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Prince’s 1999 turns 30

by Peter Valelly

October 26, 2012

Saturday, October 27 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of 1999, Prince's fourth album and one of the most enduring classics in a catalog that's full of them. Prince's first double-album and one of the most sonically distinctive and cohesive recordings he ever made, 1999 helped catapult him towards the superstar status that he would clinch with Purple Rain and has held onto ever since.

To celebrate the anniversary of this musical milestone, we've compiled seven interesting facts about 1999 that you may not already know:

1. It was Prince's first Top 10 album

While no one denies that 1984's Purple Rain was Prince's big pop breakout, his momentum started two years earlier with 1999's ascendance into the upper echelon of the pop charts. The double-LP peaked at #9 on the Billboard 200 after its late 1982 release and wound up being the fifth-best-selling album of 1983 as Prince's star continued to rise on the strength of singles like "Little Red Corvette."

2. The first four tracks are the first four singles

It's not unusual for pop stars to frontload their albums with two or three of their most radio-ready tracks, but it's still fairly remarkable that 1999's first four tracks — the title track, "Little Red Corvette," "Delirious" and "Let's Pretend We're Married" — were also its first four singles, especially considering the latter track is a woozy slice of synth psychedelia that prominently features Prince's falsetto at its most gender-bendingly extreme (and sure enough, unlike the high-charting first three, "Let's Pretend We're Married" never made it past #52 on the Hot 100). 

3. It was Prince's first album with the Revolution… or was it?

Last year, we featured a Prince quiz on the Current's site, with questions and answers written by yours truly. One question — on how many albums Prince recorded with the Revolution —proved especially controversial. The answer listed as "correct" was three, counting Purple Rain as the start of Prince's stint with his legendary band. Many commenters correctly pointed out that on the album cover for 1999, the phrase "and the Revolution" is written backwards inside the "eye" in the letter "i" in Prince. It's also true that Prince was touring with the band that would become the Revolution in 1982 and 1983, and that the 1999 album was the first time the band was ever given an official name. 

However, you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that 1999 was "recorded with" the Revolution — although the band's core of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman provide vocals on a handful of tracks, neither of them play any instruments on the album. Guitarist Dez Dickerson, who would leave the band before they ever officially toured as the Revolution, contributes a guitar solo to "Little Red Corvette." Aside from that, every note on the album is played by Prince himself. For now, let's call this one a toss-up — let us know if you think this is a Revolution album in the comments!

4. 1999 single "Little Red Corvette" was the first video by a black artist on MTV

For the first couple of years of the pioneering music video channel's existence, MTV's execs didn't think black artists were "rock" enough for their target audience. Prince's "Little Red Corvette," along with Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," changed all that — the two videos were added to heavy rotation on MTV in early 1983. Both proved massive successes, paving the way for more diverse programming on the network. 

5. Prince played the title track on December 31, 1999… and then retired it for a while

Prince hasn't always been known to go the crowd-pleasing route, especially in the late '90s and early '00s part of his career. But on New Years' Eve, 1999, it seems he just couldn't help himself — he played 1999's iconic title track during a special concert at his own Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minn. Shortly thereafter he vowed never to play it again, a promise he stuck with for nearly eight years. Eventually, in August 2007, he relented, and the song has found its way back into his setlists during recent tours.

6. It was hugely influential on the nascent electronic music scene

Prince's unprecedented fusion of soul, rock, and funk left its stamp all over mainstream pop for generations to come. Meanwhile, the synthesizer and drum machine-heavy "Minneapolis sound" that he pioneered on this album, as well as in his contemporaneous work with the Time, revolutionized the genre of R&B in the '80s. But an underappreciated element of his influence is his huge impact on the emerging genres of house and techno in the early '80s, and no Prince album is more crucial to their development than 1999 (one of Chicago house's most integral progenitors, Jamie Principle, cites the record as a catalytic moment for the genre).

1999's sound relies heavily on what would soon become the primary tools of electronica's pioneering early moments — synthesizers, drum machines, and sequencers. Many of its tracks presage electronica's repetitive rhythms and inorganic sounds, especially extended electro workouts like "Automatic" and "D.M.S.R.," not to mention the claustrophobically synthetic atmosphere of the album's strangest and perhaps most innovative track, the appropriately titled "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)." 

7. "1999" owes its opening riff to… the Mamas & the Papas?

The opening synth riffs of "1999," which build tension over the first 30 seconds of the song before the infectious vocal line comes in, bear a striking resemblance to a band you wouldn't exactly put in the same camp as Prince: sunny '60s folk-rockers the Mamas and the Papas. Their 1966 song "Monday, Monday" features some vocal harmonies that are echoed in Prince song, although admittedly the resemblance is very likely accidental. See for yourself:


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.