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Press Rewind: “When Doves Cry”

As we all continue to figure out how to get through this pandemic with some level of normalcy, please feel free to spend a little over an hour with me and Jason Breininger (not in the same room, thankfully) as we go in-depth on “When Doves Cry” for his Press Rewind podcast:

Press Rewind: “When Doves Cry”

Listening back, it strikes me how much these lyrics are about touching and other forms of physical intimacy, and how wildly different those concepts sound today than they did 36 years (or two weeks) ago. May we all look forward to a day when “the sweat of your body covers me” conjures images of more than just COVID-19-spreading droplets. In the meantime, stay safe (and stay home).

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1999, 1982

1999

By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.

“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).

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What Time is It?, 1982

Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody

The first four tracks recorded for the Time’s second album were all good to great: “The Walk,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” “Wild and Loose,” and “777-9311,” each a highlight of the group’s overall catalogue. So, to truly live up to the legacy of their 1981 debut, they were long overdue for some filler. Recorded around the same time as “777-9311” in late Spring 1982, “Onedayi’mgonnabesomebody” was exactly that: a slight, palate-cleansing trifle to fill out the first side of the album.

But it isn’t just its throwaway nature that makes this track feel like a callback to the early days of the Time. It’s also the sound: retro rock’n’roll with a dash of New Wave kitsch, not dissimilar from one of Prince’s formative influences for the group, the BusBoys–and, of course, more than a little reminiscent of his own contemporary material. In particular, “Oneday”’s squiggly main synth line recalls “Horny Toad”–another song recorded around the same time and later released as the B-side for “Delirious”–with all of the rough edges and, frankly, most of the appeal buffed away.

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1999, 1982

Automatic

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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1999, 1982

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

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–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since Prince three years earlier. In late April and early May of 1982, he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in Los Angeles 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 OB-SX 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 tropes with an organically soulful melody and jazzy acoustic 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.