Following a month and a half of dates in the Mid-Atlantic, South, and Midwest, Prince took a break from the Controversy tour in mid-January 1982. He spent most of this time in Los Angeles: attending the American Music Awards and laying down tracks at his new favorite studio, Sunset Sound. Most of the songs he recorded in these weeks were intended for his protégés (and budding rivals) the Time: “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” “The Walk,” and “Wild and Loose” would all end up on their second album, What Time is It? But the sessions also yielded what would become the closing track on Prince’s fifth album: a seductive ballad in the “Do Me, Baby” vein called “International Lover.”
In fact, according to Per Nilsen’s studio sessions Bible The Vault, “International Lover” very nearly ended up on What Time is It? as well. Recorded just a few days after “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” (January 11) and the day before overdubs for “The Walk” (January 15), its place in the chronology clearly suggests Prince had it in mind as a Time song; there’s very likely a tape somewhere with vocals by Morris Day. But in what would become a pattern for Prince with his spinoff acts, he ended up liking the song so much that he took it back for himself.
Prince’s reluctance to let go of “International Lover” is audible as early as the first take of the song, recently exhumed for the Super Deluxe edition of 1999. Cut live in the studio, with Day on drums and Prince on piano, the recording captures Prince in a relaxed and playful mo0d, clearly relishing the lyrics and the suave persona he’d written them for: a jet-setting lothario whose own personal “Seduction 747” is “parked right outside” while he chats up his latest conquest. His smirk is audible when he sings the line, “I know how to get you wet,” then immediately asks engineer Peggy McCreary if she’s listening; according to the liner notes by sessionographer Duane Tudahl, the studio was laid out so that Prince could make eye contact with everyone else in the room, making it easy for him to confirm if he’d succeeded in making McCreary blush. When he reaches the song’s lengthy monologue–fully intact in this early version, right down to the grammatically incorrect warning of “a few turbulents along the way”–he’s inhabited the role so fully that he introduces himself as “your pilot, Prince”: a Freudian slip he later corrects when he thanks the listener for “flying Morris International.”
By the second take–astonishingly, according to Tudahl, the very one that ultimately showed up on 1999–Prince’s desire to leave his mark on the song is even more evident. The arrangement has been fleshed out with bass, guitar, and lush layered synths; and, while Take 1 remained comfortably within Day’s more modest reach, Take 2 is arguably Prince’s most impressive vocal showpiece to date. He slides up and down the full length of his range, shifting on a dime from low moans to ecstatic gospel shrieks. His wheedling, ebb-and-flow delivery is a master class in the art of the tease; drawing out every word with delicious anticipation, only removing his tongue from his own cheek for long enough to slip it in someone else’s. Like its predecessor “Do Me, Baby,” the song climaxes in the most literal sense, leaving the singer spent and quivering atop a bed of sighing synthesizers. With no disrespect intended, it’s difficult to imagine the Time’s frontman delivering anything approaching this caliber of a performance–and, indeed, Tudahl has indicated that dissatisfaction with Day’s vocals was part of the reason why Prince took the song back.
Yet even after reclaiming “International Lover,” Prince couldn’t fully disguise its origins. The persona he adopts for the song is a natural extension of the playboy character Morris perfected in “Cool,” with his private Lear jet and taste for the high life. The equation of air travel with uninhibited sex and glamour, while not completely anachronistic in 1982, also feels tailor-made for the Time’s retro aesthetic, harkening back to a not-so-distant past when flight attendants were “stewardesses” and the “mile-high club” was an appealing fantasy rather than a hoary cliché.
By inserting himself into this scenario, Prince added a not-unwelcome layer of camp to his own developing image. There was, of course, an element of silliness in “Do Me, Baby”’s masturbatory dénouement, but nothing quite as silly as the aforementioned monologue that closes “International Lover,” with “our pilot” mimicking the cadences of a routine air safety demonstration while milking every opportunity for a sexual innuendo. There are too many great lyrics to quote each one individually, but I’ll draw attention to, “In the event there is overexcitement / Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device,” if only for the obvious pleasure Prince takes in delivering the line. Writing for the Morris Day “character” allowed him the creative leeway to take the song’s ridiculous themes to their natural conclusion: effectively coining an R&B subgenre–the high-concept slow jam–that successive artists like R. Kelly have either turned into an art form or run into the ground, depending on whom one asks.
As goofy as “International Lover” was, though, Prince had the panache required to stick the landing. The song would become a major setpiece on the 1999 tour, with keyboardist Lisa Coleman welcoming the audience to “Prince International,” while the singer cavorted on a real brass bed in silhouette against backlit Venetian blinds. In this context, the monologue became an extended opportunity to flirt with the crowd (sample line: “I know where your G-spot is… You want me to show you?”). Production designer Roy Bennett originally had something even more theatrical in mind, involving Prince in a first-class airplane seat with backing singer Jill Jones dressed as a sexy flight attendant. “We thought it was a great idea,” he told Per Nilsen. “Prince gets up there, and there’s Jill sitting in the seat. He would push the button and the seat would recline in one smooth movement.” But “Prince decided that the bed was what he wanted” (Nilsen 1999 111).
“International Lover” was not released as a single, but it still became a milestone in Prince’s career–even earning him his first Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male” in 1984 (he lost to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”). A stripped-to-the-bone rehearsal version of the song was also a highlight of 2018’s posthumous Piano & A Microphone 1983 collection: removing every reference to “Prince International,” and indeed the whole plane motif, it’s the closest we’ll ever come to a version utterly shorn of the Time’s influence. And while Day’s vocal take still hasn’t seen the light of day, there may yet be hope; if Warner ever gets around to releasing an expanded What Time is It? reissue, I for one would love to hear Morris get his turn in the cockpit.