Michael Howe is Prince’s archivist. His job is to mine The Vault, the complete masters of Prince recordings, and extract what becomes the expanded reissues of the Prince catalogue.
Michael’s latest project was Prince’s 1982 album ‘1999’. The original double album has now been expanded to a 6-disc set with additional single edits, B-sides, unreleased recordings and live footage.
Michael tells Noise11.com that Prince’s vault is massive. He kept everything he ever recorded and it and goes back to before his first album. “It goes back certainly before Prince’s first record deal with Warner Brothers in 1977. There are things that precede that,” he says.
Michael has a formula for deciding what will be used in the expanded reissues and what is left in the vault. “When we contemplate these expanded bodies of work it is a very, very small group of people, two or three people, who makes the suggestions and decisions about what is appropriate for inclusion and what isn’t,” he tells Noise11.com. “We start with the universe of possibilities for a particular period. In this case, anything that was suitable for inclusion on ‘1999’ which was anything recorded between November of 1981 through to April of ’83, the end of the ‘1999’ tour. We put the universe of possibilities together and start to whittle it down. We exclude things that were intended for other artists or ended up protégé albums, or things that were completely abandoned by Prince that were never revisited for other projects. We are then still left with an enormous amount of material to choose. That is generally how we move forward”.
He has no idea how many hours of content there was for just the ‘1999’ album. I can’t quantify it in hours,” he says. “Including live stuff there is a tremendous amount of material. The studio stuff, we can present it pretty exhaustively as part of this box set. There are only a few things that we felt compelled to leave out. It is a pretty comprehensive book of the entire era. We tried to do this with as much completeness and integrity as possible that Prince would demand and the body of work deserves”.
Even if he went back and started this project today he feels it would still come out pretty close to what we were presented with on this reissue. “I think it would be what is emerging now. We think it is about as definitive a look at the era that we could possibly get,” he says.
1999 wasn’t that big a hit when it was released. The album just scrapped into the US Top 10, peaking at no 7. It Australia it stalled at no 35 and in the UK only got as high at no 28. “In my estimation this was the inflection point of Prince’s career,” Michael says. “He was on the assent as a rising star but he had not become the supernova that he became shortly thereafter with ‘Purple Rain’. It was really right in the middle of those few eras. I think it was a conscious decision of his part, harnessing the visual image. He was cultivating the power of MTV and the obvious thematic element to the album. It was the entire package he was shooting for and I think he hit the bull-eye”.
One of the stories that surfaced decades later was that Stevie Nicks based her song ‘Stand Back’ on the ‘1999’ track ‘Little Red Corvette’ and Prince plays uncredited on the Nicks track. “It is true,” says Michael. “My understanding is that she was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with her new husband at the time and heard ‘Little Red Corvette’ on the radio. When she was in the studio making ‘The Wild Heart’ she called Prince and he came down and in real time created the track that became ‘Stand Back’. Stevie’s vocal was put on it and then he left. What you are hearing is Prince’s work as it happened. Below the synth track it is Prince playing it in real time. It is not a machine. It is actually Prince playing those things in real time in one take and then walking out the door”.
While Michael can’t say exactly why Prince was uncredited he has a theory. “My suspicion is that it was for contractual purposes not wanting to upset executive levels and various labels and various management companies. It was also probably not wanting to upset other musicians sitting in the room at the same time. I don’t know with certainty”.
Another fun fact. The album cover has plenty of hidden messages, one being a hint at what was to come with The Revolution. On the cover in the Number 1 it says “and the revolution spelt backwards”. That was the very first time The Revolution was mentioned although the name would not be credited until the next album ‘Purple Rain’. “I don’t think many people have noticed that actually,” Michael notes. “The first Revolution tour did not happen until after the ‘1999’ tour was over. You assume The Revolution is Wendy and Lisa and Mark and Fink and Bobby and Prince. It was after Dez’s departure. There are hints about what is to come on the record cover”.
‘1999’ was Prince’s fifth album in five years. Prince released an incredible quantity of quality music in a short period of time. It wasn’t just Prince back then. Many artists from that era were capable of releasing an album of the year of what would become classic material. No current artists come anywhere near being able to achieve that. “I think there is some wisdom in that comment in that the amount of quality material that artists seem to be able to crank out in eras past far outweighs what happens in today’s market-place for the best part. There are exceptions to that rule but it on balance it seems that superstar artists were able to put out stuff of exceptionally high caliber in rapid succession. It is remarkable that The Beatles entire output was over six or seven years, the Jimmy Miller – Stones run, the six Van Halen records, the early Cars stuff, Prince. It was a remarkably rich era of artists putting out tremendous amounts of high-quality material. Especially Prince. His batting average was astonishing. Even the stuff he was putting aside in some cases in order of magnitude was better than many artists very best work”.
The Prince ‘1999’ box set was released on 29 November, 2019.