Free

Free

(Featured Image: A family picnics with giraffes in a 1982 ad for the Soviet VAZ 2101; photo stolen from Soviet Visuals.)

In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”

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.

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If It’ll Make U Happy

If It’ll Make U Happy

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson onstage at First Avenue, March 8, 1982; photo by Michael Reiter, available for purchase on Etsy.)

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 later recalled, Prince also gave him studio time to work on some of his own music (Dickerson 201). This was almost certainly 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.

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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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Drive Me Wild

Drive Me Wild

(Featured Image: Susan and friend in the music video for “Drive Me Wild,” 1983; © Warner Bros.)

Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.

At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).

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All the Critics Love U in New York

All the Critics Love U in New York

(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.”

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