As has become tradition for Warner’s posthumous Prince collections, last month’s Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe announcement was accompanied by the release of a “new” song from the Vault. “Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1)” was recorded on March 14, 1986–one of the first recordings at Prince’s new home studio at Galpin Blvd. in Chanhassen, where he had moved in November of 1985. The stripped-down blues-rock number featured Prince on all instruments, including live drums and some decidedly Hendrixian guitar.
Lyrically, “Witness” finds Prince in a metaphorical courtroom, testifying against a “heinous love affair” in which he claims to be “guilty of nothin’ but always wantin’ you to be there.” “Whatever it is you think that I did,” he argues passionately, “You’re wrong, I wouldn’t even dare.” Susan Rogers, Prince’s home studio engineer from 1983–1987, told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine that the song was written “as a direct result” of his tumultuous relationship with Susannah Melvoin, his live-in partner at the time and the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy (Nilsen 1999 214). “He had gone further with her than anybody else,” Rogers recalled. “She was wearing his ring, he loved her and didn’t want to lose her, but he didn’t think that he could carry out his commitment. They were fighting a lot, and it was sort of over nothing” (195).
The trial metaphor at the heart of “Witness” dramatizes the situation of a relationship in constant litigation; it is also, as biographer Matt Thorne writes, “an extremely erotic idea, combining a sanctioned sadomasochism with the wish-fulfilment fantasy of sexual arguments being resolved in public” (Thorne 2016). A little under a decade later, the artist then Formerly Known as Prince would explore these sadomasochistic tensions more fully in “Eye Hate U,” for 1995’s The Gold Experience. Prince, a known classic movie buff, was probably also inspired by the 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution: a courtroom drama, directed by Billy Wilder and based on a short story and play by Agatha Christie, in which Marlene Dietrich plays the wife of a man (Tyrone Power) accused of murdering a wealthy widow for her inheritance.
There is, of course, little evidence that Witness for the Prosecution sparked anything more specific than the title of the song; Prince’s “Witness” is a simple riff on the courtroom scenario, without any of Christie’s and Wilder’s melodramatic twists and turns. But it’s easy to see him relating to certain elements of the film that may have helped it stick out in his mind. Power’s character, Leonard Vole, is a charmer and a bit of a ladies’ man: “Leonard has a way with women,” Dietrich’s Christine says at one point. “I only hope he will have an all-woman jury; they will carry him from the courtroom in triumph.” An even likelier source of inspiration is Christine herself, who starts out looking like a femme fatale, but–without spoiling the strory’s famed “triple twist”–ends up as a more tragic figure, a progression that would have appealed to Prince’s tendency to make himself the martyr in his songs about failed romance. Then again, it’s equally likely that Prince was simply inspired by the “crowd noise” sample he used to simulate courtroom chatter at the beginning and end the song–a preset loop on his Fairlight CMI digital sampler-synthesizer.
In the weeks after he completed the basic track for “Witness,” Prince began to formulate his next album project, which he christened Dream Factory after a song he’d recorded the previous December. According to Alan Leeds, the artist’s road manager turned “management liaison,” Prince was approaching the new album with a “group ethic” mentality. “It was going to be marketed as a group record, not a Prince record,” Leeds told Uptown. “Whatever Dream Factory meant to him, it was inspired by the camaraderie of that group of people during that period of time” (Nilsen 1999 209). For years, fans reasonably assumed that this “group of people” would have been billed as the Revolution; intriguingly, however, in 2017 Susannah Melvoin revealed an early sketch for a potential album cover crediting “the Flesh”: a name that had been previously attached to a series of proto-Madhouse jazz-fusion jams in late 1985 and early 1986 (see above).
Whatever he planned to call them, Prince tasked the Melvoins, Rogers, and keyboardist Lisa Coleman with adding overdubs to “Witness” in April, while he left for Nice to finish some pick-up shots for Under the Cherry Moon. As Thorne writes, “it is an indication of the uniqueness of Prince’s set-up at the time that he could present these four women with a lyric in which he defends his obsessive behavior and ask them to finish it off for him while he went to France” (Thorne 2016). According to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, after weeks of tension between Prince and Susannah, the atmosphere in the studio was “light and breezy” in his absence (Hahn 2017). This is borne out by the additions to the track– Hammond organ by Lisa; gospel-inspired backing vocals by Wendy, Lisa, and Susannah; and copious horn hits by saxophonist Eric Leeds–which have the effect of both adding color to the arrangement and dulling the angry edge of Prince’s guitar.
“Version 1” of “Witness” was completed on April 15, and mixed five days later–too late, apparently, to make Prince’s first configuration of Dream Factory that month. It did appear on both the June 3 and July 18 configurations: both times on Side 4 of the prospective record, between “Last Heart” and “Movie Star.” But the album’s days were already numbered: late in July, dissatisfied with their lack of creative freedom and unhappy about Prince’s deteriorating relationship with Susannah, Wendy and Lisa announced their intentions to leave the Revolution. They ended up being persuaded to stay for the Parade tour, which launched at London’s Wembley Arena the following month; but the seeds of the group’s dissolution had been planted, and the album that would have been the apotheosis of their partnership was scrapped.
“Dream Factory equated Lisa and the Melvoins,” Leeds later claimed. “Prince lives his music, even to the degree that his entire environment revolves around his record during a period of time… the col[o]rs, clothes, set design of his stage, and the people in his band with whom he shares these experiences, are all of a one with the music from that period of time of his career and life” (Nilsen 1999 213). With Wendy, Lisa, and Susannah all exiting the picture, the Dream Factory was closed.
Prince did revisit “Witness” later in 1986–though not for Crystal Ball, the three-LP solo opus which ultimately became Sign “O” the Times. On October 6, 1986–the eve of the Revolution’s official disbanding–he cut a colder, more electronic solo version for country-pop crossover singer Deborah Allen; she ended up passing on it in favor of “Telepathy,” demoed the following day. Like “Version 1,” “Version 2” of “Witness” will see the official light of day on Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe on September 25–or, for those lucky enough to snag a preorder of Third Man Records’ limited vinyl box set, as the B-side of a new 7” single on August 14. Its inclusion on the Super Deluxe set, despite never being considered for Sign “O” the Times proper, demonstrates the scope of prolificacy from 1985-87: a period with few equals in not only Prince’s discography, but also popular music writ large.
Before I sign off today, I want to thank Åsa Svanberg and Joseph Swafford for joining the D / M / S / R Patreon in the last week!