(Featured Image: “There’s never been more love in the air!” Early 1970s Southwest Airlines ad; stolen from Flashbak.)
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 the majority 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 on the same day as overdubs for “The Walk” (January 14), 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.
It’s easy to see why Prince was reluctant to give the song away. In its final version on 1999, it’s arguably his most impressive vocal showpiece to date: sliding up and down the full length of his range, from low moans to ecstatic gospel shrieks. The wheedling ebb and flow of his delivery is a master class in the art of the tease; he draws out every word with delicious anticipation, only removing his tongue from his own cheek for long enough to slip it into someone else’s. Like its predecessor on Controversy, 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, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions author Duane 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 suave persona he adopts for the song–a jet-setting lothario whose own personal “Seduction 747” is “parked right outside” while he chats up his latest conquest–feels like 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 group’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 monologue that closes “International Lover,” in which “your pilot Prince” mimics 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 relish with which Prince delivers 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 might ask.
As goofy as “International Lover” was, however, Prince had the panache required to stick the landing. The song would become a major setpiece on the 1999 tour, with Prince performing in silhouette against backlit Venetian blinds–a holdover from the stage design for Controversy–on a real brass bed. 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 nevertheless 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 of the song was also a highlight of this year’s posthumous Piano & A Microphone 1983 collection: removing every reference to “Prince International” airlines, 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 the vocal take meant for What Time is It? still hasn’t seen the light of day, there may yet be hope; whenever Sony gets around to its inevitable expanded reissue of 1999, I for one would love to hear Morris get his turn in the cockpit.