To conclude the year, SPEX is looking back on some of our favourite writing from 2016. The following article was written by senior Prince fan Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. A German translation was published in SPEX No. 369. This is the unabbreviated original.
Wading through an avalanche of new YouTube pages devoted to Prince outtakes, soundchecks, TV performances and rehearsals for live tours (shot, surprisingly in dark and grim looking basements …) – years into listening to Prince’s unreleased music on bootleg cassettes, CDs and vinyl (in that order) – and newly accessible on a wider scale since his death appears to have left no one (who cares as much as he did) to prevent the music’s digital emergence online, I’m struck by one song in particular, which never registered my interest before now. Far less exotic and funky than favourites such as „Crystal Ball“ or „All My Dreams“, much less visceral and obsessive than „Witness For The Prosecution“ or „Irresistible Bitch“, „Baby Go-Go“ merely passed me by ever since it appeared on a multi-disc set called The Work which sought to canonise Prince’s vast vault of unissued material from approximately 1976-1993 (at least that’s where I stopped downloading). Now it seems to be there at all times in the background of my life – inside my head whether or not I need it there, scratching away at something, rather like the murky incessant guitar part pushing against its basic Linndrum pattern.
The song appears to me to represent a somewhat workman-like attempt at music-making by Prince standards – as much as it also appears, sonically, to evoke a workman-like gyrating pulse of sexual obsession and dissatisfaction. I choose this song as a starting point in my attempt to discuss what it’s like to listen to Prince’s unreleased music as much because it epitomises the slightly degraded and distorted, watery, wispy, flangey sound quality of low bitrate mp3s, based on what are, at times, hissy source material (cassettes bootlegged in the 80s), that cannot help but infiltrate my brain and response to the music as much as anything melodic, harmonic, timbral or rhythmic, lyrical or philosophical.
Today I walked through the rain into Wood Green High Road listening on my phone to a compilation purporting to be an unreleased album, uploaded to YouTube and featuring tracks spanning a big chunk of Prince’s early to late 80s period. Even though I started buying Prince bootleg cassettes and CDs in about 1992 (and essentially have been re-buying or re-listening to these same favourite tracks since then) much of what was represented readily back then in the Camden Market stalls I frequented covered only a specific „Crystal Ball“ 1985-6 or Black Album period of recordings (or perhaps I just focussed in on these). Today I found myself listening to tracks I have skipped over the years („Data Bank“ – why?!) or never really heard before („The Line“) – and was astounded to hear Prince issuing commands to his engineer Susan Rogers to fade a track – and whether or not this compilation’s sequencing and cross fading is the work of the uploader as I suspect, or Prince himself (I doubt very much due to the dates I associate with these tracks), I was hearing new detail and making connections between specific drum machine tom sounds from one track to another and feeling astounded by the music I was hearing.
But what struck me most of all was the fact that the sonic qualities of these recordings specifically – in the case of „Crystal Ball“ (or „Expert Lover“ as it was erroneously named on the bootlegs of my teenage years) in particular – with their distortion, clipping and general tape-hotness (as opposed to a more modern phenomenon of digital compression for the sake of loudness) – actually pleased me more and made more of an impression on me than listening to their slicker official released counter-part versions. Prince’s voice seemed to be even more guttural and pleading in this bordering on lo-fi sound quality.
Is this possible? Can the degraded sound be something to be cherished after all? Do I need not await an official 200 volume Vault Collection that only an interjection from the grave can surely derail at this late stage after all?! It must be something to do with what a low quality MP3 compression does to a cassette-compressed illicitly distributed recording of a professional tape recording, perhaps in combination with my nostalgic remembrance of all things Prince from my past – but I can’t help but feel Prince’s 80s recordings have never sounded better.