234: Neon Telephone

Unreleased (1985) / Vermillion (1988)
Before the turn of the millennium, my only dalliance with Prince bootlegs was a purchase of the Chocolate Box lp 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.