What does it sound like?:
1999 was Prince’s breakthrough album. Released in 1982, it was his fifth and yielded his first top ten singles, bringing him to the attention of a wider audience and giving him the platform for the mega-Michael Jackson stardom Purple Rain would bring. It marks the start of his imperial phase.
It’s a double LP. Although Prince had plenty of songs available, he fills it by extending the length of the eleven tracks, allowing his vivid, depraved imagination to roam free. He simplified the sound of its predecessors, Dirty Mind and Controversy, using mainly synthesisers and a Linn drum machine, plus some bass and electric guitars. He keeps the instrumentation tight, creating a stark, robotic, electro-funk that helped define the Detroit Sound. Afrika Bambaata’s Kraftwerk influenced Planet Rock clearly had an impact but it was the feel and tone of Blade Runner and its Vangelis soundtrack that impressed Prince most. Somewhat improbably, The Stray Cats inspired some experimentation with Rockabilly. The vocals are key. Across the album, he deploys five backing vocalists, mainly female, and shares lead vocals with two of them on the title track. However, Prince’s own singing is stunning. The textures and range of expression he achieves provide the emotional sparks powering the heart of the album. The cover credits ‘and the revolution’ in backwards writing but only Dez Dickerson plays an instrument other than Prince himself and he does so on just the one track.
The hits are lined up in sequence at the start. The title track, 1999, is the party banger to end all parties, updating Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, exhorting listeners faced with impending apocalypse to make the most of the little time left and dance. Its shelf life extended beyond the turn of the century and it has become one of Prince’s signature songs. Little Red Corvette, the real chart break-through, is a breathless, yearning summation of Prince at his very best. It is a triumph of innuendo with an irresistible melody, an ear-worm chorus and a heartrending Dickerson guitar solo. Delirious, accurately describing Prince’s state of mind at the time, updates rockabilly and makes it swing like a mother, scoring another cross-over hit. Free is an ode to the American ideal of freedom, almost a wistful lullaby. All The Critics Love U In New York is a witty put-down of hipsters until it degenerates towards the end. Otherwise, the subject matter is sex all the way. It’s been said that Prince sings about sex, like B.B. King sings the blues. He wakes up in the morning, if he sleeps at all, and obsesses. It all-consumes him and the extended format gives him the opportunity to indulge his fantasies explicitly. It’s sex, sex in cars, sex in hotels, morning sex, evening sex, animal sex, bondage sex, robot sex, computer sex, sex everywhere at all times of the day in all kinds of ways. The ‘R’ in D.M.S.R. refers to romance but there isn’t any. Remember, this is a man who thinks that marriage equates to being able to ‘go all night’. Many of the women Prince writes about on 1999 are intelligent, but he has no interest in conversation. He just wants to fuck. Intensely. To a funky rhythm. It’s just possible that, along with Little Richard as one of Rock’s biggest narcissist, he’s singing to himself, but, at this distance, the listener emerges as if from a hedonistic all-night party, blinking and blood-shot, feeling exhilarated and soiled at the same time.
1999 was Prince’s last LP of the vinyl/cassette era. It has a chequered history on CD, initially a double CD, then a single disc missing D.M.S.R. until CDs had the capacity to contain the whole of the album. However, Prince loved physical product, famously resisting digital downloads and streaming for almost all of his career and ruthlessly policing youtube. The keepers of the vault, led by Michael Howe, have done him proud with this package. It comes in Remaster, Deluxe and SuperDeluxe formats on CD or vinyl: the Remaster is simply the original album remastered by Bernie Grundman, who worked on the original album with Prince, the Deluxe adds a disc of the seven inch single edits, B sides and promos, and the SuperDeluxe adds a further two discs of out-takes, a disc of a live concert from 30th November 1982 plus a DVD of a second concert recorded December 29th the same year. There is, of course, a 48 page booklet with articles by David Fricke, Duff McKagan, Andrea Swensson and Duane Tudahl. The Superdeluxe also features revamped silver cover art. There may be criticism of a lack of Blu-Ray but the December concert recording quality is only suited to DVD. All three sizes of product are reasonably priced.
The collection of B sides and promos is a comprehensive eighteen tracks. 1982 was peak 12″ extended mix but the singles from 1999 had to be compressed to fit on 7″. All the ‘extended’ versions were actually on the album itself. Little Red Corvette enjoys a couple of dance mixes but only one is lengthier. All the B sides are here and there’s room for mono mixes of 1999 and Let’s Pretend We’re Married.
The real treasure is the material from The Vault, twenty-four tracks, mostly unreleased versions or songs completely unheard before, all from late 1981 or 1982. They are much more relaxed and less synthesised, usually featuring a full band set up of drums, bass, guitar, piano. They spotlight Prince’s versatility, including his playful, vulnerable and sensitive sides. It’s here where The Revolution was brewing, formulating a more organic, natural sound that would serve Prince well for the rest of the decade. The early Feel U Up is slinkier than the Partyman B side, segueing medley-style into a deep throat Irresistible Bitch. The original Something In The Water is rather gentle and lovely with its piano glissandos. Take one of International Lover is also much more romantic without its anguished falsetto. Clearly, he made an active decision to, ahem, firm both of these up to fit the overall mood of the album. Take two of How Come U Don’t Call More Any More is an astonishing performance, just Prince with his piano, the best of the whole box set. Prince wasn’t artistically stupid. If he had a good song, he’d usually come back to it. Besides Feel U Up, Obsessed was re-recorded during the recording of Purple Rain, Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got ended up on Graffiti Bridge and Bold Generation is a pleasantly swinging piano-led precursor for New Power Generation but none of the later versions are any better.
Moonbeam Levels was cherry-picked for the first posthumous Prince collection. It’s easy to understand why the rest were kept in the can but that doesn’t spoil the pleasure of listening to them together on ‘The Vault’ discs. Many breeze by as cheerful band fodder, not quite fully realised, as though Prince is thinking out loud, but most are impressively polished. Money Don’t Grow On Trees, Yah, You Know, No Call U and Don’t Let Him Fool Ya are poppy dance numbers, a catchy chorus never far away. Vagina may be unpromisingly titled but it’s a remarkable song about a half-boy, half-girl, driven by aggressive Rock guitar. It could have become an anthem for the LGBT+ community. Rearrange is a rocky, musical template for Lady Cab Driver with a vanilla lyric. You’re All I Want was gifted to engineer, Peggy McCready, for her birthday, along with his leather jacket, though at the time she’d have preferred the day off. If It’ll Make U Happy is a sweet swoon of reggae spiced with rock guitar that he tried to give to girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Purple Music, an anti-drug song, shares a very similar synth line to All The Critics Love U In New York, to such a degree Prince deployed them as a medley on his Microphone & Piano tour. Teacher, Teacher, prominently featuring Wendy and Lisa, was considered for inclusion on Dream Factory. There’s even a cover song, Do Yourself A Favor, written by a 94 East band-mate, Pepé Willie. Only Turn It Up, recorded with the album’s palette, had a serious chance of being included on 1999. It was usurped by Delirious. All these songs are at least good, some very good indeed, and the performances are joyful. The mood in The Vault contrasts markedly with the album itself. It begs the question, during those legendary, marathon recording sessions, was there an internal switch flicking between the horny-toad, album Prince and the carefree, let’s-have-fun, outtake Prince? The intensity is cranked up for the live concerts, featuring Prince And The Revolution early in their pomp. A studio demo medley of Lady Cab Driver/I Wanna Be Your Lover/Little Red Corvette demonstrates how thoroughly the shows were constructed.
The new remaster may be subtle to those not intimately familiar with 1999, but it manages to make the album sound cleaner, adds depth and, in particular, brings out Prince’s supple bass playing. The mid-range Deluxe is a missed opportunity, though. The extra disc would be a better sell if it was made up of non-album B sides and generous selections from the Vault outtakes, rather than a duplication of many songs in 7″ edits. According to Michael Howe, the intention of the SuperDeluxe set is to trace Prince’s creative arc as completely as possible and it does seem to include everything they have. As a result, the big box is as definitive a document of Prince in 1982 as the most ardent fan is ever going to get. 1999 SuperDeluxe is the best Prince posthumous box to date and bodes well for the future. Around The World In A Day, Parade and Sign ‘O’ The Times are rumoured to be in the pipeline. In the meantime, there’s a multitude of pleasures to enjoy here.
What does it all *mean*?
Prince was a bloody, little genius. His legacy is in good hands, ones sensitive to the needs of his fans, many of whom should be very happy this Christmas. They just need to think more carefully about the mid-range offer next time.
Goes well with…
Might suit people who like…
Prince Rogers Nelson.