How Prince’s ‘Crystal Ball’ Finally Saw the Light of Day
Always ahead of the curve, Prince actually crowd-funded an album via the internet decades ago. The three-disc Crystal Ball collected 30 previously unreleased songs, mainly from his record label-dispute era of 1993–96 – save for a pair of notable exceptions, including the title track.
This song is the most obvious connection between 1998's Crystal Ball – initially only available via direct order by phone at 1 (800) NEW-FUNK – and another long-shelved project of the same name. A 11-minute apocalyptic-dance party sung by Prince's short-lived alter-ego Camille, "Crystal Ball" is driven along by a mind-boggling turn from ace orchestrator Clare Fischer, even as it points to what might have been if Prince's (now former) label hadn't balked.
In fact, it was this very song that scuttled his plans. Seems Prince previewed the episodic, Book of Revelations-esque "Crystal Ball" for label execs in 1986, and they failed to fully appreciate either his complex musical vision (additional flourishes came courtesy of militaristic drums, a bleakly bizarre spoken-word segment and a wacked-out flute, among other things), nor his idea of overcoming the then-very real fear of nuclear winter by ritualistically drawing scenes of love making on the bedroom walls.
Warner Bros. was still looking for a worthy commercial successor to 1984's Purple Rain, not a triple album of funky weirdness. Prince had already considered then ultimately shelved a full-length collaboration with the Revolution titled Dream Factory, and an entire project featuring songs performed in this high-pitched Camille persona, before finally deciding on the Crystal Ball concept.
The title track was slotted to open the third side of the album, according to PrinceVault. When Warner Bros. demanded that Prince take a sharper editing blade to the work, however, he whittled everything down to a deft and concise double album titled Sign 'O' the Times. "Crystal Ball" was left on the cutting-room floor, as Prince crafted a 15-song lineup out of the original 22 in December 1986.
By the time he emerged with 1988's determinedly upbeat Lovesexy, all talk of "mathematical gas" (don't ask) and "the purple underground" (no idea) had evaporated – though the the other left-over songs continued to filter out.
"Shockadelica" was a 1987 b-side, while "Only the Ball" formed the basis of "Eye No" on Lovesexy. "Good Love" was reformulated for the 1988 soundtrack to Bright Lights, Big City, "Joy in Repetition" found a home on 1990's Graffiti Bridge, and "Rockhard in a Funky Place" appeared on the belated 1994 release of the Black Album.
But what of "Crystal Ball"? It seemed perhaps the most unhinged moment in a darkly intriguing period save for Fisher's ominous strings, which were subsequently repurposed as part of "The Future" on 1989's Batman soundtrack – would be gone forever.
That is, until Prince decided to revive the Crystal Ball name, but with a different idea. Only the title song remained from the earlier song list. He paired that with the title track from the Dream Factory album, leftovers from 1986's Parade, the 1993 stage production of Glam Slam Ulysses, 1995's The Gold Experience, 1996's Emancipation, an edit of "Good Love" and a few remixes.
The final unreleased Crystal Ball extra, "Rebirth of the Flesh," didn't appear until 2001, and only as a live take on a NPG Music Club release.