The iconic figure of Prince is one that still cast a permanent shadow on music following his tragic death in 2016. The Purple One had some memorable moments on stage and his first appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1981 was surely one of them.
Remarkably, in a highly prolific career that spanned more than 40 years, Prince only performed on SNL a total of four times. In 1981, the 22-year-old singer was on a roll following his previous years’ album success with Prince and Dirty Mind and was taking the stage at the ever-growing glory of SNL as another step towards success.
The show was, and is to this day, a huge chance for one’s music to be heard on the biggest stage and, in the pre-internet days, it was about the only way you could go ‘viral’ for want of a better word. Quite typically, Prince brought the house down with his performance. While his efforts are ingrained in the minds of his devoted fans, the video has been widely deleted from the internet following his death and his Estate’s control over his licensing.
Saturday Night Live had been making its name as the place for entertainment on a weekend for some years and had quickly established itself as a launchpad for musicians. Some of the all-time greats have taken the opportunity to stare America in the eyes and do their stuff. From David Bowie to Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, and The Beastie Boys—they all took aim down the lens.
In February of 1981, it was Prince’s turn to see the blinking red light, faced with the possibility of an audience of millions and millions of people, could the young man deliver? Emphatically, as it often is with Prince, the answer is of course yes.
The singer takes to the stage in a classically paired down costume, featuring some Go-go boots and a knee-length trenchcoat, a glittering shirt and a cowboy’s bandana—it’s bloody perfect. Prince duly announces the title of the song with a shriek of electricity ‘Partyup’ and begins to flex and shimmy into the rhythmic bop of the song.
Prince duly took the musical performance section of the show to a whole new bouncing, shining level. On the night, however, he was not the main musical guest. That honour was with Todd Rundgren but SNL always kept a slot open for fiery new talent. They will be glad they did. Producer at the time, Jean Doumanian, said of the performance to Rolling Stone: “I was blown away, he was just the most original act I had seen in a long time.”
The effort, as effervescent as it was, was overshadowed by the most trivial of thing. A cast member of SNL and Hocus Pocus actor Charles Rocket would grab all the headlines and attention when he said “fuck” live on-air during the episode. The reaction to which you can see below, too.
It was a shame for Prince’s career at the time, he would’ve likely been very pleased with the performance and expecting some column inches of appreciation for it too. Alas, Rocket would get the headlines this time, Prince would pick them pretty much every time from then on.
Watch the rarely seen footage of Prince performing ‘Partyup’ on Saturday Night Live in 1981.