Automatic

Automatic

(Featured Image: Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman act out Prince’s sapphic S&M fantasies in the too-hot-for-TV “Automatic” video; © Warner Bros.)

By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).

The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.

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Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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Free

Free

(Featured Image: A family picnics with giraffes in a 1982 ad for the Soviet VAZ 2101; photo stolen from Soviet Visuals.)

In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”

From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”

Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.

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D.M.S.R.

D.M.S.R.

(Featured Image: DJ Steve Holbrook in the booth at the Taste Show Lounge in Minneapolis, circa 1983. Note the Time poster on the right. Photo by Charles Chamblis, stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society.)

Beginning with his third album in 1980, Prince had been steadily building up a mythology–occasionally bordering on a philosophy–for himself. Dirty Mind had “Uptown,” a clarion call for hedonism that eradicated all racial and sexual boundaries. 1981’s Controversy, of course, had its epic title track, a declaration of selfhood through the negation of fixed identities; as well as “Sexuality,” a return to the themes of “Uptown” with a new quasi-religious fervor. For his fifth album in 1982, he offered something even more blunt and to the point: a musical manifesto based around the four words, “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance.”

Though it was never released as a single–and, in fact, was left off the original CD release of 1999 due to space constraints–“D.M.S.R.” holds a privileged position in Prince’s discography. Dance Music Sex Romance was of course the title of the 1999 biography and session chronicle by Per Nilsen, long considered definitive by fans of the artist’s early career. It’s also, obviously, the title of this very blog, because I figured if Per’s not going to use it anymore, somebody’s gonna have to. Its attraction to writers on Prince is self-evident: as Dave Lifton wrote on the song for Diffuser’s 365 Prince Songs in a Year series, “Dance. Music. Sex. Romance. Add God into the mixture and you’ve more or less got the formula for every song Prince released in his life” (Lifton 2017). Way back when I first started d / m / s / r in 2016, I posited that it would make a great title for a career-spanning collection like Johnny Cash’s Love, God, Murder, with a disc devoted to each theme.

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Let’s Pretend We’re Married

Let’s Pretend We’re Married

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” 12″, 1983; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

Having completed the majority of the Vanity 6 album over a few weeks at his home studio in Chanhassen, Prince was back at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles 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 taken their place among Prince’s sonic trademarks, just seven months after his introduction to the machine. A driving kick and snare rhythm 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.

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