Prince on stage in Chicago in 1982
Prince on stage in Chicago in 1982 © Paul Natkin/Wire Image

The year was 1982 and an androgynous young man named Prince had become a familiar presence on the radio and in the charts. But this was the year when he was to become a household name. From the beginning a prodigious recording artist, the mononymous Minneapolitan had released four albums in three years; his fifth was to be his breakthrough, its title track, “1999”, a bracing blast of funk.

The album was the first to be recorded with Prince’s new backing band, The Revolution, and “1999” featured the voices of two them, Lisa Coleman and Dez Dickerson, who took it in turns with Prince to sing the couplets. The song reflected the mood of the times, when the cold war had taken a chilly turn and fear of nuclear war was in the air (“Everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day”).

There’s also more than a whiff in Prince’s lyrics of his background in the pre-millennial, apocalyptic Seventh Day Adventist church: the longer album version of “1999” spirals off into a handclapping funk workout, with Prince declaiming, “Can’t run from Revelation”. And there’s a curious line in which Prince sings, “I’ve got a lion in my pocket, and baby he’s ready to roar”. On the face of it, this seems to be a straightforward sexual metaphor, except that in the Bible’s Book of Revelation the Lion of Judah is a symbol for the return of Christ. Of course, Prince being Prince, it’s entirely possible that its meaning is both sacred and sexual.

The song’s initial release as a single failed to make much impact, however. It was followed up by “Little Red Corvette”, which had enormous crossover appeal, bringing Prince’s music to a wider, whiter audience. In 1983, “1999” was re-released and was a hit in several countries. Over the years it has been re-released many times, notably in 1999 itself, when the world was gripped by apocalyptic fears of collapse caused by the millennium bug and partygoers took solace in Prince’s mood of defiant delirium. (Prince had been at war for some time with his record company, Warner Brothers, which owned the master tapes; to prevent Warner from profiting from the song, he re-recorded it in 1998.)

In 1999 Prince (who by now had changed his name to a symbol) recorded a live show, Rave Un2 the Year 2000, which was broadcast on US pay-per-view television on the eve of the new millennium, culminating in an extended “1999”. After this, Prince vowed never to play the song again, but he later revived it in live shows; it cropped up during his run of 21 concerts at London’s O2 Arena in 2007.

The song has not been widely covered, but a brave few have attempted it. Big Audio Dynamite covered it somewhat feebly in 1992. English electro artist Gary Numan did a sound job of it on his Machine and Soul album, released in 1999, exploring — as you’d expect — the song’s darker side. Anonymous eyeball-headed West Coast experimentalists The Residents went further, turning the song into a clanging, twisted dystopian vortex on their Dot.Com album (2000). US nu-metal band Limp Bizkit murdered it on stage, vocalist Fred Durst basically shouting the chorus while his bandmates thrashed the riff to death. The US singer Beck, who has also covered Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”, has incorporated “1999” into his live shows in a version that stays true to its funky roots. There’s also a jazz version by Bob Belden and Peter Bernstein on the Blue Note Plays Prince tribute album; their big, brassy arrangement is let down by Bernstein’s polite-sounding guitar.

Meanwhile Prince plagiarised the vocal melody in his own 1986 song for The Bangles, “Manic Monday”: the tune from one song could easily be sung to the riff of the other.

Finally, “1999” returned to the charts earlier this year following Prince’s death at the age of 57. No doubt it will get heavy rotation at New Year’s Eve parties across the globe in tribute to the man who sang, “We could all die any day/ But before I’ll let that happen, I’ll dance my life away.”

Get alerts on Peter Bernstein when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article