1999

1999

(Featured Image: Prince and band prepare to fight on the 1999 inner sleeve; L to R: Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Lisa Coleman, Dr. Fink, Dez Dickerson. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

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. According to a recent tweet by former associate Jeremiah Freed (better known by his nom de podcast Dr. Funkenberry), Prince had originally planned for “Turn It Up” to be the album’s lead single. It’s speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also intended to be the title track, given how exhortations to “turn it up” recur throughout the songs recorded for the album: including “All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Lust U Always,” and the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch.” As Josh and Christy Norman of the Mountains and the Sea podcast recently observed, the phrase can even be made out spray-painted behind Prince and the band in a late 1981 photo taken for the “Let’s Work” 12” sleeve.

But whatever its intended title, when Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo, the reception was cooler than anticipated. “‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince in an interview with music journalist Alan Light. “‘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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Little Red Corvette

Little Red Corvette

(Featured Image: Sales brochure for the 1982 Chevrolet Corvette; stolen from the GM Heritage Center.)

Upon his return to Chanhassen from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail: replacing the original 16-track console with a new 24-track Ampex MM1200 machine. According to biographer Per Nilsen, this project took about two weeks, overseen by Prince’s go-to home studio tech and engineer, Don Batts. Astonishingly, within hours of the new studio’s setup, Prince had recorded the basic track for one of his most enduring songs, “Little Red Corvette.” “It was incredible to build the studio in that short time and then come up with that tune so quickly,” Batts recalled. But, as he also acknowledged, “That’s how fast it generally went” (Nilsen 1999 100).

Indeed, much about “Corvette” seemed to emerge with almost supernatural ease, as if Prince had merely plucked it from the ether fully-formed. According to legend–and like other 20th-century pop standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”–the song first came to him in a dream, while he was dozing off in the front seat of keyboardist Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction,” Coleman told The Guardian in 2008. “It was so bitching-looking that Prince used to borrow it and dent it, which I’d make him feel bad about. He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette’… even though it was a pink Mercury” (Elan 2008). Prince wrote in his unpublished liner notes for the 1993 compilation The Hits that he “always considered the song a dream because it was written between 3 or 4 catnaps and he was never fully awake” (Dash 2016).

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3 x 2 = 6

3 x 2 = 6

(Featured Image: Vanity 6–L to R: Brenda, Vanity, Susan–circa 1983; photo stolen from Law and Order Party.)

Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on Vanity 6 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 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).

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If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)

If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)

(Featured Image: Dorian Corey in Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston, 1990; © Academy Entertainment.)

As we’ve noted before, Prince credited the musical performances on Vanity 6 to his other protégé group, the Time–a fabrication that would later come true when they performed the girls’ backing tracks from behind a curtain on the 1999 tour. Of the eight songs on the album, only one sounds particularly “Time-like”; but that one song fits the description to a T. With its Terry Lewis-written funk bassline and song-dominating comedic skit, “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” could almost pass for an escapee from the Time’s own sophomore album, What Time is It?

Like the skits from Time songs “The Walk” and “Wild and Loose,” the one in “If a Girl Answers” unfolds from a simple, even stereotypical comic situation: in this case, working girls Vanity and Brenda trying to figure out transportation to a party on their night off. Brenda suggests that they call “Jimmy”–a male suitor, possibly Jimmy Jam from the Time, but more importantly a person with a car. Vanity expresses her doubts: “And what if a girl answers?” Brenda shrugs, “Hang up.” But Vanity isn’t satisfied by that answer; Jimmy said she was his girl. Well, Brenda offers, “if a girl answers, don’t hang up, just talk about her.”

The exchange that follows–a duel of escalating gibes between Vanity (and, later, Brenda) and Jimmy’s new girlfriend–draws on many of the same Black and blue comedy tropes as its counterparts in the Time’s catalogue. The ladies’ larger-than-life performances channel everything from LaWanda Page in roast mode to Millie Jackson’s raunchy midsong monologues. The inventive vulgarity of their barbs evokes that traditional African American game of verbal combat, “the dozens,” with references to the other woman’s “dead daddy” taking the place of the more customary maternal ur-insult.

But while its roots in Black nightclub comedy and “dirty blues” are undeniable, “If a Girl Answers” also carries the lipstick traces of another, more subcultural source. In the song’s most remarkable stylistic choice, the titular “girl” on the other side of the phone is portrayed by none other than “Jamie Starr,” in all his queen-bitch glory. The endemic queerness of this performance–as close to straight-up drag as Prince ever came–conjures another vibrant African American comic tradition: a devastating display of rapier wit with origins in Harlem’s underground house ball culture, known as the “read.”

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