There are, it’s been advertised, 45 previously-unissued studio tracks on next month’s Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times; and Warner Bros. appears to be hell-bent on issuing as many of them as possible to digital platforms before the box set’s release. By last Thursday’s surprise drop of an “early vocal run-through” of the album track “Forever in My Life,” I was starting to feel like I’d been opening all my Christmas presents early. But hey, it’s not like I have the self-control to not listen to a newly-unveiled Prince outtake as soon as it comes out, so let’s tear off that wrapping paper and get to it.
Note: I confess that this piece, a Patreon commission from Darling Nisi, has been a long time coming–so long, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I already owe her a second commission now. Part of the reason why I took so long are the same, much-discussed reasons why I took so long for everything over the past eight months or so; but part of the reason is because her request to imagine a circa-1984 Prince without Purple Rain required a lot of thought. No Purple Rain–which I took to mean the movie as well as the album–means no “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” or pivot to Top 40 success; it also means no Paisley Park (the recording complex or the vanity record label), no massive renogotiated contract (and thus no “Slave”-era faceoff) with Warner Bros., and no comeback album and greatest-hits tour conveniently timed to the 20th anniversary. So large does Prince’s first film and sixth album loom over the rest of his career, in fact, that I didn’t even try to do justice to every change its absence would have wrought; this may be the first alternate timeline I will have to revisit in the future, just so I can fully think through what the ’90s or 2000s would have looked like to a Prince detached from both the expectations and the opportunities afforded him by Purple Rain.
In inventing an alternative followup to 1999, I ended up setting a few rules for myself: First, I limited myself to the existing timeline of songs recorded between January 1983 and March 1984, so the imaginary album could feasibly share a release date with the real one. Second, I wouldn’t use any track known to have been composed specifically for the movie–so, again, no “When Doves Cry” or “The Beautiful Ones”; I technically could have used “Purple Rain,” but that seemed to go against the spirit of the exercise, so I didn’t. Third, and finally, I tried to make my fake album as distinct from the real one as possible: if what set Purple Rain apart from 1999 was its concision and pop-friendliness, then my alternate-universe version would be more even more sprawling and idiosyncratic than its predecessor. Obviously, the album I reverse-engineered from existing recordings is no replacement for an actual, cohesive project produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince; but I do think it’s a fun listen (and yes, I did make a version I could actually listen to).
As always, I will end with the disclaimer that everything after this introduction is completely made up and just for fun, all Photoshops are crudely and hastily done, and all resemblances to actual persons living or dead are, if not coincidental, certainly not to be taken seriously.
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.
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
The first promotional single for Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe, “Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1),” was an irreproachably safe choice: a well-known track in the bootleg trading community, remastered so that hardcore fans can hear the upgrade in sound quality and newer fans can hear what all the fuss is about. But it’s the second single that delivers exactly what I live for in these kinds of releases: a recording which even the most fortunate among us hadn’t heard of, much less heard, until the box set was announced.
Before last week, the accepted history of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” went something like this: Prince recorded the basic track sometime in 1982, during the incredible burst of creativity that produced 1999 and planted the seeds for a number of other projects. Clearly at no shortage of quality material, he shelved the song for four years, then dug it back out during another creative renaissance on July 16, 1986: appending a smouldering guitar solo nearly the length of the original track, and transforming the spiky little power pop tune into a grandstanding album-rock setpiece. This extended version was slated for the unreleased Dream Factory and Crystal Ball projects, before finally seeing the light of day on Sign “O” the Times in 1987.