1999

1999

(Featured Image: Prince and band prepare to fight on the 1999 inner sleeve; L to R: Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Lisa Coleman, Dr. Fink, Dez Dickerson. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. According to a recent tweet by former associate Jeremiah Freed (better known by his nom de podcast Dr. Funkenberry), Prince had originally planned for “Turn It Up” to be the album’s lead single. It’s speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also intended to be the title track, given how exhortations to “turn it up” recur throughout the songs recorded for the album: including “All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Lust U Always,” and the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch.” As Josh and Christy Norman of the Mountains and the Sea podcast recently observed, the phrase can even be made out spray-painted behind Prince and the band in a late 1981 photo taken for the “Let’s Work” 12” sleeve.

But whatever its intended title, when Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo, the reception was cooler than anticipated. “‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince in an interview with music journalist Alan Light. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).

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Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

(Featured Image: Outtake from the 1999 photo sessions, by Allen Beaulieu; © the Prince Estate.)

Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.”

In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to put the finishing touches on the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the appropriately extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”

In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.

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Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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Prince Track by Track: “Deconstruction”

Prince Track by Track: “Deconstruction”

(Featured Image: No, not that deconstruction; photo stolen from the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.)

Allow me to begin this post with the opposite of my usual spiel: I’m actually almost finished with the next song and will post it tomorrow. In the meantime, though, here’s my latest appearance on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast, on the most obscure track I’ve had the pleasure to discuss:

Prince Track by Track: “Deconstruction”

I have a relatively ambitious plan to wrap up with Controversy in the next week or so… wish me luck, and see you tomorrow!