A little over a year after their first meeting in January 1982, Prince and Denise Matthews (better known as Vanity) had cultivated an image as pop music’s sexiest power couple: the royal bride and groom of his imminent purple reign. Early in 1983, the pair posed for fashion photographer Richard Avedon in a shot that would make the cover of Rolling Stone that April. Looking like mirror reflections–or incestuous twins–they fixed the camera with identical, kohl-blackened stares: she embracing him from behind, two fingers tucked suggestively down the front of his jeans. In the coming months, Prince would plan to take their relationship to an even larger venue, slating Vanity to play the leading lady in his forthcoming motion picture debut.
But there was trouble in paradise. The strong-willed couple clashed frequently–not least because Prince insisted on seeing other women at the same time as Matthews, including her Vanity 6 bandmate Susan Moonsie and his backing singer Jill Jones. A song inspired by their relationship from around this time, “Wonderful Ass,” pokes fun at the disconnect between their undeniable sexual chemistry and their equally undeniable emotional incompatibility: “My sensibilities you aggravate,” Prince croons, but “you got a wonderful ass.” Another, “Strange Relationship,” opts for a more trenchant self-critique: “Baby, I Just Can’t Stand 2 See U Happy / More Than That[,] I Hate 2 See U Sad.”
Jones, who shared a dressing room with Vanity 6 during the 1999 tour, recalled Prince giving a cassette tape with both songs on it to Matthews: “She’d play it before the show while me, Susan, and all of us [were] getting dressed,” she told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “It wasn’t discreet.” Prince and Vanity, she added, actually did have a “Strange Relationship”: “It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad. Because she started dating other people… and he got pissed. She was like, ‘I’m moving away from him. Fuck him. I’m really famous. People love me.’ So she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back in” (Tudahl 2018 40).
The majority of Prince’s sessions at Sunset Sound, like the majority of his studio sessions in general, were solo affairs; but while recording at Sunset in early April 1982, he was accompanied by his touring guitarist Dez Dickerson. Dez, as noted previously, played drums on the Vanity 6 track “3 x 2 = 6,” recorded on April 5. He was probably also in the studio for the tracking of “Extraloveable” on April 3: at one point, Prince can be heard taunting, “Hey Dez, don’t you like my band?”–an aside that has been widely interpreted as referring to Dickerson’s departure from the group the following year, but was more likely a simple case of good-natured, competitive ribbing. Last but not least, Dickerson’s backing vocals are clearly audible on “If It’ll Make U Happy,” recorded on April 6.
Between these sessions, the guitarist recalled, Prince also gave him studio time to work on some of his own music (Dickerson 201). This was likely meant as an olive branch, as tensions had emerged between the two bandmates. Like André Cymone before him, Dickerson had no intention of spending his entire career as a sideman; and, like Gayle Chapman, he’d begun to find that Prince’s sexual boundary-pushing was at odds with his own beliefs.
It’s been about nine months since the last time we completed an album around here–which, if nothing else, means that we’re just about keeping pace with Prince himself, who released Vanity 6 just under 10 months after his own Controversy. Let’s see if we can finish 1999 by October!
In the meantime, here’s how I rank the songs on Vanity 6:
7. “3 x 2 = 6” For the record, I don’t think this is a bad song; but I understand why a lot of Prince fans do. As I noted in my post last week, the arrangement is a bit of a slog, and Vanity’s karaoke-caliber vocals are, shall we say, an acquired taste. Still, the pathos of it all still draws me in.
6. “Wet Dream” Another one that I actually like more than the consensus opinion, I think this one could have been a hit if Prince had given it to a stronger singer and kept the lyrics a little more PG-13. Also, any song that gives me a chance to reference Hokusai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” is okay by me. Also also, bonus points for “Wet Dream (Cousin),” a clip from the soundtrack for the most wholesome imaginary porno never filmed.
5. “Bite the Beat” Maybe I should rank this below “Wet Dream,” but my enduring love for New Wave Prince means I’m a sucker for that ersatz Farfisa. Besides, the song’s sexual forthrightness feels like the clearest evidence (with one obvious exception) for my argument about Vanity 6 serving as predecessors for today’s crop of hyper-explicit female rappers (cf. Cupcakke).
4. “Drive Me Wild” I think I’m once again in the minority on this one, as I happen to prefer the other Susan Moonsie-fronted electro track on the album; I also know I’m in the minority for preferring the minimalist album track to the more conventionally funky–and much, much longer–12″ version. I guess I just feel like I have a lot of options when it comes to Prince’s extended robo-James Brown workouts; but if I want to hear him inventing electroclash, it’s basically this and…
3. “Make-Up” Yup, that’s right, I’m the weirdo who was excited–almost to the exclusion of everything else on the album–to see this on the tracklist of last month’s Originals. And just for the record, it lived up to expectations. Fingers crossed that a Prince-sung version of “Drive Me Wild” comes out–either on an Originals-style compilation or, preferably, as part of an expanded Vanity 6 reissue–so I can reevaluate.
2. “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” Whether or not you, like me, hear this song as a drag performance, I think most of us can agree that it’s a highlight of the album and one of the funniest songs in the extended Prince canon. Plus, that Terry Lewis bassline makes it a rare Vanity 6 song that actually sounds like it was performed by the Time.
1. “Nasty Girl” Look, they can’t all be unorthodox choices. A classic is a classic, and if any song on Vanity 6 qualifies for that title, this is the one. I’d put “Nasty Girl” up against any Prince song from 1982–a claim I don’t make lightly, as the 1999 era is in strong contention for my all-time favorite.
With that, I hope that I’ve made my case for Vanity 6 as a worthy part of Prince’s early discography. It’s a scrappy, often sordid, borderline amateurish effort: a quick and (literally) dirty side project recorded mostly at home, with mostly nonprofessional singers, in a little over a month. But its scrappiness is key to its charm, and helps to make what could be a truly slick and exploitative enterprise feel, at minimum, genuine. I guess what I’m saying is, it may be smut, but at least it’s DIY artisinal smut.
For my own reference as much as anything, I wrote about 1,269 words per post on Vanity 6; not too shabby for a side project, that’s only a little less than the 1,379 per post I wrote for For You and significantly more than the 833 per post I wrote for The Time.
It’s a short week for me with Fourth of July weekend looming, but thanks to supporters of the Patreon, I’m still committed to a post this week, and every other week moving forward! I will aim to publish my piece on “If It’ll Make U Happy” Wednesday. Meanwhile, my thanks to our newest patron, Anne Clark. If you’d like to join Anne and the 11 other supporters who have already jumped on board, please consider checking out the Patreon here. We’ve already reached our first goal–hence the guaranteed weekly posts–which means it’s time to start thinking about the second one. At the moment, I’ve said that if the Patreon reaches $100 a month I will go back to monthly podcast episodes, but I also know that that may not be what you all actually want. I plan on checking in with the patrons this week to determine whether or not that should be our next goal, so if you want to be part of that conversation, get your pledges in soon!
Meanwhile, though there haven’t been many changes due to Vanity 6 remaining out of print, here’s the Spotify playlist:
Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on the Vanity 6 album at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The last song he recorded for the album, on April 5, 1982, was also the last song on the track list: a gauzy synthpop ballad arithmetically titled “3 x 2 = 6.”
More than any other song on the album, “3 x 2 = 6” reflects the personal relationship between Prince and Vanity (née Denise Matthews), which had blossomed in the months since their first meeting. “Prince became like a father to me,” Matthews later recalled. “He loves playing dad. The first thing he did when we met was to nurse me, take care of me. I was very dependent on him, [‘]cause I needed a father because of the terrible insecurity I had experienced as a child” (Nilsen 1999 105).
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably wondering where I am with my next Vanity 6 post. Well, with all the hubbub around Celebration 2019, I got the feeling that anything I posted last week would become background noise; then, a few freelance obligations caught up with me, so I had to turn my attention to those. Fortunately, those freelance obligations happen to be related to what I’m doing here–in this case, very related, as I decided to write about the Vanity 6 album for Spectrum Culture’s recurring Revisit/Rediscover feature:
If you’ve been reading my recent d / m / s / r posts, you’ll recognize a lot of familiar themes here; basically I’ve always wanted to evangelize on behalf of this album for a slightly more general audience, so I took this opportunity to regurgitate some of my recent thoughts. But this also gave me the opportunity to start thinking about a few of my upcoming posts, so expect to see a few of these ideas explored in greater depth here. As for when you can expect that, well, I have a review of the Ultimate Rave set in the pipeline for Spectrum on Thursday, so I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming by Friday. See you then!