Cool

Cool

(Featured Image: 1981 publicity photo for the Time. L to R: Jesse JohnsonTerry LewisMorris DayJimmy Jam, Jellybean JohnsonMonte Moir. © Warner Bros.)

While guitarist Dez Dickerson’s most fleshed-out contribution to The Time was the aforementioned “After Hi School,” it was his work as a lyricist that had the more lasting impact. Dickerson wrote lyrics for at least three songs recorded in April of 1981 and (most likely) intended for the new side project. Two of these, “Dancin’ Flu” and “I Can’t Figure It Out,” we only know as titles from The Vault; but the third, “Cool,” would become the Time’s second single and one of their trademark songs. “Prince called me up one day with the title and asked me to write some lyrics to go with it,” Dez recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I called him back about 20 minutes later with the song” (Nilsen 1999 86).

According to Dickerson, the genesis for “Cool” came during the Dirty Mind tour, on a night when the band was hanging out with Warner Bros. A&R exec Ted Cohen. “I had this voice that I adopted at times, and, that night I just kind of got ‘stuck’ in it, cracking jokes,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “I fell into this thing where I kept telling Ted, ‘Ted, man, you bad! Ain’t nobody bad like you, Ted!’ Well, you guessed it–the voice and the phrase ‘ain’t nobody bad…’, which would later become the signature of the Time’s banter, came from that night” (Dickerson 137).

While I am skeptical of attributing the whole “Morris Day” persona to Dez alone–both Prince and André Cymone, not to mention Morris himself, are also on record as having used the hoarse, jive-talking “pimp voice” most publicly identified with the Time–it is certainly true that “Cool,” and Dickerson’s “ain’t nobody bad but me” lyric, played an essential role in bringing that persona to life. Equal parts smooth and clownish, “Cool” laid the parameters for the hair-slicking, Stacy Adams-wearing, two-stepping caricature from which Morris remains publicly inseparable to this day.

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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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Get It Up

Get It Up

(Featured Image: 1981 publicity photo for the Time. L to R: Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson, Monte Moir, Jesse Johnson. © Warner Bros.)

As of this writing, there is no public record of the order in which the songs on the Time’s first album were recorded (fingers crossed that Duane Tudahl can scare up some details when he gets around to writing his book on the 1981-82 studio sessions). It’s generally agreed, however, that the song Prince used to get Warner Bros. interested in the project was the one that became its lead single and opening track: “Get It Up.”

As a proof of concept for the Time project, “Get It Up” makes a lot of sense. It is, first of all, familiar territory. According to Bobby Z, the song came out of Prince’s jams with his touring band, and it shows: more than any other song on The Time, “Get It Up” sounds like the missing link between Dirty Mind and Controversy (Nilsen 1999 86). The brittle New Wave funk arrangement and wheedling Oberheim synthesizer, played once again by guest soloist Matt Fink, bear Prince’s immediately identifiable fingerprints–that, and the fact that his backing vocals are clearly audible throughout the track.

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Girl (1981)

Girl (1981)

(Featured Image: Morris Day with unidentified vocal coach, circa 1981; photo stolen from prince.org.)

One of the most fascinating things about the 1981 debut album by the Time is the way that, if you listen to the tracks in a certain order, you can practically hear the band’s classic sound take shape in real time. As we established in the last post, however, “Oh, Baby” was not an example of that classic sound. Morris Day, the group’s drummer turned lead singer, was still tentative in the role, his voice too strained to sell a seductive ballad.

Girl,” the second and (blessedly) only other ballad on The Time, is not an improvement–if anything, it’s worse. Morris sounds whiny and adenoidal, like a teenage boy whose voice is in the middle of changing. Prince’s backing vocals–even more audible here than on the rest of the album–hit a piercing, dog-whistle tone in the chorus that cuts through the rest of the mix like a knife, and only gets more annoying the more you turn down the volume. Morris, meanwhile, just gets louder: as on “Oh, Baby,” he starts the song at a whimper and ends at a bellow. The whole thing feels like bad karaoke, an impression that is only enhanced by the bland, lifeless arrangement. It’s the weakest Prince song since “With You,” but without even that track’s competent performance.

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