by Jim McGuinn
September 20, 2018
It's easy to fantasize about the unheard music by your favorite artists - lost masterpieces, forgotten gems, inside jokes, demos, songs that were abandoned half-finished, morphed into others, and songs that maybe just didn't make the cut at the time. Since the boxset CD boom of the late '80s, we've seen more and more music released that for one reason or another wasn't put out near the time of its recording. Perhaps the Beatles and their three 1995 Anthology collections (and accompanying 10-hour documentary series) was the biggest culling of previously unreleased music. If you were like me, those sets added to your love of the Beatles, and while there were only a handful of unheard songs in those collections, for many, the works-in-progress and alternate reality of hearing different versions of songs that have been burned into our brains now for 50 years was fresh and exciting, shedding a new perspective on the band, and shining a light into many song's construction and development. There's also a vicarious thrill in the fact that these versions for the most part were not intended for release - we were the kids coming down the stairs while the adults partied, and they kept partying without knowing we were there, rolling tape.
That excitement for those Beatles collections is the same sense in a concentrated dose one gets from the new Prince album, 'Piano & A Microphone 1983'. Culled from a single cassette recorded at his house, we encounter Prince in 1983, playing through a mix of covers, sketches, recently released songs, and soon to be classics, performing for himself. It sounds like at most it's a reference to develop tracks further, in some cases maybe the only performance of tunes or ideas that would never be returned to. Part of the thrill of this album is that we just don't really know what was going on in Prince's mind as he performed these songs. Was this work, or play? Was he messing around or seriously working out arrangements and structures? Either way (or both), it's fascinating listening, and expands our respect for his incredible skills as a vocalist, writer, and musician. You know that line about "more talent on his little finger"? With an artist like Prince, it's true.
Since his April 2016 passing, we've heard fully realized outtake tracks from the vault - a disc of bonus material that was left off of Purple Rain in 1984, the stray song "Moonbeam Levels" that was added to the 4Ever hits collection, and essentially the same recording but his track vocal on Nothing Compares 2 U, the song Sinead O' Connor made famous after Prince gave it to The Family to record. What makes this collection fascinating to many fans is hearing some songs in perhaps their earliest forms - hearing "17 Days" (which would become the b-side to "When Doves Cry") and "Strange Relationship" (released on 1987's 'Sign O' the Times'), or "Purple Rain" maybe BEFORE the band did - BEFORE the fans did - BEFORE they changed the world and culture as we know it! That's the moment this Prince fan has been waiting for, dreamed of long before his passing.
It's not the first and won't be the last 'new' Prince music we are going to encounter in the coming years. Demos, outtakes, live performances - reportedly there's enough to release hundreds of albums of material. His vault was legendary while he was still alive, and he tapped into it a few times throughout his career - specifically with the 'Crystal Ball' triple-CD culling, the 'Old Friends 4 Sale' album, and the occasional trips down to the vault to update older songs for new releases from the mid-'80s onward. Neil Young might be the only other artist with as many started and stopped albums and projects left behind in whispers and (sometimes) track listings. But that's where this release is different. This recording was never intended to be released - it's truly a demo, showing some songs in embryonic state, and others more fleshed out with structure and form. With 9 songs, 35 minutes, and not sharing space with full versions or songs recorded in different eras, we get a beautiful and fascinating glimpse into a moment in time with Prince, the artist, the songwriter, the lover of music (covering Joni Mitchell!), the playful magician of our dreams. In 1983 he was on the precipice of his greatest success, but he's still our Prince, singing and playing in his home studio in Chanhassen, into a cassette, for himself. And now, for all of us.
Prince - Official Site