The Curious Origin of “1999”

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As the 20th century drew to a close, a digital threat known as the Y2K bug loomed over the world. This technological danger had its roots in the early days of computing, when programmers—seeking to conserve precious memory—abbreviated four-digit years to just two.

As the millennium approached, however, a realization dawned upon the world: The day after New Year’s Eve 1999, computers might interpret the year “00” not as 2000, but as 1900. As a result, havoc would undoubtedly rein. Surely, banks would lose everyone’s accounts. Airplanes would fall from of the sky. And the worst of it all – the world’s nuclear arsenals, which were managed by computers, would undoubtedly fire off willy-nilly.

Almost 20 years earlier, long before anyone had even heard of a computer virus, the countdown to midnight on December 31, 1999 already had an anthem. Two thousand zero zero…party over, oops, out of time. This is the story of how Orson Welles assisted Prince to write a prophetic song about one of the most significant moments in history.

Orson Welles wasn’t exactly a fresh-faced newbie when Hollywood came a-knocking, but his fame stemmed from radio, not film. By 1938, Welles had established himself as a wunderkind with his booming voice and innovative adaptations featured on “Mercury Theatre on Air.” In October 1938, the day before Halloween, Welles shocked the nation with his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” The presentation was a hyper-realistic news bulletin. It was so convincing, it caused widespread panic, and transformed the 23-year-old Welles into an instant celebrity. But was the young man ready to be thrust into the spotlight?

Prince wasn’t exactly a fresh-faced newbie when record labels came a-knocking. By the time he was 13, he had formed his first band. The young musician quickly became a commanding fixture in Minneapolis’ music scene, playing at community centers, proms and homecoming dances across Minneapolis. By the time he dropped out of school at 16, he had already laid the foundation for what would become the “Minneapolis Sound.”

Confident, he had what it took to be land a record deal, he flew to New York City. But it was of no avail. While he was away, however, a demo of a song he had created with producer, Chris Moon, made its way to the office of veteran promoter Owen Husney. That song that would ultimately be his first single “Soft and Wet.”

George J. Schaefer, head of RKO Pictures, saw an opportunity. He believed Welles’ newly minted celebrity and talent for grabbing an audience’s attention could translate to box office gold. Despite Welles’ lack of film experience, Schaefer relentlessly pursued him through 1939.

Hollywood studios, at the time, were known for their tight control over filmmakers. RKO, however, was in a unique position—flush with cash and looking to make a name for themselves. This confluence of factors led to an unprecedented three film contract that gave newbie Welles the freedom to develop his own projects, assemble his own team, and be granted the power every director sought: final cut.

 “I was immediately struck that this was something different,” Owen Husney recounted of Prince. “I turned to Chris and I said, ‘So, who’s the band here?’ And he said, ‘Well, Owen, it’s not really a band.’ And I thought, ‘Oh no, is it a bunch of studio musicians? Because I don’t really want to work with studio musicians; they can’t tour.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s not a studio band. It’s one kid. He’s just turned 18, and he’s singing everything and playing all the instruments.”

Recognizing Prince’s potential, Husney didn’t hesitate. After signing a management deal, Husney set up meetings in Los Angeles with Warner Bros., A&M, and Columbia. Within a week, all three labels were bidding for Prince. And within a month, less than three weeks after Prince’s nineteenth birthday, Husney had negotiated the largest record deal for an untested artist in modern rock history. Like Welles before him, that contract included unprecedented artistic control for a first-time artist.

RKO’s gamble on Welles opened with very mixed results. Following two aborted attempts to get a project off the ground, Welles finally released Citizen Kane in 1941. Despite its critical acclaim, and status as a cinematic milestone, the film struggled at the box office, failing to recover its massive production costs.

Welles’ controversial choice to portray a character inspired by media magnate William Randolph Hearst led to significant backlash. The Hearst organization launched a campaign to undermine the film and Welles. Their efforts included blackmail, Red-baiting, and a push to have RKO destroy the film.

Although the Hearst press banned mentions of “Citizen Kane,” their actions ironically heightened interest elsewhere: Critics loved it. Despite widespread critical praise, however, the film faced significant resistance. Theaters in key cities, like New York and Los Angeles, refused to screen it, cementing its status as both a landmark achievement and a historic financial flop.

Warner Brother’s gamble on Prince paid off almost immediately. The prolific artist released an album a year each with more critical, sales, and chart success than the last. Prince’s first four albums laid the groundwork for his future stardom, showcasing his talent, but not achieving mainstream success on the charts.

The first two—For You (1978) and Prince (1979)—barely cracked the Billboard Top 200, but they included singles that gained some traction on the R&B and Dance charts. The next two—Dirty Mind (1980) and Controversy (1981)—continued to push boundaries while solidifying Prince’s presence on those niche charts. Although Prince’s first four albums established him as a rising talent, widespread mainstream recognition continued to elude him.

With Citizen Kane having run significantly over a budget—one it did not recoup at the box office—Welles’ contract was renegotiated. In the new terms, Welles lost his power, leaving studios to routinely meddle with his films. When Welles submitted his second movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” RKO cut more than 40 minutes and shot a completely new ending without Welles. When Welles learned his creation was butchered by the studio, he lost his shit.

In truth, however, Welles had left for South America before Ambersons was complete. Instead, he began shooting a “semi-documentary” that RKO would shut down after it, too, ran over budget.Welles’, and the executive who first hired him, were shown the door.

By the time Prince was scheduled to open for the Rolling Stones in October of 1981, he had built a loyal following. His distinct glam mash-up of funk, R&B, and rock, however, was marketed primarily to black audiences and radio stations. So, his successes were mostly limited to the dance and R&B charts. Rolling Stone’s concerts had long been associated with violence, intolerance, and overall jack-assery. Prince’s first night opening for them at the Coliseum would be no different

The mostly white audience, filled with Hell’s Angels, was unimpressed by the colorful, funk-laced tunes from a showman that didn’t conform to their “macho-macho man” ideals. So, almost immediately, they started hurling a barrage of fried chicken, bottles, and other objects. And then, the requisite wave of racist and homophobic slurs followed. Prince and his band were only able to fight through four songs before having to run for cover.

After Prince’s disastrous performance with the Stones, however, Mick Jagger personally asked Prince to rejoin at the next tour date two days later. Prince agreed. But unfortunately, the results were the same. While shaken, instead of shrinking, Prince headed back to what he did best: creating music. He’d come away from the incident even more determined to expand his audience so that he could headline his own arena shows.

In his 2006 book “Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?,” Joseph McBride wrote: “Unlike John Huston, who didn’t balk at directing mediocre movies for hire in order to remain bankable, Welles was heroically unwilling to compromise as a director, but he was willing to do almost anything as an actor.” By the 1970s, Welles—who had been living well beyond his means—was taking any job he could to get the IRS off his ass.

His most famous pitches were for Paul Masson, that would famously “sell no wine before its time.” Knowing that this kind of work was “beneath” a man of such talent, he was often mocked. But Orson Welles famously defended the work saying, “It’s the most innocent form of whoring I know.” And Welles was good at it.

Along with hawking bad wine, Welles pitched spring water, airlines, cameras, board games, photocopiers, amusement parks, pay-per-view services, candy bars, and tires. Welles’ gravitas made him a voiceover favorite for other projects that took themselves way too seriously, including: The Alan Parsons Project’s “Tales of Mystery and Imagination,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and 1978’s “Lord of the Rings.”

And while many products leveraged the ‘gravitas’ of the actor’s voice, others used it ironically for films like Revenge of the Nerds and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Welles’ baritone, however, was best suited to the dozens of educational films he narrated, including the documentary that would help change the trajectory of Prince’s career.

Following the Rolling Stone debacle, Prince was determined to build a following that would insure he would never again be an opening act. Due to the success of his early albums, Prince had enough money to experiment with his music. He acquired new drum machines and synthesizers to create a signature sound, one unlike anything previously heard. His efforts culminated in a record that would showcase what was to come. It was two-discs of all the things Prince had been longing to do musically since that raw demo in Minneapolis.

But while LP contained a number of promising tracks—including the hit-in-waiting Little Red Corvette—it was missing a song that pulled the album together. Yet, Prince couldn’t have anticipated where inspiration for that missing track would strike.

It was the Fall of 1981. While promoting the album “Controversy” in the South, Prince and his band the Revolution found themselves in need of overnight lodging. While they had been living the rock and roll life, one vice had eluded them: Premium cable.

So, tempted by the promise of free HBO, a significant perk at the time, they chose one particular motel for their stay. And while Prince was notoriously frugal, on this particular evening, he allowed each band member to have their own room. Despite their separation, as if predetermined, they were all drawn to the movie playing on the Home Box Office: “The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.”

And as fortune would have it, of the many documentaries exploring the 16th century prophecies of Nostradamus, this particular film was narrated by Orson Welles.

On the ride to the concert hall the next day, the Revolution discussed the curious film. But not Prince. He was missing. Arriving at their destination, the band found The Purple One already waiting. In his hand, a cassette of a new song he was eager to share with his bandmates.

Prince had also watched the documentary. And one of Nostradamus’s visions, as relayed by the baritone-throated Orson Welles, had struck a chord. Literally. Drummer Bobby Z later reflected on the moment saying, “there explains the difference between mere mortals and Prince.” While the band had simply watched the documentary, it had inspired Prince to compose a new song overnight.

Prince’s new composition merged an apocalyptic prophecy with a party counting down to doomsday. It was the missing piece. And as both the opening song and title track of Prince’s fledging new album, it would ultimately propel Prince’s shining star to the heavens. And in a turn even Nostradamus could not predict, the track not only became a hit upon its release in 1982, but would become an anthem for a critical moment decades later.

That song, of course, was 1999.



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