The Walk

The Walk

(Featured Image: The Time get ready to walk a hole in their Stacy Adams on the back cover of What Time is It?, 1982; L to R: Jesse Johnson, Morris Day, Monte Moir, Jimmy Jam, Jellybean Johnson, Terry Lewis. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

While work on the Time’s second album didn’t formally begin until January 1982, at least one track had an earlier genesis: according to Prince Vault, the original 2″ tape of “The Walk” stored in the Paisley Park Vault (and, now, at Iron Mountain in Los Angeles) was labeled with a date of July 1, 1981. This suggests Prince recorded something by that title–either an early version or the actual basic track–in his own home studio, a few weeks before the release of the Time’s first album on July 29.

And that makes a lot of sense, because “The Walk” is the track from What Time is It? that most resembles the style of its predecessor. It’s long: nine and a half minutes, to be exact, roughly halfway between the lengths of “Get It Up” and “Cool.” And, like both “Get It Up” and “The Stick,” it moves at a sauntering pace, driven by an unhurried “walking” bassline and singer Morris Day’s casual, half-spoken vocals. The titular “Walk”–a dance-craze homage in the tradition of “Let’s Rock”–references both the song’s moderate tempo and Prince’s early instructions to Morris while the pair were developing his stage presence: “Walk, put your hand in your pocket, and be cool,” as the frontman later summarized (Crandell 2015).

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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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Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

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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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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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