As mentioned in the previous post, the plan this week was to write a piece on the relative authenticity and merits of Bruce Springsteen, as well as the interesting fanaticism of Radiohead fans. However, that would probably turn to my usual Andy Rooney-esque griping about one thing or another, and anyway, I found something much more interesting...
Thanks to the wonders of technology, I am now the proud owner of a copy of some unreleased Prince albums. Now, while this would be cause for happiness in any situation, it's the particular albums that have me so worked up, so first, a little backstory...
Prince made Parade. Like all of his other albums, it sold more than I ever hope to, but it was by no means a success on the level of Purple Rain. So he goes back into the studio to come up with a new album with the Revolution, which he calls Dream Factory. Things get a bit tense with the Revolution (please see the Purple Rain movie for a fictionalized version of what this might have been like), and they end up getting fired. Prince keeps plugging away at Dream Factory. He eventually records a song called "Housequake", which features pitched-up vocals, which the Purple One likes so much that he decides to record a whole album this way, planning on releasing it under the name Camille. More recording ensues, and since the Revolution folded, he decides to combine the two albums (with a few new songs) into a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball (which has no real relation to the late-'90s set of the same name). He presents Crystal Ball to Warner Bros., who balk at the idea of releasing an extravagant 3-LP set after the relative failure of Parade. They convince him to whittle it down to 2 LPs worth of material, which is then released as Sign 'O' The Times.
SOTT is my favorite Prince album for a number of reasons, the least of which is that it's a critical fave. It's after he discovered new drum machine technology, making it funkier and harder-hitting than the synth-y drum sounds on the previous stuff. It's darker, weirder and more insular. And it's 2 discs, and more prime Prince is good Prince, right?
Well, after discovering it in high school, and finally finding some online info about Prince, I discovered the whole Dream Factory / Camille / Crystal Ball backstory and from then on, every time I read anything about Sign, it was more about what it wasn't, rather than what it was. And what it was was a near-perfect album.
So what's the deal with these unreleased records? Well, I don't quite know what to call it, but the collected recordings from this era, I feel, put the definitive stamp on the fact that this is surely Prince's finest era, a point when he was famous enough to have reign to do what he wanted, hungry enough not to repeat himself, and weird enough to ensure that this was truly a distinctive presence. This is it, arguably the last gasp of greatness before descending into a perfectly interesting and enjoyable, but relatively unexciting, pop music standard-bearer.
So where does that leave a music fanatic who must categorize and compartmentalize his listening into easily-defineable categories to make offhand references to among his fellow music snobs? It doesn't really leave me anywhere. But we have this body of work by a pretty radical artist, a pretty good portion of which is unreleased. Sure, plenty of songs from the Dream Factory recordings made it through every iteration, relatively unchanged, to emerge on Sign, but there are at least 2 LPs worth (maybe not full 45 minute ones, but still 2 LPs) of songs that never came out, except for a few strays appearing on b-sides and promo ephemera.
The question is, has this happened since? When was the last time a major recording artist was given carte blanche to suirrel away and create a sweaty paranoid psychedelic funk psychosis suite, funded by big label money, and having it ultimately remain unreleased? Sure, there have been examples of endless recording sessions ultimately resulting in little to nothing (Chinese Democracy, anyone?), but when was the last time that a record label forked over money for fantastic music only to bury it later? Juliana Hatfield's God's Foot might fit the bill, but as good as it may or may not be, it's hardly on the same level as Prince circa '86. Has the record industry consolidated to the point that it's only spending on things that it knows how to define and sell? Of course it does, that's no news. But it seems that over the past 20 years, their rare willingness to gamble is being lost.
For the life of me, I will never understand how Prince became such a pop culture sensation. Of course, he wrote amazing pop hooks and was a genius musician. But there are plenty of those out there, and a tiny sex-crazed one that appeared on his breakthrough record wearing a trench coat and bikini briefs in the puritan Reagan '80s, writing songs about threesomes and incest and being young and sexy is not the kind of thing that I imagine could blow up, even with the idea of it capturing the public's repressed naughty side. How in the world did some of his lyrics make the airwaves? I mean, there's obviously the racy-if-not-filthy ones, but I'm talking about the freaky, weird psychedelic ones. Not only was he sexually assaultive, but he was subversive, and people just let it go, culminating in the whole collection we're talking about. Most of the "dangerous" mainstream music since then has been at the very least label-sanctioned... run past the bigwigs to make sure it was "acceptably" dangerous, where my man Prince represented a real danger, even if he was too weird to be a widespread threat. People were happy to get a glimpse of the weirdo, but probably didn't want to get too close.
Would you want to sit next to Prince on the bus?
So I realize that this has been rambling, but ultimately, my point is this: there is often dispute about what the best Prince album is. Kevin Smith told me his was Purple Rain, and I told him mine was Sign 'O' The Times (I have a couple hundred witnesses, but didn't make the DVD - ask me some other time). There is nary a bum note on Purple Rain, it was designed to make the Purple One a superstar and it worked. But Sign is the sound of an mad genius reaching his fervent peak. And with the relatively recent electronic availability of the surrounding context (the three albums of unreleased material), it becomes both astounding that he was able to create this, amazing that the label was willing to bankroll something so bizarre, and unfortunate that he was never able to scale these heights again.