(Featured Image: Prince by Michael Ochs, 1985.)
It’s been a long five months since the release of 4Ever, the first posthumous compilation of Prince’s work, and “Moonbeam Levels,” the first “new” track to be officially released since his death last April. Many of us, I think, were expecting Paisley Park’s “Celebration,” a four-day event marking the first anniversary of his passing, to be the end of this drought. Certainly, with the long-promised Purple Rain reissue looming in the near future, the time felt ripe for some more concrete information, if not an actual release.
And, as it turned out, we did get new music that week–but not from Paisley Park, and not from the Purple Rain era. Instead, a former engineer named Ian Boxill surprise-released an EP of six previously unheard 2006 recordings–including the gorgeous, gospel-flavored “Deliverance”–implying that he had the blessing of Prince’s estate to do so. This turned out not to be true: within hours of the announcement, the estate had filed suit, and a United States District Court Judge had granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. Meanwhile, the Celebration came and went with no official mention of the Purple Rain set. Even after a fan group leaked what turned out to be an accurate track list, both Warner Bros. and NPG Records remained mum–until the following Friday, that is, when the announcement we’d been expecting finally came through, along with the second “official” posthumous track, “Electric Intercourse.”
I recount all of this, in part, to note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Prince may no longer be with us physically, but his spirit clearly lives on in the capricious, contested, and scattershot handling of his music. In a weird way, this is also the most relevant Prince has been to the contemporary recording industry in decades: a drama-filled album launch, botched in part by the vagaries of online music services, puts him in the rarefied (if, in this case, dubious) company of 21st century pop titans like Rihanna and Kanye West.
But all facetiousness aside, I also want to explain why I’m writing about “Electric Intercourse” right now, and not about “Deliverance.” It isn’t necessarily that I disapprove of the EP’s release: I’m glad Boxill leaked it, just as I’m glad that more anonymous sources have leaked the hundreds of other non-sanctioned songs I continue to enjoy. But I broke my chronology with “Moonbeam Levels” last fall because it was an official and easily accessible release; and, while “Deliverance” as of this writing is still available for purchase on the iTunes store, the legal grappling around its parent EP doesn’t give me much confidence for the future. Besides that, I remain skeptical of Boxill’s claims that the majority of the proceeds for the song/EP will go to Prince’s estate: I’m no lawyer, but I can’t think of many cases where an individual successfully paid royalties to a group in the process of pursuing legal action against him. So, basically, I’m treating “Deliverance” like a bootleg: I’ll write about it, of course, but not until I reach the proper point in the chronology–so, at my current pace, our grandchildren should be able to enjoy it, provided we all survive the impending Third World War.
Of course, there’s another reason why I’m giving special treatment to “Electric Intercourse” over “Deliverance”: quite simply, I’ve been dying to hear this track for years. Like “Moonbeam Levels,” “Electric Intercourse” is a song in high standing among bootleg collectors; but until now, even the most dedicated collectors had never heard the “official” studio version. The only circulating recordings came from live shows and rehearsals: most famously, the August 3, 1983 First Avenue date that introduced the Revolution and provided the basis for much of the Purple Rain album. It was documented that Prince worked further on the song the following month, at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, but most assumed that it was simply a case of adding overdubs to the live recording, just as he did with “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain” from the same concert. This turned out to be untrue: the newly-released “Electric Intercourse” is in fact markedly different from the more familiar First Avenue take, and appears to have been created entirely in the studio. And these kinds of discoveries, almost 34 years after the original recording(s), are exactly what I live for as a Prince fan.
But before we talk about the “new” studio version, let’s talk a bit about the older circulating take, and why it was held in such esteem. An intimate, piano-led ballad–widely assumed to have been passed over in favor of the superficially similar “The Beautiful Ones”–it’s in many ways a perfect encapsulation of Prince’s Purple Rain-era sound, an exquisite blend of arena rock, soul, and light psychedelia. The lyrics are a simple statement of desire at the commencement of a one-night stand, but Prince’s performance is (appropriately) nothing short of electric: brimming over with longing and unfulfilled tension. “Feel some kind of love 4 u, don’t know your name,” he sings, punctuating the end of the line with a sudden keyboard throb. “This the kind of love it takes 2 want u and I’m not ashamed”–another throb, like a heart skipping a beat. By the end of the first verse, he’s imploring the listener to “undress” him (a familiar request from songs like “Automatic”); by the end of the second, he’s promising to “shock” us with his lips, a “Technicolor climax” already in reach “at [his] fingertips.” Prince is, of course, a virtuoso in songs of seduction, and this “Electric Intercourse” is one of his finest achievements: I’m pretty much entirely heterosexual, but if for some reason he’d ever wanted to have his way with me, this song would have made it hard to resist.
Indeed, that live take of Purple Rain is so deeply embedded in my brain that I’m still adjusting to the newly-discovered studio version. The arrangement is, of course, magnificent. Hearing that first, unmistakable Linn LM-1 beat over a cascading acoustic piano gave me chills; the song is every bit as lush and gorgeously baroque as you’d expect a Purple Rain studio outtake to be. But in exchange for that lushness, we lose out on the directness and intimacy of the live performance. Prince’s vocals at First Avenue were lusty and soulful, sung in his natural voice, but here he dons an affected, almost camp falsetto–not in itself a dealbreaker (see: “Do Me, Baby,” or even the first three-quarters of “The Beautiful Ones”), but lacking the (to use his phrase) “sexual current” of the live version. And the presence of the drum machine, while welcome on an aural level, detaches the song from the organic (/orgasmic) ebb and flow it has when Prince’s piano is keeping time. Don’t get me wrong: I adore this song in any incarnation, and I am infinitely glad to be able to hear it in such pristine quality. But I’m also a little disappointed, because the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” feels staid–something I’d never have said of the First Avenue performance.
Such, however, is the risk of finally getting to hear things we’ve been wanting to hear for years: at some point, the reality will inevitably fall short of the ideal. There’s a case to be made that “Electric Intercourse” could never be as perfect as the one we’ve been imagining since, in some cases, 1983; the “real” version is the one that still doesn’t exist, that never could exist, because it never belonged on the album in the first place. If nothing else, its official release should put to rest any ongoing debates over whether it or “The Beautiful Ones” deserved its place in the Purple Rain album and film: while the former song is exquisite–and while Prince’s screams toward the end are suitably rapturous–I just can’t picture it reducing him to that quivering heap on the floor of the First Avenue stage (or Apollonia, for that matter, to that quivering heap in the audience) like the latter. And in the end, that realization is a good thing: after all these years, and a lot of more questionable decisions, here is a sterling example of Prince making the right choice. Even better: now we can finally judge for ourselves.
In case you weren’t aware, the deluxe and “deluxe expanded” editions of Purple Rain are available for preorder now, to be released on June 23. You can support d / m / s / r by purchasing them (or anything else!) using my affiliate links. I’ll be back later this week with a couple of other posts, including Part 3 of my podcast with Jane Clare Jones.
(I can’t find the First Avenue version of “Electric Intercourse” streaming on its own, but you should definitely be able to find audio of the full concert if you look hard enough!)