Most stories about Prince’s recording process have the same basic structure: A musical genius walks into the studio with an idea, works on it for the next 12-18 hours, then walks out with a finished track–which, more often than not, turns out to be a masterpiece. But they can’t all be winners, even for Prince. Sometimes, when “a song started to come together and he was getting more ideas, it was like his mood would be a little lighter, because he was happy with it,” longtime Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. But other times, “if it just wasn’t inspiring him enough to go further–if it didn’t move him–he would stop” (Tudahl 2019 28).
“Colleen” is a prime example of the latter scenario. Recorded at Sunset Sound on January 15, 1982–the same session as “The Walk” by the Time–it is, in the words of longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Jon Bream, a “rhythmic instrumental groove… in search of a song” (Bream 2019). Its incessant Linn LM-1 beat lurches to life like a primitive robot being powered on, followed by a distorted riff that sounds like an itch being scratched; each repetition of the main rhythm guitar vamp–a fuzztoned variation on the funky pattern familiar from “Controversy” and countless tracks by the Time–is announced by a live cymbal crash. “Colleen” doesn’t go much of anywhere in its five and a half minutes, but there are still plenty of interesting little flourishes along the way: most notably, a fleet-fingered bass solo which Prince fires off just when it seems like he’s left the groove running on autopilot.
Still, it’s easy to see why “Colleen” didn’t make it onto any of Prince’s contemporaneous projects in 1982. The track is at once too busy to be a proper song and too minimalist to stand on its own as an instrumental jam; more than anything, it resembles the endless, machinelike grooves Prince would use to drill his backing band, the Revolution, in rehearsals during 1983 and 1984. At first, Prince didn’t even bother giving it a title: the name “Colleen” was assigned only because McCreary needed it for record-keeping purposes, and he told her to use her middle name.
Maybe the most interesting thing about “Colleen” (aside from the cute origin story of its title) is that, according to Tudahl, Prince actually did revisit the recording over 10 years later, in April of 1993. It’s unknown at this point if he did anything else with it; certainly, it’s hard to imagine a track as blatantly “1982” as this one holding much interest for him while he was working on the songs that became his 1994 album Come. But the story confirms another longstanding truism about Prince: Even a decade or more after he seemingly abandoned a song, it wasn’t “finished” until he said so.