“Once upon a time, in a land called Paisley Park, lived a purple Prince…” BBC reporter Mobeen Azhar sells his Minneapolitan odyssey as a glimpse of Wonderland, a fantastical journey into a world of secrets and shelved projects, the search for the Holy Grail of the lost Prince album. For decades, we’ve heard rumours of Prince’s vault where countless unreleased songs and even full albums gather dust, perhaps never to see the light of day. What’s even more extraordinary, this vault actually appears to exist.
Hunting For Prince’s Vault airs on Radio 4 (in edited form) and the World Service this Saturday (21 March). The documentary sees Azhar tracking down an enviable cast of characters from Prince’s musical career and teasing information out of them about the Paisley Park vault and Prince’s astonishing – even wasteful – creative output. Azhar’s the man for the job. By his own admission, as he tells NME, his work is “normally quite hardcore. I do a lot of reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and cover drug addiction and sex work, so this was completely different,” but he’s a Prince superfan and this was a labour of love.
Azhar fell for Prince at the age of seven, when his brother played him ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’. “I just thought that album was mental,” he says. Growing up in Huddersfield, he’d come home from school and obsessively watch the Sign ‘O’ The Times film on VHS, and four years later, ‘Cream’ was the first single he bought. Since then, he says he’s seen Prince 53 times, even joining him on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2013. “I met Third Eye Girl in the hotel lift the day before,” he says, “and when they saw me at the front of the auditorium while Prince was coming on for his encore, they led me onto the stage. As he started to play ‘When Doves Cry’ on his keyboard, I walked over and said, ‘Prince, I really love you.’ He lifted his hand, put it on his chest, nodded and smiled and launched into ‘Dig if you will a picture…'”
Lifelong devotion brings an infectious enthusiasm to the documentary, a fervour that appears to be shared by contributors including Dr Fink (keyboard player, 1979-1990), Cat (dancer/rapper, 1987-1989), Susan Rogers (engineer, 1982-1987), Michael Bland (drummer, 1990-2009, pictured with Azhar below) and Eric (saxophone, 1983-2004) and Alan Leeds (manager, 1983-1991), who share candid perceptions and experiences of the vault and working with Prince. But getting this level of cooperation wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “The process was long and arduous,” Azhar says. It had started after Prince’s Hit And Run shows in London last year when he’d phoned Prince’s PR people and been “batted off into the long grass,” but after the BBC picked up the option, things started to move, albeit with a few stutters. “The first person I got to commit was Dr Fink, but three days later he pulled out, saying Prince’s lawyer ‘is really making my balls hurt’. He said he knew Wendy and Lisa [Melvoin and Coleman, former members of The Revolution] had received a cease and desist order a few years ago after doing an interview with Spin Magazine and he didn’t want to end up in that position.”
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Azhar phoned up Prince’s lawyers himself and convinced them of his pure intentions. Even then, they told him Prince “knows you’re doing this and he believes he’s the only one qualified to talk about his music and the vault.” Azhar saw an opening and asked if the great man would speak to him. “I’m met by icy silence!” The BBC’s legal department then persuaded Fink that he was in no danger airing his opinions and memories, and the game was on. Unfortunately, this was a rigmarole that had to be repeated with every interviewee. The only ones who agreed without a fuss were the Leeds brothers who “didn’t give a shit,” according to Azhar, because they’d been through all this before and had fallen out with Prince. It all comes down to control. As Azhar says, “Everyone’s quite upfront that they are where they are because of Prince. So no one wants to upset him and, more than that, everyone wants a call back.”
What emerges is there really is a vault in the basement beneath the Paisley Park studios. Sadly, Anzhar doesn’t get to see it himself, but he’s aware it’s “the size of an average British dining room,” and Rogers describes an actual bank vault door, “Tornado-proof, with a big wheel on it”. Paisley Park engineer Hans-Martin Buff, who curated the vault during the 1990s, is the closest to the lost songs and speaks about his findings, while Bland tells Azhar, “You walk in and there’s purple veils and petals on the floor and lots of ‘foof’.” Azhar is palpably excited when he talks about “rows and rows and rows of shelves,” the equivalent of “The Beatles saying, ‘These are our lost tapes’, or the Estate of Marvin Gaye saying, ‘Yeah this is one missing album, do you want it?'”
Some of this material has snuck out since Prince started stockpiling songs as early as the late 1970s – Dr Fink mentions a rock’n’roll album put on hold right at the dawn of Prince’s career – and the participants suspect there was a time when Prince was leaking songs himself. “Lots of people who were very close to him said either he was doing that or just being extremely careless,” says Azhar. “He would give tapes to band members and girlfriends, and he’d leave things in his car or on the back seats of taxis.” There were few repercussions back then, just sought-after bootleg cassettes, but the internet has made Prince more vigilant. “There’s no mystique these days,” Azhar reckons. And Prince is all about mystique.
Azhar’s own favourite Prince track is ‘Crystal Ball’, a 10-and-a-half-minute opus and itself a previously lost song that saw the light of day as the title track of a 3-CD boxset of shelved material released in 1998. But is he hopeful we’ll hear more? “I think it’s inevitable,” he says. “Prince is hugely inconsistent – he’s inconsistent with his political beliefs; he was a vegan for a few years and then he stopped; he’s inconsistent in terms of saying, ‘I’m a real musician and therefore I don’t need electronic instruments,’ and then a few months later he’ll put out an album made on Pro Tools. The one thing that is consistent about Prince is that he’s building this massive body of work and always talks about it serving future generations – and I think that’s what the vault is going to do.”
But there are two specific projects Azhar’s waiting for. He’s cautiously optimistic that Prince will hear the documentary – “It’s going out on NPR and Minneapolis public radio have bought it too” – and perhaps invite Azhar back to see the vault, or maybe we’ll hear ‘The Divine’. That’s a track Bland heard him record and it was as if, according to the drummer, Prince got “too close to ‘the source’. When it was over he said, ‘People aren’t ready for that.'” The other project is ‘The Dawn’. “Susan Rogers told me about this,” says Azhar. “For a period, Prince was saving particular songs for a very ethereal album called ‘The Dawn’, and all the way up to the mid-90s his albums would include a liner note saying, ‘May you live to see The Dawn’. He was referring to that album. I want to live to see ‘The Dawn’!”
Hunting For Prince’s Vault is on BBC Radio 4 at 10.30am on Saturday 21 March. The extended version airs later on the BBC World Service, at 8pm.