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Vanity 6, 1982

Bite the Beat

The completed Vanity 6 album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from November 1981 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have inspired Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). Prince “spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).

In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, “I would play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).

I would play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed

Jesse Johnson
Brenda on the back cover of Vanity 6, 1982; © Warner Bros.

The fact that Prince found “Bite the Beat” less laughable than Johnson’s earlier work seems, at least in part, to have been a product of circumstance: the song’s nervy New Wave rhythm and chirpy faux-Farfisa keyboards fit in well alongside the album’s other tracks, particularly “He’s So Dull” and “Wet Dream.” Like those songs, “Bite the Beat” resembles the campy take on ’60s frat-rock beloved by New Wave groups like Blondie and the Go-Go’s–with an extra dose of the B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster” in the way the synthesized “organ” builds underneath the chorus. That keyboard part was played by Johnson–along with bass and “a purple metal flaked Mo[s]rite guitar,” the same model used by Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner from the Ohio Players and (speak of the devil) Ricky Wilson from the B-52’s (Johnson 2014).

Aside from his role as producer and gatekeeper, Prince’s main contribution to “Bite the Beat” was the lyrics, which stand as Vanity 6’s most sexually aggressive this side of “Nasty Girl.” Any doubt as to the title’s cunnilingual meaning is extinguished by the bridge, when lead singer Brenda purrs, “When I first saw your teeth I knew you were the only one qualified.” Later, she promises, “Don’t worry, you’ll still be dignified, it tastes like caviar”–a more-clever-than-usual variation on the hoary “vagina as fish” cliché.

While catchy and endearingly sassy, “Bite the Beat” feels like an odd choice of a feature for Brenda, whose vocal chops were the main reason she’d been brought into the Vanity 6 fold; listening to her more-rapped-than-sung delivery, one would be forgiven for assuming she was no more talented a singer than Vanity or Susan. Still, her husky voice really sells the man-eating (and soon to be man-eaten) character she’s playing; and in any case, as the burst of laughter from all three “girls” at the end of the song indicates, it really isn’t that serious. “Bite the Beat” is a toothsome, if not especially nutrient-rich dish, on a sugar binge of an album.

(This post has been slightly edited to correct the recording dates for “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” after they appeared on 1999 Super Deluxe.)

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