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The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale: Unlocking Prince’s Lesser-Known Jazz-Pop Gems
In Depth

The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale: Unlocking Prince’s Lesser-Known Jazz-Pop Gems

Released years after his dispute with Warner Bros, ‘The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale’ hinted at some of the paths Prince could have taken.

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By the time The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale came out, in 1999, Prince had spent three years apart from Warner Bros and had been exploring ways of releasing music direct to his fans – including pioneering attempts to sell his records through the internet. His former label, however, still had the rights to issue a second collection of songs as part of their agreement to terminate his contract. The first of these, Chaos And Disorder, had appeared in July 1996, three months after Prince struck out on his own, and captured him in a furious state of mind as he thrashed his way through hard-rock tracks that expressed exactly what he thought of the music industry. The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale, however, found him in a more reflective mood. Though another collection of songs “originally intended 4 private use only” – as the sleevenotes put it – the album’s largely jazz-inflected material dated in part from Prince’s Purple Rain era and also revealed some of his more theatrical leanings.

Listen to ‘The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale’ here.

“He was very interested in theatre”

The songs’ recording sessions spanned more than a decade, from 1985 to 1996, though the majority of The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale was laid down with The New Power Generation in the early 90s, during a period in which Prince also created the “Love Symbol” album – “rock soap opera” which, in turn, inspired a narrative-driven live show that brought the record’s storyline to the stage. In a public statement at the time, he expressed further wishes to work on “alternative media projects, including live theatre, interactive media, nightclubs and motion pictures”.

Lifted from this era, The Vault… songs The Rest Of My Life, My Little Pill and There Is Lonely had been recorded as part of a batch of tunes intended for the 1994 movie I’ll Do Anything, which had initially been conceived as a musical before being stripped of all its set pieces and refashioned as a straight comedy-drama. Alongside the likes of 5 Women (given to Joe Cocker for his 1991 album, Night Calls) and When The Lights Go Down, they found Prince comfortable writing narrative-driven tracks with swinging horn arrangements suitable for any Broadway chorus line. “He was very interested in theatre,” Prince’s first wife, Mayte Garcia, told this writer for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “He didn’t want to just be a ‘rock star’… that was something he wanted to conquer.”

“Some songs from a long time ago”

Elsewhere, There Is Lonely and Old Friends 4 Sale offered more introspective moments. “There is lonely/And there is lonely/And then there is how I feel right now,” Prince sings over the former’s maudlin chord progression, equating his despair to how he imagined the Biblical figure Cain felt after killing his brother.

Straddling both the emotional vulnerability and the showtune-tinged bombast was Old Friends 4 Sale. Originally recorded at the height of his fame, in 1985, while facing dissent from within his own camp (head bodyguard “Big Chick” Huntsberry had resigned and subsequently sold an exposé to the National Enquirer in order to finance his drug addiction), the re-recorded The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale version of the song featured less personal lyrics and a fuller arrangement that took the edge off its vulnerability. But though the original’s more pointed observations may have caught Prince in a rueful disposition (“In Uptown when winter’s alarmin’/Oh/Cocaine becomes charmin’/But U talk about things U don’t know”, “Some things R better left unsaid/And some people R better left untrusted”), the lyrics that survived the update left no room for misunderstanding and felt fitting given the circumstances surrounding the album’s release: “Old friends 4 sale/Get ’em while the gettin’ is hot”.

“That’s not who I am”

The most recent song on the album, the pop-rock number Sarah, recorded in early 1996, channelled some of the fighting spirit Prince had shown in the months leading up to his departure from Warner Bros; had it been included on Chaos And Disorder, it could have added some levity to the frustration that characterised much of that album. In the main, however, the songs on The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale were, as Prince told Rolling Stone about Warners’ contractual-obligation releases, “some songs from a long time ago – that’s not who I am”.

Indeed, when it was released, on 24 August 1999, Prince – then still identifying as the “Love Symbol” that he had adopted for his name six years earlier – was three months into a new label partnership with Arista, who were preparing to release what the artist felt was his official album of that year, Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic. Though that record ultimately overshadowed The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale, the latter made its presence felt in the Netherlands, where it peaked at No.16. Back in the US, The Vault… also caught the ear of Entertainment Weekly’s Marc Weingarten, who praised the album’s “leisurely, unforced grooves that shimmer with horny horns, cascading keyboard waterfalls, and on-the-one grit”.

Three years later, Prince seemingly heard more in the album than perhaps he’d first realised, and included its gentle closing track, Extraordinary, in setlists for this One Nite Alone… tour of 2002. By then, he had also reverted to using his birth name; a little over a decade later, he’d made his peace with Warner Bros, too. After 18 years of bitter estrangement, Prince embarked once again on “a fruitful working relationship” with the label, resulting in the two final US Top 10 albums he released during his lifetime, PLECTRUMELECTRUM and Art Official Age.

Check out our run-down of all 39 Prince album covers to find out where the ‘The Vault… Old Friends 4 Sale’ artwork ranks.

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