‘Come 2 the park and play with us!’: Prince, acid communism, and sociality

EDITION: Bad New Times.

In expressing joy in the social, creating lived utopias beyond the family, and destabilising normality, Prince is a key example and practitioner of acid communism.

A sunny, early spring day back in March: the early days of the Corona crisis. A friend and I head out for a walk in Finsbury Park. But we hadn’t anticipated quite how many other people would have had the same idea and would be thronging the park, making it clear, in those early days of social distancing, that close contact with people was unavoidable through sheer weight of numbers. Feeling increasingly panicky, I turned tail and fled home alone. It was a curious experience: something that would usually make me feel happy – spring; sunshine; urban green space; people coming together – now making me feel sad.

The experience brought two Prince songs to mind. The first, suitably elegiac and nostalgic, was “Sometimes it Snows in April”. Although “springtime was always my favorite time of year”, it becomes blighted by death and mourning. Sound familiar? But one reason the song is haunting rather than heartbreaking is that spring doesn’t lose its sweetness, “a time for lovers holding hands in the rain” etc - in this vanishingly rare platonic love song by a man to a man. It was the same in the park. I still felt a surge of pleasure at the sunshine and greenery – and at the very sociality that was being blighted. Because the danger was always that lockdown and social distancing would enforce the social atomization integral to neoliberal hegemony (“there’s no such thing as society”), whilst reaffirming neocon family values (“just individual men and women and their families”). As we found, by manufactured fear and neoliberal-bred distrust of the ‘other’, authoritarian ‘solutions’ did become normalised: tightened borders and immigration; heavy-handed policing; parks being closed down. Indeed, throughout the crisis, parks have remained central to the discourse – people are gathering! people are socialising! people are demonstrating! Parks are the playgrounds of the people; public – common – spaces; the only ‘outside’ for those already on the outside of neoliberalism. Where else were people going to gather under lockdown? Of course, there is complexity here, because it is mainly the left who have continued to champion lockdown – as a defence of the collective – whilst the libertarian right oppose it. Yet socialists have unavoidably also celebrated the fact that parks are again gathering points not just for sociality, but for resistance, for revolt. The BLM protestors assembling in Hyde Park are thus in a countercultural lineage that includes the Chartists, the Reform League, the suffragettes, CND and Stop the War. As Raymond Williams points out, this right to protest in a ‘royal park’ was itself a site of struggle: locked out by the police in July 1866, the Reform League removed the park’s railings and occupied it. To thwart plans for a second meeting, the government attempted to make such gatherings illegal. So much for “The ‘sacred and immemorial’ right of meeting and speaking in Hyde Park – the thing tourists are now taken to see.”1 Notable too is how for guardians of ‘civilisation’ like Matthew Arnold - and Boris Johnson – such popular gatherings become a “mass”, a “mob”, “anarchy”. “While people like that dominate and multiply, it will always be necessary to go again to Hyde Park” concludes Williams.2

With Minneapolis birthing both this BLM wave and Prince himself, there’s a Prince song for this too. From the same purple period, 1985’s “Paisley Park” kept ringing through my head as I watched the people in the park that spring day, and then again as I viewed footage of BLM protestors s in Hyde Park months later. “Paisley Park” is a song that ebulliently expresses joy in the social (“come 2 the park and play with us”), via an explicit evocation of the counterculture. So, in this piece I want to celebrate Prince as an example of what Mark Fisher called “acid communism’.3 As Jeremy Gilbert glosses it, acid communism is “a political sensibility shared by both the psychedelic experimentalists of the counterculture and by the political radicals of the 60s and 70s,” anchored in what Gilbert calls “infinite relationality”. What is felicitous about adding ‘acid’ to ‘communism’ is that it restores joy to socialism after both the reality of Eastern Bloc life and the propaganda of Cold-War liberalism. ‘Acid Communism’ also effectively reclaims ‘freedom’ from both Cold War-liberal and neoliberal abuse – freedom as collective rather than individual. If it needs to be said: Prince’s actual political beliefs don’t matter: music is public, not private, artists don’t own their art’s meaning or what people do with it.

So let’s track back to the mid 80s – not for some gruesome ‘I ❤ the 80s’ nostalgia trip, but for context, and because parallels between then and now are instructive - not least that we are, under covid, back in 1980s-style simultaneous, shared public time. So: Thatcher and Reagan have just been reelected with landslides in 83 and 84 respectively; neoliberalism has become hegemonic, the left crushingly defeated, and a trickle-down hippyphobia has become pervasive (see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for its contemporary longevity). ‘Hippy’ has become a schoolyard insult (see The Young Ones’ Neil ); ‘commune’ a byword for absurdity; the counterculture’s prosocial utopianism is ridiculed and discredited. Yet Thatcher and Reagan’s social conservatism funneled through shiny neoliberal ‘individualism’ produces a remarkable sonic and affective conformity, not least within pop culture – all bounded horizons and managed expectations.

Having largely created 80s’ pop’s combination of the processed, cold and machinic with the organic, warm and soulful (see: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Hall & Oates), Prince’s swerve into psychedelia after the pop success of Purple Rain (1984) was literally counter-cultural; anti-zeitgeist. In fact, Prince’s psychedelic turn began on Purple Rain, with “Take Me With U’”, with the new psyche elements enhancing Prince’s sound’s inherent eccentricities. For psychedelia is definitionally weird; not “making strange” in Victor Shklovsky’s sense, defamiliarisation to draw attention to the normalised, but rather to destabilise normality itself. The intro drums seem to collapse into the song; the strings shift from “1999”-style riff to flourishes seemingly from a different song, even a different key; while (micro)dotted throughout, tinkling finger cymbals and Prince’s first use of acoustic guitar exoticise the 80s’ digital norm. As I’ve defined elsewhere, this refocuses Mark Fisher’s “hauntology” in – paradoxically – material ways: such haunting of the 80s by the 60s is not a matter of escape. These psychedelic trappings express countercultural sensibilities that destabilise consensus norms, thereby questioning the ideological ‘real’ within capitalist realism. With Purple Rain also the first proper showcase for Prince’s band, The Revolution, this was “acid communism” in action: a lived utopian sociality beyond even that of Sly and the Family Stone; dropping that biological ‘family’ as it was being reasserted under Reagan (as bourgeois, and white) for a: black-white-male-female-straight-queer collective. This was radical then, and it is still radical nearly 40 years later, as again, the BLM protests demonstrate. It is Marcuse’s “spectre of a world that could be free”4, the phrase Fisher keeps returning to in Acid Communism, which notably restores fear to ‘hauntology’ – ghosts are scary! – the flipside to the concept’s potential cosiness. A phobia is a fear, as in ‘hippyphobia’, and to the right, the social is always frightening, as we’re seeing in the current demonisation of the public, of the crowd under covid, and the reaffirmation of the family unit. And as we are seeing by Boris Johnson’s monstering of the BLM demonstrators; and by Keir Starmer’s forensically fearful distancing from direct action.

This was acid communism: a lived utopian sociality beyond even that of Sly & the Family Stone; dropping that biological ‘family’ as it was being reasserted under Reagan for a black-white-male-female-straight-queer collective.

It wasn’t until Around the World in a Day (1985) that ‘psychedelic’ and ‘Prince’ became commonly linked. This wasn’t just audible – in the finger cymbals, darbukas and ouds that wafted from the album’s opening title track – it was visible, from Sgt Pepper cover (Dr Fink’s facemask lending a contemporary frisson), Prince’s Sgt Pepper jacket, to the font-tastic, multicoloured lyric sheet. In its very gossamer insubstantiality, that opener still sounds fresh and establishes the album’s inclusive, social, joyful mood: “laughter is all u pay” (a rare 80s anti-materialist note). “Around the World in a Day” is a secular “People Get Ready” via the druggy, de-individualised utopianism of “Tomorrow Never Knows” – (“open your heart/open your mind”), while the funk guitar breakout at 2:42 is a reminder that psychedelia isn’t white-face: black psychedelia runs from Love, Hendrix, the Family Stone, through early Funkadelic, Mayfield’s Curtis (1970), the Temptations, to the hauntological sitars spangling Philadelphia soul.

Prince’s music was always upbeat – with a giddiness in contrast to the clenched-teeth ‘joy’ of a Madonna or Michael Jackson. But on Around the World the joyfulness has a new, distinctly 60s quality. At the 2020 Mark Fisher memorial lecture at Goldsmith’s, Simon Reynolds reminded us that all 60s music is joyful (though he didn’t mention the economic underpinning to that optimism). Not just Summer of Love psychedelia – “Penny Lane”; “White Rabbit” - but the pre-countercultural drum-roll of beating, swinging, effervescent pop, which chafed at suburban conformity from within its stays and suits but whose utopian yearnings stopped at the bad boy with the motorbike, the weekend, the in-crowd. The 80s’ 60s revivalists – The Smiths, REM, Jesus and Mary Chain, Prince’s Paisley Underground protégées, The Bangles – all essayed a girl group/Spector jingle or folk-rock jangle that predated the counterculture while pointing to it: ‘Byrds-ian’ refers exclusively to the chiming, jangling McGuinn of “Mr Tambourine Man” not the Coltrane-inspired acid arabesque-ing McGuinn of “Eight Miles High”. To complicate matters, Hendrix is a pivot: peak psychedelic pop and the pointer to the more grounded, normalised – and more “realist” – “rock” that ensued.

Prince on Around the World, however, is channeling the weird, wigged-out, but still pop 60s. Nowhere better expressed than on “Paisley Park”, complete with an achingly nostalgic Sesame Street-style video, chockfull of kids, capes, kaftans, McGuinn shades and, naturally, paisley. Musically, “Paisley Park” channels psychedelia via its tinkling middle-Eastern finger cymbals and its woozily feedbacking guitars, splitting the difference between Hendrix and Syd Barrett, with airy strings gradually balancing the giddy, see-sawing mix. But the song also sounds entirely 1985, with its processed drums and wonkily detuned digital synth throb, and this past-present tension is crucial to the song’s haunt. With “paisley” explicitly evoking the counterculture, the lyrics hymn a utopian space “of profound inner peace” where “love is the color this place imparts” – “love” used in the countercultural, agape, public, not private sense (“All You Need is Love” ).

‘Public’ love under neoliberalism is more likely to suggest dogging than communal singalongs. That “there aren’t any rules” in the park might suggest mere libertarianism but for the emphasis on two things: firstly, the element of sadness to which the park be-in is offered as a panacea: a woman mourning the husband who betrayed her; a man whose home has been condemned under the era’s destructive “regeneration”. This is humanist in its acknowledgement of individual loss – but private pain is salved through public means. For all the song’s eyes-of-a-child winsomeness, rather than indulging in escapism into an idealised past, it addresses dystopian contemporary reality (echoing the music’s past-present tension). Secondly, parks are integrally social, playing a key role in countercultural collectivity: the love-in and anti-Vietnam protests at LA’s Elysian Park, the 1967 Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park, playground of San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury hippie scene; the derelict Berkeley land taken over and developed by students into People’s Park, which governor Ronald Reagan evicted by military force in 1969 in an assertion of private property rights. And back to those pictures of London Fields and BLM protestors in Hyde Park again. Although the lyric admits Paisley Park is literally a utopia – a no-place (“nowhere”), an aspiration (“Paisley Park is in your heart”) – it is given material reality by being listed as one the album’s recording locations. While the completed Paisley Park was private – Prince’s studio; Prince’s home (where he would live and die) – it was also public; a performance space: now a museum. This highlights the complexity of the ‘people’s park’ – it is parks’ usage that is popular, not their ownership, (mostly a mish-mash of municipal, private and as with Hyde Park, Royal). Finally, though, parks are green spaces – essential to celebrate and conserve in any socialist project: acid communism was and remains both red and green.

“Paisley Park” was the European hit; “Raspberry Beret” the American (no. 2), another slice of psychedelicised 80s pop: string-swept; finger cymbal-strewn, and suffused with nostalgic yearning at a time when mainstream pop emphasised the neoliberal ‘now’, the futility of looking back. The story is as vaporous as patchouli but occupies the mythic register via the distance between tale and telling: the be-hatted girl is physical, objectified (“if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more”) but also symbolic, mythical – yet going beyond the Freudian “madonna-whore” matrix of male characterisation of women. Crucially Prince never ‘possesses’ her: primary-coloured (the beret), this hippie chick is free of love, yes, but also free of spirit (“she came in through the out door”) – she is surely the counterculture itself. Together she and our dropout lover (“busy doing something close to nothing”) Easy Ride on his motorbike back to the garden (“down by old man Johnson’s farm”) – beautifully psychedelicised in the video – before the elemental climax combines the carnal and the mythic. The song is utopian then: years later, the narrator is still haunted, not just by her but by what she represents: lost youth; the lost, traduced counterculture that tried to make the optimism and freedom of youth perennial.

Even the more ambiguous tracks on Around the World still counter the dominant culture: “Pop Life”’s confectionary lightness sugars a snarky depiction of pampered pop aristos snorting coke and whining about minor inconveniences amidst widespread poverty. The seemingly patriotic “America” is actually readable as acid communism. “Communism is just a word/But if the government turn over/It’ll be the only word that’s heard” sounds like urging the defence of liberal democracy against Soviet communism, but in lyrical context – the growing gap between rich and poor; disenfranchisement of African-Americans (how little has changed) – could equally suggest revolution. “America” is also a vanishingly rare account, in mid-80s pop, of neoliberalism’s ruinous effects: “little sister making minimum wage”, whilst the Wall Street “Aristocrats on a mountain climb/Making money.” With Jimmy refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag in classic countercultural protest, the line “Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud” invokes ghetto narcosis as America’s internal Cold War against its own population. With the refrain, “freedom/love/joy/peace” being a hippy mantra, and the music psychedelic Hendrix, the acid communism outweighs the fretting liberalism here.

For the rest of his purple period, psychedelia simply becomes part of Prince’s kaleidoscopic toolbox. Parade (1986) starts where Around the World left off, with the Sgt Pepper circus blast of “Christopher Tracy’s Parade”, all brass fanfares and candy-coloured imagery (“strawberry lemonade” – that child’s eye view again). The album’s title elides the accompanying movie indulgence (Under the Cherry Moon) with a parade being – crucially – public, social; celebratory. “New Position” contorts funk into such odd, psychedelic shapes that it elevates its staple perv-Prince lyric into an exhortation to shed ideology as well as inhibitions. “Life Can Be So Nice” meanwhile pivots between private and public utopia: again with the falling-downstairs drums; and again with the awkward shapes packed into tight spaces, the spirit if not the letter of psychedelia. Add that Prince’s female backing singers are almost never singing harmony, always the tune, lends almost every song of this era a singalong quality that is joyfully communal.

By Sign O The Times (1987), the era is catching up with Prince, the lyrics less joyful now, highlighting dystopian elements amidst the 80s’ shiny veneer. The peace sign in the album’s ‘O’ is haunting in both yearning and fearful senses in the era of Reagan’s star wars. Both effect and cause of this sapping joy is surely the album’s abandonment of The Revolution – what’s in a name, indeed, but few of us were retaining much political optimism by 87. The psyche elements that remain, tellingly, both feature remnants of The Revolution and provide the album’s more joyful moments. On “Play in the Sunshine”, Prince and Susannah Melvoin sing as one de-gendered being: “We want to play in the sunshine/We want to be free” and “We gonna love all our enemies”. With lysergic colour imagery and even a cameo appearance by a white rabbit, this is acid communist psyche-funk par excellence, with just a touch of cokey 80s agitation. Co-written with Melvoin, “Starfish and Coffee” is as fizzy and sweet as a sherbet bomb, a psychedelic eyes-of-a-child vision, but communal – a rare narrative “we”. Cynthia Rose in the song is weird – eating “butterscotch clouds” like Lucy in the Sky; graffiti-ing smileys rather than her name – but regarded with unconditioned awe. Notably families – parents - are entirely absent from the song. She’s Cynthia Rose is another hippie chick, : “If you set your mind free, baby/Maybe you’d understand”. The counterculture made the lost magic of childhood not a site of escapist nostalgia – or as Ian MacDonald suggests in his Blairite Beatles analysis, irresponsible immaturity5 (reserving particular ire for “All You Need is Love”) – but a means of restoring the magic to the reduced-expectation ‘realism’ of adulthood. Acid itself was only a means, sometimes just a metaphor, for this rejection of socialized norms, for the scales of ideology falling away. Finally the 80s catches up with Prince’s psychedelic yearnings, however. On “Strange Relationship”, the glittering sitars and the presence of Wendy and Lisa are as elegiac as they are uplifting, matching a lyric about a relationship that is asset-stripped by the narrator’s ego (“I didn’t like the way you were, so I had to make you mine”). It’s a metaphor for the band’s demise, but also works for the 80s’ subjugation of the collective to the individual. Prince’s purple period ends when he becomes a solo artist – confirmed by The Revolution-free Love Sexy (1987). Who knew that even genius wasn’t individual? That like the rest of us, Prince – the individualist par excellence – was at his best in a group, a collective? Far out.

Prince’s purple period ends when he becomes a solo artist. Who knew that even genius wasn’t individual?

Against the odds, and negative headlines about individual selfishness, collectivity has in fact, been reasserted amid the corona crisis. The BLM protests are the most dramatic expression of this. But even before that, all the post-election talk of community organising has finally become action via neighbourhood covid support groups, help at food banks and the NHS volunteer scheme. Through these collaborations with strangers, our neighbourhoods are becoming less a collection of locations – the shop, the pub, the station – than a collection of people. And as the BLM protests show, this prosocial culture is increasingly crossing racial lines – acid communism in action. The neoliberal suspicion of the ‘other’ – other races, yes, but any ‘other’ outside your intimates – is softening. Yes, there was a problem with the collapse of social distancing – but this was largely a response to deliberately muddled government messaging, while the post-demo self-isolation recommendations of participants in the BLM protests is going unreported. What we are witnessing then is a culture that is both “emergent” and “residual” in Raymond Williams’ senses6: emergent, because it is an embryonic pushback against the neoliberal grain; residual as it returns to the ethos of the counterculture: “the spectre of a world that could be free”. Despite the defeat of Corbynism, despite a crushing worldwide pandemic, we can imagine better, thus do better, be better. Within this, the cultural productions of the past should play an active, not a nostalgic role in left-wing thought and activism: for Enzo Traverso, “remembrance [is] a key element of […] utopian imagination”. Because even if they use fear of the BLM protests to impose controls on public gathering, even if they do close all the parks, “paisley park is in your heart”. The park, the counterculture, the acid communism represented by Prince and The Revolution – all these are carried within us collectively.

  1. Raymond Williams. [1970]. 2005, “A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy” in Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays. London: Verso. p. 5 

  2. Williams. “A Hundred Years of Culture and Anarchy”. p. 8 

  3. Mark Fisher [2016]. 2018. “Acid Communism: Unfinished Introdcution”. Edited by Darren Ambrose. K-Punk: The Collected Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher 2004-16. London: Repeater Books. p. 845 

  4. Herbert Marcuse. [1955]. 1987. Eros and Civilisation: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. London: Routledge. p. 93 

  5. Ian MacDonald. 1997. _Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. London: Pimlico Press. pp. 229-31. 

  6. Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 121-7 


Toby Manning (@TobyManning)

Toby Manning’s Mixing Pop and Politics: a Marxist History of Popular Music will be published by Repeater in 2022.