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.
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.
Even after recruiting Denise Matthews to be the group’s frontwoman, Prince still envisioned Vanity 6 as a girl group in the classic sense, with each member taking the lead on their respective songs. This gave him the opportunity to return to a pair of tracks originally recorded for the Hookers project in the summer of 1981, featuring Susan Moonsie on lead vocals. Though they date back to almost a year earlier than the rest of the album, “Make-Up” and “Drive Me Wild” sound cutting-edge. Like “All the Critics Love U in New York,” both songs seem to parallel the emerging sounds of Detroit techno–particularly “Make-Up,” with Susan’s deliberately cold, dispassionate vocals, a frenetic Linn LM-1 pattern, and a synth-bass line that resembles a computer processor clearing its throat.
(Featured Image: With an old friend at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, January 25, 1982; that’s Steve Fargnoli in the background. Photo stolen from Consequence of Sound.)
Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in mid-January 1982 concluded with–and was most likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.
Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with 1980’s flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.
It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros. Records, and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”
As listeners are no doubt aware, next week will be a big one for Prince fans in Minneapolis: Monday through Wednesday is Prince from Minneapolis, the second-ever (and first in the States) academic symposium devoted to papers about Prince; then, from Thursday to Sunday, Paisley Park will open its doors for its second annual posthumous Celebration event. I will be there for both, so I thought now was the perfect opportunity to talk to Stuart Willoughby, whose book Minneapolis Reign: A Guide to Prince’s Hometowndocumented his own trip to last year’s Celebration 2017. Stuart and I had a really fun conversation, which will hopefully give everyone else out there planning their own pilgrimages some pointers about where to go and what to do in Prince’s hometown.
As always, remember to subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast on your service of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and to leave us a review if the spirit moves you. I look forward to meeting some of you in Minneapolis next week!