This book has been on my list since it first came out a couple years back. At some point I got the Kindle sample and loved the chapter that I read. I just kept putting off diving into it because it seemed like such a big ask, spending a couple weeks reading about every day that Prince spent in the recording studio over 1983 and 1984.
I’m glad I waited because for the paperback release, Tudahl was able to talk to a few people who wouldn’t talk to him the first time and expand the depth of the book.
It begins by setting up where Prince was in January of 1983. 1999 was supposed to be his commercial breakthrough album. But despite being released to almost universally positive reviews in the fall of 1982, it wasn’t selling. A lot of people forget – including me – that “1999” was released as a single that fall and went nowhere, not even cracking the Top 40. Meanwhile, on tour, The Time was kicking The Revolution’s ass. It’s not that Prince’s performances were bad. It’s just that The Time was so locked in that their opening sets were often the highlights of the 1999 tour, which also featured Vanity 6.
This combined to leave Prince, for the first time in his career, under a tremendous amount of pressure. Although his record company was supportive, he knew that if he didn’t start selling records the freedom they gave him would disappear. And he definitely couldn’t have his underlings, the band he assembled and wrote/recorded nearly every song for, outdoing him on stage.
From there Tudahl takes us through every studio event that Prince had over the next 24 months. He does by referencing studio, Warner Brothers, and union records, to piece together where Prince was, who he was with, and what he was recording.
Prince recorded a staggering amount of music over his life. This two-year snapshot demonstrates his obsessive nature. Pretty much every day he was available – basically anytime he wasn’t filming Purple Rain – he was in a studio with tape rolling. When he had a musical thought, he had to get it out before he lost it. One engineer he worked with suggested in an ideal world, Prince would release songs like the newspaper. You would wake up every morning and find a new one waiting for year. Another engineer complained that Prince recorded music so quickly the songs were never mixed properly and, technically, often sounded rather poor. Prince didn’t care. He didn’t have time to spend weeks mixing songs to get them to sound perfect. Once he had the sounds in his head on tape, he was ready to move on to the next project.
Over these two years Prince recorded somewhere between 100 and 150 songs. That covered everything from remixes of 1999 songs, the entire Purple Rain project, the entire Around the World in a Day album, songs that were used on later albums, and songs for other artists.
February 1984 was perhaps his most manic month. He finished The Time’s Ice Cream Castle album, one that he wrote and performed all the music for. He wrote and recorded the basics for Sheila E’s entire debut album. He wrapped up work on Apollonia 6’s album, including writing “Manic Monday,” which he pulled from A6 and gave to The Bangles. He wrote a bunch of music that was used as either B-sides or as background music in Purple Rain. He wrote and recorded both “Another Lonely Christmas” and “Pop Life.” He recorded a Wendy & Lisa track. And he also got countless jams onto tape that were used as inspiration later.
And then on March 1 he wrote and recorded “When Doves Cry.”
By the end of 1985 he sold over 12 million of his own records, and artists that he controlled sold nearly 2 million more. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a run like that.
Reading about this period was fascinating. But it also made me sad for Prince. Music was his outlet for communicating with others. He could never relax and enjoy the spoils of his success. He always felt the urge to create more. In fact, he was already sick of Purple Rain when the album and movie were at their peaks of success. While The Revolution was rehearsing for the Purple Rain tour, he scrambled to record Around the World in a Day, finishing the final track on December 31, 1984. And then he was ready to move on to the next thing.
Also, despite a seemingly endless series of beautiful girlfriends,1 he comes across as a very lonely person. I never grasped that in his music, likely because I first heard most of his music when I was a kid and I was distracted by all the sex in his songs. Musician John Roderick talked about Prince’s loneliness after his death, and it kind of rocked my world, because it was always right there, out in the open. Reading through two years of his life reinforces how alone he was despite the girlfriends.
Somewhat related to that isolation is the way he controlled the groups that were beneath him: The Time, Vanity 6/Apollonia 6, Mazarati, Jill Jones, The Family, etc. He dominated every aspect of these groups, between writing and performing almost all of their recorded music, deciding who would be in each group, determining their look, etc. Sheila E was slightly removed from this, I believe because he respected her musicianship. But he still had a ton of control over her career. Prince basically destroyed The Time when he kicked Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis out of the group for working on their own and leaving Morris Day feeling isolated when Prince selected who their replacements would be. Day quit The Time out of frustration before Purple Rain was released.
When asked why he wrote so much music that he gave to these other groups, Prince said that his record company would never let him release that much music under his name so close together. He added that he didn’t want to be an artist with a sound that could be dismissed as time passed. If he spread the music across multiple groups, it would become a movement that could not be ignored.
That was the driving force behind a man who, for a time, took over the world.
As you would expect, I spent a lot of time listening to Prince’s music while reading this book. Especially the Deluxe Expanded Edition of Purple Rain, which featured many of the extra tracks he recorded in 1984. I think I gave them a courtesy listen when it first came out, but this was the first time I listened to them repeatedly. And a lot of them are really good. There’s one song I’ll put on this week’s Friday Playlist I can’t believe I never heard before this month.
If you’re a fan of Prince, especially his peak in 1984, I can’t recommend this book enough.
1. During this period there was Vanity, Susannah Melvoin, Susan Moonsie, Apollonia, Sheila E, and Jill Jones. At least…