This home demo is the rare archival release that actually deepens our understanding of a beloved artist’s process
In 1983, Prince was a budding genius on a historic run that would eventually redefine pop. A year earlier he’d exploded into the Top 10 with his synth-funk double-LP opus, 1999, and he was already hard at work on Purple Rain, the album/film project that would render a version of his life story in Beatles-size proportions.
One day, in the midst of all this, he sat down in his Chanhassen, Minnesota, home studio and knocked out a demo, just him at the piano. Most of what he recorded were works-in-progress, along with a couple of beloved covers and playful improvisations. It’s likely he never would have let this see the light of day; it’s too unguarded and intimate even for an artist as bold as he was. Now, that session has been unearthed as Piano & A Microphone 1983, a fascinating look at a side of his brilliance we didn’t know existed at the time.
“Can you turn the lights down?” Prince asks earnestly as he plays a jazzy chord sequence at the start of the proceedings. Essentially all by himself, he is loose, freewheeling and impressionistic, flitting between sketches — 90 feather-light seconds of “Purple Rain,” a spacious reworking of 1999’s steamy “International Lover” — exercising his fingers as he plays broad chords like a piano man noodling on some Sinatra classics at the Waldorf.
Along those lines, you can see him folding his own artistry into American musical history. In one audacious moment, he performs a soulful interpretation of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a song done by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bobby Darin, and then throws in a bit of his own, “Strange Relationship,” a funk workout that eventually made 1987’s Sign ‘O’ the Times.
What emerges is the rare posthumous release that adds a whole new level to our understanding of a great artist. Listening to it now is like a glorious act of voyeurism, spying on a genius at work, watching his ideas unfold in real time, exploring a side of his art he wasn’t quite ready to show the world.
Sometimes he’s playful and funny, going in and out of a gruff James Brown–like voice (exclaiming “Good gawd!” here and there) and stomping his feet as he plays. He opens with “17 Days,” later the B side to “When Doves Cry,” beatboxing the drum part and humming the synth line. On the previously unreleased “Cold Coffee and Cocaine,” a jumpy, Ray Charles–style blues number, he huffs, “This is the last time, baby, I eat over at your place/All I get is a cup of cold coffee and cocaine and your ugly face — look out.” In more restrained moments, he’s vulnerable, as on a spare cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.”
As insightful as it is, Piano & A Microphone is also imperfect: You can hear him flub the rhythm and adjust the tone of his voice. But that’s also part of what makes it so moving now. Here is a truly spontaneous moment, something we can share with a departed icon, his 88 keys and anyone kind enough to dim the lights.
5 stars (out of 5)
Dave Simpson | Fri 21 Sep 2018 04.30 EDT
The recordings on this posthumous Prince album weren’t originally intended for release. But they capture Prince Rogers Nelson at the peak of his powers, alone at his home studio piano, feeling his way into songs including future classic Purple Rain. It says everything about his prolific output – especially in this period – that this album is up there with many of his best releases. He certainly hits the ground running with an embryonic version of 17 Days, previously heard on the B-side of 1984’s When Doves Cry. There, the big, squeaky funky affair and joyous sound (possibly intentionally?) shrouded the pain and loneliness in the lyrics. But here, stripped down so far we hear him pleading “Turn the voice down a little” near the start, his words about a departed lover provide a raw and revelatory listening experience and a unique insight into his creative process.
Prince could play most instruments, but while his phenomenal talents as a guitarist are all over his catalogue (and currently an audible influence on St Vincent and Janelle Monáe), his skills as a pianist are under-recognised, even after his (sadly final) 2016 piano tour. But he is on fire here. Gospel, classical, funk and jazz ooze from his fingertips at will, so audaciously in the previously bootleg Cold Coffee and Cocaine you suspect the guy could have played Chopin on a watering can. Nine tracks form an unedited single take. He peels off a formative minute of Purple Rain, gets deep and bluesy on American civil war spiritual Mary Don’t You Weep, and draws a compelling skeletal embryo of Strange Relationship from Sign O’ the Times. International Lover, from 1982’s 1999, turns into a vocal masterclass. Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You offers a peek into another of his musical passions. The more hauntingly jazzy Why the Butterflies is glorious, by most standards, but obviously not glorious enough for Prince, so it stayed on the shelf. These wonderful recordings provide yet more evidence of his colossal talent, and, tantalisingly, it appears that there are still more to come.
by Chris Randle | SEPTEMBER 25 2018This blessed collection of unreleased demos, recorded by Prince to cassette in a single take, is enthralling. It plays like both omen and artifact of his hit-making power.
Just before Valentine’s Day in 1983, Prince released “Little Red Corvette,” which eventually peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, his first single to end up higher on the general chart than the R&B one. Eighteen months later, he would become one of the biggest pop stars in the world, an artist made more mysterious by their fame. During sessions that lasted from December 1983 to April 1984, Prince finished Purple Rain, put together incidental music for the film, laid down the bulk of the Time’s Ice Cream Castle and the Apollonia 6 album, and recorded Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life, somehow without collapsing against the studio console. His songwriting was a glistening machine, animated by inner tensions.
When some musicians die, their record company grasps for whatever material remains, like a medieval saint parceled out into increasingly meager relics. Prince left behind the inverse problem: Thousands of unreleased tracks with no suggestion for how to handle them. So far, his estate has treated that music with care; an expansive reissue of Purple Rain came out last year, but Piano & a Microphone 1983 is the first posthumous album culled entirely from Prince’s vault. Instead of piecing together one of the many projects he envisioned and abandoned, the executors found a session from Prince’s home studio, recorded to cassette in a single take; now and then you can hear him sniffling. Alone with his piano, Prince sounds unusually relaxed, mindful of the contradictions that always seized him yet willing to imagine their reconciliation.
At the beginning of Piano & a Microphone, Prince asks his engineer: “Is that my echo?” Opening track “17 Days” would later become a moody dance number, the B-side of “When Doves Cry,” whose two repeated chords seem to be scraping across the ocean floor. The sketch heard here is much looser, syncopated by a tapping foot; Prince embellishes the notes as if tugging at a frayed thread. It throws the forlorn precision of his lyrics into deeper isolation—the cigarette-counting narrator might only be talking to themselves. Later on, Prince runs through “Strange Relationship,” which wouldn’t surface until 1987’s Sign o’ the Times. The finished version marries a playful melody to alienated emotions: “Baby I just can’t stand to see you happy/More than that, I hate to see you sad.” On Piano & a Microphone, the vocal dissolves entirely, as Prince strangles his own words.
Several tracks from the cassette practice grander gestures still to come. Prince so admired Joni Mitchell that he flew her out to the premiere of his film Under the Cherry Moon on a private jet; covering “A Case of You,” his falsetto swallowed the phrase “holy wine” with reverent despair. The Piano & a Microphone recording is much shorter, barely 90 seconds long, but you can tell he returned to her song over and over again. It makes up a medley of sorts with “Purple Rain,” which is really a miniature, an idea of the “Purple Rain” that Prince would fashion from a live performance with the Revolution months later (their first time playing it in public). Hearing a fragment of that monumental song feels like coming across a sphinx’s head in the desert wastes.
The “new” material on Piano & a Microphone has already circulated as bootlegs, but this album clarifies its details, rescues it from indistinct hiss. The most surprising moment is when Prince begins playing the gospel standard “Mary Don’t You Weep,” a song that must have been absent from all his potential tracklists, even ad-libbing fraught lyrics: “I don’t like no snow, no winter, no cold.” Fingers slinking over his piano with heavy steps, vocals slurring at the edges, he gives the spiritual a physical force. “There has always been a dichotomy in my music,” Prince once said. “I’m searching for a higher plane, but I want the most of being on earth.” Piano & a Microphone is both omen and artifact, a rehearsal for another life.
Prince, Piano & A Microphone 1983
A prized rarity among collectors and bootleggers, Prince’s Piano & A Microphone captures the late “1999” and “Purple Rain” singer between those career milestones, seated at a piano and whirling through portions of nine songs in a single take. The recording is raw—Prince can be heard instructing the engineer to turn down his vocals and flip the cassette over—but that’s also its power. Here’s a notoriously polished artist vamping his way through embryonic versions of future classics, some (a cascading run through “When Doves Cry” B-side “17 Days”) a few months off from seeing the light of day, at least one (a “Strange Relationship” that begins with its Sign O’ The Times stomp, before veering in more abstract directions) still years away from its final form. Piano & A Microphone 1983 verges on postmortem voyeurism, but it’s also a unique insight into the way a notoriously private artist’s creative impulses fired. With “Purple Rain” and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” side by side, you can really hear the Canadian singer-songwriter’s influence on Prince; before “Strange Relationship” crops up, its meteorological intro gets interpolated into the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
RIYL: Home demos. Hearing Prince’s voice in registers you’d previously assumed were merely post-production trickery. Wrestling with ethical questions about whether or not you should even be hearing these recordings.
RStart here: The unreleased tracks that conclude Piano & A Microphone 1983—the bluesy goof “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and the pleading “Why The Butterflies”—are the least complete of the session. But they’re preceded by “Wednesday,” a Purple Rain outtake whose gorgeous aching is only highlighted by the track’s lack of resolution. [Erik Adams]