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Bold Generation: On Prince’s 1999

July 03, 2020 7 min read

Bold Generation: On Prince’s 1999

By Dean Van Nguyen
 

It begins with the end of the world. Prince’s fifth album envisions the apocalypse not as a moment of chaos and disorder, but humanity’s last chance to get up and get down. When the famous synth riff of “1999” hits, it sounds like the sky falling down. Purple dust descends as the atmosphere caves in, the population packs into urban streets to watch the spectacle. In this moment, it’s easy to imagine the destruction of our species as a cause for celebration. You will know when the moment comes whether Prince was right.
As things turned out, 1999 wasn’t about the end of life itself, but a new beginning. In Prince’s unimpeachable discography, it’s impossible not to see the album as a real moment. Prior to its release in 1982, the Minneapolis chanteur specialised in pocket funk tunes with a hard-rock edge; striking pop radio ditties delivered in an androgynous  falsetto. While Dirty Mind and Controversy had been the zenith of Prince’s early penchant for compact arrangements, 1999 was grandiose. If Controversy was about truth-telling, 1999 was about myth-making. Sessions coincided with the release of Blade Runner, a movie Prince is said to have been so enthralled by, its cyberpunk vision leaked into the futuristic grooves of his music. Like the best science fiction, 1999 defined not what lay ahead, but present day pop culture.

Yet the record was born out of a grim setback. Prince’s decision to open for The Rolling Stones was seen as good business at the time – an opportunity for the rising star to display his distinct genius in front of a new audience. But when he took to stage at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in October 1981 (not as chief support act, believe it or not, as Prince was scheduled to play before both George Thorogood and The Destroyers, and The J. Geils Band), he encountered a half-drunken crowd offended by this diminutive figure in crotch-hugging underwear and a trenchcoat.

After opening with disco bop “Uptown”, Prince sensed the crowd’s unrest and so ordered his band to go into the more hard-rocking “Bambi”. In what could be interpreted as a moment of artistic evolution, he tuned his voice from the falsetto of early recordings to a deeper baritone more closely aligned with his speaking tone. Still, the group was forced to abandon the set after 25 minutes. Prince immediately flew back to Minnesota with no intention of returning to open for the Stones the following night. It was only guitarist Dez Dickerson’s urgings that reversed his decision. But word of the previous performance only emboldened the crowd to jeer Prince as if it was some kind of game, and so there was a repeat of the sorry scene. The rest of the tour with the Stones was mercifully cancelled. We all hope those fans who partook in this unfortunate spectacle went on to feel suitably ashamed by their behavior.
It’s impossible to imagine the experience didn’t change Prince. It must have percolated in his mind, tugging away at his heels. We do know he vowed to never open for another artist again – a promise to himself that he never broke. Leaving behind the unpleasant experience and moving into a brave new era, Prince doubled down, pushing his style to outlandish new places. Throwing himself into his work, he worked relentlessly on not just his own output, but music for The Time and Vanity 6, while creating alter ego Jamie Starr. It all gave the impression of a happening new funk and pop scene out of Minneappolis. Only those paying close attention knew that the solar system revolved around one creative sun.
Inside the 1999 record sleeve you’ll find some of my favourite photographs of Prince. There’s a picture of him standing in front of The Revolution, the whole band bathed in a pink light beaming through a large window. The one of Prince laying naked beneath bed covers as lasers fire through the bedroom window – his famous purple trenchcoat tossed on the floor, a paintbrush in hand and watercolour paints by his side – is a shot of pure eroticism. It’s visceral imagery that today rings of 1980s pop culture retro-futurism. But it’s those windows that add another level of intrigue. Outside is the world Prince builds over the course of the album – a city constructed on lights and lasers, a universe of dance, music, sex and romance populated with international lovers and lady cab drivers. Released two years later, Purple Rain was Prince’s masterpiece of pop composition as he envisioned a new Minneappolos fully on show in the accompanying movie. But with 1999, Prince willed a new world into existence. Certainly the computerised blips of “All The Critics Love You in New York” do not sound inspired by our dimension’s version of the city that Truman Capote, Lou Reed and Melle Mel called their home.
How revolutionary was this world? A line like, “It's time for a new direction/ It’s time for jazz to die,” seems out of character for an artist who regularly paid tribute to his musical forefathers. But Prince was never worried about contradiction – he’s the artist, after all, who often decried the internet while also being one of its great music industry pioneers. As he entered his brilliant peak, The Kid, just 24-years-old when 1999 dropped, was in a mood to burn everything down and start again.
It’s unusual for a double disc pop album to only have 11 songs, but Prince allows each composition to stretch its legs. Even the singles here are in their lengthier, definitive versions (many compilations still select the shortened 12-inch edits). Take opener “1999”: much has been written about how Prince displayed his masterful instinct by staggering the lead vocals originally conceived as a harmony between himself, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones. But a key moment comes down the stretch of the album version, when a heavily manipulated voice utters the words, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”. It’s scarier than anything on “Ronnie Talk to Russia”, Prince’s to-the-point plea for diplomacy that appeared on Controversy.
On June 12, 1982 a rally against nuclear weapons drew 750,000 worried souls to New York City’s Central Park. Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor were among those in attendance. Less than two months later, Prince, inspired by the Orson Welles-narrated Nostradamus documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, laid down “1999”. Only The Purple One could bottle genuine apocalyptic anxiety and turn it into a good time.
Evidence of the extra oomph in Prince’s orchestration is in “Little Red Corvette”, a pop classic delivered by a synth riff as powerful as anything under the hood of a two-passenger sports car. Continuing to flaunt his MTV chops, he completed the album’s opening three tracks – also its first selection of singles – with “Delirious”. It’s funny: D’Angelo, one of Prince’s true musical descendants, favoured complex compositions so much that he was said to have disliked his own song “Lady” – that is, until fans started telling him that their children had been conceived to the slow jam. If D needed a lesson in the power of simplicity, he should have examined “Delirious”. The six-note keyboard riff that runs through the arrangement is naturally catchy and so Prince builds a devilishly simple melody around it that’s half rockabilly, half old Hollywood musical.
Can we talk about the drums on this thing for a second? Prince’s signature knocking percussion became one of 1980s pop’s defining characteristics and a core tenet of the Minneapolis sound. You’ll never hear that distinct beat without thinking about Prince. Just ask The-Dream, whose liberal use of those drums always plays like homage, or SympleSound’s Francis Preve, who in 2016 created a sample pack that recreated the style. “Prince’s approach to drum machines was just as unique as Hendrix’s revolutionary guitar work – and just as versatile an ingredient in other artists’ work,” said Preve at the time.
Those drums run through a song like “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)”, one of Prince’s finest ever compositions. It’s a number that finds beauty in android existence, the jittery hi-hats and computer riffs sounding like a cyborg with love anxiety. Prince takes classic blues woman-done-me-wrong subject matter and sends it into another dimension. Examining his own body, he ponders on the perceived cruelty of his lovers – “Some people tell me I got great legs/Can’t figure out why you make me beg” – his voice tuned to a quaking stutter.
The interstellar grooves make it easy to see why Prince couldn’t find a place on the album for his greatest piano ballads ever, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”, a song written over bottles of Rémy Martin and Asti Spumante with trusted audio engineer Peggy McCreary, often the only person in the studio as the artist worked. (McCreary spoke about the song’s creation in an enlightening four-part podcast released last year to coincide with a new reissue of the album). “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” ended up on the “1999” B-side, but that piano stool atmosphere was channelled on “Free”, a song that plays like a movie’s closing credits music, and the album’s actual closer,  “International Lover”.
Earlier takes of the song feature Prince singing in a deeper voice but the slithering ballad demanded he tune his voice to a high falsetto. Playing the role of a global loverman, the back end of “International Lover” sees him amusingly slip into the role of a sexual pilot speaking to passengers from his cabin: “If for any reason there is a loss in cabin pressure/ I will automatically drop down to apply more/ To activate the flow of excitement.” Dropping a conversational verse into a slow jam was something he loved: see “Shhh”, recorded some 13 years later. It’s a playful end to 1999. Prince starts the album with a bomb and ends with a kiss.
1999 was something of a breakthrough. It’s impossible to envision Prince having the same artistic juice and pop culture presence to go and create Purple Rain without it. The sound he discovered, the prolific rhythm he found and the side projects he developed all propelled Prince to a high level of creativity that saw him forge one of the greatest pop music runs of all time. For the rest of the decade he served up classic album after classic album like it was absolutely nothing.
It may not get called masterpiece with the same frequency as Purple Rain or Sign o’ The Times, but I always find myself being tempted back to 1999, to learn the far ends of the compositions, to re-enter that universe of purple skies, when armageddon was just a kiss away. You wouldn’t trade it to save the world.