In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the first decade of his career, Prince released 10 albums. Most of those albums are essential. A couple of them are double LPs. The man kept up an insane pace, but he didn’t release all the great songs he wrote. By the early ’80s, Prince had already made a habit of gifting hit singles to other artists.
Sometimes, other artists covered Prince’s songs and turned them into hits. That’s what happened with “I Feel For You,” Chaka Khan’s 1984 take on a 1979 Prince track. (Khan’s version of “I Feel For You” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.) Other times, artists took Prince’s melodies and built new songs out of them. Stevie Nicks’ 1983 single “Stand Back” is essentially a rewrite of “Little Red Corvette,” the Prince single from that same year. Before she recorded “Stand Back,” Nicks called Prince to tell him that she’d used his song, and Prince came in to play keyboards on Nicks’ track. (“Stand Back” peaked at #5. It’s an 8. “Little Red Corvette,” meanwhile, peaked at #6. It’s a 10.) There were also plenty of cases, like Phil Collins’ “Sussidio,” where artists landed huge hits by outright biting Prince songs and not getting his blessing beforehand.
The stories I love the best are the ones about Prince just writing these glittering and immaculate pop songs and tossing them out to whoever he felt like helping out. By 1986, Prince had done that for plenty of people. In 1984, Prince wrote and co-produced Sheila E’s “The Glamorous Life,” which peaked at #7. (It’s a 9.) A year later, Prince wrote “Sugar Walls” for Sheena Easton, and that one peaked at #9. (It’s an 8.) One week in the spring of 1986, the top two songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were both tracks that Prince had written with other artists in mind. With one of those tracks, though, Prince heard what the other artist did with the track and decided that he wanted the song back. This was a wise decision, and it may have saved Prince’s hitmaking career.
It seems far-fetched that Prince’s mid-’80s run was ever in any kind of jeopardy, especially just two years after the global-conquest move of Purple Rain. But in 1986, many of Prince’s ambitions got the better of him. Prince had followed up Purple Rain with the psychedelic pop LP Around The World In A Day. That album went double platinum and sent two singles into the top 10 — including the classic “Raspberry Beret,” which peaked at #2. (It’s a 10.) But Around The World In A Day only managed a fraction of those Purple Rain sales, and then Prince went even further down that rabbit hole.
Prince’s next album, 1986’s Parade, was straight-up Sgt. Pepper-style baroque pop opulence. Parts of it, like the woozy ballad “Sometimes It Snows In April,” are brilliant. But other parts are lushly disjointed to the point of absurdity. For the most part, Parade marked a severe departure from the pop zeitgeist of the moment. While most of Prince’s peers were going for big drum-machine boom — doing variations on Prince’s Purple Rain sound — Prince was fucking around with fussy string arrangements and flugelhorns. On top of that, Parade was also the unofficial soundtrack to Prince’s second film, the black-and-white musical Under The Cherry Moon. Prince directed the movie himself, and it became an instant-punchline flop. (I’ve never seen Under The Cherry Moon, and now, watching the trailer, I feel like I should fix that.)
Ultimately, though, none of those moves wounded Prince because Prince was smart enough to drop “Kiss” right in the midst of all this. Originally, “Kiss” wasn’t supposed to be a Prince song. At the time, Brownmark, the bassist for Prince’s backing band the Revolution had a synth-funk side project called Mazarati, and they were signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label. (Mazarati’s highest-charting single was 1986’s “100 MPH,” which Prince wrote and co-produced. It peaked at #19.) Prince wrote “Kiss” with Mazarati in mind.
When Prince gave Mazarati the “Kiss” demo, it was a short and bluesy acoustic sketch of a song. At the time, Mazarati were working with producer David Z, a longtime Minneapolis music-scene fixture who’d played guitar on Lipps, Inc.’s “Funkytown” and whose brother was the Revolution’s drummer Bobby Z. David Z took Prince’s “Kiss” demo and rearranged it, using a LinnDrum drum machine to turn the song into a spacey, funky vamp. In other words, David Z made “Kiss,” a song that Prince had written, sound like a Prince song. Mazarati recorded that version of “Kiss,” but when Prince heard it, he decided to take it back for himself. David Z tells Sound On Sound that Prince literally told the band that “Kiss” was “too good for you guys.”
Prince wasn’t wrong. Mazarati’s version of “Kiss” is close to the finished version, but singer Tony Christian sounds weirdly bored on it, and not in a cool way. Prince took that version of the song and made a couple of key adjustments, singing it in a squeaky falsetto and adding the spider-funk guitar fill from James Brown’s “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” (“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” peaked at #8 in 1965. It’s a 10.) Prince credited David Z as the arranger for “Kiss,” and he left Mazarati’s backing vocals intact. But Prince didn’t give Mazarati co-writing credits for Kiss, which infuriated Brownmark. (David Z will eventually appear in this column as a producer.)
You wouldn’t think a song as simple as “Kiss” would have that complicated a backstory. It sounds like the kind of thing that Prince could do in his sleep. For most artists, this would be a complaint. For Prince, it’s anything but. “Kiss” stands out on Parade because it’s the one song where Prince doesn’t work to smother his funkiest instincts. Instead, it’s all negative space and swaggering fuck-squeak — one of the most fundamentally Prince songs that Prince ever made.
When Prince first wrote the “Kiss” lyrics, he might’ve meant them as reassurance: “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on/ I just need your body, baby, from dusk till dawn.” Over and over, Prince tells this potential lover that she doesn’t have to change anything about herself. She doesn’t have to be rich or cool or experienced. She doesn’t have to watch Dynasty. (Was there social pressure to watch Dynasty?) Prince would prefer it if this potential lover did not act younger than her age or attempt to talk dirty, since Prince can talk dirty enough for both of them. Mostly, though, he just wants her to be herself. That’s all he needs — her extra time and her kiss.
In its final form, though, there’s nothing reassuring about “Kiss.” Instead, it becomes a radically horny statement of intent. Prince sounds like he exists on the outer edges of the sexual imagination. He sings the whole thing in a near-inhuman falsetto, like Barry Gibb taking hits of helium. The beat is a spartan echo of a shimmy, a mechanized strut. His guitar needles and itches. The lyrics tell you that everything is going to be OK, that he just wants to hang out with you. The music tells you that everything is not OK. It tells you that you’re about to go on a journey.
Just as much as that syncopated yip-stomp, the “Kiss” video speaks of fuck-worlds that most of us can scarcely imagine. Fashion photographer Rebecca Blake directs, filming Prince sliding and mugging in rooms full of sunset colors. Prince somehow looks more scandalous in his giant leather jacket and tiny little half-shirt than he does when he’s straight-up shirtless. He does splits and spinkicks and twirls in towering heels. Dancer Monique Mannen and Revolution member Wendy Melvoin are both in the video, and both are plenty charismatic. But Prince carries himself like he exists on a whole other plane, like he’s the only man in existence. It’s some of the greatest peacocking ever put to film.
Decades of constant repetition have hurt “Kiss.” Sometimes, its minimalism can sound slight and brittle, and it doesn’t have the same heft or presence as Prince’s best Purple Rain songs. But as a workout, it’s extremely slick and beguiling. It’s the kind of song that must take unearthly confidence to pull off. At the time, some Warner executives thought “Kiss” was too weird to be a single, even though it might be the least weird song on Parade. But at the time, nobody was going to tell Prince no.
After “Kiss,” none of the other singles from Parade cracked the top 10. Parade would be the last album credited to Prince & The Revolution. Prince ditched most of his backing band after they finished touring behind Parade. Mazarati broke up a few years later without making any more hits. (Two members of Mazarati will eventually appear in this column, but only by voicing a rapping cartoon character.) Prince, meanwhile, went on to record Sign O’ The Times, the astonishing double album that turned all his Parade-era pretensions into something sprawling but cohesive. We’ll see Prince in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: On the advice of his son, the aging Welsh bellower Tom Jones started covering “Kiss” in his live shows in the late ’80s. The members of the Art Of Noise, the avant-garde synthpop group spearheaded by “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” producer Trevor Horn, saw Jones singing “Kiss” on a UK talk show, and they brought him in to record a smirky club-pop version of the song, which became a trans-Atlantic hit in 1988. Here’s the video for the Tom Jones/Art Of Noise version:
(The Tom Jones/Art Of Noise take on “Kiss” was a top-10 hit in the UK, Australia, and much of Europe. In the US, it peaked at #31, and it’s the Art Noise’s highest-charting single. Pity the group’s glassy 1985 masterpiece “Moments In Love,” which didn’t make the Hot 100. Tom Jones’ highest-charting single, 1971’s “She’s A Lady,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from 1990’s Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts sings along with “Kiss” in the bath:
(A song from the Pretty Woman soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the great live “Kiss” cover that Richard Thompson released in 2003:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2006, George Miller wanted to use “Kiss” in his animated movie Happy Feet. At first, Prince wouldn’t agree to let Miller use the song. But then Warner Bros. execs showed Prince a cut of Happy Feet, and Prince loved it. Prince let Miller use “Kiss,” and he also wrote a totally unsolicited new track called “The Song Of The Heart” for the end credits. I love that story. (Prince was right, too. Happy Feet is really good.) Here’s the movie’s opening scene, in which penguins voiced by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman sing “Kiss” to each other:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the surprisingly good bit from the 2010 Gulliver’s Travels movie where Jack Black helps tiny Jason Segel woo tiny Emily Blunt by feeding him the lyrics from “Kiss”:
THE NUMBER TWOS: Prince originally wrote “Manic Monday” for his proteges in the girl group Apollonia 6, but their version was never released. Two years later, Prince gave the song to the Bangles. At first, Prince, who also played keyboards on the Bangles’ single, was only credited under the name Christopher, his character from Under The Cherry Moon. The Bangles’ version of “Manic Monday” peaked at #2 behind “Kiss.” It’s a 9.