‘1999’ Turns 35: 10 Facts About Prince’s Joyous Apocalyptic Masterpiece
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Over the years, no single song – with the undeniable exception of "Purple Rain" – has done more to introduce or define Prince to the world than "1999." You might be surprised, however, at how much most fans still don't know when it comes to this all-but-ubiquitous No. 12 hit from 1982. Here are 10 facts about Prince's joyous apocalyptic masterpiece ...
The lyrics express millennial-themed worries about the end of the world, of course, but Prince insisted during a 1999 interview with CNN's Larry King that their message is ultimately optimistic: "We were sitting around watching a special about 1999, and a lot of people were talking about the year and speculating on what was going to happen. And I just found it real ironic how everyone that was around me whom I thought to be very optimistic people were dreading those days, and I always knew I'd be cool," he said. "So, I just wanted to write something that gave hope, and what I find is people listen to it. And no matter where we are in the world, I always get the same type of response from them."
Prince also told Larry King that he considered Stevie Wonder "an inspiration whom I look up to a great deal for the way that he crafted music, and his connection to the spirit." An example of that influence can be heard in the way Prince lets Revolution band members Lisa Coleman and Dez Dickerson each sing a line during the opening verse of "1999" before he takes over – echoing Wonder's approach to "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" from 1973. "When everybody got their parts separated," Prince said, "I realized we had something very special."
Check out this video of the Mamas and the Papas performing their 1966 gem "Monday, Monday." Now hum the opening keyboard riff from "1999" over those gorgeous background vocals. Coincidence or inspiration? You decide!
"1999" was issued as the first single from the album of the same name on Sept. 24, 1982. Upon initial release, it peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, after the subsequent "Little Red Corvette" became Prince's first Top 10 hit, "1999" was re-released – and, this time, it rose all the way to No. 12.
Although he had emancipated himself from Warner Bros. three years earlier, Prince was still quite unhappy about the fact that he didn't own the masters to the songs he recorded for his former label. In February of 1999, he announced plans to re-record "new masters" of all of those songs, beginning with "1999." The New York Times implied that the move was simply designed to deprive Warner Bros. of royalties – something Prince strongly denied. "If this is a side-effect of his re-recording the catalog, then so be it, but by no means is this his intention," Prince's NPG Records said in a rebuttal statement. "And, in fact, he believes that the entire Prince catalog belongs in his family’s name, since he was its creator." The point became moot when Prince's update of "1999" only reached No. 150 on the pop charts; no further "new master" songs were issued. Ironically, Warner Bros. later did their own re-release of the original recording, and it reached No. 40.
Genesis frequently listened to "1999" while on tour, according to Allmusic. So it's hardly a coincidence that the keyboard line in "Sussudio," from Phil Collins' 1985 solo album No Jacket Required, bears a striking resemblance to "1999." Sideman Daryl Stuermer later confirmed that Collins "never ran away from that idea. He said he was definitely influenced by that song. He was a huge fan of Prince.”
As Prince prepared to ring in the new millennium with a pay-per-view concert entitled Rave Un2 the Year 2000, he vowed to remove "1999" from his set lists forever. "This is going to be the last time we play it," he told CBS's The Early Show. "We're going to retire it after this, and there won't be no need to play it in the '00s." (You can see a clip of the show below.)
Prince kept his promise not to play "1999" for more than seven years. When he decided to break the song out again, it was for a pretty big event. He played a small snippet of "1999" during his acclaimed Super Bowl halftime appearance on Feb. 2, 2007. After that, the floodgates opened a bit: Prince returned to the track 149 more times before his untimely demise, according to Setlist.fm.
In what's become a sad tradition for famous musicians upon their death, many of Prince's biggest albums and singles raced up the charts again in April of 2016. This included "1999," which reached the Top 40 for the fourth time in three different decades – twice in 1982, once in 1999 and again after his passing.
According to Setlist.fm, "1999" has been played in concert by dozens of famous artists over the years, including Billy Joel, Beck, Elvis Costello, Meat Loaf, Limp Bizkit, Ween, Primus and, as you can see here, Styx's Lawrence Gowan. Wait, Meat Loaf!? Please, somebody tell us you've got video of Meat Loaf covering "1999."