The first promotional single for Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe, “Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1),” was an irreproachably safe choice: a well-known track in the bootleg trading community, remastered so that hardcore fans can hear the upgrade in sound quality and newer fans can hear what all the fuss is about. But it’s the second single that delivers exactly what I live for in these kinds of releases: a recording which even the most fortunate among us hadn’t heard of, much less heard, until the box set was announced.
Before last week, the accepted history of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” went something like this: Prince recorded the basic track sometime in 1982, during the incredible burst of creativity that produced 1999 and planted the seeds for a number of other projects. Clearly at no shortage of quality material, he shelved the song for four years, then dug it back out during another creative renaissance on July 16, 1986: appending a smouldering guitar solo nearly the length of the original track, and transforming the spiky little power pop tune into a grandstanding album-rock setpiece. This extended version was slated for the unreleased Dream Factory and Crystal Ball projects, before finally seeing the light of day on Sign “O” the Times in 1987.
The discovery of an even earlier version of the song, recorded toward the end of the Prince sessions at Hollywood Sound Recorders on May 23, 1979, obviously complicates this narrative. But it also challenges a lot of larger assumptions about Prince’s artistic development in the ‘80s. Many tellings of the Prince story, including my own, treat the mid-1979 Rebels project as ground zero for his engagement with New Wave; but the original take of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” predates those sessions by nearly two months, and offers a better approximation of the sound than any other song in Prince’s pre-Dirty Mind repertoire. It’s all here: clean, staccato rhythm guitar, jittery drum fills, high-pitched synths aping the retro-kitschy Farfisa organ. A little more tension in the guitar and vocals, and it would be a dead ringer for “When You Were Mine”: Prince’s most celebrated contribution to the New Wave canon, written almost a year later.
In this sense, the 1979 “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” also throws a wrench in popular understandings of Prince’s development as a songwriter. The standard critical line–again, reflected in this very blog–is that “When You Were Mine” marked a sea change in Prince’s growing mastery of pop songcraft. So what do we make of this template, very nearly as good, from months before? For that matter, what do we make of the fact that a song critics widely interpreted as a sign of Prince’s growing lyrical maturity (see, for example, Robert Christgau’s deadpan, “The objects of his desire are also objects of interest, affection, and respect. Some of them he may not even fuck”) actually dated from eight years earlier, just shy of the artist’s 21st birthday?
For me, this unraveling of settled narratives about Prince and his music is one of the chief pleasures of posthumous releases like Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe. It’s the reason why I don’t take the things we “know” about the Vault as gospel truth; why, when a project like this is announced, my first thought isn’t of the songs we’ve heard about (much less actually heard), but of the ones about which none of us had any inkling. The fact is, Prince fans have spent the last 40+ years digging through his proverbial garbage bin for scraps; and while it’s incredible what some have been able to find under the circumstances, none of us really know what treasures are left to be unearthed. In a world of no new Prince music, this continued capacity to surprise us and upset our preconceived notions feels just short of miraculous.
I can’t wait to hear the other buried treasures this Super Deluxe Edition has in store for us–not to mention the equivalent sets I hope to see for Parade, Dirty Mind, Lovesexy, The Gold Experience, 3121, and many more. But in the meantime, I’m just reveling in the existence of this snotty, punkish early version of one of Prince’s most beloved hits; this alternate-dimension album track in which a younger, brasher Prince is wise enough to know he can never take the place of your man, but still arrogant enough to conclude that he’ll “sure as hell try.” Discoveries like this don’t come along every day, and it’s worth savoring.