‘Studio Sessions 1985-1986’ Is a Deep, Deep Dive on Prince’s Peak Years: Book Review

Prince book by Duane Tudahl
Courtesy Prince Estate Archives

One of the many revelations of the Prince estate’s ongoing, exhaustive reissue series is that there’s so much more in the late artist’s legendary vault than even the most obsessive fans ever dreamed. Even the sprawling, multi-disc deluxe editions around “1999” and “Sign O’ the Times” barely scratch the surface.

One of the key people assembling those reissues is Duane Tudahl, who is turning the team’s research into astonishingly detailed, doorstop-sized books: First with 2019’s “Prince and the ‘Purple Rain’ Studio Sessions,” which focused on 1983-84, and a new one with the unwieldy title “Prince and the ‘Parade’ & ‘Sign O’ the Times’ Studio Sessions 1985 and 1986” (out Wed., June 10). Both books document this obsessively prolific musician’s many, many recording sessions and tour dates, one or both of which took place basically every day — and he was famously a man who rarely slept. But Prince’s work was his life, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Consequently, the book is also the backstory of what was happening when he recorded these songs via hundreds of interviews with band members, engineers, friends, girlfriends and associates, done by Tudahl or others (including a few by this writer). It’s a document of a man achieving all of his dreams by the age of 26 — and then killing off the star people had just fallen in love with. Thus began Prince’s decades-long game of cat-and-mouse with superstardom.

The years documented here were his most successful and his most creative, encompassing the material recorded for the “Parade” and “Sign O’ the Times” albums, hits like “Kiss,” “U Got the Look,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Housequake,” “Adore” and literally hundreds of other songs for himself, Sheila E., the Family, his Madhouse jazz group and many, many others.

The book begins two months into the “Purple Rain” tour, when Prince & the Revolution were selling out multiple nights in arenas all across North America, but this creatively restless artist was feeling increasingly boxed in not just by superstardom but by performing the same songs night after night. Even though the famously sleepless Prince was going straight to a studio after most shows — and then running his band through three-hour soundchecks the next day before their two-hour show — he began rebelling. He declined to perform with the galaxy of contemporary superstars for the African-famine relief single “We Are the World” (but gladly donated a song to the companion album), started dropping new songs into concerts, and finally announced that he was retiring from touring. What he was really retiring was the “Purple Rain” superstar: He would be back onstage for a surprise gig in his hometown of Minneapolis in just a few weeks, and launched another full-scale tour in just over a year.

Using a template first perfected by Mark Lewisohn’s 1988 book “The Beatles Recording Sessions,” this 600-plus-page tome captures Prince’s arguably most creative era in fascinating detail. More than anything else in Prince’s life, the recording sessions and tour dates — i.e. the music — provided the framework for everything else in that life, and Tudahl expertly weaves the details into the music that was made at the time.

For example, shortly after his longtime friend and bodyguard, Chick Huntsberry, sold his story to a tabloid, Prince wrote the unusually personal “Old Friends 4 Sale”: “The sun set in my mind this evening, 4 someone who said they would die 4 me… they sold some old pictures and all my little memories.” The day after Prince split up the Revolution the following year, he recorded the incongruously happy “Housequake,” but engineer Susan Rogers recalled his dark mood that day: “There was a silent wall that was basically saying, ‘Don’t even ask.’” Yet he also weaves in quotes regarding bigger-picture stories about Prince’s life — the period when he was kicked out the house by both of his parents as a teenager and the effect it had on him — and particularly revealing details about superstardom and how it changed him.

This is hardly the place to begin for a casual fan — like the reissues, it offers more detail than even the most obsessive stan could have hoped for — and it’s so densely packed with information that even though I’ve had a galley for a few weeks, I’m not even halfway through. But to an even greater degree than its predecessor, this book is something fans can savor for months on end.