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The sessions for the Time’s third album began during an especially fraught period in their relationship with Prince. On March 21, 1983, just over a week before recording commenced at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, Prince left the band off the bill at New York’s Radio City Music Hall–an apparently calculated move to keep the spotlight on himself, and off his protégés. A week later, he’d repeat the snub at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre. Meanwhile, keyboardist Jimmy Jam and bassist Terry Lewis were on thin ice after missing their flight for a March 24 show in San Antonio. Once Prince discovered the reason for their absence–an unsanctioned Atlanta studio date producing the S.O.S. Band–it would spell the end of their tenure in the group.
Yet, even amidst all this interpersonal strife, there was still room for a little levity. And so it was that, on March 27–just one day before the Universal Amphitheatre show–Prince and the group’s frontman/studio drummer Morris Day cut “Cloreen Bacon Skin”: an improvised, 15-minute funk groove-cum-comedy sketch with a surprisingly long afterlife in the former’s body of work.
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 Prince’s 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, simply 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.
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. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.
“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘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).