Ephemera, 1981-1982

Turn It Up

Prince dives into “Turn It Up” with impressive sincerity and single-minded intensity, as if “horny radio” were the role he’d always dreamed of playing.

Along with the Time tracks and “International Lover,” Prince also cut a few “orphan” songs at Sunset Sound in mid-January 1982. “You’re All I Want,” recorded on January 11 alongside “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” was a frothy rockabilly jaunt with a synth line he’d later repurpose for “Horny Toad.” “Bold Generation” from the following day would re-emerge almost a decade later as “New Power Generation” on Graffiti Bridge. “Colleen” from January 15 (the same day he completed “The Walk”) was a funky but formless instrumental.

Each of these tracks would languish in the Vault and select tape-trading circles for decades, before finally seeing the light of day with the release of 1999 Super Deluxe in 2019. “Turn It Up,” however, has a longer pedigree. Recorded over 13 hours on January 19 and 20, it was the second-to-last track Prince cut before resuming the Controversy tour in Richmond, Virginia. And–before it, too, received an official release on 1999 Super Deluxe–it was in wide circulation as a bootleg: quite possibly the most widely-heard 1999 outtake this side of “Moonbeam Levels.”

Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” a likely influence on “Turn It Up”; © Asylum Records.

As simple as it is irresistibly catchy, “Turn It Up” feels deceptively like a spontaneous creation. One gets the sense that it didn’t take much longer to record than it took to write; yet, according to Duane Tudahl, it may have been the song Prince tinkered with most during the 1999 sessions, with tracking spread out over two days and additional overdubs completed in early May. The song opens with a false start, as a single bar of rhythm guitar gives way to the Linn LM-1’s insistent kick and snare. An undulating bass synth leads into the main keyboard line: another of Prince’s synthesizers–most likely the ever-popular Oberheim OB-X–doing its best impression of a frat-rock Farfisa organ. That synth hook proceeds to drive the rest of the song, with Prince’s vocals mimicking its sing-song melody throughout. Even the “chorus” is less a distinct part of the song than a frequently-repeated chunk of verse: “Turn it up, turn it up, baby / Come and play with my controls / Turn it up, turn it up, baby / Work me like a radio.”

Given Prince’s longstanding affection for Joni Mitchell, it seems reasonable to assume that her 1972 single “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” inspired his own entry in the volume-control-as-extended-sexual-metaphor canon. But Mitchell’s song was steeped in irony: asked by her label to deliver a “radio-friendly” song, she’d planted her tongue firmly in cheek and written a song from the perspective of an actual horny radio. Prince, by contrast, dives into “Turn It Up” with impressive sincerity and single-minded intensity, as if “horny radio” were the role he’d always dreamed of playing.

The first circulating version of “Turn It Up”–labeled “#1” on most bootleg compilations, and likely the product of the first day of tracking–goes nowhere in its 3:40 runtime, but it has fun getting there. Prince runs through an undifferentiated cluster of chorus/verse, modulating his vocals from a simple plea (“My signal’s gettin’ kinda weak”) to an exaggerated simper (“Work it ’til my clothes are wet”) to a deranged shriek (“I wanna drown in your body’s sweat”). Then he lays back and lets the arcade-game synth-bass take over, uttering a few masturbatory hisses and gasps before starting the whole sequence anew. A few subtle elaborations–siren-like sustained synthesizers in the first half, a serrated-edge rhythm guitar line and ping-ponging phased keyboards in the second–play against the repetitiveness of the song’s structure. After the fourth repetition of the chorus (such as it is), Prince finally breaks the loop with a dramatic, half-spoken bridge: “Come on baby, what’s it gonna be? / Are you gonna do it or are you gonna leave it up to me? / Are you gonna stop? Are you gonna drop? / Kiss me! Kiss me!” A piercing gospel scream brings the song to its climax–followed, of course, by one more go-around on the chorus.

1981 publicity photo; © Warner Bros., stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.

Presumably all too aware of the song’s simplicity–or maybe just preparing for a 12″ mix that would never happen–Prince later appended another minute and a half or so to mix up the formula, labeled on most bootlegs as “Turn It Up #2.” This “extended” section doesn’t necessarily add anything essential to the song; it’s more like a cooldown, telegraphed by Prince’s self-command “Now turn it down!” A few snatches of relaxed guitar soloing melt into a new, vamping synth line and “Oh, ditty-whop” backing vocals–a contented, post-coital sigh. But Prince can’t resist a final display of stamina: building the song back to its original riff one last time before dropping it abruptly, leaving only a treated Linn beat that resembles a funky dripping faucet.

Like many of the “orphan” songs Prince recorded in Los Angeles that January, “Turn It Up” bounced between a few concurrent projects. In his liner notes for 1999 Super Deluxe, Tudahl confirms that the song was considered for What Time is It?, though a version with Morris Day’s vocals doesn’t appear to exist; a shame, since its relatively undemanding vocal melody (complete with a spoken-word breakdown!) would have made at least as strong a Time number as “Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody.” “Turn It Up” was also reportedly in strong consideration for the album that would become 1999: according to a tweet by former associate Jeremiah Freed (better known by his nom de podcast Dr. Funkenberry), Prince had at one point even planned to release it as the album’s lead single.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Turn It Up was in fact a working title for 1999, given how the titular phrase recurs through the songs recorded for the album: including “All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Lust U Always,” and early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch.” As Josh and Christy Norman of the Mountains and the Sea podcast recently observed, the words “Turn It Up” can even be made out in spray-painted letters behind Prince and the band in a late 1981 photo taken for the “Let’s Work” 12” sleeve. Since the song that ultimately replaced it was, well, “1999,” it’s hard to argue that Prince made the wrong choice; but it’s still nice to see this corker of a ditty get its time in the sun.

(This post has been expanded to include the official link to the song, and new information that came to light with the release of 1999 Super Deluxe.)

“Turn It Up”
Spotify / TIDAL

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