One of the most fascinating things about the 1981 debut album by the Time is the way that, if you listen to the tracks in a certain order, you can practically hear the band’s classic sound take shape in real time. As we established in the last post, however, “Oh, Baby” was not an example of that classic sound. Morris Day, the group’s drummer turned lead singer, was still tentative in the role, his voice too strained to sell a seductive ballad.
“Girl,” the second and (blessedly) only other ballad on The Time, is not an improvement–if anything, it’s worse. Morris sounds whiny and adenoidal, like a teenage boy whose voice is in the middle of changing. Prince’s backing vocals–even more audible here than on the rest of the album–hit a piercing, dog-whistle tone in the chorus that cuts through the rest of the mix like a knife, and only gets more annoying the more you turn down the volume. Morris, meanwhile, just gets louder: as on “Oh, Baby,” he starts the song at a whimper and ends at a bellow. The whole thing feels like bad karaoke, an impression that is only enhanced by the bland, lifeless arrangement. It’s the weakest Prince song since “With You,” but without even that track’s competent performance.
There was at least one interesting thing about “Girl,” however, which had to do with the Time’s soon-to-be-guitarist, Jesse Johnson. A transplant from Rock Island, Illinois, Johnson showed up in Minneapolis in early 1981–mainly, he told Wax Poetics in 2012, because he didn’t have enough bus fare to make it to Los Angeles. Johnson played briefly with Enterprize while Day was still the drummer, and even asked to audition to replace André Cymone as the bassist in Prince’s group. Instead, Prince invited him to the group’s March 9 performance at Sam’s. After the show, Johnson tried to bond with Prince over what he assumed was a mutual appreciation for Jimi Hendrix. “Prince answered, ‘I never watch him,’” he recalled. “Morris stood behind him gesturing for me to shut up, but instead, I said, ‘You lying motherfucker.’ Prince stared at me for a few seconds and then fell on the floor laughing” (Gonzales 38).
Johnson’s chutzpah was enough to get him hired on the spot for Prince’s new side project–but, as Johnson tells it, that side project was not “the Time” as we know it. “At first it was going to be me and Morris calling ourselves the Nerve, and we were going to be the Black version of Hall & Oates,” he claimed (Gonzales 38). I bring all of this up because, if I were a gambling man, I would bet real money that “Girl” was originally intended for the Nerve. With its prominent harmony vocals, the song was clearly meant for two; it even sounds a bit like a lower-energy, less soulful version of Hall and Oates’ 1976 hit “She’s Gone.”
Just like “Oh, Baby,” however, whatever else I might think about “Girl,” clearly somebody had to like it: it was released as the third single from The Time in April of 1982, stalling at Number 45 on the R&B charts (hey, I said some body, not many bodies). These days, it’s an eminently forgettable part of both the Time’s and Prince’s canon: once Prince had released his far-superior 1985 B-side, it wouldn’t even go down in history as the best Prince song with the title “Girl.” When I remember it at all, it’s from the summer when I bought The Time on CD and had it in my car stereo; somehow, every time I started the car, “Girl” happened to be playing, usually at the precise moment when Morris and Prince lurched into the most grating part of the chorus. The fact that I never frisbeed the CD out of my car window is a testament to my saintlike patience.
Fortunately, with two of the worst tracks from The Time out of the way, next post’s material will be much easier on the ears–and my writeup will be much easier on the song. If you’re concerned that I’m starting to go too negative, I promise, I really like the Time. I’m just pretty sure I would have fucking hated the Nerve.