Unreleased (1985) / Vermillion (1988)
Before the turn of the millennium my only dalliance with Prince bootlegs was a purchase of the Chocolate Box lp that I chanced upon in my local wrecka stow. I felt like I’d discovered the New World but was all too aware that its ten songs (half of which were alternate versions of album tracks I already owned) were barely the tip of the iceberg. I’d read about fabled outcasts with evocative titles like Electric Intercourse and Rebirth of the Flesh but they were just sailors’ tales from distant continents. Unicorns and mermaids. Then Napster arrived and it promised the keys to the vault. I typed in all the unreleased titles I could think of – magic passwords that could beam mythical beasts into my computer – and waited to see if any would materialise. Neon Telephone was the first to arrive. To anyone growing up in today’s fibre-optic age of instant gratification, it’s difficult to relay the anticipation that a night of downloading a single song on a dial-up modem could generate. Especially when a call to your landline is all it would take to land you back at square one. So when the status bar reached 100% my excitement was at fever pitch. I tentatively pressed play. I may have been underwhelmed by the sweet slice of pop psychedelia at first – no song could have matched all the bright colours my imagination had filled it in with over the years – but it had Revolution charm and seemed like a grower. Then a minute from the end, with no warning the song slows down into a slew of phone rings, dial-up noise and cross talk. I thought the file was corrupt, that an incoming call had not disconnected me but insinuated itself into the audio. Or maybe what I was doing was against the laws of physics and I was being transmitted alien warnings or an admonishment from Prince himself. I still toy with this idea sometimes and like to believe I’m listening to a glitched copy, but this means having to ignore Three o’Clock’s release in 1988, which attempts the same ending. If I could gouge out the part of my brain that holds the memory of their version I happily would. Prince’s first demo is the only true Neon Telephone and it’s experimentation instantly transports me back to those early explorative days in the filesharing Wild West. A morally dubious but infinitely exhilarating time. On one hand I was participating in the destruction of the music industry, but on the other I had found my very own unicorn-making machine.
1-800 New Funk (1994) / Crystal Ball (1998)
The big follow-up hit to TMBGITW that never was. Prince’s duet with Nona Gaye was pressed as a promotional single for the 1-800 New Funk compilation, and featured remixes by Blackstreet’s Teddy Riley and Digital Underground’s Shock G. A full retail release was planned but nixed by a record label still smarting from the backfired decision to let Prince release his last single independently. However, Shock G’s Silky Remix found refuge on Crystal Ball four years later and has dated the least out of all the versions, probably due to owing a heavy debt to the timeless DMSR. Love Sign is a soulful rose placed in the barrel of a g-funk rifle. An appeal for throwing up love signs instead of guns, which (in spite of the relentless “pop, pop, pop go the pistol” refrain on the original) is a poignant song to give a woman whose father was fatally shot. It’s also arguably the chillest track Prince put out in the 90s. One for the Lotus-eaters. I’ve heard it said that listening to music can alter your heartbeat – if so, Love Sign could be prescribed as a high-strength beta blocker and should be avoided being taken with alcohol.
Prince berates it back to the old school with a funky Camille grumblefest. Camille is now old and cranky and complaining about wealth inequality, the current state of music and, ironically, people who complain. For somebody telling us they’d rather not reminisce, they spend a lot of time getting nostalgic about music and traditional family values back in the day. I guess that Better With Time sentiment of the preceding song didn’t last long. If Ol’ Skool Company was an acapella it would be a pitched-up Grandpa Simpson telling those pesky kids to get off his lawn, but luckily, like with Musicology, Prince flashes his credentials. A meaty Minneapolis Sound beat reminds us whose genre it is, and when the gripes stop and the guitar sings I forgive all contradictions and build a pyre of my entire CD collection in solidarity.
Unreleased (1983) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Prince wrote Possessed after attending a James Brown concert, and later dedicated it to him on 1985’s Prince and the Revolution: Live. TOn this video the song wears its influence fully on its sleeve, but the original studio version, recorded two years earlier, took Mr Dynamite to another level – James Brown 2.0: Spooky Electric Boogaloo. On this robo-funk groove the Oberheim synths shimmer and the empyrean guitar-work is pure fire, but the lyrics go to a darker place as Prince rattles the cage of his inner suppressed demon and stokes his “satanic lust”. It’s the “I want you, I need you, I must have you” brand of pop where the tape is left running and all the worrying implications and subtext leak to the surface. This early incantation may have scared him as it was subsequently buried in a lead box, before it broke free to live amongst the shadows of the bootleg world. A new version was recorded the following year and briefly cropped up in the background of a scene in Purple Rain, however it would be 33 years until we got to hear it in full. The lyrics were reworked to be less menacing (apart from a bizarre aside about tearing people into little pieces to sell as a jigsaw puzzle) but conversely the music is infinitely more unsettling. Bassless and guitarless, the 1984 version flutters and trembles like the palpitations of a diseased mind. It’s a lot more experimental and will likely take up residence in the darkest corners of your dreams but unlike the 1983 original it forgets to inject the funk into its dysfunction.
Unreleased (1985) / The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale (1999)
l never used to understand the scorn for the updated Old Friends 4 Sale. Maybe because I heard it before the unreleased original, but to me the two versions didn’t sound too dissimilar. Yes,the haunting melancholy has been slightly bleached with time and we’ve lost the personal references about Dez leaving and Wendy joining The Revolution (first verse), The Time disbanding and the subsequent fallout with Morris (second verse) and Prince’s bodyguard selling an exposé to the National Enquirer (third verse). The newer, vaguer lyrics barely make sense, but the string section is the same one recorded in 1985 and still the shining jewel in this ballad of betrayal. Or so I thought. Not long ago I heard the pre-orchestral demo and realised the strings were a distraction all along. Without Clare Fischer’s input we’re relying solely on the vocals to carry us along and hooo boy do they move. A pit of bleak despair has opened up for us to fall into and it’s now clear his later performance is more 9pm showtime than this 4am hotel room rendition, bloodshot and wrecked. There’s no clearer contrast than in the dying seconds: compare how Prince struggles to summon the lifeforce to deliver the final lines in the 1985 recording, while in 1991 he’s chipper enough to throw in a Louis Armstrong-style croon afterwards. Pain has been replaced with theatrics; despair replaced with flair. If you’re after authenticity then the original wins hands down, but is hearing somebody’s spirit break in real time really entertainment?
After having our mind expertly teased away from our body on Come’s title track there’s no respite. The last blast of horns have barely faded and the strings are still hanging in the air when a distant drum loop starts (like Led Zepelin’s When the Levy Breaks heard from space) and we suddenly realise just how far above the earth’s summit we’ve ascended. NASA chatter, beautiful and incomprehensible as birdsong, soon dissipates along with our inner monologue and we’re left outside our thoughts, free to explore the arcana of the cosmos. Virgin souls swimming in a limitless ocean of aether while our ears are being massaged in another realm. It’s an experience that would later explode into a million remixes, including a Madhouse aquatic jazz remake, but none will match that first Space walk where the strobing stars sync with our firing synapses.
This entire list is subjective but if there’s an lp more susceptible to the vagaries of personal taste than any other, it has to be the second NPG solo album. At an impressionable age the leylines of my fondness for Prince and my obsession with George Clinton merged, resulting in the Exodus album blowing my tiny little mind. Has the history of music culminated here? Does anything more need to be recorded? It’s hard to tear away from my initial, jaw-dropped, smitten devotion and impossible to retain a cold, critical ear. So I’ll just say Return of the Bump Squad is better than all of y’all cerebral ballads and I have nothing to back it up except the song itself. Let my placing it mid-list be my one concession to the hilarious concept of impartiality. A fig leaf of respectability. My p-funk loving id has placed it much higher.
Planet Earth (2007)
The track 3 ballad spot on Prince’s 32nd album goes to Somewhere Here on Earth – a song that would receive much more gushing over ifon almost any other lp of his. The year it was released, Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists, performed for 45 minutes in a New York subway disguised as a busker. In this experiment, only 7 out of over 1000 passersby stopped to listen to the Grammy award-winning musician, who sells out theatres for $100 a seat. Setting certainly counts. Those who stop and give Somewhere Here on Earth the time of day will recognise it as a world-class slow jam. A maturer cut to discover and bask in when we’re ready. Live performances help with the setting (especially Montreux 2009 and the same year’s Jay Leno appearance) but I do miss that synthetic vinyl noise. It adds a nostalgic warmth. To anyone growing up in the CD or mp3 age the added pops and crackles may seem gimmicky, but to these vinyl-weened ears they’re a comfort blanket. A little analogue seasoning to bring out the embedded flavours.
Crystal Ball (1998)
Poor 2morrow. It doesn’t receive a lot of attention buried in a 3CD set of outtakes, with a name easily mixed up with 2gether or 2nite. But what class is hidden within. Prince puts The Most Beautiful Girl in the World and Come into a cocktail shaker and pours out a smooth blend of horn-infused, jazzy R’n’B. A Pink Lady with hints of lavender and Ella Fitzgerald. The song, according to the liner notes, is about the girl from the Love 4 One Another movie whom a member of the band had a crush on, but who cares for context when you’re hearing angels dance the language of scat. If you haven’t lost all rational thought by the time the synths start singing along to Prince’s falsetto then you’re made of sterner stuff than I. 2morrow oozes sophistication and could easily be a Montreux showstopper but I don’t think I’ll ever fail to giggle like a schoolboy when I mishear the third line as “I wanna kiss your butt…”
Sandwiched between the two political songs on Musicology lies the infidelity quartet – a suite of songs forming the dark heart of Prince’s marriage breakdown album. The Marrying Kind is the second song in this section and is full of Yeats’ lust and rage. It’s the anger stage that follows the denial stage of What Do U Want Me 2 Do, and precedes the bargaining stage of If Eye Was the Man in Your Life and the begging-for-forgiveness stage of On the Couch. Prince covers a lot of ground in its 2 minutes and 49 seconds – spending the chorus mendaciously buttering up the woman he has this sights on, and the verses firing warning shots at her boyfriend. He also manages to find time to take retaliation at Missy Elliot for her 2002 Work It video that featured an unflattering Prince lookalike. Diamonds and Pearls this ain’t. The guitar adds a menacing undertone and the amount of malice he fits into the phrase “purple satin laces” alone could strip paint. My advice to the unnamed woman can be found in the closing lines: “run away!”
Pop Life single (1985) / The Hits/The B sides (1993)
The story is well known: Prince refused to sing on the charity supergroup single We are the World, instead offering to play guitar and eventually contributing a song for the album. Shyness and illness were both claimed as excuses but Wendy later revealed the real reason was that he thought the Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie-penned song was lame and would tarnish his image. Prince’s non-attendance caused controversy, especially as later that night (a night he was advised to keep a low profile on to let the illness alibi stick) his bodyguard beat up a reporter who allegedly tried to get in Prince’s car. This whole episode is chronicled in the surprisingly outspoken Hello, a b-side more likeable for the music than the hastily-assembled damage control. The uptempo beat is underpinned by an urgent synth line, which sounds like a beeping alarm clock your sleeping mind has woven a narrative around instead of waking you to hit the snooze button. A fantasy world you’ve escaped into, to flee the cold morning accusations. Duvet solace. Hello may, like its magazine namesake, dress up stage-managed PR as a candid glimpse behind the celebrity curtain, but behind the words lie some prime peak-Prince pop that you could live and die in. The extended mix where he withers incoherently about shoes is even better.
Plectrumelectrum (2014) / Art Official Age (2014)
The song that comes in two distinct flavours: Aerosmith-lite and hyphy. I care nothing for the Plectrumelectrum former, and everything (despite its unpopularity) for the Art Official Age latter. Prince and (producer) Joshua dose up on Swizz Beatz, steal his radar pings and throw in guitar stabs for fun. It’s a recipe that could easily go wrong but to these ears they totally kill it. And that’s before we hear the final minute! If, like Cher, I could turn back time I’d jump to before I heard this remix, because to relive the unexpected switch-up for the first time again would be a thing of joy. After three minutes of them getting hyphy with it, the synths arrive, exploding the track into an epic EDM stadium-filler; a Deadmaus career condensed into a 60 second showreel. In the context of the album it’s slightly jarring (the sudden gearshift to the amazing but simmering-boil of Time afterwards is abrupt) but in isolation it’s a hip-height firecracker. This version of Funknroll is a powerful reminder of Prince’s relevancy while his contemporaries languish in their dotage. He promises to “get it turned up, get it out of control” and damn right he delivers. You probably disagree, but then again you probably like your ice cream vanilla and your pizzas margarita. Like the man himself says: “get into the rhythm, it’s good for your soul”.
Long ago Prince was insatiable, but now he’s satisfied with his ballads as long as you are. And why wouldn’t you be? This is bluesy soul perfection. Okay, his slow jams are no longer intrepid walks through long undergrowth, that disturb and fill the sky with brightly coloured birds you’ve never seen before. Satisfied is well trodden territory, but so’s the Inca trail and that doesn’t make the sight of Machu Picchu any less spectacular. There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you’re good at and executing it flawlessly, especially if the next generation are trying to steal your crown with their Voodoo. Satisfied is an Al Green-kissed message to D’Angelo, telling him “if you liked On the Couch, here, try it with honey”.
Planet Earth (2007)
Since Mr Happy Prince has rewritten his playboy playbook. No longer is it the bluntly unromantic “dinner at eight, then intercourse at my place” – now it’s all private jets and mouthfuls of chocolate-covered raisins. Is this a sign of maturity or is he making amends for calling his date a Future Baby Mama? Mr Goodnight is smooth with fourteen O’s and it’s the attention to detail that lifts the beat above your standard hip-this one’s-going-out-to-all-the laydees-hop. The synth washes are like being bathed in milk, and the twinkling “3121” leitmotif is a purple-wrapped gift left for you to discover. Add in lyrics that make James Bond look gauche and you have the finest fan fiction Cyrano de Bergerac never wrote.
The Black Album (1987)
Prince and Sheila E’s instrumental funk jam is an elbows-out, jostling tour de force. If you need to move through a crowd with haste, put this in your earbuds and go hell for leather. It reminds me of a time in France when I was followed by a friendly goat for several miles. I couldn’t escape him. No matter how often I thought I’d shook him off, within moments I’d hear the familiar bleats and he’d appear around the corner. Part of my journey home included a walk along a beach; my perfect chance to outrun the pursuer, especially as it was the hottest day of the year and the world and its wife were there. I ran full tilt, leaping over holidaymakers and sandcastles, certain that I’d lose my caprine admirer in the crowd. But no, after five minutes I looked back and saw the goat steadily trailing me, trampling surprised sunbathers underhoof. That’s what 2 Nigs United 4 West Compton is to me: a persistent and unpredictable bundle of art and mischief, with a wake of destruction that only an amorous goat could leave.
Aeons ago a diminutive humanoid calling himself The Purple Yoda performed We Will Rock You at the Intergalactic Super Bowl. Against a night-coloured backdrop sequinned with galaxies, the silver-clad singer fired off flaming arcs of future funk which lit up the surrounding star systems and caused new religions to be founded. One of these astral volleys eventually reached Earth in the year 2010AD; the music dimmed like distant starlight, a faint echo of its fiery past. The inhabitants were unsure what to do with this strange specimen and to prevent a mass panic decided to bury it as a secret track on a largely ignored album. And there it still lies, occasionally greeting travellers exploring the outer reaches of Prince’s discography and rewarding them with a gift of a conch shell which will instantly transport the listener back to Cassiopeia and the greatest half-time show in the universe’s history.
Despite having the climactic anthems of 7 and 3 Chains o’ Gold at his disposal, the mid-tempo Sacrifice of Victor was always Prince’s pick for album closer. It’s a puzzling sequencing choice, possibly influenced by the storyline that used to course through the album before key segues were removed. Or what’s more likely is the song was always destined to bookend My Name is Prince, a track referenced in the final segue by Vanessa Bartholomew before she says “tell me your real name”. Prince answers “My Name is Victor”. This was his last album before the name-change and a bewildered media started reporting that this is how you pronounce the unpronounceable symbol, causing him to respond in live shows that “my name ain’t Prince and it damn well ain’t Victor”. Indeed. So who is Victor? “What iiiiiiiiis Sacrifice?” There’s whole books you could write about the lyrics in what is probably the most candid song in his repertoire. After a decade and a half of myth-building was this finally a glimpse of autobiographical truth? Did his dad beat him? Did the assassination of Martin Luther King and the ensuing riots help sober his clique up? Was he really epileptic ’til the age of seven? Prince did admit in a 2009 interview that he was born with epilepsy (a disorder that has also afflicted fellow songwriters Neil Young, Ian Curtis and Lil Wayne) and says his “flashy and noisy” persona was crafted to compensate for this struggle. It was a sacrifice he had to endure to make him the man he is today. He’s had trials and tribulations, heartaches and pain. Survived them all baby. And now to the victor belong the spoils.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
Debate rages on as to whether the unreleased The Grand Progression would have been a better inclusion on Graffiti Bridge. Personally I don’t see the appeal of this outtake and keep expecting it to break out into The Monkee’s Early Morning Blues and Greens, although more than one person has told me that it’s their favourite Prince song. Still Would Stand All Time replaced The Grand Progression as the slow ballad in both the film and album, possibly because it made more narrative sense but to these ears it’s clearly the better song. The gospel touches (courtesy of the Steeles) are divine but the real power lies in the atmosphere. It feels like a frozen moment; a death-knell beat ringing out. Or possibly it mimics the slowed perception of time and prominent heartbeat of an adrenaline rush: the build up to a high dive; the elongated pause before a winner’s announcement; an imminent marriage proposal. Then the Debussy flute samples flutter in and your heart swells with emotions you have no name for. I wasn’t always a fan. In my youth I lumped it together with the title track as mawkish gospel schmaltz but the live aftershow version on the infamous Trojan Horse bootleg won me round – memorable for his admonishment “who’s the fool singing ‘will’? It’s ‘would’!” Now the album track soars in my estimation every time I hear it. By the time you read this I’m probably wishing I put it amongst the double digits.
Tight and clinical funk is all well and good but for the real deal you also need to add a bit of rough treatment. Like roast potatoes when you first shake the pan: the flavour lies in the fuzzy edges. In Musicology this fuzz is provided by the synths battering the track towards the end. Those who prefer their old and new schools segregated will probably disagree but in my opinion Prince didn’t go far enough, and I would have loved another couple of minutes for the song to disintegrate into a total synth freakout: a tribute to the analogue days consumed by a digital wildfire. Prince may have built an impressive sandcastle of Mother Popcorn inspired funk but hearing it jumped on is the fun part. Speaking of The Godfather of Soul, when Prince was ten his stepdad briefly put him on stage at one of James Brown’s concerts before security intervened. In the Musicology video there’s a scene that alludes to this, and the accompanying crowd screams that begin to drown out the music is the kind of cacophony the album track misses – a delicious raucousness that echoes the giddy high of being swept up in events you have no control over. You’re about to be bundled off stage at any point but for this glorious moment you’re dancing in the presence of the Godhead.
At the start of his career Prince heavily avoided the subject of race. Fighting off pigeonholes and labels, he only sung about ethnicity to celebrate a utopian rainbow crowd partying together (DMSR, Uptown) or to deliberately obfuscate his background (Controversy). In Sexuality he even sang “we don’t need no race”. But at the end of 1991 Prince wrote his first song tackling the subject head on. This track, titled simply Race, was almost three years old when it appeared on the Come album, and had already been aired as part of his Glam Slam Ulysses project and The Beautiful Experience video, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of this tightly-woven sample jam, featuring a bassline so deep and low it could be background radiation from an exploding galaxy. The tight drumloop makes the track sound claustrophobic – a defiant dance in a small space cleared of eggshells – but when the horns surge as he delivers a line about being a role-model, it’s like the opening of a butterfly’s wings for the first time. It’s the stuff award speeches are made of and crescendoes with his guitar dissolving underneath the sea in a wahwah meltdown. All of this is uncontroversial and hardly in danger of alienating anybody in the tinderbox that is race-relations in America. One verse echoes Nelson Mandela’s sentiment that “no one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin” – a quote which when tweeted by Barack Obama earlier this year became the most liked tweet in Twitter’s history – and musings that everyone bleeds the same red blood and “we all bones when we dead” aren’t going to make anybody but the most dyed-in-the-wool racist feel uncomfortable. But his self-imposed embargo had been lifted and four weeks later he recorded the unflinching Sacrifice of Victor, his most honest and intimate account of growing up black in one of America’s whitest states. The following year he wrote Color for The Steeles and the bulk of the Goldnigga album, including the riotously un-PC Black MF in the House. A new dimension was made available for his songwriting which lasted until his final album, as heard in the magnificent, totemic, Black Muse.
Unreleased (1986) / Jill Jones (1987)
I’ll happily listen to the Jill Jones version but my heart will always be with the unreleased original, with Prince on vocals and The Revolution on fire. Initial tracking of this vault A-lister was recorded at the same 1984 birthday concert that gave us Our Destiny and Roadhouse Garden, plus the finest version of Noon Rendezvous ever committed to tape. Overdubs were added two years later and I can only hope we see a cleaned-up posthumous release when the inevitable remaster of Parade emerges in the future. All Day, All Night begins with Wendy doing her best Nina Hagen impression, then, with a nod to Oklahoma!, Prince delivers possibly his greatest opening line: “oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful ass.” Even Rodgers and Hammerstein must have doffed their caps at that couplet. The music that follows is prime Revolution hotsauce and when the toms go into overdrive four minutes in, you’re already planning your ‘SHOCKALAKA!’ tattoo.
This live favourite is a ten minute slow funk jam that fills the oceanic space between its two rap verses with a smorgasboard of background chatter, call and response shouts, an ode to safe sex and even a borrowed chorus from the same album’s A Deuce and a Quarter, all lovingly wrapped up in a blanket of receptive crowd noise. If you wade past the first minute of scripted skittage, Johnny begins to feels very organic, an after show vibe preserved in CD amber. The title’s another dick euphemism but one the whole family can sing along to. Prince later regretted the “NPG in the motherfuckin’ house” chants though, once retaliating “We ain’t doing nothing to nobody’s momma!” Try as he might, that genie wasn’t going back into the bottle.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have given us the phrase ‘God is dead’, coined in a parable about the drying up of spiritual meaning and designed to cause shockwaves to ripple through a sleeping populace bereft of guidance. But a century later Prince returns serve with a powerful volley of sample-heavy gospel pop, with a guitar line that rends the air like a peal from a bell tower, or a muezzin from a minaret, waking the town and telling us very much that God is Alive. Your move Freddy! And if you don’t believe an 80’s song can be as shocking as the suggestion of deicide in the 19th century, then watch Mavis Staples’ face on the BBC Omnibus documentary Prince of Paisley Park, when she relives the moment she heard the opening lyric was “God is coming like a dog in heat” (later changed to the infinitely less provocative “news is coming…”)
The Hits/The B-sides (1993)
It’s hard for me to believe now but there was a time when Pope was one of my favourite tracks off his Hits compilation. It had everything my teenage self craved: catchy chorus; hip-hop beat; sweary samples; rapping that didn’t suck; dick jokes; plus the added allure of being new and unreleased. The song, originally created for Glam Slam Ulysses, may not have weathered the years as well as most of the others on the 1993 compilation, but when the nineties sound becomes en vogue again Pope’s going to king it like a papal boss. Time is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop is a loop huh!
For a long time I found the Batman album synonymous with the two songs that shared the title between them: Batdance and Partyman. Initially they were the only tracks that left any lasting impression. After a second listen the thin end of Electric Chair’s wedge entered my skull, helped by the chorus’s cameo on Batdance. And it was a few more plays before the stark beauty of The Future presented itself. Vicky Waiting took longer still. And now as I feel the fruits of Scandalous ripen I sense the first harvest begin to wilt. Partyman has served me well. It performed the same role as Prettyman – keeping my enthusiasm high for an album that I didn’t automatically fawn over. But as I begin to say my farewells believing there’s only a finite number of plays, I come across the Purple Party mix. And the video – how have I never seen this before? And there’s a William Orbit mix? There’s life in the old dog yet. Gentlemen, lets broaden our minds…