(Featured Image: Cover art for “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” by Joe Jackson, 1979; © A&M Records.)
In early March, 1980–right around the same time Rick James was absconding with their Oberheim–Prince’s band took a break from the tour and spent a day at Disney World. “In Orlando, we decided to have some fun being tourists,” keyboardist Dr. Fink told journalist Mobeen Azhar. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun.’ I remember leaving him sitting outside the hotel room on the balcony, with his guitar. By the time we came back, he’d written ‘When You Were Mine’” (Azhar 23).
If “Head,” as suggested last week, was “the foundation upon which Prince’s racial, sexual, and personal preoccupations of the next decade were built,” then “When You Were Mine” laid the groundwork for his musical expansion. It was his first real foray into crossover territory: a masterful capital-“P” pop song with all the literary value of contemporary New Wave troubadours Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. It wasn’t Prince’s first classic song–that, again, would be “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–but it was his first standard: timeless, durable, and rewarding of endless reinterpretations by other artists.
In a 1997 chat with America Online users, Prince–then known as “the Artist”–claimed to have written “When You Were Mine” “after listenin[’] 2 john [Lennon]” sing (AOL Live 1997). The song does, in fact, bear a passing resemblance to the acidic breakup songs Lennon used to write for the Beatles’ early albums, such as “No Reply” from 1964’s Beatles for Sale; the sing-song backing vocals in particular are a clear nod to the Fab Four, if a quasi-parodic one. But a closer stylistic precedent is the aforementioned–and even more acidic–post-punk pop of English singer-songwriters Costello and Jackson. Prince’s “nervous” rhythm guitar, writer Michaelangelo Matos notes, is pure New Wave (Matos 2015). His high-pitched, tinny Oberheim lines are a dead ringer for the ’60s garage-revival Farfisa played by Steve Nieve from Costello’s Attractions. And the sardonic, sexually frustrated character in his lyrics feels like a sexier cousin to Jackson’s “Angry Young Man” persona from songs like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”
Like “No Reply” and “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”–and “Head”–“When You Were Mine” is essentially a love-triangle story–though in this case, there are even less conventional dynamics at play. The song reflects on the dissolution of a toxic, but irresistible love affair: familiar territory for Prince, not to mention pop music more generally. But his specific grievances range from the clichéd (“I gave you all of my money”) to the charmingly off-kilter (“I used to let you wear all my clothes”) to the downright freaky (“I never was the kind to make a fuss / When he was there / Sleeping in between the two of us”). Prince lays on the psychosexual ambiguities thick, flinging the door wide open for speculation as to the specific nature of the relationship: is he describing plain old heterosexual infidelity, or a pansexual ménage à trois? Sariel Thrawn, another song-by-song Prince blogger (it’s a surprisingly crowded field!), even makes a case that the woman being addressed is a prostitute–though, to me, that is if anything too conventionally heteronormative a solution. Prince may not have been a gay artist, but he was undeniably a queer one; and “When You Were Mine” is one of the great queer pop songs, by Prince or anyone else.
By adopting a queer lyrical persona and a post-punk aesthetic, Prince was able to place himself further out on the cutting edge: a space he increasingly preferred to the mainstream success he’d been chasing with his first two albums. “He was a ‘new waver,’” drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen. “He really found out that this is what he was. He was a rebel. He understood that the basic element of rock ‘n’ roll is that if your mom likes it, then that’s not what you want to be. He wanted to become something that the Stones were, somebody your mother wouldn’t like” (Nilsen 1999 72).
But one also gets the sense that Prince in 1980 was playing the long game: using the fringes as a way back into the center–and out of what he saw as the ghetto of R&B music. It’s telling that, in his unpublished liner notes to The Hits/The B-Sides, Prince made specific note of his unhappiness on the so-called “chitlin circuit” with Rick James: he “didn’t want to do this tour but he needed the exposure cuz his record was breaking R&B first” (Dash 2016). It’s also telling that, for all its subversive undercurrents, “When You Were Mine” was a catchy pop song at heart: parents may not have liked the Rolling Stones (or Joe Jackson), but that didn’t keep them from hitting the Top 40.
Indeed, the one surprise about “When You Were Mine” is that it was never released as a single. As with “I Feel for You,” however, this oversight was quickly remedied with higher-profile covers: the highest-profile of which, by Cyndi Lauper in 1983, effectively confirmed Prince’s ambitions to harness insurgent New Wave for mainstream attention. Lauper’s version is obviously more radio-friendly than the original, with a fuller keyboard sound–now more synthpop-textured than garage-chintzy–and a bigger, shoutier chorus. To her credit, though, it’s equally subversive, leaving Prince’s already-ambiguous gender pronouns untouched. By the time Lauper performed the song at the American Music Awards in 1985 (see above), both she and Prince were on top of the world, taking home major awards in the Pop/Rock category: Lauper for Favorite Female Artist and Favorite Female Video Artist, Prince for Favorite Album with Purple Rain. Clearly, Prince’s circuitous route to the top had paid off; but before he could conquer the world, first he would have to shock it.
Next week, we’ll talk a little bit about that whole “shock” thing. But first, a quick note: Warner Bros. has released another surprise “preview” from the forthcoming Purple Rain reissue–this time, a gorgeous extended version of “Father’s Song.” I’m not going to be writing about this one next week; partly because I’d rather keep to my chronological schedule at the moment, and partly because I want to write a more expansive, biographical post to do the song justice. But I highly recommend you check it out. It’s available for streaming and purchase from all the major outlets, including Amazon.