Prince #5: 1999
To me, age 12 in 1982, Prince seemed to come out of nowhere with 1999. I certainly didn’t know he’d had four previous albums, nor that he’d had hits with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad.” I do remember Casey Kasem talking about how Prince played all the instruments on his records, but I didn’t really have a grasp on what that meant.
To listen to 1999 now is to hear the culmination of Prince’s most alone years. Which seems contradictory, since it’s the album with (thus far) the most outside contributors: Dez Dickerson plays an adequate solo on “Little Red Corvette”; Bobby Z adds drum fills on “Lady Cab Driver,” and a whole host of Prince regulars (Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Jill Jones) sing background parts. Yet it’s also the most insular of Prince’s first five albums, due in large part to the mostly-electronic production. Prince had discovered programmable drums by now, as well as adding to his arsenal of synthesizers. So while there’s guitar and bass on the album, it’s really dominated by electronics. As such, it can be a little thin-sounding, and not a little claustrophobic. In other words: the perfect template for ’80s pop music.
While Dirty Mind and Controversy had been critical favorites and had grown his audience beyond R&B radio — Dirty Mind, in particular, connected with New Wave fans — neither was a smash success. Prince, a person for whom “ambition” seems too weak a word — must have felt frustrated. He wasn’t allowed to tour for his first album, spent the next three albums either supporting other acts or playing smaller venues on his own. 1999 is the sound of a person hurling himself at the gates in a last dash to get in before they close: the songs are all long, yet carefully crafted; the sounds still feel like the future; the topics are pure Prince — love, energetic sex, and God.
In a number of books on David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust is repeatedly described as the culmination of Bowie’s frustrations — he’d spent years trying to make something happen, with little success in the UK and absolutely nothing in the US. In Ziggy, he created not just an album but an entire persona to go with it, along with the impression that he was a much bigger deal than he was. It paid off, obviously, and Bowie became the star he’d always thought he should be. So, too, with 1999. Prince again recorded the album mostly by himself, he drew the damn cover (including the “and the Revolution” hidden in the letters), and he designed the tour featuring Vanity and The Time, both of whose albums he’d written and performed all the music for in addition to making this double album, GOOD GOD. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, 1999 is the first album where Prince used his “regular” voice and not a falsetto for his lead vocals. Clearly, he meant for 1982-83 to be his year.
It’s a funny album. The first two tracks are also the first singles — “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” — and they were both recorded on the same day, which was also the last day of tracking for the album. They’re also the two songs that stand apart from the rest of the album in that they sound like full-band recordings, with layers of guitar, real drums, and bass in addition to the keyboards and Linn drum technology. (I’m always puzzled as to why Prince let Dez Dickerson do the solo on “Little Red Corvette,” as it’s a fine solo but miles beneath what Prince himself would have done. I never feel bad saying this, since Dickerson left the touring band under “moral” objections over Prince’s lyrical content, yet never hesitates to take credit for helping make Prince what he was.)
With those first two songs, Prince literally invents the sound of the ’80s, in the way that the Byrds or Jefferson Airplane seem to encapsulate the sound of the ’60s. The keyboards are somehow both raunchy and stately (appropriately enough), the programmed drums augment the punchy real ones, and the female background vocals (on “1999”) have that blasé quality that carried over from New Wave, or what might be termed Sexy Vampire. (See also: Blondie, The Waitresses.) But the tempo and the urgency and the guitars were apparently enough to get both songs regular play not just on the Top 40 countdown I listened to on Sundays, but on WAAF and WBCN, two of the white-boy rock stations in Massachusetts that, just a couple of years earlier, had been part of the “Disco Sucks!” brigade. Now they were playing a black artist with a bank of synthesizers and electronic drums all over his recordings.
The album’s high points don’t stop there, oh no. And it’s fun to imagine someone who’d bought 1999 because of those first two singles discovering…all the rest of it. “Delirious,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” and “D.M.S.R.” are all perfect marriages of synth pop and R&B; then “Automatic” and “Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)” veer out of R&B altogether and into near-Kraftwerk territory, before “Free” shows up, an anthemic piano-and-guitar ballad. After that, it’s back to long, often discursive songs: “Lady Cab Driver,” “All the Critics Love U in New York,” “International Lover.” Even if you didn’t buy the album for the synth-funk, I can’t imagine having listened to it untransformed. This is one of those works that truly doesn’t sound like anything that came before it, where you realize you’re utterly in someone else’s hands, in that someone else’s realm.
- Back to “Free”: Prince LOVED guitar anthems. “Purple Rain” is the most obvious choice, but witness also “The Cross” (from Sign O’ the Times), “Dolphin” and “Gold” from The Gold Experience, right up through “Baltimore” from HitnRun Phase Two.
- Knowing as much Prince music as I now do, particularly the outtakes and demos others have been kind enough to share, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is pure Prince-alone-in-the-studio-late-at-night magic. It’s easy to picture him building the song as he goes, especially the ending spoken-word part where he goes from sex-talk (“I’m not saying this just to be nasty: I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth.”) to a kind of chanted mission statement:
- Whatever you heard about me is true
I change the rules and do what I wanna do
I’m in love with God, he’s the only way
‘Cuz you and I know we gotta die some day
If you think I’m crazy, you’re probably right
But I’m gonna have fun every motherfuckin’ night
If you like 2 fight, you’re a double-drag fool
I’m goin’ 2 another life, how ’bout you?
- Whatever you heard about me is true
- That chant is one of the keys to Prince, and it’s one of those things you have to decide whether you’re in or out with him. You can’t have Prince without the God stuff, not without picking and choosing so much that you lose the essence of the artist. Purple Rain (the album) is full of it — cut one, side one, “Let’s Go Crazy,” starts with a sermon — and live recordings from the Purple Rain tour show he actually loaded up several of the songs with new references or asides about God. He was not kidding about this stuff, ever, but there’s a whole book to be written about Prince’s theology, as it develops and recedes throughout his career in a fascinating way. As an agnostic, it’s hard sometimes to listen to the God stuff without wanting to pull away, but the Prince fan in me wins out, every time, to the point where I have no problem listening to The Rainbow Children, made at the height of his Jehovah’s Witness conversion.
- That “knock” sound, the one that reverberates through the opening of “1999,” and which would show up on every one of the Revolution albums: it’s allegedly a Linn LM-1 drum sample played through a guitar pedal. The LM-1 was to Prince what the Roland TR-808 was to 80s hip-hop. Prince, according to his longtime engineer Susan Rogers, was a master of drum programming, a skill he used right up through his final albums. (One of which, HitnRun Phase One, starts with a brief sample of “1999.”)
- 1999 is rarely my first choice — it sounds so lonely to me — but it’s so complete, so him, that I can’t just start it or dip into it; I have to play the whole thing. (Also in this torturous category: Bowie’s Blackstar, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, the Hamilton soundtrack.)
- The videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” are fun, and (appropriately enough) also look they were made together on the same day. They’re probably also responsible for a lot of young boys’ misguided notions of lesbianism.
- As if he didn’t have enough going on, Prince had also seriously upped his dancing skills by the time of the “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” videos. If you don’t believe me, look at live footage or music videos from either the Dirty Mind or Controversy eras.
- Confession time: until 2016, I had never heard the full version of “1999,” only the single. I had no idea about “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you” or “Why does everybody have a bomb?” I was a fool!
- Though she wouldn’t join the Revolution until the next year, this is the first appearance of Wendy Melvoin in a Prince album. She was visiting Lisa Coleman when Prince had her add backing vocals to “Free.” She was 18.