Amidst the flood of music Prince recorded in the lead-up to his 1984 magnum opus, Purple Rain, “My Love Belongs to You” barely registers as a ripple. A rough-hewn, seven-minute-long instrumental, it isn’t even the most fully-realized track from its recording date: April 20, 1983, a 10-hour session at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles that also produced “Velvet Kitty Cat,” overdubs for “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” and multiple takes of another studio jam called “Sleazy.” But my mission, quixotic as it may be, is to chronicle every circulating studio recording by Prince; and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my almost five years (!) of doing this, it’s that every recording by Prince has something to say about his musical development.
Like the last roundup post for the 1999 album, this one has been an especially long time coming: I wrote my first “in-sequence” post on 1999-era ephemera way back in November of 2018, when we were all about 50 years younger. It didn’t help, of course, that last fall’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999 dropped a bunch of new recordings into our collective laps (not that I’m complaining, of course!). With this post, though, I’m finally putting 1999 behind me (at least until a Super Super Deluxe Edition makes the current one obsolete). Purple Rain awaits. But first, my ranking of these odds ‘n’ sods:
15. “Colleen” If its abysmal showing in the Patreon polls that determined the order of the “bonus track” posts is any indication, my indifference to this funky, but slight instrumental is widely shared, at least among supporters of the blog. Also, Prince didn’t initially bother giving it a title… so, there’s that.
14. “Dance to the Beat” This forgotten missing link between the Time’s first and second albums isn’t bad, but neither is it anything to write home about; there’s presumably a reason why, at least to date, no studio recording seems to exist.
13. “You’re All I Want” This one made a very cute story (and a priceless birthday present!) for Peggy McCreary, and its hook led to another song you’ll see further up the list; on its own merits, though, I’d rank it as no better than “fine.”
11. “If It’ll Make U Happy” I really wanted the full version of this to do more for me after the leaked fragment left me slightly cold; but it’s really just more of what I’d already heard. A nice enough track, but I can see why it never found a proper home.
9. “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” Like I said in my original post, this is both a complete throwaway and an absolute banger. I can’t with good conscience rank it higher on this list, but what I can do is crank it in my car with my windows down on a sunny day.
8. “Vagina” I’ll admit that I may be ranking this a bit lower than it deserves, just because it failed to live up to my (arguably unrealistic) expectations; still a fascinating oddity of a song, and one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe.
7. “No Call U” I went back and forth between giving the nod to this or the similar-toned “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya”; I ultimately went with this one on account of it having an actual chorus. Also, Jill Jones. I mean, am I right?
6. “Horny Toad” Sometimes I feel like the lone voice in the wilderness on this song, but like I said about “You’re My Love” above, that just makes me love it more. Or, as Prince put it, the more you scream, the nastier I get.
5. “Turn It Up” As always, the top five could basically be shuffled in any order and still be accurate; today, though, I’m leaning toward this being a great performance of a just-okay song.
4. “Purple Music (Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy)” Honestly, this track getting an official release pretty much justified 1999 Super Deluxe single-handedly. I envy the people who got to have their minds blown by it for the first time last November.
3. “Lust U Always (Divinity)” I know I’ve been relatively vocal about agreeing with the omission of this and “Extraloveable” from 1999 Super Deluxe, so my top-three ranking may come as a surprise; to that I can only say, look, I didn’t say I didn’t want to listen to it. The ultimate problematic fave.
2. “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” I may never be able to fathom the reverence granted by some to the Alicia Keys version; but the original, I totally get. Proof that even at his most stylistically polyglot, Prince continued to make essential R&B.
1. “Moonbeam Levels” This was technically the first 1982 outtake I wrote about, way back in 2016; so it felt like a milestone to finally reach it in my “proper” narrative. This was also one of the first Prince bootlegs I heard; you can probably thank (or blame) it for turning me into someone obsessive enough to try and write about every Prince song over a decade later.
So, there you have it. Tomorrow, my Alternate Timelines post about Prince’s path not taken after 1999 will be available for the general public. Next week, I’m hoping to have the long-delayed next episode of the podcast up for patrons, with the wider release to follow in early September. Also in early September, it’s back to the Purple Rain era with an updated post on “Electric Intercourse”: another track I wrote about at the time of its official release, but am now revisiting as I catch up to it chronologically.
In closing, I want to reiterate: I started 2020 at a creative low point, and I’m now heading toward 2021 feeling more inspired and invested in D / M / S / R than I’ve felt since this time four years ago. A lot of the credit for that turnaround goes to the people who continue to support the blog, whether formally through the Patreon or (just as importantly) simply by reading and caring about what I do. In particular, this week I want to shout out Arno, who joined the Patreon today; if this is, as I suspect, the same Arno who has been commenting on the blog, he’s one of the earliest supporters I can recall and someone who I really value as a reader, even without the added patronage (though, again, I appreciate that as well!). I didn’t get into this game to get rich or famous, but knowing that there are people out there who see value in what I do is a tremendous source of motivation. So thank you to everyone–past, present, and future–who is taking this journey with me.
Streams, for the streamers:
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).
Before last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999, “Vagina” was known only by its title and its reputation–both of which were among the most tantalizing, and titillating, of any songs in Prince’s Vault. Few outside of Prince’s inner circle at the time of recording had heard it–and those who had, most notably former engineer David Z, simply described it as “obscene.”
It would have been impossible for any song to live up to such a reputation; “Vagina” certainly doesn’t, though it does stand as one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe’s previously-unreleased Vault tracks. Recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio in November 1981, the song finds Prince in stripped-down punk-rock mode–just him and his Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster; even the “percussion,” such as it is, is simulated with his mouth. As biographer Alex Hahn observed in a Facebook post soon after the passing of musician Andy Gill, Prince’s guitar work here “very much evokes” Gill’s playing with the English post-punk group Gang of Four–particularly when he “bangs the strings of his guitar in a percussive manner at the very outset of the song.” It’s a strikingly different sound from the rest of the music Prince was making ahead of his fifth album, which even in late 1981 was tending more toward synthesizers and drum machines than guitars–see, for example, the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch” recorded in the same month.
In case you missed it, yesterday I finally closed the book on the 1999 era for dance / music / sex / romance (well, almost… I still plan to write “bonus tracks” posts on “Vagina,” “Colleen,” “You’re All I Want,” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” for Patreon readers in the near future). This was the blog’s biggest undertaking to date: comprising 33 track posts and three albums, and taking almost 16 months from the first post (“International Lover,” way back in November of 2018!) and the last. As you know, I can be pretty tough on myself; but right now, I’m letting myself take some pride in what I’ve accomplished.
1999, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, is one of my favorite Prince albums; on a good day, it may even be number one, and it’s certainly near the top of my favorites by any artist. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I’ve done this masterpiece justice with 11 blog posts, but I sure as hell tried my best; so here they are now, in ascending order of my favorite tracks:
11. “Free” No surprises here, I’m guessing; I was pretty rough on “Free” in my original post, and it’s still the song I’m likeliest to skip when I’m listening to 1999 on a skip-friendly format. It ain’t so bad, really–any song as weird as this one is hard for me to outright hate–but it’s the weak point on an otherwise near-perfect album.
10. “International Lover” This ranking I feel a bit guiltier about, because “International Lover” really is a lot of fun: a chance for Prince to be sexy and silly in more or less equal measure, all while showing off his increasingly virtuosic vocals. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the live-in-the-studio first take on 1999 Super Deluxe, complete with barely-suppressed giggles by Prince and little-known session drummer Morris Day.
9. “Lady Cab Driver” This isn’t going to get easier, is it? Before you send me hate mail, know that I adore “Lady Cab Driver”–it’s just the textbook definition of an album track, there to add mood and menace (and, yes, funk) to the back half of 1999. If you’re wondering what I thought about “Rearrange,” one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe, this post answers that question, too.
8. “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” Another of those moody disc two tracks: indispensable to 1999’s dystopian atmosphere, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for a single track to play. I gave this the edge over “Lady Cab Driver” for the new life it took on in concert; see the long list of live reinterpretations at the end of the post.
7. “D.M.S.R.” It should tell you just how high in my esteem 1999 is as an album when the song I named my blog after doesn’t even make the top 50%. A great dance track, and an even better repository of weird little details: from “Jamie Starr’s a thief!” to Lisa’s blood-curdling scream for help.
6. “All the Critics Love U in New York” I know I might get some flack for ranking this above “D.M.S.R.” (and “Something in the Water,” and…), but “All the Critics” needs the boost. It’s an underrated snapshot of Prince at the cutting edge; a pitch-perfect homage to Detroit techno while the genre was still in its infancy.
5. “Delirious” As an avowed fan of Rockabilly Prince, who am I to deny the subgenre’s peak? “Delirious” may be 1999 at its most ’80s-dated, but I defy anyone to listen and not walk away with those damn keyboards stuck in your head.
4. “Automatic” My favorite of 1999’s darker, weirder second half, and maybe even the peak of New Wave Prince (another of my personal favorites, as readers are no doubt aware). If I had to pick a single track to explain why 1999 speaks to me personally–not the best or the most important song, but the one that scratches my own particular, deeply subjective itch–“Automatic” might be it.
3. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” …Or, it might be this one. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is the album’s strongest showing for Dirty Prince, with his late-song monologue containing the most explicit language on the record; but for my money, the dirtiest thing about the track is the chugging, pumping bass-synth line, a retro-futuristic approximation of the world’s creakiest bedsprings.
2. “1999” Honestly, just call it a tie for first place. I’ve already expended a little over 4,700 words on “1999”–my longest single post to date!–so today, I’ll just say that the album version is a totally different beast from the radio edit: freakier, funkier, and still totally vital, even with the year 1999 (never mind the song) over 20 years in the rear-view mirror. Accept no substitutes.
1. “Little Red Corvette” Look, I’ve said before, my tastes as a Prince fan are pretty basic; and why not, since his biggest mainstream hits were as inventive as most artists’ avant-garde? “Little Red Corvette” may be the normie’s choice for best track on 1999, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fucking masterwork: as much a work of literature as it is an exemplar of pop songcraft. To paraphrase my appearance on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast, if “Little Red Corvette” doesn’t outlast us all on this planet, then the planet was overrated anyway.
So, what’s next? In terms of the main blog, it’s on to Purple Rain; I’ll be starting that chapter with “Baby I’m a Star.” As noted above, I’m also tying up some loose ends from the 1999 era with Patreon-exclusive posts in the near future; and, speaking of Patreon, it’s past time that I wrote my first patron-requested post: an alternate-timeline scenario requested by Darling Nisi, which will handily help set up the Purple Rain era. Finally, speaking of Nisi, I’ve already recorded a long-belated Dirty Mind podcast with her and Harold Pride, which I’ll be putting up (first for patrons, and then for everyone) once I’ve finished editing it.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot in the pipeline; I just ask for your continued patience as I work on it. The international COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of instability into my day-to-day routine: I didn’t even have the chance to write on the blog that I would be presenting at the DM40GB30 symposium, originally scheduled for next month, before it was postponed until an undetermined later date. And while you might expect a self-imposed quarantine to be a boon for my productivity, the fact that I’ll also be juggling remote work with entertaining and educating a seven-year-old whose school has been shut down means that I’ll probably be spread thinner than usual. These are strange times, and I don’t know what is going to happen next. All I can promise is that I will keep writing, and I hope that you’ll keep reading, too.
In the meantime, here are those growing playlists.