Musicheads Essentials: Prince - 1999

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Prince - 1999
Warner Brothers released Prince's album 1999 on October 27, 1982. (Courtesy Warner Brothers)
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Musicheads Essentials: 1999 with Bobby Z
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On October 27, 1982, Prince released '1999,' the first album to playfully credit The Revolution, so we asked Bobby Z all about it.

Jim McGuinn: We're here with Bobby Z, drummer from The Revolution, and we're talking today about the album 1999. This had to be just an amazing time to be part of the Revolution.

Bobby Z: It was definitely a pivotal moment. The key to that story is that is starts here in the Twin Cities at the Armory when the video from "1999", "Little Red Corvette", "Let's Pretend We're Married" and "Automatic" were all shot in, it's a blur now, but probably in a two or three day sequence. That really set up the album. It was heavy makeup, if you remember that video was really, the 80's were in full bloom on that album and it's also coming off the Rolling Stone's debacle, which is where our story picks up. There's was a little bit of time between that. It was a double album we made as you know and he put a lot of thought into it after the experience of the Rolling Stone's fans.

McGuinn: Now that was the first record where it started to become billed as The Revolution, right?

Z: Right. He was testing the name on the back of the album. He did that illustration himself and he put that backwards in there like a puzzle, but everything with Prince was a puzzle. The songs were puzzles when you played them. You know they sound very repetitive, and they are, but he had the ability to put something different in every bar and it makes it challenging as you study these and play these continuously. It was very meticulous theory and with 1999 he really figured it out. He figured out who his audience was. 'I'm gonna take the stones audience and I'm gonna take this Rick James audience and all this stuff I learned over there and I'm going to make one big my audience.' And he did it, with "Corvette" for the rock people, "1999" for party people, you know, he spread the love.

McGuinn: That record was a breakthrough in terms of commercial success. Did you have an inkling when you were making it? Did you have a sense that something new was about to happen or was it just sort of the evolution, the growth of where you guys were at? How did it feel to be in The Revolution and in Prince's band at that point, as you were going into the release of the record?

Z: The band was an uneasy situation. You know, it wasn't settled by any means. As we know the story changed for Purple Rain, but you gotta remember where it came from which is Dirty Mind. And then this audience finding mission of Dirty Mind. If you stuck with him during Dirty Mind, then you knew Prince. If you jumped off with Dirty Mind then you pick back up with 1999, because the hits were there. But Dirty Mind was his personal exercise in really experimentation to the fullest and in 1999 he figured out that he was just going to write hit songs. I mean he could always write hit songs, but he just really focused on popularizing the movement that he started from Controversy to definitely picking up from Dirty Mind being a controversial character, naming himself a controversial character and then embracing it all with the end of the world. A very interesting story about "1999" the song, we were traveling on the road, could have been, you know, if the tail end of the Dirty Mind album and there was a hotel sign and it said, 'Free HBO'. That was a big deal. So everyone got into the rooms, turned on HBO and there was a HBO documentary about Nostradamus and the prediction of the end of the world. 1999, 1999, and we're all blown away by this thing. You could feel it in the hotel room. Just glued to the TV. So of course, like normal people do, the next day the water cooler talk is 'Did you see?' And for Prince he had written a song, so there explains the difference between mere mortals and Prince. We're all going 'Wow' and then he just embodied the whole thing with "1999" the next day, so it gives you kind of a feeling of example of the brilliance you're dealing with on a daily basis.

McGuinn: Let's talk a minute more about that track and one of the I think famous, or more interesting, facets of that is how the vocals are handled in the verses and how you ended up with three lead singers on that song.

Z: That's just a direct Sly and the Family Stone reference.

McGuinn: Yeah, so what was it, now who, there were three different people singing, right?

Z: Lisa, Dez and Prince. They trade off in the beginning and he purposely made a gesture that he was coming in third and he was bringing, everything was so funny and visual, but he definitely set them up and then marks it out of the park and then takes it from there and then we're parting by the end of that track and which is just, like I said, we had "Party Up Over Here", but this was just a blatant reference of just grabbing what was left of the disco sponge and whatever was left of the remnants of the late 70's, early 80's and he just took it.

McGuinn: That record's also got one of my favorite tracks. It's got some long tracks on that record which maybe was afforded that opportunity because it stretched into a double album, the first double album of his career.

Z: Or he just decide not to edit those songs. Most songs we did, "Computer Blue", "Twenty Minutes", everything was always a suite that had passengers and things and eventually he could just cut it down, he was an amazing editor too, but the songs themselves could take on many minutes and many bars of different stuff. And again, it was a puzzle and he could take out a piece of the puzzle and still be a complete thought for the rest of us but it was still a puzzle nonetheless.

McGuinn: So something like "Dance Music Sex Romance" was that, that wasn't like a vamping jam, that was like a well thought out section by section kind of performance?

Z: Well for him, I mean a well thought out section by section is a vamping jam live in the studio for Prince, so it's well thought out, you just don't know when or where, but it's coming at you and it's just realtime jam and he'll just jam on a thing for 20 minutes and it's all amazing and you add, or he adds or whatever you add, you're just all caught up in the song and all of a sudden there's a 20 minute amazing jam that you edit down to a three minute hit plus the long version on the album.

McGuinn: Do you know what the decision was behind making 1999 into a double record?

Z: He was beginning to fight the editing of the majors. Of mass marketing, you know? He was always like, 'Why can't I' and we know later in life, he'd put out albums all the time and he would refer to like the 30's and when people put out a record in a month or every year or every six months, James Brown, every six months. He liked those models and he was proficient enough to keep up with those models and with MTV and everything got slowed down. The whole process of touring and plus add Purple Rain to that, and his whole process got slowed down and he could tell he was impatient, and we all know he was impatient, so in this case, it was a double album. I'm sure the guys at Warner Brothers heard it and just went, these are all great songs so they went for it, but it was risky yeah.

McGuinn: Another track on that record is, "All the Critics Love You in New York" So can you tell us anything that you think is going on in that song or in relationship to the Twin Cities as well?

Z: Dirty Mind was received in positive and negative ways depending on where you sat with the musical talent or the risqué look. The musical talent, the people in New York loved it and the critics loved it and we played the Ritz and it was monumental. You know, but New York's an island in some ways, so he was appreciative I think of what came out of New York, which I think led to Jagger and led to the Rolling Stones thing. Everyone was at that show in New York, I think Warhol, Bowie and the Kiss guys were there back then. It was big time stuff and an up-and-comer was pulling the stars in and that happened there. So it was an explosion definitely. Saturday Night Live we did "Party Up". There was a movement there for him and he liked it. The last thing I want to do or that anyone should do is interpret his lyrics, but in living through that experience, from my personal experience being close to him in proximity, it was a positive time for him in New York.

McGuinn: What was it like for you being in the eye of that hurricane in a little bit and were there moments where you were sort of awe struck or star struck as well when you're going to New York and Mick Jagger and David Bowie are showing up at the gigs?

Z: Yes, and Prince was too. I was very grateful. I had Dr. Fink with me, Matt from St. Louis Park, Prince, André Cymone, you know we were from Minneapolis, we had each other. In the face of these monumental show figures in show business and it was comforting when we did it together. I was just very grateful that it was starting to happen. It took awhile for the thing to happen. I started like two years before the demo it feels like but it was probably right when the demo was recorded. People don't realize Purple Rain was the sixth album after all that time. That's a lot of life there. So it was definitely moving along and it was very gratifying to do that. At the same time I realized that the person I believed in was starting to happen and that was very gratifying, because it started out in the beginning, everyone has a beginning and he didn't win everybody over in the beginning for sure. His music was doing that but he was bowling now. He was bowling people over, so it was an amazing time.

McGuinn: What did it feel like, you know this was the beginning of Prince having full on like top 40 hits and MTV and stuff, what was it like for you guys? Were you aware that everything was going on? How did it feel when that started to really pop right open?

Z: It certainly changes everything about playing live when people are coming prepared. Songs, they're into it, they're waiting for it, you can tell the anticipation for certain songs and how he constructed a set and how he was starting to play with the set list to leak new songs and future songs, so it definitely became an audience, you know a real audience and they couldn't get in everybody, so it definitely changes the dynamic from where it was in the very beginning for sure.

McGuinn: Do you remember what that meant at that time, in that era in the Twin Cities when you guys came home, how you were treated, was there sort of a different perspective at that point because you had left and came back as heroes or didn't?

Z: It definitely felt good to come home. It also feels good to come home. It did feel more and more, not to far away from here at the Saint Paul Civic Center, sven shows for Purple Rain. I mean that really felt like something special growing up here, coming from here. But it was like I said before, we were very proud, we were from Minneapolis, Prince is obviously a Minnesota guy. He came back here and built Paisley Park. He didn't have to but he was in L.A., he was hanging out. So there was definitely pride in what we were doing, accomplishing and going back and sharing it with people and that started to show up in the concerts. Again, not all of them in the beginning, this is where it started, it took awhile for the engine to choo choo and chugga chugga, but people were definitely appreciating Prince and the word was out and that was again very gratifying that it was being recognized here at home.

McGuinn: If maybe I could ask you about, we talked about "1999", we talked about "Delirious" and "Little Red Corvette", if you can, since we'll probably cut me out, if you can just start by saying, by sort of just, by sort of just saying 'On "Delirious" da da da da da' instead of answering me, so maybe talk about those two songs.

Z: So "Delirious" we had always done kind of rockabilly stuff, whether it was Elvis, or Blue Suede Shoes or sometimes we'd do a rockabilly version of "How Much is That Doggie in the Window." Love that song. And "Delirious" was kind of a fun play to that. He kept it short and sweet and it's a real favorite. It's really a fun, humorous play on words Prince song. It's really classic Prince.

McGuinn: You almost hear a little punk and new wave in that track.

Z: Yeah, I think the sound has a definitely a new wave synth song. (sings) He's got that little lead line in there and that definitely is the '80s synth sound for sure.

McGuinn: Now is that the kind of track that was really band involved in the creation or is that one Prince sort of did all the music and sort of brought it to you guys and you sort of fleshed it out live then?

Z: That's all Prince on the record. That song turned into an epic. The Revolutions were doing a version of what we did with "Delirious" now, because it's just, it turns into the B section of "Let's Go Crazy" from the 12 inch. You'll have to kind of refer to what I'm talking to and I'll show you the (sings) it's go that part that goes into it. This is an original arrangement from that goes into it. So he would run around the stage on "Delirious" and it was one of those songs where sprinting and doing there was a bar he had the fireman's pole where he would spin down and do all kinds of crazy stuff. It was a big event live, "Delirious".

McGuinn: How about "Little Red Corvette"?

Z: "Corvette" is a song, he called me over at the Lake Riley house and the studio was in the basement and we put the messing around with the Linn drums and percussions to put the toms and those things. And he played me the track before we did anything and I was just like, 'Wow, that chorus is just powerful as you can get.' So it struck me right away, his song, as being different and rock and roll was really different.

McGuinn: So this is one of the records where, was this the first record where Prince had the Linn drums and those sort of pushed to the fore more? Or was that started on Controversy?

Z: The first time you hear the Linn, the LN-1, is "Private Joy" on Controversy and then he really gets the hang of it. And I think all drummers at that point were a little scared of the thing. The whole drummer universe was in revolt mentally, but Prince's manager Steve Fargnoli gave me some really good advice, he said 'It's here, learn how to use it.' And that was really good advice. Not only did I take his advice, but it was part of the job. We had interfaced the back of the linn, which they were smart enough to put outputs for every one of these channels, so Don Batts, our brillant, talented technical wizard back then created an interface and the only thing really available was acoustic guitar pickups and so you triggered the velocity of the device interface through the back of the lens of this early Model T version of what yet to come and Prince was pushing the envelope in terms of technology and all of a sudden there were playable versions of those sounds and all of a sudden the show opened up to a new hybrid style of drumming with organic drums underneath, but it was definitely, I was the news for something completely different in the drumming world that's never been seen before and it another credit to him for pushing that. Then Roland and everybody started coming with the pads and the interfaces, but they still weren't playable linn sounds and even the LN2 was not as good as the outputs on the LN1 so it created a whole different world until the 808 came along of course that changed everything. As a drum machine goes it became the meat and potatoes for years.

McGuinn: Was that easier to play with the 808?

Z: The 808 sounds became you know...

McGuinn: I guess I know Kraftwerk was experimenting with creating their own triggering devices for their drums.

Z: They were the inspiration for everybody, because that was really early, Thomas Dolby, really early, but Kraftwerk, I mean, I don't know what their first album was, what year, but that was really early computer stuff and we were paying attention to that, how they were doing that. That was very laborious I'm sure, what they were doing and we, I remember seeing something of them live, I didn't get to see them live, but I'm sure, Prince was definitely aware of Kraftwerk and we were into it. So like I said, little pieces of this and that.

McGuinn: Yeah that was the time when Afrika Bambaataa was taken from Kraftwerk as well so there was this communication where some of the early hip hop artists and New York based artists were delving into the European.

Z: I mean you create your own beat and what's wrong with that? I mean that's what the whole premise was, was taking a new beat or a loop and creating a new entity out of it but here you can program beats, you're a beat maker like Prince was Dr. Dre is, it's ultimately what these guys are. I certainly had my share of contributions, but the organically musicality was just fluid out of them. That you just let it kind of be and it kept coming.

McGuinn: So you mentioned the gigs you guys had in LA opening for the Stones and you had just come off of the Rick James touring together, what were some of the other musical things that you guys were sharing if you can remember around that time because I feel like from what I read it seemed like Prince was a quick learn for and you guys were often bringing him music and then he was absorbing it and then recontextualizing it. Can you remember like this it '81, '82, '81 into '82. Like what were some of the things you guys were exchanging musical ideas with?

Z: I mean he was very open to whatever you were writing. He wanted to hear it and I had one of those four track cassette decks, the first Tascam and I had some drum machine and ecoplex. We were always screwing around. It all kind of like, my brother David who produced Prince early on, he was kind of the Godfather, he had made those records in the 60's with Soma Records he was kind of the guy behind the knobs who was kind of figuring it out. The Brian Wilson of Minneapolis and his thing was hooking stuff up to stuff and making other stuff. So he'd take a reverb and negate that to a high hat. You know, experimentation. So we were all experimenting with electronics all that stuff. So he would either hear the song you were writing or a sound he liked or a technique that you used and that would be incorporated, one riff or one piece and then he'd be like, 'come here' and then you'd work on that and then you'd go on to the next thing. We'd record a song by ourselves, it was just a merry-go-round of creativity going on.

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