Lest anyone suspects I was exaggerating when I said I’m feeling inspired about the blog again, I’m currently just under 1,900 words into my post on “Baby I’m a Star,” which is on track to be the longest single post in the history of D / M / S / R. In the meantime, I’m also trying to wrap up the “bonus tracks” from our last chapter on the 1999 era. Here’s a peek at “Vagina”–which was not supposed to be a nudge-nudge, wink-wink joke, but what the hell, I’m leaving it:
Before last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999, “Vagina” was known only by its title and its reputation–both of which were among the most tantalizing, and titillating, of any songs in the Vault. Few outside of Prince’s inner circle at the time of recording had heard it–and those who had, most notably former engineer David Z, described it as “obscene.”
It would have been impossible for any song to live up to such a reputation; “Vagina” certainly doesn’t, though it does stand as one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe’s previously-unreleased Vault tracks. Recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio in November 1981, the song finds Prince in stripped-down punk-rock mode–just him and his Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster; even the “percussion,” such as it is, is simulated with his mouth. As biographer Alex Hahn observed in a Facebook post soon after the passing of musician Andy Gill, Prince’s guitar work here “very much evokes” Gill’s playing with the English post-punk group Gang of Four–particularly when he “bangs the strings of his guitar in a percussive manner at the very outset of the song.” It’s a strikingly different sound from the rest of the music Prince was making ahead of his fifth album, which even in late 1981 was tending more toward synthesizers and drum machines than guitars–see, for example, the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch” recorded in the same month.
If you want to read the rest, consider joining my Patreon at any level, which is where this and other “bonus tracks” will reside for the foreseeable future. And if you want to get a vote on which of the three remaining 1999-era tracks I tackle next–“Money Don’t Grow on Trees,” “Colleen,” or “You’re All I Want“–I just started a poll for patrons at the $5 level and above. I’m trying to avoid making promises I can’t keep, but based on my recent productivity, I feel pretty certain that the next post will be ready in less than the six months it took me to write this one. Thanks–and see you soon!
In case you missed it, yesterday I finally closed the book on the 1999 era for dance / music / sex / romance (well, almost… I still plan to write “bonus tracks” posts on “Vagina,” “Colleen,” “You’re All I Want,” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” for Patreon readers in the near future). This was the blog’s biggest undertaking to date: comprising 33 track posts and three albums, and taking almost 16 months from the first post (“International Lover,” way back in November of 2018!) and the last. As you know, I can be pretty tough on myself; but right now, I’m letting myself take some pride in what I’ve accomplished.
1999, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, is one of my favorite Prince albums; on a good day, it may even be number one, and it’s certainly near the top of my favorites by any artist. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I’ve done this masterpiece justice with 11 blog posts, but I sure as hell tried my best; so here they are now, in ascending order of my favorite tracks:
11. “Free” No surprises here, I’m guessing; I was pretty rough on “Free” in my original post, and it’s still the song I’m likeliest to skip when I’m listening to 1999 on a skip-friendly format. It ain’t so bad, really–any song as weird as this one is hard for me to outright hate–but it’s the weak point on an otherwise near-perfect album.
10. “International Lover” This ranking I feel a bit guiltier about, because “International Lover” really is a lot of fun: a chance for Prince to be sexy and silly in more or less equal measure, all while showing off his increasingly virtuosic vocals. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the live-in-the-studio first take on 1999 Super Deluxe, complete with barely-suppressed giggles by Prince and little-known session drummer Morris Day.
9. “Lady Cab Driver” This isn’t going to get easier, is it? Before you send me hate mail, know that I adore “Lady Cab Driver”–it’s just the textbook definition of an album track, there to add mood and menace (and, yes, funk) to the back half of 1999. If you’re wondering what I thought about “Rearrange,” one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe, this post answers that question, too.
8.“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” Another of those moody disc two tracks: indispensable to 1999’s dystopian atmosphere, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for a single track to play. I gave this the edge over “Lady Cab Driver” for the new life it took on in concert; see the long list of live reinterpretations at the end of the post.
7. “D.M.S.R.” It should tell you just how high in my esteem 1999 is as an album when the song I named my blog after doesn’t even make the top 50%. A great dance track, and an even better repository of weird little details: from “Jamie Starr’s a thief!” to Lisa’s blood-curdling scream for help.
6. “All the Critics Love U in New York” I know I might get some flack for ranking this above “D.M.S.R.” (and “Something in the Water,” and…), but “All the Critics” needs the boost. It’s an underrated snapshot of Prince at the cutting edge; a pitch-perfect homage to Detroit techno while the genre was still in its infancy.
5.“Delirious” As an avowed fan of Rockabilly Prince, who am I to deny the subgenre’s peak? “Delirious” may be 1999 at its most ’80s-dated, but I defy anyone to listen and not walk away with those damn keyboards stuck in your head.
4. “Automatic” My favorite of 1999’s darker, weirder second half, and maybe even the peak of New Wave Prince (another of my personal favorites, as readers are no doubt aware). If I had to pick a single track to explain why 1999 speaks to me personally–not the best or the most important song, but the one that scratches my own particular, deeply subjective itch–“Automatic” might be it.
3.“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” …Or, it might be this one. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is the album’s strongest showing for Dirty Prince, with his late-song monologue containing the most explicit language on the record; but for my money, the dirtiest thing about the track is the chugging, pumping bass-synth line, a retro-futuristic approximation of the world’s creakiest bedsprings.
2. “1999” Honestly, just call it a tie for first place. I’ve already expended a little over 4,700 words on “1999”–my longest single post to date!–so today, I’ll just say that the album version is a totally different beast from the radio edit: freakier, funkier, and still totally vital, even with the year 1999 (never mind the song) over 20 years in the rear-view mirror. Accept no substitutes.
1.“Little Red Corvette” Look, I’ve said before, my tastes as a Prince fan are pretty basic; and why not, since his biggest mainstream hits were as inventive as most artists’ avant-garde? “Little Red Corvette” may be the normie’s choice for best track on 1999, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fucking masterwork: as much a work of literature as it is an exemplar of pop songcraft. To paraphrase my appearance on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewindpodcast, if “Little Red Corvette” doesn’t outlast us all on this planet, then the planet was overrated anyway.
To no one’s surprise, my 1999 posts had the highest average word count of any album to date: 1,964, versus 1,758 forControversy, 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, and 1,379 for For You.
So, what’s next? In terms of the main blog, it’s on to Purple Rain; I’ll be starting that chapter with “Baby I’m a Star.” As noted above, I’m also tying up some loose ends from the 1999 era with Patreon-exclusive posts in the near future; and, speaking of Patreon, it’s past time that I wrote my first patron-requested post: an alternate-timeline scenario requested by Darling Nisi, which will handily help set up the Purple Rain era. Finally, speaking of Nisi, I’ve already recorded a long-belated Dirty Mindpodcast with her and Harold Pride, which I’ll be putting up (first for patrons, and then for everyone) once I’ve finished editing it.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot in the pipeline; I just ask for your continued patience as I work on it. The international COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of instability into my day-to-day routine: I didn’t even have the chance to write on the blog that I would be presenting at the DM40GB30 symposium, originally scheduled for next month, before it was postponed until an undetermined later date. And while you might expect a self-imposed quarantine to be a boon for my productivity, the fact that I’ll also be juggling remote work with entertaining and educating a seven-year-old whose school has been shut down means that I’ll probably be spread thinner than usual. These are strange times, and I don’t know what is going to happen next. All I can promise is that I will keep writing, and I hope that you’ll keep reading, too.
In the meantime, here are those growing playlists.
Hi, friends. It’s taking some time to fully shake off the cobwebs, but I’m feeling myself shift back into gear for the new year; I won’t commit to a date so I don’t have to apologize later, but “Lady Cab Driver” is coming soon. In the meantime, here’s another piece I had been planning to write at the end of last year–my thoughts on the new Super Deluxe edition of 1999. Since we’re all friends here (and since I’m over a month late), I went for less of a formal review and more of a reflection on my personal feelings about the release and the state of the Vault in general. Patrons can read it here:
Speaking of patrons, thank you to Snax and Carlos Romero for supporting the blog and giving me some much-needed encouragement this week! Snax and Carlos bring us up to 20 patrons, which is honestly fantastic for my humble little project. More relevant for everyone reading this, they also brought the total monthly support up to $99–a mere dollar less than the threshold for me to start producing the d / m / s / r podcast again. That means that if just one person becomes a patron, the goal will be met! If that sounds like the kind of responsibility you’d like to have on your shoulders, you know what to do.
Two weeks later, on May 24, he was back at the Prom–which, the Twin Cities Music Highlights website ominously notes, “refused to turn on the air conditioning”–for the second annual Minnesota Music Awards, sponsored by the alternative weekly City Pages. Prince was nominated, either himself or by proxy, in eight categories: Best 45 or EP (“Controversy,” the Time’s “Get It Up”), Best LP (Controversy, The Time), Best New Act (the Time), Best Electric Guitar (Dez Dickerson), Best Male Vocalist (himself), Best R&B/Funk/Soul/Band (the Time), Best Producer (himself, for Controversy), and Musician of the Year (himself). The night’s big award went to him; this time–maybe because he’d just recorded “Little Red Corvette” four days earlier–he accepted it with a little more swagger, asking, “When do they give the award for best ass?”
Memorable quips aside, Prince didn’t actually perform at the Minnesota Music Awards ceremony; but the Time did, making their first public appearance since the end of the Controversy tour two months earlier. Seeing his side project in action again–and watching them take home the R&B/Funk/Soul award–may have been what prompted Prince to get back to work recording their second album, which he’d left in a state of suspended animation since his sessions at Sunset Sound in January. Those sessions had produced “The Walk,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and “Wild and Loose,” all of which made it onto the final track list; as well as “Bold Generation,” which did not. An early version of “Jerk Out,” which the group would ultimately re-record for their 1990 album Pandemonium, was also mooted and discarded around the same time. But it was “777-9311,” recorded in late May or early June at Kiowa Trail, that gave the nascent album its linchpin.
From their first session together in 1981, Peggy McCreary had been Prince’s go-to L.A. recording engineer. McCreary, a.k.a. “Peggy Mac,” was a former waitress at Hollywood hotspot the Roxy Theatre who had worked her way up through the ranks to become the first female staff engineer at Sunset Sound, with credits on records by Little Feat, Kris Kristofferson, Van Halen, and Elton John. When she got the Prince gig, it was “just a fluke,” she recently told Variety. “I was available the weekend that Hollywood Sound called and said, ‘Our board went down, do you have an engineer and room?’” (Aswad 2019). But the artist’s salacious reputation had preceded him: “the receptionist said, ‘Peggy can’t work alone in the studio on the weekend with him. He writes really dirty songs about giving head and stuff,’” McCreary recalled to Pitchfork. “I thought, ‘Oh God. Who’s gonna be walking into the studio?” (Sodomsky 2019).
As it turned out, the person who arrived at Sunset Sound that weekend was “extremely polite, quiet… [and] short”–a far cry from the oversexed libertine of Dirty Mind infamy (Kiene 2019). In fact, Prince was so demure that McCreary found him difficult to understand: “He would mumble what he needed from behind a flap of hair,” she recalled. She finally had to confront him directly: “I said, ‘You know what? If you want me to work with you, you’re going to have to talk to me, to my face, so I can hear you!’” (Sodomsky 2019). Sensing she’d offended him, McCreary assumed they’d never work together again; but when he returned to the studio the following January, he requested her for the session.
Soon, the no-nonsense engineer and the reticent wunderkind had developed a close, if occasionally dysfunctional, working relationship. Peggy and Prince “were always about to kill each other,” the Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson told sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “but she got such a great sound on everything.” McCreary continued to bristle at Prince’s aloof manner and workaholic tendencies: “He didn’t appreciate mistakes,” she later recalled. “Nobody does, but mistakes happen. It’s just human error”–something Prince had little patience for (Tudahl 2018 48). But he was also capable of showing his appreciation, albeit in mostly idiosyncratic ways. He christened “Colleen,” an unreleased instrumental recorded on January 15, after McCreary’s middle name (Aswad 2019). On January 11–McCreary’s birthday–he called her into the studio to record another track. “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” she told Pitchfork. But at the end of the session, “he stood there at the door with a little smile on his face and threw the cassette at me and said, ‘Happy birthday’” (Sodomsky 2019). The track, a “rockabilly song” called “You’re All I Want,” remains in her possession to this day.
Perhaps McCreary’s warmest memory of Prince took place on the evening of April 28, 1982, when he asked her out of the blue what she liked to drink. “I said ‘Remy Martin, why?’” McCreary recalled to Variety. “And he said ‘Order a bottle of Remy Martin [and] a bottle of Asti Spumant[e].’ [I] never let my guard down in the studio–you did not f[uck] up around him, it was devastating if you did–so I said, ‘No, Prince, I don’t wanna drink.’” But Prince insisted; and a few drinks later, he was playing the grand piano in Studio 2 of Sunset Sound, singing and keeping time with his feet on the pedals. McCreary remembered “being buzzed and thinking ‘Is this song really as good as I think it is?’” (Aswad 2019).