It’s the quirkiest and most delightful recording in a catalog where quirky delights abound. The story of Prince and the Revolution’s “Kiss,” from 1986, has been told many times — its genesis as a demo for the band Mazarati, protégés of Revolution bassist BrownMark; of he and that band turned into a skeletal groove unlike any other; of Prince taking it back for his own and going to number one with it. (You can read BrownMark’s full account, as told last year to The Current.)
The “Kiss” groove was so unique that Prince never tried to replicate it in concert, changing the arrangement frequently, and since its release, it has proven to withstand all sorts of monkeying. It’s become a frequent cover version, by everyone from Richard Thompson (1000 Years of Popular Music, 2003 — alongside material from a 13th-century monk and a 19th-century English music-hall song, he makes it all fit) to Howard Tate (Rediscovered, 2003 — as a classic Southern soul groove) to the Happy Feet soundtrack (2006 — sung by Nicole Kidman). Secondhand Songs counts over a hundred covers of “Kiss” — go nuts.
In fact, that’s what “Kiss” allowed people to do, right from the start, and two of the earliest covers tell another story altogether — a very UK-centric one. Prince’s utter dominance of the American charts only really lasted from 1983 to 1985 — from “Little Red Corvette” muscling into the Top 10 to Around the World in a Day’s number-one debut. But it was 1986 when Prince made the British press take serious notice: the spring-issued Parade became his most critically garlanded album in the UK, an impression permanently stamped that summer by a series of London dates that left one correspondent, from Melody Maker, in literal tears.
That spring, while “Kiss” was on the charts, another group of fans decided to mess with the arrangement in a very different sort of way. In 1986, the Leeds band Age of Chance were connected to a very different sort of scene at first, by dint of having a song on a compilation cassette given away with a copy of NME. The tape’s title, C86, would retrospectively become the code name for an indie-pop scene of what Simon Reynolds called “cutie” bands—the kinds that recorded for labels like Sarah Records, and which shared defiantly retro-minded aesthetic and un-macho approach. (Prince’s most C86 song, by a mile, is “Starfish and Coffee.”)
Age of Chance decided to cover “Kiss” while doing recording a session for the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, an ardent champion of C86 and other British indie. A Peel Session was a single studio visit, mostly live with minimal overdubbing, expected to yield four or so songs. Age of Chance had thought about doing “1999,” but heard Big Audio Dynamite were covering it in concert.
It was about the only way Prince was going to sneak onto the Peel show. The DJ had impossibly catholic tastes, but by the late ’70s and beyond, American soul and mainstream rock were not part of them. In 1985, on a TV show, he’d called “Let’s Go Crazy” “completely devoid of character,” though he would include “Sign ‘O’ the Times” on a protest-music special in 1987, the same year the song made the show’s annual, listener-chosen Festive 50.
Age of Chance’s “Kiss” was modeled, not on Prince’s lithe groove, but the monster beats of L.L. Cool J. Instantly, Age of Chance got signed to FON, a Sheffield label that the later Warp Records initially modeled itself after. “Kiss” topped the UK independent chart and got into the national top forty. It spurred a bidding war — eleven labels wanted them.
They went with Virgin, and for their first record there, Age of Chance did a remixed version of “Kiss” that incorporated Run-D.M.C., Springsteen, and the MC5, among others — a rock version of the “Lesson Mixes” by Double Dee and Steinski, unable to be put out commercially. One Virgin exec, Jeff Ayeroff, had previously worked with Prince at Warner Bros. “He told us that Prince had heard our rendition and approved,” said AoC bssist Geoff Taylor.
The lawyers were another story. “Kisspower,” a remix, was festooned with samples of Bruce Springsteen and the MC5, and thus limited to 500 white-label promo 12-inches, not for sale. “I recall the top brass at Virgin citing our use of MC5/Springsteen samples, saying, ‘The MC5 would sue you because they’re broke, and Springsteen would sue because he’s rich,’” Taylor said.
Samples had been the making of the other notable late-eighties British cover of “Kiss.” The Art of Noise’s central figure was keyboardist and arranger Anne Dudley. A star student at the Royal College of Music (after the Art of Noise dissolved, she became a film scorer, winning an Oscar for The Full Monty), Dudley became a session keyboardist. Her ideas about pop, and her knowledge of orchestration, made her a key musical collaborator with Trevor Horn, the producer who revolutionized pop production in the early eighties. In fact, Horn was a Prince-like studio autocrat — he famously remade the entire track of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” entirely by himself: the version that went to number one.
Horn founded the label ZTT, and the Art of Noise was its digital Booker T. & the MG’s: Horn, Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan. The name had come from an Italian futurist manifesto. Their first album, Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise?, in 1984, yielded the dance hits “Close (To the Edit)” and “Moments in Love.” “We had no idea that what we were doing would be remotely commercially successful,” Dudley later said. “I think we thought it was in the vein of the avant-garde classical composers, like John Cage and Stockhausen. But then the boys would keep putting these hip-hop beats on it.”
Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan went their own way after that, signing to the Chrysalis-affiliated label China. After two albums there, it was time for a best-of, with a new single exclusive to the album. The Art of Noise had already collaborated with Duane Eddy; now they reached out to Tom Jones.
The Welsh crooner had spent the eighties courting the country market, but when his manager Gordon Mills died in 1986, his son, Mark Woodward, began managing him. In 1987, Jones issued a concept album, Matador, which would become a stage musical four years later, yielding a British hit with “A Boy from Nowhere.” When the Art of Noise called for help with their 1988 “Kiss,” it completed his career turnaround. “I’m always listening to new things,” Jones told The Face. “I watch [the BBC chart show] Top of the Pops, and I do that because I like it, not because I feel I have to. I want to do new things; I don’t want to just repeat myself.”
According to Dudley, “On our instrumentals we put drums up front throughout and everything else changes around them. So we decided Tom’s vocal would be the drums, in effect. Verse one does have the big drum sound you’d expect from us alongside the vocal, but on verse two it becomes tiny, goes down into mono, like a little rhythm box. Although Tom’s still out front, suddenly the track’s opened right up, there’s all the room you want to stick in things like the piano and brass stabs. For the middle section, the drums come back big again, huge sound. Then verse three has a Latin-American rhythm, cha-cha. The whole thing is really cheeky, but the continuity is there in Tom’s vocal — we’re completely faithful to it.”
Join The Current Aug. 13-15 for Cover to Cover Weekend, with multiple cover songs every hour on our airwave. Tune in to Teenage Kicks on Saturday morning, and you might just catch a “Kiss” — or two.