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Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive: So, Let’s Talk About That Sign “O” the Times Reissue

Last Thursday, after weeks of rumors and leaks, it finally became official: the next expanded reissue from Warner and the Prince Estate is Sign “O” the Times, and it’s a doozy: 8 CDs (13 LPs, for the wax-inclined) and a DVD covering the full breadth of Prince’s output from late 1985 to early 1987. I won’t be “officially” writing about this music until 2021 at the earliest (more on that later), but damned if I can’t share some preliminary thoughts about it now. Supporters on Patreon can read them now, disc by disc (and, in the case of the Vault discs, track by track):

Patreon Exclusive: “So, Let’s Talk About That Sign ‘O’ the Times Reissue”

Meanwhile, while I have you here, let me share that I am reasonably confident that the blog relaunch I’ve been working on will be ready by next week. This means, among other things, a return to regular posts in July. Thank you all for your patience during my extended leave of absence; I’ll have more to say next week, but for now, I’m excited to be back!

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Don’t Let Him Fool Ya

Of the many “orphan” tracks Prince recorded in 1982–enough to fill at least two additional double LPs beyond the one that actually did come out, as the Super Deluxe edition of 1999 demonstrates–“Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” is not the most exciting; nor is it the rarest, the most ambitious, or the most thematically compelling. As the 500 Prince Songs blog noted back in 2017, it’s “barely even a song, more a tantric joy in bass-led repetition.” To say that it’s the kind of thing Prince could have written in his sleep does Prince, and sleep, a disservice; after all, we know by his own admission that “Little Red Corvette” came to him between “3 or 4 catnaps” (Dash 2016).

But for all that, it’s easy to see why “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” was chosen as a pre-release single to promote Warner Bros.’ aforementioned 1999 reissue, following a live version of the title track from Detroit’s Masonic Temple and the live-in-studio first take of “International Lover.” Simply put, “Don’t Let Him Fool Ya” is a banger, with an infectious bassline and a sparkling, rhythmic keyboard part not unlike the one from the Time’s “I Don’t Wanna Leave You.” And while it’s also clearly a throwaway–the chorus literally goes, “Hey, hey / Hey, hey / Hey, hey, hey, hey”–I defy anyone to get through it without at least a head bob and a smile.

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Vanity 6, 1982

Bite the Beat

The completed Vanity 6 album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from November 1981 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have inspired Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). Prince “spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).

In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, “I would play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).

Categories
Controversy, 1981

Let’s Work

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,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut funk track “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 didn’t bite, a minor setback that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

Categories
Ephemera, 1979-1981

The Loser

In addition to providing a creative outlet for his backing band, the Rebels project also offered Prince an opportunity to experiment with different styles outside the context of his official albums. For the most part, that meant hard rock and New Wave: as we discussed last week, “Hard to Get” was as straightforward a Rolling Stones rip as Prince ever recorded; songs like his “You” and Dez Dickerson’s “Disco Away,” meanwhile, bore the influence of Boston FM rock/New Wave act the Cars, whose sophomore album Candy-O was reportedly in heavy rotation at the group’s mid-1979 tour rehearsals (Thorne 2016). But in two of his compositions for keyboardist Gayle Chapman, Prince explored less familiar territory–with admittedly mixed results.

The more substantial of the pair was “If I Love You Tonight,” a soft rock ballad distinguished mainly by its oddly theatrical conceit: Chapman playing the role of a woman on the brink of suicide and desperate for connection, apparently inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Thorne 2016). The track would be revised thoroughly in the years to come–so much that I’m waiting until one of the later versions to discuss it in depth. The other song, “The Loser”–long mislabeled by bootleggers as “Turn Me On”–seems to have been recorded only once, making it unique among Prince’s Rebels songs; and the version that does exist is little more than a stylistic pastiche of his late-1970s labelmate, roots rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt.