Categories
Alternate Timelines

The Dawn: How Prince’s Troubled Followup to 1999 Almost Became His Feature Film Debut

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.

Categories
Ephemera, 1979-1981

Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

Prince’s adoption of a punk aesthetic in late 1980 and early 1981 was, as we’ve seen, an act of calculation; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that it was only that. For one thing, Prince’s New Wave songs were simply too good to have been born of strategic considerations alone. For another, as his cousin Charles Smith recalled, the artist was a known fan of “the whole English scene… He’d always been into David Bowie and that kind of stuff” (Nilsen 1999 72).

So it stands to reason that when Prince made his way to punk’s epicenter, London, in June of 1981, his P.R. approach combined thinly-veiled opportunism with genuine homage. He promoted his one-off date at the West End’s Lyceum Ballroom with a pair of high-profile magazine interviews: one with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, and the other with Chris Salewicz, whose tenure at NME alongside writers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had helped frame the discourse around British punk. Warner Bros. even took the opportunity to release a U.K.-exclusive single in advance of his visit: a distinctly New Wave-flavored outtake from the Dirty Mind sessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”

Categories
Prince, 1979

I Wanna Be Your Lover

The recording sessions for Prince began in earnest in late April of 1979, with overdubs and mixes completed by June 13: about seven weeks, all told, barely half the time Prince had taken to complete his debut album. Indeed, while For You and Prince are often grouped together by critics, in practice the two albums are a study in contrasts. Rather than the state-of-the-art Record Plant, Prince used Alpha Studios in Burbank, California: a relatively modest facility located in the home of owner and engineer Gary Brandt. And where on For You Prince had seemed determined to use every inch of the studio console, his approach to its successor was markedly scaled back; according to Brandt, Prince deliberately limited himself to only 16 of Alpha’s 24 available tracks (Brown 2010).

Prince’s stripped-down aesthetic was born partly of preference and partly of necessity. In later interviews, Prince would suggest a growing dissatisfaction with For You’s fussy production: he had tried to make “a perfect record,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland in 1981, but “it was too scientific” (Sutherland 1981). Working with 16 tracks at Alpha Studios would likely have felt more comfortable to an artist used to the humbler accommodations of Sound 80 and his own home studio in Minneapolis; crucially, it was also much cheaper. For You’s recording budget, you might remember, had ballooned to some $170,000–almost the entire amount Warner Bros. had allotted for Prince’s first three albums. So this time around, Prince told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I realized that I had to make some money to prove to them that I was a businessman” (Norment 34). By recording quickly and economically, Prince would ensure that the new record came in on time and under budget. “He was really in a hurry,” drummer Bobby Z recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “There was quite a bit of debt to the label, and he needed a hit. His back was against the wall” (Nilsen 1999 54).