After assembling the Apollonia 6 album on February 6, 1984, Prince stayed at Sunset Sound, working on incidental music for the Purple Rain film and a handful of songs that would end up on Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life. On February 18, he shifted gears yet again: recording what would become his first–and last–holiday-themed song.
“Another Lonely Christmas” appears to have come out of nowhere–and not just because it was a Christmas tune recorded less than a week after Valentine’s Day. While the track would eventually find its way onto the B-side of “I Would Die 4 U”–released on the seasonally appropriate date of November 28–it seems unlikely that Prince had that placement in mind nine months earlier. There’s no indication that he intended it for either the movie soundtrack or Sheila’s album; for that matter–aside from a penchant for decorating his studio with string lights, according to sessionographer Duane Tudahl–there’s little indication that he was especially observant of the holiday season. For whatever reason, “Another Lonely Christmas” was just something he had to get out of his system.
And make no mistake, it really was something. “Another Lonely Christmas” opens on the familiar image of Prince pining after lost love, with just a hint of holiday-specific melancholy: “Last night, I spent another lonely Christmas,” he sings, “Darlin’, darlin’, you should’ve been there.” It is, by any measure, classic Prince: hailing from the same lineage as “Gotta Broken Heart Again” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, not to mention such lovelorn holiday standards as Billy Hayes’ and Jay W. Johnson’s “Blue Christmas,” Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and–the likeliest inspiration of all–Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
As one might expect, however, Prince’s take on the blue-Christmas trope quickly crosses into more idiosyncratic territory. He spends most of the first verse dredging up increasingly quirky memories of his absent lover: skinny-dipping together in her father’s pool (sounds about right); losing his shirt to her in a game of Pokeno (weird choice, but okay); her apparent tendency to “scream so loud / ‘Cause [she] hated the number nine” (my dude, what?). By the end of the verse, he’s scoping out her younger sister while she ice skates on the lake–a delicate balance of wistful and horny that, I’d venture, only Prince could properly pull off. Finally, in verse three (two, if you’re listening to the truncated 7″ version), he drops the bomb: This isn’t a break-up song at all, but a memorial to a lover who passed away seven years ago–“on the 25th day of December,” no less. The story ends with the singular vignette of Prince, alone on Christmas night, “drink[ing] banana daquiris ’til [he’s] blind.” ‘Tis the season!
It’s tempting to assume that this weird, maudlin narrative twist is what’s kept “Another Lonely Christmas” from becoming a seasonal radio staple–though, to be fair, Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” and NewSong’s “The Christmas Shoes” are both in heavy adult contemporary rotation between the months of November and January, so there’s clearly a market for holiday music with weird, maudlin narratives. There’s also something to be said for Prince’s careful avoidance of sonic Christmas-music clichés: The song has nary a tinkling sleigh bell to be heard, just woozy, reverb-laden live drums, piano, and guitar spreading across the mix like a fresh bruise.
For my money, though, the real cause of the song’s obscurity was a simple lack of exposure. Aside from the “I Would Die 4 U” single and, later, 1993’s The Hits/The B-Sides, the only official release of “Another Lonely Christmas” in Prince’s lifetime was on November 1984’s so-called “Syndicate” promo, which featured the song alongside short messages from Prince, Sheila E, and Apollonia for use on Japanese radio. Intriguingly, Tudahl writes that Prince offered the track for inclusion on A Very Special Christmas, the quadruple-platinum compilation of holiday music by contemporary pop artists produced to benefit the 1987 Special Olympics. Had it made the album, the song would probably be remembered more fondly today; as the story goes, however, producer Jimmy Iovine rejected it because it had already been released (Tudahl 2018 270).
For Prince, the story of “Another Lonely Christmas” would come to a close on December 26, 1984, when he played the song for the first and last time on the third date of his and the Revolution’s five-show stand at the Saint Paul Civic Center Arena. The timing, it seems, was just too perfect to resist: A day earlier, he’d spent what was by all accounts a real-life lonely Christmas, having worked into the wee hours of Christmas Eve putting the finishing touches on his sixth album. “I think we finished around four or five in the morning on Christmas morning,” recalled engineer Susan Rogers. “Prince had a Christmas tree inside, but he had nobody over there at Christmas. He had some presents under the tree that people had given him, but I don’t think he was too interested in them. He was mainly interested in getting his record cut together” (Tudahl 2018 469).
The live version of “Another Lonely Christmas” is beautifully played but ultimately unremarkable, never quite catching fire the way it did in the studio. What is worth remarking on is its place in the setlist: nestled between the show-closing one-two punch of “Baby I’m a Star” and “Purple Rain.” As longtime friend of the blog Darling Nisi put it, the yuletide lament comes “right after an upbeat exercise underlining the charismatic, undeniable talent that brought him fame, and right before the song that continues to define his career. It’s a melancholy placement–despite all the fame and success… Another Lonely Christmas” (Needham 2019).
This, then, is the true legacy of “Another Lonely Christmas.” It may not have achieved classic Christmas song status–except, perhaps, to the highly specialized niches of Prince fans and fruit-flavored cocktail connoisseurs–but it’s another insight into the artist’s state of mind as he approached the precipice of superstardom: the canary in the coal mine for when the boundless ambition of Purple Rain would give way to the insular loneliness of Around the World in a Day. By the last days of 1984, Prince would have ostensibly achieved everything he’d been trying to achieve for the past decade; but there would be a lot of other lonely Christmases to come.