Like its predecessor, Prince’s second album was recorded almost entirely solo, with the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist serving as his own producer. Also like the first album, though, the liner note credit “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” was a slight exaggeration. Just as he had on the For You sessions, Prince’s bassist and longtime musical partner André Cymone accompanied him to California–along with his second most veteran bandmate, drummer Bobby Z. And while their full contributions to the album are unclear–they’re listed in the liner notes as “Heaven-sent Helpers,” whatever that means–it does seem that André played a significant role in shaping one song in particular: the second track–and, in early 1980, second single–“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
Years later, after André had left the band and revealed his contributions to this and other Prince songs, his old friend did give him some credit–albeit with his usual mix of deflection and pique. “He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn’t hear,” Prince told Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, but a “typo” kept him from receiving any credit. “I tried to explain that to him, but when you’re on the way up, there’s no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to” (Karlen 1985). Charles Smith, Prince’s and André’s former Grand Central bandmate, offered an alternative explanation: “Prince started shaping the second album when he moved to the house on France Avenue,” he told Per Nilsen. “I watched Prince and André do the work for the album, ‘Bambi,’ ‘Still Waiting,’ and all that stuff. André came up with the end of ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and a lot of the bass lines were André’s” (Nilsen 1999 54-55).
We’ll talk more about the thorny issue of authorship between Prince and André in posts to come. For now, suffice to say that André’s contributions to “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”–and any number of other songs on the Prince album–seem to have been a victim of his friend-turned-employer’s carefully-maintained image as a musical auteur. We’ve already noted that the artistic persona known as “Prince” was a collaborative effort, constituting not only Prince Rogers Nelson’s undeniable talents, but also the work and vision of numerous collaborators, mentors, technical specialists, and promoters. Western culture, however, tends to privilege the work of heroic individuals over that of cooperative partnerships; it was thus easier and more fruitful for Prince to sell himself as a sui generis lone genius than as “merely” the most exciting of several instrumentalists, singers, and songwriters from the Minneapolis scene.
For his second album, Bobby Z recalled, Prince “wanted to keep that ‘produced, performed, composed by Prince’ thing. He didn’t want to break that yet, whether people contributed or not.” The auteur angle had, after all, been a central part of Prince’s “brand” since his 1977 demo tape. And, while André certainly contributed to the arrangements of both For You and Prince, the albums were still primarily Prince’s work: “Let him have the credit,” Bobby said to Nilsen. “He wrote that thing and [recorded] it all himself” (Nilsen 1999 54). Perhaps in some alternate universe, Prince and André could have positioned themselves as a kind of Lennon/McCartney partnership, sharing the credit for their respective songs as assiduously as Prince hoarded it in our reality. But for better or worse, that wasn’t how it happened.
Whoever deserves the credit for “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, one thing is for sure: the song is an absolute scorcher, the strongest example yet of Prince’s (and André’s) knack for pure pop/rock songcraft. Everything about it is a hook: from the melodic twin-guitar intro, which sounds a bit like Prince had been listening to Boston in late 1978, to the soaring chorus, which somehow makes his soft, Eddie Kendricks-esque falsetto into a suitable instrument for rock and roll. And in the midst of it all are those classic Minneapolis keyboards, adding a glossy pop sheen that would be omnipresent on rock radio in just a few short years.
Therein, however, lies the problem. In hindsight, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” sounds like pop/rock perfection; but, like many of Prince’s early “rock” songs, its unique blend of genres was ever so slightly ahead of its time. The song presented many of the same difficulties to contemporary listeners as “I’m Yours” had on For You. The blistering guitar solo and big, arena-rock chorus were outside the usual aesthetic domain for R&B, while the keyboards and Prince’s effete voice would have sounded too “soft” for most rock listeners–particularly in 1979, a high watermark for white heterosexual backlash against disco and its widely-perceived associations with gay African American culture. Just a few months before the release of Prince, thousands of rowdy fans flooded the field at Chicago’s Comiskey Park after local DJ Steve Dahl ceremonially blew up a crate of disco records: a promotional stunt-turned-riot now considered to be the defining moment of the “Disco Sucks” movement. Late 1979 was, in other words, the worst possible time to release a melodic rock single with prominent keyboards and falsetto vocals by a man of indeterminate race and sexual orientation, who performed in bikini briefs and was pictured on the back cover of his album riding a pegasus in the nude.
Due in no small part to these factors, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” was not the hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover” had been, falling well short of the Hot 100–though it did still reach Number 13 on the R&B charts, proof that the turn-of-the-decade pop market’s cultural divide was more than a little one-sided. But if the rawkers at Comiskey Park and elsewhere weren’t interested, it was their loss: they missed out on not only an all-around great song, but also Prince’s most accomplished guitar solo to date, a post-chorus eruption that was as ebullient, even orgasmic, as it was technically proficient. Prince may have looked like a disco artist in 1979 and early 1980, but he was already capable of meeting the guitar heroes on their own turf, melting their proverbial faces in the process.
It’s unsurprising, then, that “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” quickly became a staple of Prince’s live sets: the territory where he was most insistent on displaying his chops as a rock artist. On his early tours, he’d place the song second in the set, using its title as a kind of petulant dare to help pump up the audience. By his dates supporting 1980’s Dirty Mind, he was investing it with new, punkish aggression, ending the last repetition of the title with a screamed “…Bitch!” and launching into another, even more ferocious guitar solo. And on the Controversy tour of 1981 and 1982, it morphed into a full-blown arena rock monster, with a new, power chord-heavy instrumental intro (see video above from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, January 1982). In all of these cases, it didn’t hurt that his touring band had a second phenomenal rock guitarist in Dez Dickerson, who could play off Prince during the harmony parts of the solo while the two of them struck KISS-style poses alongside André (and, later, his replacement Mark Brown) on bass.
In short, while it wasn’t an immediate success, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” was another strong indication of Prince’s musical direction in late 1979. He was–with, lest we forget, the help of collaborators like André, Bobby, and Dez–increasingly styling himself as much as a rock musician as an R&B auteur, simultaneously reshaping the boundaries of both genres in the process. It would only take a few more years for the rest of the world to catch up.
(I originally wrote that “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” fell short of the Top 40; upon further research, it appears it didn’t make the pop charts at all. I’ve updated the post accordingly.)