(Featured Image: “GG’s Barnum Room, ‘Ava’,” Bill Bernstein, 1979.)
“To me, disco was always very contrived music,” Prince told NME’s Chris Salewicz in 1981. “It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios.” In contrast, he claimed, “what I do is just go in and play” (Salewicz 1981). I don’t know if Prince had his own 1979 song, “Sexy Dancer,” in mind when he gave this interview. Most likely he did not; the two years between the song’s recording and his conversation with Salewicz, after all, represent basically an eternity in Prince time. But his comments are nevertheless instructive for understanding the song’s approach to what is–sorry, Prince–clearly an engagement with disco, if not strictly a disco track.
His stated distaste for the genre aside, Prince was clearly no stranger to disco in 1979. In his interview with Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader early that year, he mentioned that he “used to hang out at the Infinity,” a dance club in suburban St. Louis Park (Keller 1979). What he shared with many other musicians of the era, however, was a healthy skepticism for disco’s emphasis on the role of the producer. Disco, Prince told Salewicz, “was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came.” But Prince was his own producer–and, for that matter, his own studio musicians. “It’s easy for me to work in the studio,” he claimed, “because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me!” So, rather than playing to “fill up the breaks” in a producer’s master plan, Prince would “just play along with the other guy”–himself (Salewicz 1981).
It’s an interesting distinction, and one that was probably lost on many critics at the time. A common objection to Prince’s music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially from more rock-oriented writers, was the perceived solipsism of his “one-man band” approach. For critics used to music being made by bands, there wouldn’t have been much difference between Prince cutting his own tracks and a session musician cutting tracks for Giorgio Moroder or Tom Moulton; the process was deemed “clinical”–even if, in practice, it was not so distant from the way most rock bands were recording at the time, laying down individual parts in isolation booths. But in Prince’s view, having control over every level of the process gave him the latitude to be spontaneous. His “playing along with the other guy” was less about airtight studio perfection and more about giving himself an endless groove to play against: when the “other guy” was him, the only human stamina he needed to worry about was his own, seemingly infinite reserve.
So yes, Prince’s one-man jams were also, at least in part, about showing off. And on his second album, “Sexy Dancer” was the designated show-off track: a loose four-minute jam with lyrics that stayed out of the way and gave Prince the drummer, guitarist, bassist, and (especially) keyboard player their respective shots at the spotlight. But unlike the previous record’s “show-off track,” “Just as Long as We’re Together,” this one feels like a legitimate song as well as a stunt. The reason, I’d argue, is its canny use of the very genre Prince later pooh-poohed. As dance music meant primarily to be played in nightclubs, disco thrived on extended grooves in a way that conventional pop, rock, and even R&B did not; what might have seemed indulgent in another context was, for “Sexy Dancer,” simply a way to keep bodies on the dance floor. And Prince’s new, leaner approach to funk at the turn of the decade was perfectly suited to disco’s trancelike minimalism: where his previous attempts to wow the listener with musicianship had come across as awkward and overly busy, here he impresses simply by laying down a tight, four-on-the-floor groove and riding it expertly to its conclusion.
Judicious editing also played a role, however. Bob Mockler, the engineer at Hollywood Sound Recorders who supervised the record’s mixing, told biographer Per Nilsen that “Prince didn’t know what to leave in and what to take out” for the album edit. The version of “Sexy Dancer” originally recorded at Alpha Studios was almost nine minutes long, featuring not only the jazz-inflected keyboard solo that made the final record, but also additional solo spots for bass and feedback-drenched guitar, plus a breakdown that offered an extended opportunity to hear Prince’s growing skills in groove construction. It’s great, but probably a little much for track three of a nine-track album; so Mockler trimmed the fat. “Prince didn’t understand editing, but I knew where to cut it so it was least intrusive,” he recalled. “The only reason he knew where the cut was, was because he knew the music, but he was still amazed” (Nilsen 1999 56). The full version of the song was eventually released in the U.K. and Japan as a 12” single: the first extended cut by an artist who would soon escalate the practice into an art form. And, while this version was never officially released in the U.S., it clearly saw a good amount of club play: in early 1980, “Sexy Dancer” reached Number 3 on the Billboard Disco charts–no mean feat for an album track.
It thus makes sense that the legacy of “Sexy Dancer” has remained primarily where it was originally intended: on the dance floor. The song’s minimalist, post-disco groove and Prince’s vocal performance–heavy-breathing breakdowns in particular–were hugely influential to a generation of electronic musicians, including Los Angeles electro-hop DJ (and Prince superfan) the Egyptian Lover. Like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” it was also a song Prince would periodically excavate from his own catalogue, with samples cropping up on the 1989 “Purple Party Mix” of “Partyman” and the official remix of his 1990 collaboration with the Time, “The Latest Fashion.” Bringing things full circle, his latter-day live performances of “Sexy Dancer” also made winking acknowledgment to the once-maligned genre that inspired it, with the artist frequently dropping in an interpolation of Chic’s 1978 hit “Le Freak.” Prince may have bristled at being labeled a disco artist in the early 1980s, but he could have been a great one; and “Sexy Dancer” is the proof.
I’m feeling saucy this week, so I think I’ll actually try to get out two posts–for those keeping track, this will be the first time that’s happened since, oh, August. It would be pretty great if we could get through the whole Prince album by the end of March…no promises, but fingers crossed!