At 9 a.m. ET on Good Friday morning, a press release sallied forth announcing a new partnership between Prince and Warner Bros. – a newsflash that actually almost lives up to the drama of its timing. After all, the label was his home for nearly the first 20 years of his career and contains his most successful and beloved music. But the relationship had become so contentious by its end in the mid-1990s that Prince had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and painted the word “Slave” on his face to demonstrate his unhappiness.
The 18 core studio albums Prince released for Warner Bros. during those years are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg: The man was and is a monstrously prolific artist, and literally hundreds of unreleased tracks from that era alone reportedly exist, along with material he svengali’ed for other artists, multiple remixes and re-recordings of individual songs, not to mention audio and video footage of his many tours during those years.
To say that the concept of intellectual property is important to Prince is a monumental understatement (for more on that, see last year’s Billboard cover story). Presumably in anticipation of today’s deal, in recent years he has spent an unprecedented amount of money and resources ensuring that his music is kept off the Internet: just try finding the video for “Raspberry Beret” or the “Sign O’ the Times” concert film on YouTube — if you do, it won’t be there for long. And while hundreds of vinyl and CD bootlegs containing unreleased material from the Warner Bros. years proliferated in the first quarter-century of his career, that material can only be found online in carefully hidden overseas websites and digital files.
Consequently, Prince’s Warner Bros. archive represents the most significant catalog of unreleased material of the past 40 years. Every other major artist — from the Beatles to Nirvana, from Dylan to Michael Jackson and beyond — has either cleaned virtually everything worthwhile from the vault, or (in Jackson’s case) the unreleased material does not date from a creative peak.
Today’s agreement seems to satisfy both the artist and his fans by promising “the release of long-awaited, previously unheard material, while giving the artist ownership of the master recordings of his classic, global hits.” The first project will apparently be a remastered, “deluxe” 30th-anniversary edition of “Purple Rain,” with other unspecified projects to follow. (A Warner rep told Billboard the label has no further comment at this time.)
What might those be? Judging by the archival material that has been officially released (on the “Crystal Ball” and “Vault” collections, and elsewhere), the man has a tendency to choose different tracks from those loved by fans. Looking over our extensive bootleg collection, we could list about 50 suggestions, but here’s a by-no-means-definitive top 10. (Much obliged to the PrinceVault site.)
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1) “Dream Factory” / “Camille” / “Crystal Ball” albums (1985-86)
Prince’s creative peak unquestionably took place during the 1980s, and his psychedelic period — roughly spanning “Around the World in a Day” to “Lovesexy,” 1985-88 — represented his most innovative and prolific era. After he completed work on the “Parade” album and “Under the Cherry Moon” film at the end of 1985, Prince dove right into another project, a double album with the Revolution called “Dream Factory.” Containing several songs that ultimately appeared on “Sign O’ the Times,” over the following year the album changed its tracklist several times; was transformed first into a single album called “Camille” (that featured Prince singing in the vari-speeded high voice featured on “Housequake”); and then into a triple album called “Crystal Ball” (different from the 1997 outtakes collection) before being trimmed into “Sign O’ the Times.” We could list 20 great outtakes from these sessions.
Dozens of songs were in play for these albums and many have already been released, so the best move might be a compilation series collecting the unreleased and stray tracks from this period — or digital releases of each album.
2) “Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic” album (1989)
After the “Lovesexy” tour in 1988, Prince began work on this album (distinct from the one of the same title released in 1999, although it does contain an updated version of the title track) but shelved it when he was enlisted for the “Batman” project. Several songs from this album ended up on the “Graffiti Bridge” LP, at least one (“Electric Chair”) on the “Batman” soundtrack.
3) “Manic Monday,” Apollonia 6 version (1984)
This song was recorded as a duet for Apollonia 6’s only album but was dropped at the last minute (and, surprisingly, can be found on YouTube). Of course, the track was released in a near-identical arrangement (albeit with a vastly improved lead vocal) by the Bangles in 1986 — and was kept out of the top spot on the Hot 100 by one song: Prince’s “Kiss.”
4) Prince and Miles Davis (1987-88)
Game recognizes game, and the great Miles Davis clearly saw some of himself in Prince (no slouch in the mercurial, prolific genius stakes). Miles joined Prince onstage at a New Year’s Eve concert at Paisley Park in 1987 and the two reportedly jammed and recorded together, but only two studio tracks have surfaced, both with Miles’ horn part overdubbed: “Sticky Wicked,” a mediocre Prince-helmed song on Chaka Khan’s “CK” LP, and “Can I Play With U,” another mediocre song mooted for Miles’ “Tutu” LP but pulled at the last minute, reportedly because Prince didn’t feel the song held up compared to the other material on the album.
5) “Electric Intercourse,” 1983
A tender ballad, sung in falsetto, reportedly in the final running for “Purple Rain.” Just one version has surfaced, a live rehearsal version for the August, 1983 First Avenue concert that provided the basic tracks for the live songs on that album. Prince can be heard berating Wendy Melvoin, 19 years old and a brand-new member of the band, when she misses her harmony part: “Wake up, Wendy!”
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6) “Moonbeam Levels” (a.k.a. “A Better Place 2 Die”), 1982
Like many unreleased songs in the Prince vault, this midtempo track has had a couple of different incarnations: Originally recorded during the “1999” sessions, the song was reportedly revived and under consideration for the 1989 version of the “Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic” LP. At the Prince tribute show at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2013, Elvis Costello and bandleader ?uestlove proved their crate-digging bona-fides by performing the song (with a band featuring Wendy Melvoin and longtime Prince saxophonist Eric Leeds) — the only unreleased song performed that night.
7) “Possessed” (1983-84)
A driving funk song purportedly inspired by a James Brown concert, this track was recorded in 1983 and again in 1984, and was shortlisted for the “Purple Rain” LP (an instrumental version plays briefly during a scene in the film). It was performed frequently on the 1984-85 “Purple Rain” tour and features in the “Prince and the Revolution: Live” concert film — but a studio version has never been released.
8) “Witness” (1986)
Another smoking funk song recorded at least three times: a bare-bones version features blazing guitar, a similar version with horns added, and a faster version (probably Prince solo) with an electronic beat.
9) “Glam Slam ’91”
As the quality of Prince’s albums fell off, inevitably so did the outtakes, but this reversion of the “Lovesexy” track — which retains almost none of the original except the two-word chorus — incorporates rapping and beats that ended up in “Gett Off.”
10) Multiple possible live albums
Prince’s ownership efforts have meant that his two officially released concert videos — “Prince and the Revolution: Live” (1985) and “Sign O’ the Times” (1987), the latter arguably the greatest concert film ever made — are, tragically, out of print. The first step should be the immediate reissue of those releases. Also, television broadcasts of the 1986 “Parade” tour, the 1988 “Lovesexy” tour, and two different shows from the 1990 “Nude” tour exist. Additionally, professional recordings are known to have been made at a 1981 Houston concert (featuring both Prince and the Time) as well as at least one date on the “1999” tour in 1983.
… And all that’s just a sampling of what could be.