed, there’s no ‘G’ in there, but that was not intentional. He was just playing around with me, and I got distracted. (“She was being kissed at the time, and got flustered, [eye] suppose,” was how Prince explained it in a fan Q&A on his Love4oneanother.com website.)

Though Prince never directly defined the “lovesexy” concept, Alphabet St. goes as far as any other song towards clarifying his thoughts. “We’re going down, down, down/If that’s the only way,” he sings, supported by a chorus of backing vocals, “To make this cruel, cruel world/Hear what we’ve got to say/Put the right letters together/And make a better day.” On an album which found Prince at peace with the relationship between his sexual desires and his spiritual beliefs, both readings of the song – paean to oral sex; celebration of enlightenment – can coexist, and perhaps even, as the lyrics seem to suggest, outright merge with each other.

The video: “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry”

The wordplay spilled over into Alphabet St.’s video. Initially choosing not to record promo clips for an album he hoped listeners would experience as “a mind trip, like a psychedelic movie” (an Alphabet St. remix would, fittingly, be subtitled This Is Not Music, This Is A Trip), Prince had a change of heart on a snowy Sunday in late March 1988, just a few weeks ahead of Alphabet St.’s release as a single. Assembling a local cable-TV crew for a shoot at Paisley Park, he danced and mimed singing and playing the song in front of a green screen. In post-production, Prince scattered an alphabet soup’s worth of letters throughout the clip, at one point making it look as though he’d crashed his Thunderbird into an assortment sent bouncing off the car’s windshield.

Amid the shuffling Ks and spinning Xs, Prince also included a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them messages for eagle-eyed fans: “Dance 4 the light” and “Heaven is so beautiful” were proclamations in keeping with the Lovesexy vibe, while “H is 4 punks” continued the anti-drug messaging of earlier songs such as Purple Music and Sign O’ The Times. Most notoriously (and surreptitiously), Prince warned fans away from the songs he’d regretted recording, flashing “Don’t buy The Black Album. I’m sorry” on screen after Alphabet St.’s first verse; as if to drive the point home, a “Yeah, yeah, yeah” followed soon after, in time with the chorus.

The release: Proof that he could score hits without worrying about critics

Edited down to 2.25, Alphabet St. was issued as a UK single on 15 April 1988 (it followed on 23 April in the US), with the remainder of the song as its B-side (in the UK and Japan, it marked the release of Prince’s first ever CD single; worldwide, the 7” vinyl came in a stickered clear sleeve). Going to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.3 on the Hot Black Singles chart, Alphabet St. also went Top 10 in the UK, with Top 5 placements – including No.1 in Norway – around Europe.

A fan favourite from the off, Alphabet St. would inspire revisits from very different quarters. In 1990, lifelong Prince devotees Ween recorded their own take on Cat Glover’s Alphabet St. rap as part of the song L.M.L.Y.P., a warped nine-minute Prince tribute which also included sections of the Prince B-side Shockadelica, plus Ween’s own explicit interpretation of Alphabet St.’s lyrics.

Two years later, hip-hop group Arrested Development sampled Prince singing “Tennessee” – the place he, his girl and his Thunderbird were headed – for their Golden Age classic of the same name. Riding the song to the top of the Hot R&B singles chart, the Atlanta, Georgia, rappers inevitably caught Prince’s attention. But, having once looked askance at hip-hop, Prince let the group enjoy the moment, waiting until the song fell out of the charts before asking them for $100,000 as a clearance fee. “Now that I’ve been in the industry long enough, I realised that he really gave me a break,” Arrested Development mainman Speech told Atlanta magazine years later. “He could’ve demanded that the record be taken off the shelf, requested the sample be taken out of the record, demanded publishing and writing credits on the record. He didn’t do that. Instead, he wanted a flat fee.”

As ever, Prince was setting the terms. The “I’ll-show-them moment” that had spurred him to compile The Black Album had given way to proof that he could score hits without worrying about what critics thought. However he would be judged, his attitude was, he told Rolling Stone: “Either you went with it and had a mind-blowing experience, or you didn’t.”

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