Looking back at the Purple One’s breakthrough double LP
Gather yourselves around the fire, children, and let me tell you a tale of the Cenozoic era of MTV, an ancient time before Ridiculousness and Catfish, before Celebrity Deathmatch and Pimp My Ride, before Jackass, Punk’d and The Real World.
Yes, children, a tale from the days when MTV was barely more than a year old, when they … *gasp* … played music videos.
MTV famously launched on August 1, 1981 by playing The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Their playlist in those first months included lots of videos from Phil Collins, Men at Work, Joe Jackson, Adam Ant, Billy Joel, the Go-Gos, Stray Cats, Huey Lewis … you get the idea.
As the initial excitement of the idea of a video music channel calmed down, criticism of MTV began to rise. Why weren’t they playing more black artists? The question was even asked of Mark Goodman, one of MTV’s founding VJs, by none other than David Bowie in 1983. “There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV,” Bowie noted.
VIDEO: Prince “1999”
Goodman responded that MTV has to “try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest, pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing.”
Goodman was right, they were playing Prince. A few months before the Bowie interview, in December 1982, Prince’s charisma burst through television screens with the irresistible title song from his new album that had been released just weeks earlier, on October 27. Notably, though, the video of “1999” leaves out the ominous voice that introduces the listener to the track and the album: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you / I only want you to have some fun.”
Maybe that should have been in the video, too, to help keep folks in the Midwest calm. In any event, the images of singers Lisa Coleman and Jill Jones in the video soon became as ubiquitous on MTV as Jack and Diane or that armadillo scurrying across the road in The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.”
The video of “Little Red Corvette” followed in February 1983, helping catapult the song to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Prince to heavy rotation on the music channel. It’s worth nothing that both of these videos are stylish but straightforward song performances, eschewing the often incomprehensible and poorly envisioned mini-movies many videos of the time embraced. Prince’s talent and music rightly take center stage.
“1999” and “Little Red Corvette” were an incredible one-two musical punch from an artist who had built a reputation for songs of raw lust and sexuality like “Head” from Dirty Mind, “Do Me Baby” from Controversy and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from the eponymously named Prince album. MTV’s airplay of those videos helped him cross over to white audiences and establish himself firmly in the musical mainstream.
VIDEO: Prince “Little Red Corvette”
As Prince keyboardist Monte Moir noted, “The 1999 tour was 90 percent black until ‘Little Red Corvette’ came out. All of a sudden it shifted drastically. It got to be half and half, if not 60-40 white.”
Poughkeepsie and the Midwest were clearly on board.
But not only were “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” a phenomenal one-two punch on MTV, they were the first and second songs on side one of the album, irresistibly drawing the listener into Prince’s music and introducing them to a record that at the time was regarded by many as a masterpiece, and that has only grown in reputation over the years.
Side 1, arguably one of the most perfect rock album sides of all time, concludes with “Delirious,” a high-energy expression of frustration over a gorgeous woman that features a synth hook that is pure earworm.
Those three songs would be enough for any album to achieve massive success, and there are probably plenty of people who bought 1999 and left side one on the turntable and that was that. But there’s plenty to hear in the eight other tracks.
For example, the nearly 10-minute “Automatic,” which on one level could find the singer in a submissive relationship to a dominating partner, and on another could be about the consequences of relinquishing all personal control and giving in to sexual desire (a fair summation of much of Prince’s music output up to this point).
Or “Free” which, 40 years later at a time when freedoms seem to be under attack more than they’ve been in decades, feels like a song ripe for rediscovery. It’s an anthemic celebration of – well, of freedom. “Be glad that you are free / There’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what you had baby, what you’ve got / Be glad for what you’ve got.”
VIDEO: Prince “International Lover (Piano & a Microphone edition)”
Or the sultry and sexy “International Lover,” closing the album with a remarkable vocal performance that showcases Prince’s range from screaming falsetto to low seduction. It garnered Prince his first Grammy nomination (he lost to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”).
It all adds up to an album that enabled Prince to enjoy his first taste of massive mainstream success, paving the way for Purple Rain and a brilliant career that would find him becoming one of the best-selling musical artists of all-time and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, class of 2004.
When the album was released in 1982, the year 1999 seemed so far into the future. Now it’s more than two decades in the past (how did that happen?!). And with war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin threatening the use of nuclear weapons, the question at the end of the apocalyptic title song remains even more relevant than it did 40 years ago:
“Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”