#PrinceTwitterThread: “Crystal Ball”

Well, looks like I’m beginning another year by apologizing for my inactivity at the end of the previous one; at this point, is there any more predictable tradition? I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, so I’ll refrain from making any grand promises. Just know that I’m eager to get back to work and out of the months-long rut that my “Cloreen Bacon Skin” post has become, so the drought should be over soon.

In the meantime, embedded below is the #PrinceTwitterThread with which I technically broke my two-month break from writing about and even, largely, listening to Prince. In a real “famine to feast” move, the subject was “Crystal Ball,” one of the densest and headiest tracks in Prince’s greater oeuvre. “Doing it justice” was, of course, an impossibility; but I think I at least succeeded in starting a conversation. Thanks as always for sticking with me, and here’s to a happy and fruitful 2021.

Hello! My name is Zachary Hoskins and I’m honored to be able to present today’s #PrinceTwitterThread on one of Prince’s most notorious Sign “O” the Times-era outtakes, “Crystal Ball.”

As @deejayumb has covered in detail, SOTT was the culmination of two, maybe three cancelled projects from 1986: the single LP Camille, triple-LP Crystal Ball, and (more controversially) the Revolution’s possibly-apocryphal double-LP swansong Dream Factory.

“Crystal Ball” was recorded pretty early in that process: April 17, 1986, a little over a month after Prince inaugurated his Galpin Blvd. home studio with “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (more on that from @arrthurr here)

The song would of course provide the title for the Crystal Ball album, and appeared on two configurations for the album that may or may not have been Dream Factory… here it is on Susan Rogers’ handwritten DF tracklist from June 3, 1986, and on the master tapes for CB.

(As a side note, it’s intriguing that both tracklists put “Crystal Ball” at side three, track one–it’s definitely a “side three” kinda song)

And, while it wasn’t among the tracks that made the cut when CB was downsized to two LPs for SOTT, I’d argue that “Crystal Ball” serves as a kind of structuring absence: it sets the standard for the rest of the album’s artistic ambition and spirit of bold experimentation.

The song’s ambition is evident from its length alone: a little over 11:30 in its original form. And it takes its time to get going: the basic track's first 93 seconds consist of a metronomic solo kick drum pulse (not, incidentally, pounding on the 2 and 4)

Obviously, Prince had *something* in mind for that first minute and a half. But intriguingly, he also played around with a 9:30-ish mix that trimmed the intro without adding the orchestral flourishes we’re familiar with from later, official releases.

This stark, early version–which appeared on a DF configuration dated 7/18/86 –feels a bit like a freakier, funkier “Sign ‘O’ the Times”: a vehicle for Prince’s newest toy, the Fairlight CMI, and his lyrics about making love in the face of nuclear annihilation.

(Incidentally, for more about “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” the Fairlight, and the looming threat of all kinds of annihilation, check out @CaseyRain’s thread)

While not exactly uncharted thematic territory for Prince, the lyrics of “Crystal Ball”–inspired, according to Duane Tudahl, by the U.S. bombing of Libya on April 15, 1986–offer some of his most arresting apocalyptic imagery.

Particularly memorable is the line “As soldiers draw swords of sorrow[,] my baby draws pictures of sex”–a reference, @susannahtwin recalled on the recent Story of SOTT podcast, to an actual mural she painted in the Chanhassen home she and Prince shared.

As Prince lays out this operatic scenario, the arrangement builds: adding additional Fairlight sounds, percussion, electric bass and guitar, and layers of backing vocals by both Prince (complete with Camille-esque tape speed manipulation) and Susannah.

Eventually, at about the halfway point, Prince flexes his developing jazz muscles with some breakneck snare fills before launching into a fuller, funkier second movement, taking consecutive solos on drums, bass, and guitar.

Susannah’s and Prince vocal lines begin to crosscut back and forth, forming a surreal composite image of a couple performing oral sex (“her mama watch[ing] aghast”) while an “elderly couple walk in the park” to be abruptly destroyed by missiles.

Another drum solo, and we cut to a transmission from “the Purple Underground” narrated by Susannah. An ethereal, ascending synth line dissolves into a walking jazz bassline, then a series of even more manic drum fills. Finally, Prince cuts it all off with an apt “oooh-wee!”

The groove slows to a crawl, Prince now repeating the lyrics “As bombs explode around us and hate advances on the right / The only thing we can be sure of is the love we make tonight” with an air of post-coital exhaustion…

…Then Susannah lets out a piercing shriek, and the whole thing starts over again, as if the lovers have gotten their second wind and decided one apocalyptic orgasm just isn’t enough.

The whole song is sensory overload–and remember, this is BEFORE the orchestrations by Clare Fischer, which were added in early August 1986 and gave the track an exotic, cinematic feel, like the world’s wildest James Bond theme.

Prince was reportedly, and justifiably, proud of “Crystal Ball.” In @8minutesidle’s biography, Clare Fischer’s son and collaborator Brent recalled Prince telling them “it was the most important thing he’d done in his life up to that point.”

Its magnum opus quality was further cemented by the fact that his soon-to-be-former band, the Revolution, struggled to play it in rehearsals, according to @drfink1980 (another quote from @8minutesidle’s book).

“Crystal Ball,” in short, was Prince pushing his early sound and musicians to their absolute limit: it’s a summation of the many influences he’d accumulated to that point, from psychedelic rock to P-Funk to post-Miles Davis fusion.

All of which brings me to the elephant in the room, which is that the “Crystal Ball” described above was not on #SOTTDELUXE. Instead, it appears to be one of a handful of SOTT-era tracks tied up in rights issues because they had been released on the 1998 Crystal Ball compilation.

When I saw that the version of “Crystal Ball” to be included on #SOTTDELUXE was a 3:30 “7” mix,” I expected the worst. Historically, 10+-minute multipart epics don’t condense well to radio length (cf. this pointless edit of Bowie’s “Station to Station”)

In the end, though, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the edit works. It’s no patch on the full version, of course, but it captures the song’s sense of sprawl in miniature: there's a lot going on here, even when limited to the first movement.

But even the most conservative edit of “Crystal Ball” can’t change the fact that this is a weird-ass song, and decidedly not what Warner Bros. would have had in mind as a single. In the end, it became one of the seven tracks cut when the Crystal Ball album became SOTT.

Yet the importance of “Crystal Ball” is evident, paradoxically enough, in how well the album functions without it. This is why I call it a structuring absence: its echoes are everywhere, from the overt lyrical references in “Hot Thing” to the title track’s similarly grim imagery.

In many ways, “Crystal Ball” is the raw material that SOTT elucidated and elaborated upon for the rest of its two discs. It doesn’t need to be on the final album, because its stylistic adventurousness is intrinsic to the album’s DNA.

And anyway, SOTT didn’t exactly spell the end of “Crystal Ball.” Ever resourceful, Prince sampled Fischer’s orchestral arrangement for the instrumental intermission played during dates on the Lovesexy tour…

…And again on “The Future,” itself a kind of spiritual successor to the first movement of “Crystal Ball,” from the Batman soundtrack…

…And again on “Push” from Diamonds and Pearls…

…And again on “Violet the Organ Grinder” from the “Gett Off” single…

…And again on “Paris 1798430” from Tevin Campbell’s 1993 album I’m Ready…

…And again on the studio version of “Days on Wild” released on–you guessed it–1998’s Crystal Ball.

It’s actually pretty fascinating how “Crystal Ball,” despite not seeing official release until over a decade after it was originally recorded, crops up again and again in Prince’s recorded work during this period–it was nowhere, and yet everywhere at the same time.

And that’s how it remains: even if #SOTTDELUXE only has the first third of the song, its vibe is all over the box set (literally–note the plasma ball placed prominently in the cover photo by @JeffKatzPhotog below!).

Basically, there’s a reason why Prince himself made CB synonymous with his Vault: it’s both an artistic high watermark in its own right and a symbol of the brilliant work he was bold enough to leave on the cutting room floor.

Thank you so much for hanging out with me again! For more of my work, please check out my song-by-song Prince blog Dance / Music / Sex / Romance–I’ve been quiet there recently, but am ramping up again in the New Year.

And of course, remember to tune in tomorrow for another #PrinceTwitterThread by @laura_tiebert on “Big Tall Wall”! Happy holidays!

Originally tweeted by Dance / Music / Sex / Romance (@dmsrblog) on December 29, 2020.

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