Words by Balearic Mike.
Two of my favourite LPs celebrated their birthdays in October 2022. This, one of the greatest LPs ever made, was released 40 years ago, on 27th October 1982.
This wasn’t the first Prince LP that I ever heard, or bought. Nope, of course it wasn’t. As with most people I know, that honour would go to Prince’s sixth LP, 1984’s “Purple Rain”. But this, his fifth, was probably the most important of his career at the time, paving the way for the superstardom to come. It still stands as an incredible body of work. Its conception actually grew out of probably the biggest blow to his self-belief that he`d experienced so far.
At the tail end of 1981 Prince was on a roll. His “Dirty Mind” LP had been a huge leap forward artistically, and its visionary combination of electronic funk, spikey new wave, and R&B, had proved something of a critical and commercial success. The subsequent tour had seen him garner a legion of new fans – completing a successful European tour for the first time, and culminating in a sell-out show at The Ritz in New York in front of a star-studded audience (“All the critics love you in New York”). Among those stars was Mick Jagger, who was so impressed he asked Prince to open for The Rolling Stones in October 1981, in front of 94,000 fans, in L.A.
With his next LP “Controversy” already recorded, and just a few weeks away from release, these gigs supporting The Stones should have been a glorious celebration of how far Prince had come, but they were a disaster. Although Prince had front-loaded his set with some rockier numbers to appease the mainly white, rock fans, by the third number the audience had noticed that the young African American playing guitar and dancing around the stage was also wearing lady’s bikini underwear and high-heeled boots, and turned on the band horribly. Prince stormed from the stage during “Uptown” and the set was over. Although guitarist Dez Dickerson managed to persuade him to come back and play the next day’s gig, by then the story of the previous show had amplified through the media, meaning the reception was even worse, and the band were pelted with objects from the get-go.
Prince fled to the studio – his favourite, L.A.’s Sunset Sound. He’d finished off “Controversy” here with engineer Peggy McCreary, and returning he asked for her again. It was time for him to take stock of what had happened and immerse himself in his work. Prince decided that he would never open for another act again, and he would stop doing interviews. This was the birth of the huge aura of mystery which would surround Prince for most of the coming decade.
From late 1981 through early 1982, Prince decamped to Sunset Sound and began what McCreary would later call ‘gruelling’ sessions, which would culminate with the “1999” album. Prince never stopped writing and recording, and by now had also set up a home studio in his ‘Purple House’ in Kiowa Trail, Chanhassen (it wasn’t really purple). Prince would never be more prolific in the studio than in 1982. As well as the material for his new album – for the first time a double – the sessions would also produce all the material for the second LP from The Time, Prince’s vehicle for his friend Morris Day, and songs which would become an album for a new act, Vanity 6.
Vanity 6 rose from the ashes of a project called The Hookers, which had fizzled out in early `81. After meeting, and falling in love at first sight with, Canadian actress-turned-singer Denise Katrina Mathews in January ’82, Prince decided to revive the project with two of its original members – his former girlfriend Susan Moonsie, and Brenda Bennett, wife of his long-time lighting and stage designer LeRoy – adding Denise to form a trio. Initially Prince wanted to rename Denise ‘Vagina’, but thankfully was talked out of that idea, settling on ‘Vanity’ instead as a stage name, and Vanity 6 were born. As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Prince did write a song called “Vagina” at this time, although there is nothing to indicate he planned to give it to Denise to sing. The song is incredible – a kind of proto-transgender anthem – and was finally released on the deluxe edition of “1999” in 2019.
In March, Prince took his band out on the road for the “Controversy” tour, which was another huge success, and then returned to the studio to record, record, record. The amount of material Prince was creating at this time is just phenomenal. Peggy McCreary was never sure what project the material was intended for, but this process seems to have been quite fluid, with tracks intended for one project sometimes ending up on another. Prince was assisted greatly in this intense cycle of recording by the acquisition of a new toy, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer. I think it might be safe to say that few recording tools imprinted themselves onto Prince’s sound, or recording technique, like this little box of tricks. Enabling him to program the most insanely funky drum patterns in minutes, without having to have a drummer on standby or relay ideas, this machine can be heard on all his great `80s LPs from “1999” onwards.
The music just kept coming. LPs from The Time and Vanity 6 were released that summer, produced by the mysterious Jamie Starr (Clue: it’s really Prince, who also wrote nearly all the music, as well as recording it all). A musical highlight must be the Vanity 6 track “Nasty Girl”, which has managed to have an afterlife as a club classic in the post-house music world we now live in. Prince then managed to convince Warner Bros to release a double LP, something record companies are loath to do. The quality – and length, most of the songs are over 6 minutes long – of the material convinced them, and this stunning set of songs was released. “1999” is even more varied than its predecessors, and over its 11 tracks we get rockabilly, in single “Delirious”, the “Purple Rain” pre-empting power ballad “Free”, sexy, seductive (and hilarious) soul music on album closer “International Lover’, which was originally intended for The Time. The LP, however, is dominated by a futuristic form of machine funk, building on the sound of “Dirty Mind” and “Controversy”, and obviously hugely influenced by Zapp’s “More Bounce To The Ounce”. With the addition of the Linn LM-1, Prince manages to sculpt a sound which is harder, rawer, more futuristic, more threatening, and just more exciting than on those previous LPs.
The P-Funk inspired “D.M.S.R.” (Dance, Music, Sex, Romance, still the main points of interest for Prince) might be the most obvious, but on the deeper LP cuts “Automatic”, “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)”, “Lady Cab Driver” and “All The Critics Love You In New York” (turned into a jackin’ slice of house music over a decade later by legendary Detroit DJ / Producer Kenny Dixon Jnr., a.k.a. Moodymann), Prince is really pushing this futuristic machine funk to its limits. Many of these songs, including the criminally (until recently) unreleased “Purple Music”, would act as touchstones for the house music producers of Chicago and Detroit over the coming years. Listen to Jamie Principle’s “Baby Want’s To Ride” on Trax Records, or “Waiting For My Angel”, or Hercules (Marshall Jefferson and Adonis) “7 Ways To Jack” on Dance Mania and tell me these guys haven’t had “1999” on heavy rotation.
The album’s crowning jewels would prove to be two of the last tracks recorded, both completed at home in his Kiowa Trail studio. These being the LPs first singles, “Little red Corvette” and the title track, with the latter’s creation something of a legend. After a day spent first rehearsing Vanity 6, then The Time, and then his own (soon to be renamed) band, Prince knocked up the basic elements of “1999” after everyone else had gone home. He then woke up Jill Jones – who was asleep upstairs – to record her vocal part at 3AM. The whole thing was done in a day.
“1999” was released at the end of October, in a striking purple sleeve. Purple would, from now on, feature heavily in Prince’s world. The typography is based on Prince’s hand-drawn ideas, with a hidden message in the “i” of Prince, hinting at the new name of his band in mirror writing, and announcing the record as being by ‘Prince and the Revolution’ for the first time. The photo on the inner sleeve, of Prince writhing naked on a bed, is apparently based on the movie, “Blade Runner”, according to photographer Allen Beaulieu.
The release of the single “1999” and LP saw both propelled up the charts to reasonable positions in the US, but it was when MTV finally caved and began playing the video for second single, “Little Red Corvette”, in early ’83, that the LP really began to sell in serious numbers, finally going top 10 in the US, but peaking at #28 in the UK. This despite the cunning move of the UK record company to release a budget ‘single LP’ version in the spring of 1983, with a different sleeve and horribly butchered track list. The only good thing about this version is the now legendary ‘eye’ design of the record labels I’m afraid, and it didn’t work anyway. Sales didn’t increase in the UK.
In the US, however, Prince was becoming very hot! The dual success of the singles was propelling the LP back up the charts, with an added buzz coming from the “1999” tour – the triple bill of The Time, Vanity 6 (with The Time backing them from behind a curtain), and Prince taking the states by storm. With the airplay “Little Red Corvette” was picking up, both on MTV and FM radio, for the first time Prince was seeing the percentage of his audience that was white, increase massively. The tour ended up grossing over $10 million, and coupled with his new found superstar status, and carefully cultivated air of mystery, he was now in a position whereby he could convince Warners to let him make the album, and movie, “Purple Rain”, which would see him conquer the world in 1984.
“Purple Rain” was my entry point. Well, the single “When Doves Cry” was. I went to see the film on my own a couple of times (I was actually too young, as it was a 15 certificate in the UK, but obviously my hard Scottish childhood down the pit meant I looked ‘mature’ enough), and I then persuaded some of my new class mates to come and see it. I`d just moved to England that summer, and so was settling in. Taking two other 13/14-year-old boys to see a film, with not only great music, but very attractive women and some ‘shagging’, instantly anointed me with a new found aura of cool in the eyes of my peers. Which was nice.
I listened to “Purple Rain” endlessly, but had to have more. The “1999” LP was the only other Prince album that I could find in the record shops of Warrington, although there were loads of places where you could buy records in those days. As well as HMV and Andy’s Records, we had another indie store, and WH Smith, Woolworths, and several other high street shops had large record departments back then. There were also a couple of stalls in the market. Warners would very soon reissue Prince’s first 4 albums as mid-price LPs, so they were in effect the same price as a UK 12”, something like £2.49, but for now, this expensive double LP was it.
I bought “1999”, and instantly loved it. I like it much more than “Purple Rain”, and arrived at that conclusion pretty quickly. The record in the photo is my original copy. The records play beautifully, but the sleeve and inners are badly torn. This happened quite soon after I bought it. One of the friends I`d taken to see “Purple Rain” – a lad called Lee Rutter – asked to borrow “1999” so he could tape it. I lent him the LP, and he returned it to me at school the next day. We were on the concrete tennis courts at lunch time, about to start playing football, and I placed the record – in the carrier bag he returned it in – against one of the concrete pillars that held the encircling wire mesh fence. Instantly someone booted the football, and it hit the record square on, crushing it flat against the concrete pillar. I looked at it in horror, the kid responsible apologising profusely. The sleeve has badly torn, so I could only imagine the damage to the LPs, but they had been flat against a solid support, and were both fine. The sleeve was, and still is a right mess though.
I picked the single vinyl edition up many years later, I think during my first stay in Brighton, and then of course the deluxe edition was released at the end of 2019. It’s a very special thing, with the vault tracks quite simply sensational, giving a fuller picture of just what sort of creative peak Prince was on at that time.
Anyway, I have managed to ramble on at quite some length. But that’s only fitting for such an incredible record. A magnificent artistic statement, and a decade defining album. Happy birthday to “1999”. Old, but still younger than me. I just wish your creator was still here to read the nice things I’ve written about it. And to make more music.
“Not knowing where I’m going in this galaxy is better, than not having a place to go…”
You can also check out the super silk screen prints of “Balearic Wife” over at @jo_lambert_print – personally I think they’d make damn fine record sleeves / disco bags.