The Purple One Stripped Down

A closer look at Prince’s Piano & A Microphone 1983

Prince Piano & A Microphone 1983, Warner Bros./Rhino 2018

Spoiler alert: Piano & A Microphone 1983 is all it claims to be but nothing more, simply Prince sitting at a piano in his home studio and working on some song sketches. Consequently, those who anticipate some unreleased songs in a finished fashion will need to temper their expectations. It is instead a few low-cast demos of songs that aren’t yet fully formed or ready for mass consumption.

Back in 1983, Prince was still in the relative youth of his career. Purple Rain–the film and soundtrack that would propel him to superstardom–was still a year away, and the rough sketch of the title track that he experiments with here is a far cry from the anthemic effort that would later become his signature song. Curiously, it segues into an offhanded take on Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You,” although that version is barely recognizable as well.

Still, curiosity seekers will find the album an intriguing glimpse into Prince’s creative process as well as a fuller affirmation that, for all his flash and frenzy and posing and posturing, Prince was essentially a superb songwriter. It was his savvy and skill that made him the iconic artist he later became.

Most artists are reticent to release work that’s still in progress because they’re unwilling to reveal imperfections before they’ve ironed them out. Indeed, some bands are so dependent on enhancing their work with a studio sheen, their initial tracks are glossed over entirely. In certain situations, it takes a producer and engineer to smooth them over. That’s one reason why fans usually aren’t given any opportunity to  hear a work in progress, even though fascination with the creative process might provide a new perspective, and presumably add increased appreciation as well.

Still, the music biz is all about show biz after all, and there’s always an image to protect. I recall when I was a promo rep for Capitol Records and three ex-members of the Byrds — Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman — were recording a reunion album for the company at Criteria Studios in Miami. The material would  eventually be released under the handle of McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. When we visited them during a break in their schedule, we asked them to play some some rough cuts. McGuinn and Clark were quick to comply, but Hillman voiced his objections. “It’s not ready,” he protested, and though we knew that the songs were still in their formative stages, we were curious as to how they were shaping u.

Needless to say, we didn’t get an early listen.

There are some albums that were released in a seminal stage. The Beatles’ Let It Be album was originally intended to consist of the band’s raw recordings until Phil Spector intervened at John Lennon’s request and dubbed additional instrumentation over the basic tracks.. When the additives were later stripped away, it was reissued many years later as Let It Be Naked, giving fans an opportunity to hear the album as it was originally intended.

Likewise, the release of Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes revealed the rudimentary work that eventually led to the songs that were later released on the Bands’ debut album Music From Big Pink, as well as demos of material that eventually found its way into the hands of other artists and released as cover versions before Bob opted to record them on his own.

Of course those glimpses behind the scenes are rarely offered anymore, although expanded versions of landmark albums often include a backlog of early outtakes and alternate versions. Delving into Dylan’s back pages via his Bootleg Series is always interesting, and the forthcoming take on Blood on the TracksMore Blood, More Tracks — should prove especially plentiful in that regard.

Sadly, Prince is no longer with us, so there’s no certainty that he would have given consent to release his work in such a raw way. Neither is Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or half the members of the Doors, all of whom have had or will have their landmark efforts stripped away in layers and examined at their essence. Still, consumers now have access to music that they can explore and rediscover prior to any perfection.

Would Leonardo Da Vinci’s initial sketches of the Mona Lisa be worth revealing? The likely answer is yes, but hopefully no one will ever mistake those noodlings for the real deal.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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