Ephemera, 1986

Cosmic Day

Hearing “Cosmic Day” in all its glory, it’s easy to see why it was coveted for so long by collectors.

Whenever I explain why I’m writing about every Prince song in order–a hobby, believe it or not, that does still warrant explanation in some circles–one of my go-to lines is that Prince, almost uniquely in popular music, is an artist with effectively three or four different canons. There is of course the primary canon of the big ’80s hits (“1999,” “Kiss,” “Little Red Corvette,” basically all of Purple Rain), f0llowed by the subcanon of later singles, “deep cut” album tracks, and B-sides–the latter of which is large enough that we could potentially make it a subcanon all its own. But what makes Prince special is the fact that he also has a sub-subcanon–either his third or fourth, depending on how we count the above–which includes tracks that never saw official release, but are still treated with reverence by collectors and fans. Prince isn’t the only artist with a deep and multilayered catalogue, of course–Bob Dylan and Neil Young both come to mind as potential peers–but I would argue that he is the only artist whose “sub-subcanon” rivals the quality and notoriety of his “official” body of work. In short, for fans of rabbit holes (and I clearly am one), they don’t come any deeper than this.

For years, “Cosmic Day” was one of those fabled cuts languishing in the depths of the purple rabbit hole: one of many proverbial “holy grails.” Recorded on November 15, 1986, in the midst of the blur of activity that led to the Crystal Ball triple-LP and its truncated sibling, Sign “O” the Times, it was seemingly never intended for either project; like “Moonbeam Levels,” another fixture of Prince’s subterranean canon, it’s at once essential to the era in which it was recorded and wholly detached from it. But unlike “Moonbeam Levels,” it has also tantalized fans by staying out of the hands of most collectors, with only two-to-three-minute fragments in wide circulation–until, that is, yesterday’s release of the full recording in advance of Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe.

Prince’s handwritten lyrics for “Cosmic Day”; stolen from the official Prince Facebook page.

Hearing “Cosmic Day” in all its glory, it’s easy to see why it was coveted for so long by collectors. Even in a period as stylistically rich and eclectic as Prince’s 1986, the track still stands out as unique–enough so that one can find decade-old threads speculating that the leaked recording was a fake. The ping-ponging metronome beat and explosive live drums are miles away from Prince’s trademark treated LM-1; the pitched-up vocals evoke Camille, the androgynous alter-ego for whom Prince had just compiled a spin-off album, but breathier and higher-pitched, the result of the varispeed tape effect being applied to the singer’s falsetto. Even the guitars, simply put, shred harder than anything else Prince was cooking up at the time. It’s quite an achievement to be the odd one out on an album as sprawling as Sign “O” the Times, much less Crystal Ball; but that’s exactly what “Cosmic Day” is. If it sounds like anything, it’s the missing link between the psychedelic whimsy of the abandoned Dream Factory project and the sugar-rush riffage of “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy.

This sense of “Cosmic Day” as an “odd one out” lends itself to speculation over exactly what (or whom) Prince intended the song for. When the original two-minute fragment leaked to the bootleg-trading community, the story was that it had been sourced from a sample tape of songs Prince was shopping around to other artists; but how many other artists could reasonably tackle a bubblegum-psych pop-metal epic like this? UMB, the curator of a popular series of Prince “mega-threads” on Twitter, has suggested that the track was an homage to neo-psychedelic “Paisley Underground” groups like the Bangles, the Dream Syndicate and the Three O’Clock–the former of whom, of course, made “Manic Monday” a hit in 1986, and the latter of whom would sign to Paisley Park and record another Prince song, “Neon Telephone,” in 1988. It’s certainly a plausible theory that Prince considered offering “Cosmic Day” to the Three O’Clock as well; but I personally hear a lot more Paisley Underground in earlier tracks like “Teacher, Teacher,” the 1986 version of which also happens to be slated for Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe.

In any case, Prince clearly had something planned for “Cosmic Day”: while it didn’t make the cut on any of his various album projects in 1986-87, he was invested enough to ask Clare Fischer to add a string arrangement, which the orchestrator overdubbed on December 5. Prince would later repurpose these strings for the intermission music played over the P.A. on the Lovesexy tour. Disappointingly, the version of “Cosmic Day” that’s been released is not the version with Fischer’s orchestration, which would have added some interesting texture to the song’s coda; but I guess on some level it’s appropriate that even after all these years, the “real” “Cosmic Day” remains outside our grasp.

Edit: I was in such a rush to get this up that I forgot to thank Emerson Evelyn for becoming D / M / S / R’s latest patron! Thank you again, and see you all next week!

“Cosmic Day”
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By Zachary Hoskins

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. I also do podcasts with my little sister as Dystopian Dance Party.

7 replies on “Cosmic Day”

I wonder why this song gets called “different” so much. It sounds like a fairly straight hard rock (in the Iron Maiden/Thin Lizzy way, those doubled guitars are a fixture) and pop song. Sure, the voice sounds a bit odd with the sped up falsetto, sure the lyrics are a bit unfinished (tralalala? really?) and there’s the legacy of Wendy and Lisa in the extra chords thrown in in the bits that aren’t straight pop fare. I guess it has to be the odd galloping bass drum, or the combination of all those things.

Since I’m a bass player, I am just amazed by the pedestrian eights he plays on the bass, something Prince rarely did. It makes the track somewhat boring, even with quite a few “cool” elements.

Still, happy it’s here, cannot wait till the end of September!

Yeah, I think it’s a combination of “different for Prince” and just an odd juxtaposition of musical flavors–the heavy harmonized guitars with the bubblegummy “tra-la-las,” etc. It reminds me a lot of “Glam Slam” in that way, using these very big arena rock sounds to create something light and frothy. One thing I didn’t end up getting into is that this is one where I had to kind of put aside the “cult classic” reputation to really enjoy it; it wasn’t anywhere near as much of a letdown as “Wally,” but I was pretty nonplussed by the original leak.

Since I found a US dealer offering the pre-order on the SOTT box for $113 with media mail shipping [!] while looking for the “Vienna” 40th Anniversary box [best price there, too] I bit the bullet and have pre-ordered this bad boy as well as the Ultravox. I am all about delayed gratification [and dislike streaming – it doesn’t remotely fit into my lifestyle] so I have not heard the track in question yet, but if the “1999” box is anything to judge by this will be the musical event of the year. You are too correct that Prince’s unreleased canon [which outnumbers his released canon by, what… 4:1?] contains assets far in advance of other, less productive artists. The Prince Musical Iceberg Effect® [you can quote me on that] And that’s what makes these boxed sets of god® so compelling to me. I just paid $105 two months ago [which is looking like a genius move now…] for the “1999” box and it felt worth more than I paid for it. I cannot freaking wait for the SOTT box! It will keep me busy for months.

Nice! Yeah, this set will reward delayed gratification, I think–I know a few people who have been deliberately waiting to hear the whole thing on physical media when it comes out. I’m honestly kind of hoping this is the last of these preview tracks they release; I’d like there to be at least a few surprises left to discover next month!

I was wondering which others of his canon do you think will get the super deluxe love? If they hit the top sellers there are 10 further US platinum albums in the potential cross hairs: “Prince,” “Controversy,” Around The World In A Day,” Parade,” “Batman,” “Diamonds + Pearls,” “Love Symbol,” “Emancipation,” and “Musicology.” But “Musicology” has already gotten a straight reissue sans extravagance. I’d hop on a “Controversy” box in a split second.

“Dirty Mind” is only gold, but I’d argue that it was the crucial Prince album that made The Prince Singularity possible as he transitioned between working musician and artist. Heaven knows that “Turn It Up” played in my mind like a great, lost “Dirty Mind” era classic!! I’d pay dearly for more of that sauce.

And I’m wondering if The Estate will pass on reissuing anything. Waffling on whether I should buy things I don’t have at great cost [say, “The Black Album”] only to see them reissued at affordable prices later is a game of chance. Thoughts?

That’s a great question; there’s been scuttlebutt for a while about an SDE of Parade, which is supported by the fact that it’s technically a soundtrack album–I believe in 2021 the rights to everything but the soundtrack albums are transferring from WB to Sony Legacy. So I wouldn’t be surprised if WB did Parade next year. I also suspect they’ll want to do a “redo” of the Purple Rain set, both because Michael Howe has expressed that they had more ambitious plans than what ended up coming out in 2017 and because that’s the biggest moneymaker WB is going to be left with. And I’m also guessing that we’ll be getting Graffiti Bridge at some point because of the soundtrack technicality–it wouldn’t be my first choice for an album to get the deluxe treatment, but the bonus tracks will be interesting, especially if they follow the convention set by including the early version of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” on the SOTT SDE and include the 1981 take of “Tick Tick Bang” (which, if you haven’t heard it, is directly up your alley).

As for what Sony does when they get the rights, what I’d really like them to do is start with For You and move forward chronologically–but I know that the reissue business obviously isn’t what it used to be, so that’s probably a pipe dream. I definitely expect them to tackle the ’80s stuff first, and I too am really hoping or a Controversy SDE–I know there are high-quality filmed shows from that tour and he recorded a ton of music in 1981, so it fits the bill for a similar format to what they did for 1999 and SOTT. I think Dirty Mind will also get the treatment eventually; it isn’t as big a seller, but is critically beloved. By the time they’re done with the ’80s, I can definitely see them returning back to some of the records (like Musicology) that they reissued in more basic form for an expanded treatment.

The Black Album is a really weird, frustrating case. A couple years ago I feel like it was slated to be reprinted on vinyl–not with any bonus tracks or anything, but just a basic repress by, I think, Rhino and WB. But then it just kind of fell off the release schedule with no explanation (which I guess is par for the course with the Black Album). I think there were some weird stipulations around its release back in 1994, which is why it’s so scarce compared to the other “contractual obligation” albums he was releasing at the time–but surely those stipulations are no longer in place now? It would be so, frustratingly on brand for Prince to not have an accessible will, but to still have ironclad legal orders preventing the release of a totally innocuous record from 1987.

Yep. The “Purple Rain” SDLX had cataclysmic expansion potential that was no doubt moderated by the artist’s involvement. Was stunned to see the uptick in scope for “1999” comparatively. And SOTT? Say no more. The “Purple Rain Redux” will probably end up being $200 if it costs a dime when we see it manifest. The sad downside to such an event. I can’t ever envision a time when I drop that much on a single release.

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