By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.
“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).
The timeline Cavallo describes makes for a great story, but Prince appeared to have had “1999” kicking around in his head for at least a couple of months before committing it to tape. In an interview for Minnesota Public Radio’s The Story of 1999 podcast, drummer Bobby Z recalled a fortuitous Controversy tour stop at a hotel that offered free HBO–“a big deal” in 1982. Airing on the cable network that evening was The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: a pulpy, Orson Welles-narrated documentary about the 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus, who had infamously predicted that the end of the world would come about in the year 1999. The entire touring party was “blown away by this thing,” said Bobby. “You could feel it in the hotel rooms. They were just glued to the TV… So, of course, like normal people do, the next day the water cooler talk is, ‘Did you see –’ And for Prince, he had written this song. So there explains the difference between mere mortals and Prince. We’re all going [‘]wow[’], and then he just embodied the whole thing with ‘1999’ the next day” (Swensson 2019 Episode 3).
Prince’s take on the 1999 prophecy begins with a confession: “I was trippin’ when I wrote this so forgive me if it goes astray.” He’d later change the line to “I was dreamin[’] when I wrote this”–evoking, consciously or unconsciously, the oneiric inspiration for “Little Red Corvette.” The dream he describes is no idle fantasy, but a nightmare straight out of the Book of Revelation: “The sky was all purple”–a reference, he later shared in a 1998 BET interview, to red blood against a blue sky–and “there were people runnin[’] everywhere.” Prince’s narrator, however, remains unfazed, shrugging, “U know I didn’t even care[,] cuz they say… / 2000[,] zero zero[,] party over[,] oops[,] out of time / So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999.”
That Prince would draw inspiration from the apocalyptic anxieties of the day is not in itself remarkable; as noted before, the end of the world was a fashionable subject for early-’80s pop artists, particularly those in the post-punk and New Wave mold. In June of 1982, for example, the Fixx released their grim snapshot of impending nuclear holocaust, “Red Skies,” as a single in the U.K..; later that same month, the title track from Oingo Boingo’s Nothing to Fear responded to the prospect of being “pulverize[d]… in our sleep” by “the Russians” with a maniacal rictus grin.
What set Prince apart from these and other peers was his insistence on greeting Judgment Day, not with solemn gravity or mordant gallows humor, but with a seemingly irony-free display of millenarian ecstasy. The radio edit of “1999” opens with joyous fanfare: Gabriel’s trumpet blast as simulated by the ARP Omni-2. The album version is even more on the nose, opening with the booming voice of God–played, with characteristic modesty, by Prince himself–intoning, “Don’t worry… I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.”
For some of the more earnest critical voices at the time, this levity in the face of Armageddon looked distressingly like nihilism. Ken Tucker had been one of the first rock critics to sing the praises of Dirty Mind in 1981; three years later, he would worry that Prince was “so lacking in hope that he not only believes we’re all going to die a nuclear death, but he’s rather looking forward to it” (Tucker 1984). Yet, even as it ruffled the feathers of idealistic Baby Boomers, “1999” spoke directly to the skepticism of the emergent Generation X. According to cultural critic Touré, Gen-Xers “had less faith in government and authority than any generation before us, which just deepened our sense that politics was meaningless fools’ play” (Touré 64). The specter of nuclear annihilation “was not something we could march to change. This was something from which we could do nothing but unplug” (65). “1999” was thus the “perfect gen X dance song[,] built on the idea that the world’s about to end so, to hell with it, let’s dance” (64).
It helped, of course, that this vision of the apocalypse was particularly easy to dance to. “1999”’s bright, brassy synth line and anthemic chorus is pure early-’80s pop–to the point of “being almost silly,” guitarist Dez Dickerson told Andrea Swensson for The Story of 1999 (Swensson 2019 Episode 3). Adding to the infectiousness is the baton-passing vocal arrangement on the verses: starting with keyboardist Lisa Coleman and backing singer Jill Jones, then shifting over to Dickerson, then Prince, before all four join in on the last bar and into the chorus.
According to his unpublished liner notes for The Hits, Prince had originally intended for the entire song to be sung in four-part harmony, and recorded it as such; but during mixing, he “made the decision 2 split up the lines,” so that each bar has a slightly different melody (Dash 2016). The resulting patchwork effect is an apparent nod to Sly and the Family Stone, whose four lead singers would frequently switch off between bars, creating an ebullient party atmosphere. Yet for all their Day-Glo counterculture-isms, the Family Stone was never as willfully hedonistic as Prince’s motley crew, who belt out fatalistic lines like “life is just a party / And parties weren’t meant to last” with the same abandon as Sly and company urging us to “Dance to the Music.”
Touré links “1999”’s celebratory tone with Prince’s upbringing in the Seventh-day Adventist church: an eschatological faith in which the Second Coming is not only a concrete reality, but also something to be eagerly awaited. Certainly, like “Annie Christian” before it, “1999” draws upon some notably fire-and-brimstone scriptural imagery. During the extended vamp at the song’s climax–an “ecstatic call and response,” per Touré, that “almost recalls the zenith of a Pentacostalist service”–Prince exclaims, “Can’t run from Revelation, no!” (Touré 120-121). Elsewhere, the lyrics, “I got a lion in my pocket / And baby he’s ready to roar,” carry resonances of the Book of Revelation’s Lion of Judah (along with the obvious phallic symbolism). Most intriguingly, a “religious scholar” who spoke with Touré made a connection between “Don’t worry,” the first words spoken by Prince’s “voice of God” at the beginning of the song, and “Do not be afraid,” the phrase which angelic messengers use to announce themselves in the Bible (115).
But if “1999” was only Prince’s rendition of the Biblical apocalypse, it’s unlikely that it would have been so widely embraced as a generational anthem. Beneath the song’s ambivalence about the end of the material world and anticipation of the afterworld to come is an essentially humanist sentiment: “Everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day / But before I’ll let that happen / I’ll dance my life away.” These protest-song elements are further amplified in the final moments, when everything falls away except Prince’s funky rhythm guitar and Lisa’s voice–now sped up to high-pitched chipmunk frequencies–whining, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” As if to underscore the enormity of what we have to lose, the song ends with an explosion: bringing the groove to a close with a literal bang.
The sound effect, according to Dez Dickerson, had practical as well as symbolic value: “this was back before Pro Tools and all [that] stuff, obviously,” he told Swensson for The Story of 1999. “And every once in a while, you’d get a take, and the energy and the feel of the take was good enough… that even though there might’ve been a mistake technically, you wanted to use the take. So he said, ‘You know what, when there’s something in the track that you want to keep but there’s something in the track that you don’t want in there, just put an explosion over it.’ …So now you know studio secrets with Prince. Put an explosion over the mistakes” (Swensson 2019 Episode 3).
Dickerson’s knowledge of Prince’s studio process underscores the fact that “1999” was something of a group effort–notably so, as the opening track and lead single of an album the artist would later describe as “me running all the computers myself” (Doershuck 1997). Not only is there the shared lead vocal and call and response with Lisa and Jill, but the fadeout also has Dez take over as the “voice of God,” singing the title line in a harmonizer-assisted basso profundo. This, as ever, was part of the strategy: like Dirty Mind before it, 1999 was intent on presenting Prince as a bandleader, even if it took a lot of smoke and mirrors to do so.
Dez, of course, contributed the standout guitar solo on “Little Red Corvette”; Lisa sang backup on “Corvette,” “Delirious,” “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic,” and “Free”; Jill, while not officially a member of the group, filled in on “Automatic,” “Free,” and “Lady Cab Driver.” More to the point, Prince made sure they looked the part: posing together against a stage backdrop on the first LP’s inner sleeve (see above) and simulating live performances with varying degrees of credibility in the music videos for “1999,” “Corvette,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and “Automatic.”
Most telling of all is the credit hidden in plain sight on the album’s hand-drawn cover art. Amidst a bevy of other minute details–the “Rude Boy” button, Prince-eyes, and nascent Love Symbol in the “9”s of “1999”; the suspiciously phallic “1”–the words “and the revolution” are scrawled in reverse on the cartoon eye superimposed over the letter “I” in “Prince” (see above). This is, of course, the first public christening of the Revolution, the group that would ascend to world-straddling fame with the Purple Rain album and film in 1984.
But where some–including the members of the Revolution themselves–have taken this to mean that 1999 is the formal debut of Prince and the Revolution, I’m more inclined to take the opposite interpretation: that, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band or Prince’s own New Power Generation, “Prince and the Revolution” was less a discrete band than a conceptual vehicle for a certain strain of Prince’s music. This interpretation would appear to be borne out by the fact that, when the Artist then-Formerly Known as Prince released “1999: The New Master” in early 1999, he credited it to “Prince and the Revolution,” despite that group having been disbanded over 12 years earlier.
In any case, the Revolution–or a reasonable facsimile thereof–was clearly a part of Prince’s vision for 1999; as was the futuristic imagery of the inner sleeve photographs by Allen Beaulieu. “Prince told me to go see the movie Blade Runner,” Beaulieu recalled in his book Before the Rain. The movie, as it turned out, wasn’t playing in Minneapolis yet; but the photographer was able to capture its visual essence from Prince’s description alone: “He said it was a lot of neon and a lot of smoke, so that’s what I did” (Beaulieu 145). Beaulieu had a neon fabricator create the lights for the infamous inner sleeve photo, which featured an apparently nude Prince lounging atop a tousled bed, painting with watercolors (see right). The most prominent of the lights, a pink heart glowing up from the floor, would appear both on the 1999 tour and in the music video for the title track (see below).
Putting the final touch on Prince’s 1999 aesthetic was his new, custom-made coat: a cyberpunk-inspired update of the studded trenches he’d worn for Dirty Mind and Controversy, replacing their more muted gray and lilac tones with a glittering, metallic purple. In his interview for The Story of 1999, Bobby Z recalled the first time he saw the iconic garment, during rehearsals for the band’s upcoming tour: “they brought it to him, kind of like this moment, where all of a sudden there it is: you know, this shiny purple trench coat, and he puts it on, and it’s like all of a sudden he’s Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. He just came alive and I just went, ‘wow, here we go.’ We’re going for showbiz now. This is gonna be a whole different direction. It’s not gonna be punk… It’ll be rebellious, because he’s always rebellious, but it’s gonna be glamorous” (Swensson 2019 Episode 3).
Glamour was the watchword for the 1999 tour, which upped the ante on its predecessor in just about every possible way. Instead of one protégé group opening for him, now Prince had two, with Vanity 6 joining Controversy tourmates the Time. And while Roy Bennett’s stage design reused the catwalk, fireman’s pole, and backdrop of Venetian blinds he’d designed for the Controversy tour, it also incorporated several improvements: “We motori[z]ed all the blinds and put silver on… them, so we could get some great reflections,” Bennett recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “Just those two things gave the set a different personality. It suddenly came to life a lot more” (Nilsen 1999 111).
The rest was Prince’s standard recipe of one part magic to two parts strenuous work. Rehearsals for what would be informally dubbed the “Triple Threat Tour” began in late summer 1982, at a warehouse large enough to accommodate all three of the acts. “These would prove to be our most grueling rehearsals ever,” Dez Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir. “Songs, arrangements, set order changed constantly. We had begun to use the new technology of the home video camera on the previous tour–we taped every show and reviewed it on the bus that night. Prince would dissect it and make adjustments to the set accordingly… Now, we were video taping rehearsals for the same purpose. At times, it just added to the painstaking grind of it all” (Dickerson 206).
For the last week of rehearsals in early November, the groups moved to the Armory in downtown Minneapolis, allowing them to test-drive the show in a venue of similar size to the ones they’d be playing on tour. There, Prince took the concept of taping his rehearsals to its logical conclusion: enlisting director Bruce Gowers–whose previous credits included the clips for both “Controversy” and “Sexuality,” along with Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” and multiple promos for Queen–to capture mimed performances of “1999,” “Automatic,” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” for their respective music videos (see above).
The show that premiered the following week in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a deliberately slick, stage-managed affair. Prince “used the phrase all the time, ‘more like a play,’” Dickerson told biographer Dave Hill. “[T]he action would change from scene to scene… so it just became this really well-rounded, well-polished… show’” (Hill 117). A representative example from the first leg of the tour is the December 29 date at the Summit in Houston, Texas, recently released on DVD as part of the 1999 Super Deluxe box set. Like the Controversy tour, the show begins in darkness while a recording plays over the P.A.: in this case, the “Don’t worry… I won’t hurt you” speech from the beginning of “1999,” followed by a sound effect of either rolling thunder or an exploding bomb. Bobby Z taps out a four-on-the-floor and the opening groove of “Controversy” takes shape, while a lone spotlight pulses in time with the beat. Gradually, Prince’s silhouette comes into view on the catwalk, backlit against his newly-upgraded blinds. Only at the beginning of the next song–an extended “Let’s Work,” featuring the first Dez Dickerson and Dr. Fink solos of the night–do the rest of the stage lights come on, just in time for Prince to slide down the firepole and take his place with the rest of the band.
After this dramatic opening, Prince dims the lights (both literally and figuratively) for “Do Me, Baby”; then, after three consecutive songs from Controversy, he dips into the new album with a ruthlessly efficient “D.M.S.R.” An atmospheric synthesizer interlude by Lisa–owing more than a little to Vangelis’ Blade Runner score–serves as the transition into Prince’s solo piano set. He opens with a snatch of the chorus melody from “With You,” then shifts gears into an improvised, bluesy vamp, before finally settling into a typically fiery rendition of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” Following an extended, audience-teasing coda, Prince hails his imaginary taxi and the band launches into “Lady Cab Driver,” followed in short order by “Automatic.” This second “act” of the show concludes with a flourish: Prince straddles Bobby Z’s bass drum, while a light flashes from behind the drum head and Dez and bassist Brown Mark strike rock-god poses.
For the show’s final “act,” the stage returns to darkness; Lisa, in her best sultry flight attendant voice, announces, “Fasten your seatbelts… prepare for takeoff,” and the neon heart from Beaulieu’s sleeve photo springs to life. Bathed in dry ice fog and pink and blue lights, Prince sings “International Lover”; then, in the most infamous setpiece of the night, summons a brass bed to rise from beneath the stage, strips to his waist, and simulates intercourse in front of the blinds, now lit with a softcore-porn shade of red. Having reached its figurative climax, the show concludes with a literal one: a rousing rendition of “1999,” with an encore performance of “Head.” At last, the whole spectacle comes full circle, with the “Don’t worry” speech and explosion playing over the P.A. again while the stage lights fade to black one last time.
On stage, the “Triple Threat Tour” was a well-oiled machine; but beneath the veneer of professionalism, tensions were building between Prince, his band, and the opening acts. “The whole thing had grown, the number of people on the road, the entourage,” Dez Dickerson explained to biographer Dave Hill. “It had grown from being six people in a basement to thirty or thirty-five people on the road. It lost something” (Hill 122). Later, in his memoir, Dickerson would write about the “growing separation between Prince and the band. At times, he seemed sullen and dictatorial–other times, there were glimpses of his affable former self. There had been so many people that had now crept up around him, I felt impressed to implore him at one point to watch his back AND his money–I saw too many people with their hand in the till and seemingly no oversight or accountability” (Dickerson 207-208).
A particular point of contention for the rest of the band was Prince’s relationship with manager Steve Fargnoli, who had made it increasingly clear that his loyalties were to Prince as a solo artist, not to the musicians he regarded as hired guns. Fargnoli “only cared about Prince and his money,” Brown Mark later recalled. “He didn’t care about nobody or anything else” (Nilsen 1999 116). And as Prince’s star rose, according to Dickerson, he “began to adopt more of the management’s attitude, and their whole way of operating. They were just more cutthroat than we were” (Hill 124).
At one point, Dickerson wrote, Prince offered the band a contract with Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli that included “some participation in royalty revenues, which we were not getting at all at the time,” but was otherwise not “commensurate with our collective contribution to what Prince had become.” An “attorney friend of Bobby’s” advised them not to sign without revisions; Prince “was completely shocked that we were not jumping at the chance to sign it,” and took the offer off the table. “I’m sure it seemed ungrateful from his perspective,” Dickerson recalled, “but, in reality, the folks that drafted it did so to his benefit, not the band’s” (Dickerson 207).
These business concerns exacerbated the growing differences between Prince and Dez in particular. As previously discussed, Dickerson had been having misgivings about Prince’s “Rude Boy” image since he experienced a religious conversion in December 1980. “I began to feel what I first assumed was a kind of ‘righteous conflict’ within me about the lewd nature of much of the music we were doing,” he later wrote. “I had developed a habit during the ‘Controversy’ tour of mouthing the objectionable words and not saying them–as if it was holier that way!” (Dickerson 198-199).
The “righteous conflict” came to a head on March 15, 1983, when the group returned to Minnesota for a sold-out homecoming show at Bloomington’s Met Center. Uncomfortable with the prospect of playing Prince’s more explicit material in front of his friends and family, Dez asked the rest of the band to back him up when he lobbied to remove the objectionable songs from the setlist. But when the moment arrived during soundcheck, according to Dr. Fink, “everyone clammed up… everybody. And then he came to me, it was my turn to vote and I said, ‘It is Prince’s show’” (Tudahl 2018 41). In response, Dickerson “picked up a drum stool that was sitting there and came after me and chased me off the stage with it… It was like two days before we [started] talking again” (42).
Soon, Dickerson was no longer attending soundchecks at all, increasing the sense of distance between himself and the rest of the band. According to tour manager Alan Leeds–who joined after the original manager, Murielle Hamilton, quit–“By the time I came on that tour, Dez was on the outs… the band that I was introduced to when I came aboard was, ‘There’s the band, and there’s Dez–Dez is a pain in the ass. He’s got his wife with him, she stirs him up; she doesn’t like Prince, Prince doesn’t like her. He demands his own dressing room… He doesn’t have to come to sound check, you’ve got to kiss his ass to get him to do that; it’s just bad.’ So everybody was fed up with Dez” (Light 59).
Dez, for his part, later admitted as much: “I didn’t feel comfortable with myself anymore. Because of that I became very difficult to be around,” he told Hill. “Later, I realized that was just a byproduct of not being very happy with what was happening, and where we were going; and at the same time feeling there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to have any impact on it. I dealt with it by… being a jerk. I guess if I’d been [Prince], I would probably have fired me” (Hill 122)
But Prince himself wasn’t exactly innocent of the tour’s deteriorating atmosphere. In addition to the previously-discussed conflicts with the Time, he was also sowing discord by openly juggling relationships with his backing singer and two members of Vanity 6. “It was a nightmare,” an anonymous crew member told Nilsen. “Prince was also seeing Jill Jones. And the girls all had to ride on the same bus so it was pretty frightening. Vanity was freaking out when Prince came to ask for Susan [Moonsie]. It was chaotic” (Nilsen 1999 117).
By the time Leeds came on board in late March, the tour “had become renowned for being ‘the tour from hell.’ They had been through two or three road managers in two months or something. The artist was impossible and management demanding.” The situation only worsened after the March 24 date in San Antonio, when the Time’s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis missed their flight back from Atlanta: “there was shit-slinging on a daily basis,” said Leeds. “And it was obvious that it was going to come to a head one way or another… The vibes were very bad” (118).
In late 1982 and early 1983, Prince’s offstage life was as apocalyptic in its own way as the scenario he’d written in “1999.” But his fortunes were rapidly improving. When the “1999” single was released in September 1982, it stalled just outside the Top 40, peaking at Number 44 that December. After the runaway success of “Little Red Corvette,” though, “It was as if the pop audience had discovered a completely new artist,” according to then-marketing executive Marylou Badeaux (Nilsen 1999 119). Warner reissued “1999” in early 1983; it reached Number 12 on the pop charts. By the final months of the “Triple Threat Tour,” even as his band seemed about to disintegrate, Prince was filling larger and larger venues: “We were playing in theaters,” Leeds recalled. “Then they re[-]released ‘1999,’ and all of a sudden he was selling out arenas. We saw this happen over a period of three or four weeks, where the audience went from a predominantly black audience in theaters to a heavily mixed audience in arenas” (Light 48).
Meanwhile, the same interpersonal drama that had made the “Triple Threat Tour” a “tour from hell” was providing the fuel for Prince’s next big move. During the second leg of the tour, the artist was often seen writing in a purple notebook; his notes–at least, according to legend–would provide the seeds for the film that became Purple Rain. By July of 1984, just over 15 months after the 1999 tour came to a close, Prince would be a bona fide superstar.
(This post was slightly edited to correctly attribute the “blood in the sky” quote.)