Horny Toad

Horny Toad

(Featured Image: Engraving of “The Frog King,” a.k.a. “The Frog Prince,” from a presumably 19th- or early-20th-century edition of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales; artist unknown.)

August 17, 1983: “Delirious” is released as the third U.S. single (and fourth worldwide) from 1999, an album nearly 10 months in the rearview mirror. Two weeks ago to the day, Prince and his newly-christened band the Revolution had played an epochal show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, where they debuted five songs (three of them master recordings) from his upcoming sixth album, Purple Rain. In less than a year’s time, the album would come out and achieve a level of commercial success which would make Prince’s previous breakout hit, the Number 6 single “Little Red Corvette,” look like a mere prologue. But for now, he’s in victory lap mode: riding the coattails of “Corvette”’s success with a second Top 10 hit, backed by a soundalike B-side recorded in his Kiowa Trail home studio the previous summer.

That B-side, “Horny Toad,” does not rank among Prince’s most renowned work. It’s rarely even singled out as one of the best tracks on The Hits/The B-Sides–the collection where, I’m willing to wager, most contemporary listeners first heard it. The closest thing to an official accolade I can find is its bottom-100 placement on the 500 Prince Songs blog (which seems about right)–unless, that is, you count a 2016 shout-out from Wired magazine’s Brian Raftery, who calls it “rollickingly stupid” (also correct).

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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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