(Featured Image: The Time’s Morris Day and his sparring partner, the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr, circa 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu.)
The Time’s second album, What Time is It?, was released on August 25, 1982–just two weeks after the self-titled debut by Vanity 6. It easily outperformed both Vanity 6 and the Time’s own debut, and effectively tied with Prince’s previous album Controversy: peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard 200 and Number 2 on the Black Albums (recently renamed from “Soul”) chart.
Despite their success–or, more likely, because of it–Prince was determined to keep the spinoff group in their place. Studio tech Don Batts recalled him showing up to one of the band’s rehearsals with a rough mix of the finished record: “He threw the cassette at [guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey man, you play really good on your album,’” Batts told biographer Per Nilsen. “That kind of comment, it was like saying, ‘Hey puppets!’” (Nilsen 1999 108).
More than anything, though, Prince kept his grip on the Time’s strings by saving their best material for himself. It’s hard to hear What Time is It?’s underwhelming closing track, “I Don’t Wanna Leave You,” without imagining a stronger alternative in its place: something that would end the album with a bang, rather than a whimper. Something, that is, like “International Lover,” which Prince had originally conceived for his side project back in January before poaching it for the finale of his own forthcoming album.
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(Featured Image: Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman act out Prince’s sapphic S&M fantasies in the too-hot-for-TV “Automatic” video; © Warner Bros.)
By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).
The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.
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(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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(Featured Image: Vanity 6–L to R: Brenda, Vanity, Susan–circa 1983; photo stolen from Law and Order Party.)
Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on Vanity 6 at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The last song he recorded for the album, on April 5, 1982, was also the last song on the track list: a gauzy synthpop ballad titled “3 x 2 = 6.”
More than any other song on the album, “3 x 2 = 6” reflects the personal relationship between Prince and Vanity (née Denise Matthews), which had blossomed in the months since their first meeting. “Prince became like a father to me,” Matthews later recalled. “He loves playing dad. The first thing he did when we met was to nurse me, take care of me. I was very dependent on him, [‘]cause I needed a father because of the terrible insecurity I had experienced as a child” (Nilsen 1999 105).
Continue reading “3 x 2 = 6”