(Featured Image: Outtake from the 1999 photo sessions, by Allen Beaulieu; © the Prince Estate.)
Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.”
In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to put the finishing touches on the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the appropriately extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”
In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.
Except, of course, for the parts that don’t. In spite of its commercial popularity, 1999 has a well-earned reputation as one of Prince’s coldest, most insular albums; the sound of “me running all the computers myself,” as the artist himself put it in 1997 (Doershuck 1997). While it’s by no means a bleak record, it is brittle and slightly aloof, with even the big, anthemic moments undercut by anxiety (“1999”), regret (“Little Red Corvette”), or sheer tonal incongruity (“Free”). By contrast, “Moonbeam Levels” is a beacon of humanistic hopefulness: a surrealistic power ballad that begins with the narrator surveying the world over a delicate piano line and finding only “pain and sorrow,” but ends with him ascending through the stars on the wings of a soaring guitar solo, deciding after all that he doesn’t “really want to die.” If the 1999 album sounds like dance music from a cyberpunk future, then “Moonbeam Levels” sounds as if it’s been beamed in from an entirely different solar system: had David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character been a product of the early ‘80s instead of the early ‘70s, this is exactly the kind of song I’d imagine him singing while he waited for us in the sky.
In short, “Moonbeam Levels” feels too big, even for Prince’s biggest and most grandiose album to date; it evinces a sense of ambition and scale to which the rest of his music had only begun to catch up. In comparison, even “Free”–another stadium-ready anthem long assumed to have taken “Moonbeam Levels”’ place on the track listing–feels downright down to earth; its sentimentality and patriotic bent may stick out like a sore thumb after the excoriatingly personal “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” but at least “be glad that U are free” is easy to digest as a concept. What the hell are “moonbeam levels,” anyway? And how many crowds are going to hold their lighters aloft and sing along to a chorus about “looking for a better place to die?”
Given the song’s cinematic sweep, it feels appropriate that “Moonbeam Levels” was at least briefly considered for Prince’s next project, the feature film that would ultimately become Purple Rain. Prince played teasing excerpts of the song during his piano sets at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and L.A.’s Universal Ampitheatre in March 1983, a time when he was plotting his film debut in earnest. Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions documents a Sunset Sound date that June, when Prince “grabbed ‘Moonbeam Levels’ off the shelf and likely listened to it for consideration” on the project (Tudahl 2018 94). Keyboard player Dr. Fink also recalled it being among the songs considered for the movie by Prince and director Albert Magnoli around that time (Williams 2017). With its heady blend of synth-rock, glam, and light psychedelia, “Moonbeam Levels” would have been an undeniably stronger fit for the Purple Rain album than for its predecessor; but by then, of course, Prince wasn’t exactly short on rousing rock ballads with enigmatic lyrical imagery.
For the remainder of the decade, “Moonbeam Levels” remained a song without a home. Susan Rogers, Prince’s main recording engineer from 1983 to 1987, recalled sequencing the song “on just about every album that I know of, that I worked with him on, including Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Sign [“O”] the Times and Parade.” Each time, “I’d think[,] ‘At last! I’m so happy, this beautiful song is going on this record,’ but he would pull it. He’d always pull it” (Tudahl 2018 94-95). Perhaps the closest it ever came to release was in 1989, when it showed up as the closing track on an early configuration of Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic, the aborted Lovesexy follow-up Prince recycled for parts on the Batman and Graffiti Bridge soundtracks. By then, the song had already begun circulating among bootleg collectors, often mistitled as “A Better Place 2 Die”; and, as Prince shifted to more contemporary R&B sounds in the early ‘90s, the window for releasing even a stellar song in his high-‘80s electro-glam style finally closed.
It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had things gone differently. I’m still not convinced “Moonbeam Levels” would have worked on 1999, whether replacing “Free” or any other track: it’s too much in the epic Purple Rain mode for the deliberately challenging Around the World in a Day; too rock-oriented for Parade and Sign “O” the Times. In some alternate dimension, perhaps, there exists an odder and artier version of Purple Rain where it, rather than the title track, serves as the musical and emotional climax; but it’s hard to imagine such a version having anything like the mass appeal of the one we got.
Indeed, if “Moonbeam Levels” belongs on any album, it’s the “follow-up to 1999” that Prince boasted about to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen in 1985: a mythical missing link between 1999 and Purple Rain, lost in the shuffle between his first real flash of crossover success and the multimedia juggernaut that turned him into a superstar (Karlen 1985). But maybe it’s for the better that it continues to stand apart: at once utterly unique in Prince’s discography and a perfect synecdoche for his musical and thematic preoccupations at the beginning of the ‘80s. After all these years, this beautiful alien of a song still feels like it’s from another world; I, at least, wouldn’t have it any other way.