Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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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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Prince Track by Track New Year’s Roundup

Prince Track by Track New Year’s Roundup

(Featured Image: European 12″ cover for “A Love Bizarre,” 1985; photo by Rebecca Blake, © Warner Bros.)

As usual, I took the last couple weeks of December off for the holidays, which meant I didn’t post the links to my last two appearances on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast. So here they are now: one of my favorite tracks from Prince’s extended universe, as well as one of the most forgettable. I’ll let you guess which one is which:

Prince Track by Track: “Hynoparadise”
Prince Track by Track: “A Love Bizarre”

With this bit of business out of the way, I’m now officially on track to kick off the blog for 2019. We’ll start tomorrow with a belated post from one of our alternate timelines, then it’s back to the Time’s second album next week. Happy New Year!

Dance to the Beat

Dance to the Beat

(Featured Image: The Time at Sam’s, October 7, 1981. L to R: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Morris Day, Jesse Johnson, Monte Moir. Photo stolen from prince.org.)

During the weeks leading up to the release of their debut album in July 1981, Prince had honed the Time into a formidable live unit. “He brought stuff out of us that we didn’t think we could do,” keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled. Left to their own devices, the band would “rehearse for like four hours and think we were tired. We’d go through the set twice and sit around and talk for two hours.” But with Prince as taskmaster, “we’d work five or six hours straight, over and over, no breaks… He would give us keyboard parts that were impossible. We would be like, ‘We can’t play these.’ He would be like, ‘Yeah, you can, and while you’re playing them I want you to do this step of choreography and sing this note of harmony.’ Couple of days later we’d be doing it. A month later we’d be on tour and it would be automatic. He was a great motivator and the thing that made him a great motivator was that he works so hard himself. He’s always squeezing the most out of everything” (Nilsen 1999 87).

That summer, the Time made their live debut in a showcase for Warner Bros. executives at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard–the same venue where, three years earlier, Prince had held auditions for his own backing band. “It was just 10 or 12 of us,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in the label’s “Black Music” division, told biographer Per Nilsen. “We went down there after work one day to be shown this new Warner Bros. group that was produced by Jamie Starr. No one knew who Jamie Starr was. They turned off all the lights, and this diminutive little character with a veil walked in to stand behind the console and mix it. Somebody says, ‘That’s Jamie Starr!’ And I looked and said, ‘No, that’s Prince!’” (Nilsen 1999 87).

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