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Ephemera, 1983

Modernaire

The Modernaires’ screen time in Purple Rain adds up to only about 15 seconds, but it’s a memorable 15 seconds.

The third annual Minnesota Music Awards were held on May 16, 1983, at the Carlton Celebrity Dinner Theater in Bloomington. Prince took home six awards himself–Musician of the Year, Band of the Year, Best Male Vocalist, Best Record Producer (for 1999), 45 or EP of the Year (for “Little Red Corvette”), and Album of the Year (for 1999)–plus, by proxy, Best “R&B, Soul, Ethnic” Band for the Time. According to Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, he spent most of the evening backstage, watching the Motown 25 special on TV.

Finally, wrote Bream, “the local hero” made his grand entrance: “parad[ing] down the center aisle in a banana-colored satin suit” with bodyguard “Big Chick” Huntsberry in tow. He handed his awards to Chick, “thanked Minnesota for its support,” and brought out his band–along with Vanity 6 and the Time’s Morris Day and Jesse Johnson–for a 10-minute version of “D.M.S.R.” played “on borrowed equipment” (Bream 1984). Dez Dickerson, despite having put in his notice earlier that spring, was in his usual spot on lead guitar; it was the last time he and Prince would share a stage.

Dez with Big Chick, circa 1982; photo stolen from theprinceexperience on Tumblr.

While this performance marked the end of Dickerson’s five-year tenure in the group that would become the Revolution, his time with Prince wasn’t quite over. Part of the agreement when he left the band was that Prince would help him secure a solo deal: producing demos for managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli to shop around, and including him in the upcoming film project. So, while they were both in town for the award show, Dickerson joined Prince at his Kiowa Trail home studio to work on some tracks.

One of the songs Prince pulled out for his former guitarist was “Promise to Be True”: demoed for Vanity 6 the previous month, and later re-recorded for a prospective 1987 collaboration with Bonnie Raitt. Dickerson, according to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “copied the styles and mannerisms” of Prince’s guide vocal–though the born-again Christian notably demurred from singing a “section of the song when the lead singer offers to give his partner head to make up for fooling around” (Tudahl 2018 84). An edit of Dickerson’s recording was made, but remains unreleased.

More successful by default was “Modernaire,” a track for which Dickerson took, at minimum, a more active hand in composing. In an interview with the now-defunct blog Those City Nights, the guitarist implied that it was his own composition–albeit one made self-consciously in the shadow of his former employer. “It was written during my transition into the solo thing,” he recalled. “At first, I felt it strayed too far from my more aggressive rock sensibilities, but I grew to like it more over time” (Citinite 2011). In another Those City Nights post promoting the long-belated release of “Modernaire” on parent label Citinite, Dickerson called it “the most overtly Prince-influenced of anything I ever recorded, for obvious, practical reasons–in that it was to be part of the film and subsequent soundtrack project, it needed to fit well with the rest of the music. Prince and I collaborated on the recording, which also accounts for his strong influence” (Citinite 2008).

[‘Modernaire’] was written during my transition into the solo thing… At first, I felt it strayed too far from my more aggressive rock sensibilities, but I grew to like it more over time.

Dez Dickerson

Whatever the specific writing credits, Prince’s fingerprints are all over “Modernaire.” Tudahl credits “practically everything” on the instrumental track to Prince: including the heavily-phased main guitar riff, which bears more than a passing resemblance to “Der Kommissar” by Austrian New Wave artist Falco (or, a more likely inspiration, its English-language cover version by After the Fire, which had recently reached Number 5 on the Hot 100). He would experiment with a similar phasing effect on other Purple Rain-era tracks, including “Sex Shooter” by Apollonia 6 and the 1985 B-side “She’s Always in My Hair.” Also prominent in the mix are the standard-issue layered Oberheim synthesizers and Linn LM-1 drum machine; as Tudahl notes, even the guitar solo–a seemingly tailor-made showcase for Dickerson’s shredding–is “drastically processed to sound like a keyboard” (Tudahl 2018 82).

Adding another decidedly Prince-like touch are the spoken-word vocals by Jill Jones, whose recitation of a monologue from Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet (“Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek / For that which thou has heard me speak tonight…”) can be heard, muffled and in reverse, throughout the track; Prince would later reuse this same recording (now played forwards) for the intermission of his Lovesexy tour. The accumulation of such quirky details–not to mention Prince’s own, clearly audible backing vox–can feel obtrusive, making Dickerson seem like a guest on what was meant to be his own breakthrough as a solo artist.

Yet Prince’s choices also add personality to this otherwise pedestrian song, with its lyrics about “want[ing] to be a modernaire”–a self-coined term for “[s]omeone who is not just ahead of the curve, but around it already”–which Dickerson admitted were “strictly stream of con[s]ciousness, with no real meaning or purpose” (Citinite 2011). Even the distinctive, ostentatiously gulpy New Wave vocals were the producer’s idea: Prince “pushed for me to find a new singing voice,” Dickerson said, “which he succeeded in helping me to accomplish” (Citinite 2008).

[Prince]… pushed for me to find a new singing voice on the track, which he succeeded in helping me to accomplish.

Dez Dickerson
Dez Dickerson and the Modernaires, circa 1983; photo stolen from Dangerous Minds.

In any case, Dickerson readily built his new solo persona around “Modernaire.” His backing band–including Twin Cities-based musicians Paul Cassady on bass, Joe Hunt on guitar, Ernie LaViolette (formerly of Greek-via-Minnesotan instrumentalist Yanni’s group) on drums, and Roland Lozier on keyboards–was christened “the Modernaires” and went on tour that September, following a debut performance at First Avenue on August 28. They also appear–as “the Modern Aires”–in Albert Magnoli’s draft screenplay for Purple Rain, where they are described as “a hi-techno funk group,” performing their “trademark… frenzied song” to a group of kids “performing the same syncopated dance.”

That scene, of course, made it directly into the film–as did the major side plot where First Avenue’s fictionalized owner, played by real-life Detroit concert promoter Billy Sparks, pits the Revolution against the Time, Apollonia 6, and the Modernaires because he’s “got three acts” and “don’t need four” (I won’t go into the absurdity of that particular premise here, but for a mystified venue owner’s perspective, I recommend Scott Woods’ presentation on the “Prince Nightclub Cinematic Universe” from last year’s DM40GB30 symposium). The Modernaires’ actual screen time adds up to only about 15 seconds, but it’s a memorable 15 seconds: Dickerson preening in his trademark Rising Sun headband and a white fringed jacket, while Hunt struts, spins, shimmies, and generally does everything besides mime playing the guitar.

It also wasn’t the last we were meant to see of the group–though, at least for casual Prince fans, that’s exactly what it ended up being. According to Dickerson, “Modernaire” was originally slated for the Purple Rain soundtrack–back when it was intended as a proper soundtrack and not, as drummer Bobby Z put it, “a Prince and The Revolution record that happened to be for a movie” (Aswad 2016 “Revolution”). There were supposedly plans for the song to be released as a standalone single in advance of Dickerson’s 1983-84 Kamikaze Tour, to the point that radio DJs “were aware of the single and asked what the release date was”; but this, too, never came to fruition. Eventually, it came to light that Prince’s and Dickerson’s management had never actually secured a commitment from Warner Bros. to release the single. “They subsequently began searching for a deal with virtually every other major label on the planet, from Capitol to Polygram, with several of them verbally committing to sign me,” Dickerson recalled. “But, when it was all said and done, more was said than done” (Citinite 2008).

[Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli searched] for a deal with virtually every… major label on the planet… with several of them verbally committing to sign me. But, when it was all said and done, more was said than done.

Dez Dickerson
Dez with Billy Idol on the latter’s Rebel Yell tour, 1984; photo stolen from prince.org.

“Modernaire” got one last chance to swim underwater and breathe modern air during the height of Purple Rain mania in late 1984, when Dickerson finally “received a call from the business affairs department at Warner… requesting that I supply them with a B-side and artwork” for the long-delayed single (Citinite 2008). By then, the Modernaires had struck further away from the Prince camp, accompanying English rocker Billy Idol on his Rebel Yell U.S. tour; in any case, the point was moot, as this release, too, fell through. For decades, listeners were only able to hear the brief snatches of the song that were audible in the film.

This simultaneous wide exposure and practical scarcity turned “Modernaire” into a strange paradox of a song: at once the most obscure track in Purple Rain, and the most famous of Prince’s productions from the era to never see “official” release. The full recording, mastered from Dickerson’s cassette copy, would eventually appear on his wonderfully-titled, self-released “Dez-trospective” in 2005; then again on the aforementioned vinyl/digital Citinite release in 2008, with a cover version by Los Angeles electro-hop pioneer the Egyptian Lover and remixes by Complexxion, DMX Krew, Faceless Mind, and Hot Persuasion. But both of these packages are long out of print on physical media, and unavailable on digital platforms for download or streaming. Perhaps, with Warner Bros. now believed to hold the distribution rights for Prince’s soundtrack albums, the inevitable next Purple Rain reissue will finally include a properly remastered version of “Modernaire.” It’s a bit of a long shot, I know; but as the man himself said, “Pessimistic attitudes / Never shall I wear.”

2 replies on “Modernaire”

Thank you for another fascinating entry in what continues to be easily among the best – if not the best – run of commentaries on Prince’s music!

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