At the beginning of 1984, Prince had a lot of proverbial balls in the air: not only his big-screen debut and accompanying album, but also spinoff projects by the Time, Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, and, soon, Sheila E. Most artists would consider this more than enough to juggle; Prince, however, was not most artists. On January 20, the day after completing the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, he was already at work on a new song for yet another protégée, Scots pop-rock belter Sheena Easton.
I know I say this every time, but hoo boy, has it ever been a while since I wrote one of these: one year, four months, and 30 days, to be precise. In my defense, though, the sprawl of the Purple Rain era has meant that I’ve been concurrently working on two albums (soon to be four!), all of which were completed within a few months of each other–so, when it finally (purple) rains later this year, expect it to pour. In the meantime, we’ve officially reached the end of 1983 in our chronology, and I’d say that calls for a little celebration.
Before we raise our glasses, though, a caveat: as eagle-eyed readers of Duane Tudahl’s Studio Sessions and/or Prince Vault and/or VaultCurator’s studio recordings spreadsheet have no doubt already noticed, we haven’t actually covered every Prince song recorded in that annus mirabilis. A few of these missing numbers (e.g., “Wonderful Ass,” “Strange Relationship,” “My Summertime Thang,” “Promise to Be True,” “Possessed,” “17 Days,” “We Can Fuck”) will be considered alongside later versions in the months and years to come; a few (e.g., “Chocolate,” “G-Spot,” “Mia Bocca,” “The Glamorous Life,” “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar,” “She’s Always in My Hair”) have been held back for editorial purposes until we get closer to their final destinations in Prince’s discography; and a few (e.g., “My Sex,” “Moral Majority,” “Electrocution,” “Money,” “I am Five”) will have to wait until I can, y’know, hear them. Last but not least, I’m currently working on my post about “Sex Shooter,” completed for Apollonia 6 in November 1983.
But still! Here we have 11 recordings–at least two of which, in my opinion, number among the finest in Prince’s career–and they aren’t even a third of what he actually wrote that year. At times like these, it’s tempting to ask what the hell I got myself into; but there’s also the other side of that coin, which is to marvel at the exciting things still ahead. In the meantime, here’s my ranking:
11. “Wednesday” Musical Theatre Prince has never been my favorite of his modes, so this ranking should come as little surprise. Still, it would have been nice to see Jill get her closeup in Purple Rain… I guess there’s always 2024?
9. “Modernaire” I have it on reasonably good authority that this is even more of a Prince song (.org) than I originally thought, so I’m extra glad I wrote about it. But, well, you can see why he gave it to Dez. Still great fun, and if you need a laugh today, rewatch the performance in Purple Rain and just pay attention to Joe Hunt on (conspicuously unplugged) guitar.
7. “Velvet Kitty Cat” Another tricky one to rank, because I’m pretty sure I’m being contrarian by placing it so high: This was near-universally considered a weak link on the Purple Rain expanded set, but I’ve always dug it. So, any other “Velvet Kitty Cat” defenders out there? Anyone?
6. “Cloreen Bacon Skin” Now this one should arguably be placed higher, but I had to make room for some more hobby horses in the top five. Still, if you want to make a case for Prince as a capital-“F” funk artist, I can think of no better exemplar.
5. “Father’s Song” Maybe it’s recency bias, or maybe a wistful, vaguely cyberpunk instrumental is better suited to my early-2022 pandemic vibes than a sweaty 15-minute funk jam. Like I said in the post, this one would have made a killer B-side.
4. 1983 Piano Rehearsal One of those hobby horses I warned you about. I may no longer be able to call Piano & A Microphone 1983 the best posthumous Prince release–Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe has taken that title by brute force–but it’s still the one I revisit most. Detractors (you know who you are) may not need to check your ears, but you should probably check your souls.
3. “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” Hobby horse number two! The fact that I never saw much praise for this ditty from the expanded Purple Rain suggests a surprising lack of crossover between hardcore Prince fans and synthpop lovers. Well, if I have to be the one to claim that sliver of the Venn diagram, so be it.
2. “Electric Intercourse” Yes, we’ve officially reached the two tracks that “number among the finest of Prince’s career.” It’s been said many times before, but the fact that this stayed in the Vault because he came up with a better ballad? Mind-boggling.
1. “Irresistible Bitch” I remember hearing this for the first time on The Hits/The B-Sides, thinking I had my head wrapped around what made Prince great, and then getting it busted open in a whole new way. Almost four decades old and still sounds like the future. As a producer of electronic music, he would reach this peak again, but I’m not sure he ever bested it.
Next up, as noted above, is “Sex Shooter”; I think it will be good, but it’s shaping up to be another long one, so no promises on when it’s coming (I will, however, try to have it ready for patrons before February). I’m also acutely aware that I’m long overdue for a new podcast; again, no promises re: timeline, but now that I’ve finished another batch of posts I think I can start turning my eye in that direction. In the meantime, a belated Happy New Year (whatever that’s worth these days), and thanks for reading!
For those about to stream, we salute you:
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.