At the beginning of 1984, Prince had a lot of proverbial balls in the air: not only his big-screen debut and accompanying album, but also spinoff projects by the Time, Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, and, soon, Sheila E. Most artists would consider this more than enough to juggle; Prince, however, was not most artists. On January 20, the day after completing the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, he was already at work on a new song for yet another protégée, Scots pop-rock belter Sheena Easton.
It was, on paper, a bit of an odd pairing. After getting her big break on the BBC documentary series The Big Time, Easton had cut her teeth on anodyne material like 1980’s “9 to 5 (Morning Train)” (see above) and the theme for the Roger Moore Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981)–a less-than-obvious résumé for a singer about to collaborate with the guy who wrote “Head.” But she was also a fan of 1999, and she happened to be recording at Sunset Sound at the same time as Prince; so she had their mutual engineer, David Leonard, put a bug in the other artist’s ear. Prince “said, ‘Boy, I didn’t know she was a fan, I really respect her voice, and I’ll think about it,’” she recalled. “Well, he obviously thought about it because the next day he wrote ‘Sugar Walls’ for me” (Nilsen 1999 149).
There’s no reason to doubt that what Easton says is true, and Prince told her the song was written for her; it’s just that, as was often the case, he was saying the same thing to all the other girls. “‘Sugar Walls’ was supposed to be my song,” Jill Jones told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “[When he told me] I remember I was sitting in the bed, and I was just like, ‘What? Really? You took me out last night to be able to break this news to me this morning?’ We had some words about it. That’s all I’m gonna say” (Tudahl 2018 240).
It isn’t hard to imagine “Sugar Walls” fitting right in on a hypothetical 1984 Jill Jones album. Its throbbing electronic pulse is cut from the same cloth as other tracks earmarked for Jones, such as “G-Spot” and “All Day, All Night”; while Easton’s borderline-unhinged delivery is a dead ringer for the singer Prince described as his vocal “cliffdiver” (Dash 2016). Mostly, though, Jones’ story reveals just how little he knew what to do with her at the time: squandering her talents on oddly-toned trifles like “Wednesday,” while giving her more tailor-made material away on a whim.
Still, the question is less why Prince didn’t give the song to Jones, and more why he did give it to Easton; and framed that way, the answer makes at least a little more sense. Jones theorizes that it was pure commercial calculus: “‘We’re going to give it to Sheena Easton because she’s going to go in competition against Madonna,’” she paraphrased to Rolling Stone (Grow 2019). This was undoubtedly part of it–few artists were more well-versed than Prince in the politics of the crossover–but I’m not sure it explains everything; lest we forget, in January of 1984, Madonna was not yet the Top 40 juggernaut she’d become with “Like a Virgin” later that year.
Instead, I’d guess that he simply couldn’t resist the chance to corrupt this nice girl from North Lanarkshire, Scotland. “Sugar Walls” isn’t just risqué for Sheena Easton; it’s pretty damn risqué even for Prince, delving with near-gynecological intimacy into the mechanics of female arousal. It certainly delivered the seismic image shift Easton wanted: signaling, like Olivia Newton-John before her and Kylie Minogue after, that Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes was all grown up. But you have to give credit where it’s due: how many other middle-of-the-road pop stars have made their transition to edgier fare with lines like, “Blood races to your private spots”?
In Easton’s native U.K., the transition from crooning about her boyfriend’s work schedule to yelling about her vagina turned out to be a bridge too far: “Sugar Walls” was her lowest-performing single to date, barely (ahem) penetrating the Top 100. But its reception in the States was another story. Released at the height of Prince’s “purple reign” in December of 1984, it quickly rose up the charts, peaking at Number 9 on the Hot 100 in March of 1985. It fared even better on the Dance/Club Play and “Hot Black Singles” charts, reaching Numbers 1 and 3, respectively. It’s worth noting that Prince’s involvement in the song was never officially publicized: the liner notes on Easton’s album credit the production to Greg Mathieson and the composition to one “Alexander Nevermind.” But by then, the days of cute, Jamie Starr-like deceptions were long over; everyone knew who the man behind the curtain really was.
Unfortunately, not all of the attention was positive. Today, “Sugar Walls” is best remembered as one of the “Filthy Fifteen” targeted by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in their push for a pop record rating system. In a 1985 interview with the Los Angeles Times–which, regrettably, does not appear to have been preserved in audio form–PMRC member Susan Baker (the wife of the United States Secretary of the Treasury) sternly recited the lyrics, “temperatures rise inside my sugar walls” (Goldstein 1985). The controversy was such that the producers of American Bandstand would not allow Easton to perform the song on the show: In an official statement to the press, the singer admitted that the song was “definitely sexually suggestive… A lot of songs are about sex but some people are offended about that. I’m not. I don’t [mind] reading about sex, seeing it in a movie or hearing about in songs so long as discretion and taste are used. It’s a part of life” (Trott 1985). Mr. Nevermind, predictably, remained unavailable for comment.
Yet Prince’s silence on the song belied its surprisingly strong influence on his musical trajectory. As Tudahl notes, the vacillating synth vamp from the 1984 re-recording of “Possessed” bears more than passing resemblance to the one in “Sugar Walls”; a similar pattern also shows up in the horn line for “Hot Thing,” which may have been what inspired Shep Pettibone to include a direct sample of “Sugar Walls” in his extended remix. More to the point, the track also kicked off a fruitful partnership between Prince and Easton, who would go on to record “Eternity” for 1987’s No Sound but a Heart and “101” and “Cool Love” for 1988’s The Lover in Me; not to mention sharing lead vocals on Prince’s own Number 2 hit, “U Got the Look,” and nabbing a co-writing credit for the B-side “La, La, La, He, He, Hee.” By the end of the decade, the pair had gone full circle: collaborating on the 1989 Batman soundtrack’s “The Arms of Orion,” a duet as gooey and sentimental as “Sugar Walls” was ribald and scandalous (and, okay, maybe also a little gooey).
But really, that’s the lesson here: In pop music, yesterday’s family entertainment can be tomorrow’s Filthy Fifteen, and vice versa. And, while in early 1984 Prince gleefully played the role of the bad boy leading good girls astray, by the end of the year he’d be morally conflicted, airing his mounting sexual guilt in onstage conversations with God. “Sugar Walls” obviously wasn’t the last we’d hear of Prince the “Rude Boy”; as he liked to say in those divine chats on the Purple Rain tour, “They love it when I’m bad!” But he’d rarely again be quite so “bad” with such unabashed enthusiasm.
(Thanks to Sterling Seals on Facebook for reminding me of “La, La, La, He, He, Hee”–not exactly a Sheena Easton “collaboration” per se, but definitely worth noting!)