Having completed the majority of the Vanity 6 album over a few weeks at his home studio, Prince was back at Sunset Sound by the end of March 1982. The first song recorded during this block of sessions was intended for his own fifth album–though its salacious lyrics and heavy electronic sound kept it stylistically aligned with his latest side project.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” opens with one of the treated Linn LM-1 beats that had already become a sonic trademark for Prince, just seven months after his introduction to the machine. A driving kick and snare lays the foundation, with rimshots punctuating every other measure. On the tenth measure, a hiccuping conga hit creeps in, and the rimshots, now swathed in reverb, grow more insistent. Finally, a pair of churning bass synths enter the mix: one four on the floor, one double-time. Once again, Prince’s interest in the emergent electronic music that would soon be dubbed techno is evident in the song’s indefatigable pulse; music critic and biographer Dave Hill would describe it as “a long, agitated throb from start to finish” (Hill 130). But where the previous year’s “Sexuality,” for example, was all pulverizing rhythms, “Let’s Pretend” sprinkles on a heaping spoonful of pop sugar, with a tinkling keyboard line that precisely mirrors Prince’s vocal melody.
That melody is tasked with delivering arguably Prince’s most audacious musical proposition to date. He begins softly, his voice doubled, with one track in falsetto and the other in a low near-whisper: “Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours / To help me forget the girl that just walked out my door / Funny but it seems that you’re alone like me / So if U are go[,] let’s come see what we can see.” An abrupt blare of Oberheim synth-horns announces the arrival of the chorus: “Ooh little darlin[’] if you’re free for a couple of hours / If U ain’t busy for the next seven years / Let’s pretend we’re married and go all night / There ain’t nothin wrong if it feels alright / I won’t stop until the mornin’ light / Let’s pretend we’re married go all night… tonight.” By the time he reaches the big hook–a nonsense chorus of “Ooh we sha sha coo coo yeah” with Prince exhorting the “hippies” from “All the Critics Love U in New York” to “sing together”–the song has taken on a bit of the flavor of a Tom Jones-style belter; Jones, though, wouldn’t have been so specific about the part of a woman’s anatomy he required.
The majority of “Let’s Pretend” sticks to more or less the same alternating pattern–soft and sensual on the verses, big and brassy on the chorus–with the odd variation programmed in to keep things interesting: a synthesized tom fill here, an extra layer of keyboards there. Against this mechanized backdrop, Prince delivers a vocal performance that is pure flesh, utilizing every gasp, pant, slurp, and scream in his ever-expanding repertoire. Whenever he seems like he should be spent, the machine just keeps chugging along; at seven minutes and 20 seconds, “Let’s Pretend” is the longest Prince album track since “Do Me, Baby.”
It would not, however, hold that distinction for long: of the 11 songs on 1999, three would exceed the eight-minute mark, and none would clock in below four minutes. This mounting tendency toward epics was a point of contention with Peggy McCreary, who engineered the majority of Prince’s sessions at Sunset Sound between 1982 and 1986. “Some of the songs were so long and he couldn’t quit,” she later told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He just kept going and going and going. And that was so hard, because then you had to overdub them. A long song meant a long day and that is how he would wear you down… Sometimes I was yawning and was so tired, and Prince would just look at me and say, ‘Just set up and you can get out of here for a while.’ But he wouldn’t let you go home” (Nilsen 1999 99).
The extended structure of “Let’s Pretend” follows the same basic template as “Controversy,” with the meat of the song–what would ultimately be released as the 7″ single edit–followed by a series of instrumental breakdowns and chanted digressions. There’s also something of the aforementioned “Do Me, Baby” in the way its initially light, radio-friendly naughtiness descends into X-rated dirty talk. After a final repetition of the second verse–“My girl’s gone and she don’t care at all / And if she did, so what[,] come on baby let’s ball”–a minor-key keyboard line evokes storm clouds on the horizon. “I wanna fuck you so bad it hurts,” Prince pants, the bass synths pumping along behind him. Then, the kicker: “I’m not saying this just to be nasty,” he murmurs confessionally, “I sincerely wanna fuck the taste out of your mouth–can you relate?” That none of these lines appear on the album’s lyric sheet makes them all the more electrifying; I can attest to getting quite a shock as a preteen going through my mom’s record collection.
Much like “Controversy,” “Let’s Pretend” also makes room for spiritual matters, closing with a spoken-word prayer-cum-manifesto; but where the earlier song reappropriated the Lord’s Prayer for its purposes, here Prince invents a new scripture of his own: “Whatever you heard about me is true / I change the rules and do what I wanna do / I’m in love with God, he’s the only way / ‘Cuz you and I know we gotta die someday / You think I’m crazy, you’re probably right, but I’m gonna have fun every motherfuckin’ night / You like to fight, you’re a double-drag fool / I’m goin’ to another life, how ’bout you?”
Perhaps more than any other track on 1999, “Let’s Pretend” is the definition of Prince’s later, arguably over-modest characterization of the album as “nothing but me running all the computers myself” (Doershuck 1997). The music video (see above) made an unconvincing case for a band performance, with bassist Brown Mark plucking along to an obviously synthesized bassline and guitarist Dez Dickerson posed incongruously behind a keyboard (drummer Bobby Z, for his part, looks like he’s having the time of his life miming along to a programmed beat). The song’s rather airless one-man arrangement probably explains why it was performed only a few times on later dates of the 1999 tour, in medley form with “Sexuality.” It would make an even more truncated appearance on the Purple Rain tour, with Prince singing the first verse as part of a solo piano medley–usually prefaced by a teasing snippet from the yet-to-be-released “Temptation”–before leading the Revolution in a rave-up chorus that foregrounded its aforementioned Tom Jones/Las Vegas overtones. A live rendition by Tina Turner, released on the B-side of her 1985 single “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” similarly prioritized the song’s brash energy over its more erotic undercurrents (and also found Turner reversing the “coo coos” and “sha shas” in the chorus).
But while its ultimate position in Prince’s canon may seem marginal, “Let’s Pretend” maintains a strong reputation among fans of both electronic beats and lyrical nastiness. It’s certainly one of the highlights for me of 1999: an album that often feels like Prince in full-on id mode, spinning his most self-indulgent sexual fantasies into seemingly endless grooves. Can you relate?
(Thanks to reader–and patron!–Pierre Igot for correcting me on one of the specific LM-1 sounds used at the beginning of the song; I had originally identified the “slapping” beat on alternating measures as a clap, but in fact it appears to be a rimshot. Also, fans of Prince’s LM-1 work should check out this recent Reverb article describing his wizardry with the machine, which goes some way toward explaining why I misidentified the sound in the first place.)