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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Wild and Loose

Wild and Loose

(Featured Image: Notorious “baby groupies” Lori Mattix and Sable Starr; photo stolen from Miss Pandora.)

As noted earlier, Prince began work on the Time’s second album during a three-week break from the Controversy tour, where the group was serving as his opening act and occasional thorn in his side. It thus makes sense that what would become the album’s opening track, “Wild and Loose,” centered around one of the most prevalent scenarios in the life of a touring musician: the backstage (and back-of-bus) dalliances between the band and their young, female admirers.

Just as he had with the Time’s earlier song, “Cool,” Prince tapped his own band’s guitarist, Dez Dickerson, to help write the song: “Prince called me on the phone with a song title,” he told the alt-weekly Nashville Scene in 2014, “and about 15 minutes later, I called him back with lyrics based on the title” (Shawhan 2014). Dez, who had spent years touring in journeyman rock groups before linking up with Prince, had more familiarity with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle than anyone else in the camp. But his take on the song “kept the content rated G,” as he later recalled, so “Prince altered it somewhat from my original version” (Dickerson 205). The final lyrics, when viewed from a contemporary lens, seem calculated to shock and titillate: “Hangin’ by the backstage door, decked out like a queen / Your body’s sayin’ 21, but your face says 17.”

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Jack U Off

Jack U Off

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)

In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.

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Let’s Work

Let’s Work

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Work” 12″, 1982; L to R: Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman. © Warner Bros.)

Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up,” “Wet Dream,” “Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”), as well as other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,”  “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”

According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” The song, inspired by a dance Prince had seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,” had been kicking around as early as 1979; its title appears in one of Prince’s notebooks in what appears to be an early, handwritten tracklist for the Prince album, alongside “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Bambi,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” “With You,” “Still Waiting,” “It’s Gonna Be Lonely,” “Sexy Dancer,” and “Darling Marie.” When it didn’t make it onto the album, Prince allegedly tried to release it as a non-LP single; but Warner Bros. didn’t bite, a minor setback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

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The Stick

The Stick

(Featured Image: From Kustom Kar Kommandos, Kenneth Anger, 1965. © Fantoma Films.)

Despite the band name on the label and the six musicians credited on the sleeve, the Time’s first album is often remembered as a thinly veiled solo effort by Prince. This, however, isn’t strictly true: not only was frontman Morris Day largely responsible for the album’s drum tracks, but Prince also drew heavily on his inner circle for songwriting assistance.

Guitarist Dez Dickerson wrote the lyrics for “Cool”–more on that later–and, less successfully, was solely responsible for “After Hi School.” “The idea was for the record to have a youthful vibe,” Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir, so he recorded a four-track demo for a song “where the main character is a kid about to graduate, facing the usual questions from adults, and decisions to be made. Prince liked it, but changed it from its original AC/DC-ish rhythm to a more up-tempo Brit/New Wave feel” (Dickerson 112). The song’s faux-Farfisa accompaniment does recall Prince’s New Wave-flavored “When You Were Mine”; but the cloying lyrics and Morris’ still-untutored vocals do it no favors.

For the album’s most fruitful collaboration, however, Prince didn’t have to look far: in April of 1981, keyboardist and recent Los Angeles transplant Lisa Coleman was still living in his home at 9401 Kiowa Trail. “My room was upstairs,” she later told biographer Matt Thorne, “so he would call me down. ‘Lisa, would you help me do this string part? What about these lyrics? Can you finish this verse?’ He involved me. I punched him in while he was playing the drums, whatever it was” (Thorne 2016). Lisa’s backing vocals are prominent throughout The Time: she, along with Sue Ann Carwell, is one of the “Various Girlfriends” credited in the liner notes. And it was Lisa who provided the lyrical spark–and maybe more–for the album’s comically raunchy closing track, “The Stick.”

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