From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.
At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.
By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.
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.
Well, folks, I said I would have another post this week (and I really, truly am almost done writing it!), but there’s been so much going on today that I think it might be better to let it simmer until Monday. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote for my other side hustle at Slant Magazine about today’s excellent (yeah I said it, fight me) posthumous release:
Now I’m gonna go put the record on again and relax. Have a great weekend!
I have to admit: it feels a little surreal to be writing about the deluxe edition (or “Deluxe Expanded edition,” as the case may be) of Purple Rain. This is a project I’ve been anticipating, conservatively speaking, since it was first announced over three years ago; more accurately, though, it’s something I’ve dreamed about for decades, since those not-so-distant days when the likelihood of Prince and Warner Bros. coming to an agreement over expanded reissues seemed to fall somewhere between the proverbial flying pigs and the proverbial Hell freezing over. So, I’ll admit, my perspective is biased: for me, the fact that this thing exists is in itself a kind of miracle. Any complaints I might have are colored indelibly by the knowledge that the last official collection of vintage Prince outtakes, 1998’s Crystal Ball, is older than many artists’ full discographies. Bands have formed, made it big, broken up, and reunited between now and the last time we got a peek inside the Vault; I think it’s important not to lose sight of that.
It is, of course, also important to call out the collection for its missteps, something I’ve seen many on social media doing. The most egregious of these, from my perspective, is the failure to credit Jill Jones for her backing vocals on “We Can Fuck”: whether made out of malice or plain sloppiness, it’s a damning omission. There are also the unavoidable track-listing quibbles that emerge any time the boundlessness of fan expectations come into contact with the restraints of physical media. Where, for example, is Prince’s version of “Wednesday,” or “G-Spot”–both songs known to have been considered for the Purple Rain album? Where is that extended version of “17 Days” that allegedly exists? And did anyone really need all of those single edits on Disc 3? If nothing else, the imperfections of the deluxe Purple Rain are a timely reminder that hardcore fans still need a healthy ecosystem of bootlegs beyond what’s made available to the mass market; indeed, as if to underscore that point, a trio of outtakes leaked the same day as the official release, including “Wednesday” and a version of “Our Destiny” with the aforementioned Jones on lead vocals. They’re well worth a listen (though, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t trade them for any of the tracks currently on the deluxe edition).
Yet, as important as bootlegs are, we still need official releases–and, for all its imperfections, this remains the best official archival release of Prince’s music to date. Leaving aside the question of what’s not on Disc 2, let’s reflect on what is: a full-length version of “The Dance Electric,” sounding better than on any circulating recording I’ve heard; “Love and Sex,” a storied outtake previously unheard by the vast majority of collectors; the extended “Hallway Speech” version of “Computer Blue,” again sounding better than ever; the studio version of “Electric Intercourse,” which until this year even the most respected Prince experts didn’t know existed. Not every track is an auditory gem: “Our Destiny,” “Roadhouse Garden,” and “Velvet Kitty Cat,” as many have observed, seem to come from the same, slightly hissy sources as the unofficial recordings that leaked last year. But the versions of “Possessed” and “We Can Fuck” here–hell, “We Can Fuck” alone!–are well worth the $25 current asking price on Amazon. Throw in a great-sounding “Wonderful Ass,” the extremely rare “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” and an extended, almost Vangelis-esque “Father’s Song,” and we have an impressive overview of the scope of Prince’s musical output in 1983 and 1984. It may not be enough to placate the most hardcore fans and collectors, but it comes as close as any mass-market product can be expected to.
And, let’s face it: like Prince 4Ever before it, this package isn’t really for “us.” The people reading this blog, or posting on prince.org or any of the innumerable fan groups on Facebook, don’t need to be sold on Prince’s genius: quite frankly, they don’t need to buy another copy of Purple Rain, the new remaster of which sounds good (particularly on a phone or in the car), but is hardly essential. There is, however, a market for this collection, and I think it’s well-served overall. People who love the album Purple Rain, but haven’t heard any of the outtakes, are poised to have their mind blown by Disc 2; hell, there are some people who haven’t heard the 12″ version of “Erotic City,” and that’s mind-blowing in itself. And while I respect the fact that a lot of paisley heads still covet their VHS copies of Prince and the Revolution: Live!, let’s keep in mind that there are also multiple generations of fans for whom it’s a whole new experience–and, while the video remaster isn’t ideal, it’s still completely watchable, and a great addition to the set.
I’m not trying to be a corporate Pollyanna here–far from it, I’m a realist. And I also remember the first time I heard “Possessed,” and was transformed from a casual Prince fan into the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic who writes blog posts about all of his circulating recordings. This new edition of Purple Rain is going to cause that transformation in a lot more people (though, hopefully, not all of them will start blogs–I don’t need the competition). And if we want access to more Prince music, an expanded fanbase–one that is both wide and deep–should be important to everyone.
That’s why I recommend anyone reading this post to support, on some level, the release of Purple Rain deluxe. Obviously, no one should spend money on anything they don’t want to. If you don’t care about the single edits–and really, who can blame you?–go for the “regular” deluxe instead of the “Deluxe Expanded.” If you want some of the bonus tracks but not all, download the individual MP3s. Or, hell, stream them via your service of choice–whatever fraction of a penny NPG Records is paid per stream is still better than nothing. But whatever you decide, the sad truth of our capitalist society is that art, especially popular art, can’t exist on merit alone. If you want more of Prince’s catalogue to receive the archival treatment it deserves–even if you’re disappointed by this first attempt–then on some level, you’re going to have to vote with your dollar and support what we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great first step.
If you want to support this blog–which, in defiance of our capitalist society, does exist on merit alone–you can buy the Deluxe Expanded edition of Purple Rain (or anything else!) using my Amazon links.