“Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.”
I’ve been complaining about my run of obscure Daily Prince songs for days. That ends today with “1999.” Now my challenge goes from trying to introduce you to a song you’ve probably never heard before to taking a song you’ve heard hundreds of times and telling you something you didn’t know about it. Too easy.
Let’s start here: Prince came up with the concept for “1999” while on tour promoting his 1981 album, Controversy. I could tell the story, but instead I’ll let The Revolution drummer Bobby Z handle it:
“We were traveling in the South and the hotels were not luxurious in those days. This one night we stopped at a place that had ‘Free HBO’ written outside. That sign made us all just crazy. We were so excited to watch cable for the first time. There was this Orson Welles film on, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. It was about Nostradamus. He kept saying that Armageddon was coming in 1999. The next day, everybody was talking about this Orson Welles thing, like: ‘Did you see that?’ Prince just took out his little cassette and played us a demo he’d written. It was ‘1999’. While you’re just watching a show and processing the information, he’s watching it and being inspired. He’d written a free flowing masterpiece instantly. He did that many, many times over.”
First, I’ve heard numerous versions of this story, but this exact quote came from an entertaining and informative article on NME.com and they deserve the credit. There’s so much great stuff to unpack there. It’s fun to imagine Prince and his band (they weren’t technically The Revolution quite yet) being excited to stay in a hotel that has HBO. I’m picturing them all piled in somewhere like the David and Alexis room in the Rosebud Motel from Schitt’s Creek really pumped to watch HBO. Were they all in the same room or were they in separate rooms but watching the same thing? Did they put on their PJs and make popcorn? Were there groupies involved, or was this a band-only viewing? Maybe there were groupies on the bus, but when they got to the hotel and saw that there was free HBO they kicked them to the curb so they could watch movies instead. It’s funnier to me if it’s band only and they’re all in the same room passing around popcorn but still wearing their outfits from that night’s performance. I need to know more about this story.
More importantly, Prince wrote “1999” in one night at a hotel on the road while his band (presumably?) slept or watched more HBO. Name another artist freaky enough to pull that off. Seriously, I’m waiting. Bobby Z said, “He did that many, many times over.” I’ve read several books about Prince’s prolific early-80’s but I still can’t wrap my head around someone being that creative. I guess that’s why he’s Prince and I’m me.
Last Friday evening I listened to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on The Prince Channel on SiriusXM playing their playlist of personal Prince favorites. On top of being hitmaking machines, Jam and Lewis were the original keyboardist and bassist, respectively, of Prince’s side project, The Time. The Time were on the Controversy tour as an opening act and they had a unique point of view during Prince’s early years. I apologize for not remembering which of the two of them was talking at the time, but they were discussing hearing an early version of “1999” during that tour and they said the revelation for them was when the singing started and they heard the voices of Lisa Coleman, Jill Jones, and Dez Dickerson. Not Prince. I’m paraphrasing because I don’t recall the conversation word-for-word, but they essentially said they believed it was a turning point for Prince to allow someone else to not only sing vocals on one of his songs, but for them to be heard on the song before he is. He was willing to cede some control to someone else.
Another fun footnote about this song: In a story she told on the Prince: The Story of 1999 podcast, keyboardist Lisa Coleman confessed that Prince originally asked her to sing “the girl part” by herself, but she was not confident enough in her voice to sing it alone and was able to bring Jill Jones in to bolster the performance. Coleman admitted in the interview that she believes to this day that Jones has the superior voice. When you hear, “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray,” to open “1999” you’re hearing two voices. Credit to guitarist Dez Dickerson for handling the, “But when I woke up this morning could’ve sworn it was judgment day,” part.
At 784 words this is already longer than I typically go on one of these Daily Prince posts, but this is “1999” we’re talking about. To hell with the rules. I’ve got one more point to make. I don’t know about you, but to me when I reminisce about this song I just assume it was a smash hit. Not true. “1999” was the lead single from Prince’s 1982 album with the same name. The single was released shortly before the album in October 1982 and peaked at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. It did reach #4 on the “Black Singles Chart” which is something that actually existed. The next single, “Little Red Corvette,” blew up and six months after its original release Warner Brothers decided to re-release “1999.” If someone ever asks you, “Was 1999 released before or after Little Red Corvette?” you can now reply, “Both,” and you’ll be right. In July of 1983, “1999” peaked on at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even at its peak it only reached 12?!? What the hell was above it, you ask? That’s what I asked, too! Here’s the answer:
11. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) – Eurythmics
10. She Works Hard for the Money – Donna Summer
9. Stand Back – Stevie Nicks
8. Is There Something I Should Know – Duran Duran
7. Our House – Madness
6. Come Dancing – The Kinks
5. Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ – Michael Jackson
4. Never Gonna Let You Go – Sergio Mendes
3. Flashdance…What a Feeling – Irene Cara
2. Electric Avenue – Eddy Grant
1. Every Breath You Take – The Police
No offense, America in 1983, but the fact that “1999” was behind the songs on this list is some incredible bullshit. “1999” is timeless, transcendent shit. Prince took ownership of an entire year with that song. He also took ownership of the apocalypse when/if that ever happens. If we find ourselves in some Seeking a Friend for the End of the World type shit I’ll be in my record room reaching for “1999.” The 12″ version, too. Not the radio edit. If you’re not listening to the last few minutes with the “mommy, why does everybody have a bomb,” stuff you’re missing the best part. Some of the funkiest music ever recorded. No hyperbole. Anyway, the music-buying public and radio stations in July 1983 should be sincerely ashamed of this list. Idiots.
OK, this was fun. “1999” is, without question, 5 out of 5 stars and one of my favorite Prince songs. I often wonder if I had to make a mixtape of my favorite Prince songs and had to keep it under 80 minutes like we had to with CDRs back in the day, which songs would be on it? “1999” would definitely be included. Not to oversell or anything, but I’ll be back tomorrow with something considerably shorter and almost certainly less entertaining!