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.
Beginning with his third album in 1980, Prince had been steadily building up a mythology–occasionally bordering on a philosophy–for himself. Dirty Mindhad “Uptown,” a clarion call for hedonism that eradicated all racial and sexual boundaries. 1981’s Controversy, of course, had its epic title track, a declaration of selfhood through the negation of fixed identities; as well as “Sexuality,” a return to the themes of “Uptown” with a new quasi-religious fervor. For his fifth album in 1982, he offered something even more blunt and to the point: a musical manifesto based around the four words, “Dance, Music, Sex, Romance.”
Though it was never released as a single–and, in fact, was left off the original CD release of 1999 due to space constraints–“D.M.S.R.” holds a privileged position in Prince’s discography. Dance Music Sex Romance was of course the title of the 1999 biography and session chronicle by Per Nilsen, long considered definitive by fans of the artist’s early career. It’s also, obviously, the title of this very blog, because I figured if Per’s not going to use it anymore, somebody’s gonna have to. Its attraction to writers on Prince is self-evident: as Dave Lifton wrote on the song for Diffuser’s 365 Prince Songs in a Year series, “Dance. Music. Sex. Romance. Add God into the mixture and you’ve more or less got the formula for every song Prince released in his life” (Lifton 2017). Way back when I first started d / m / s / r in 2016, I posited that it would make a great title for a career-spanning collection like Johnny Cash’s Love, God, Murder, with a disc devoted to each theme.
Having completed the majority of the Vanity 6 album over a few weeks at his home studio in Chanhassen, Prince was back at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles by the end of March 1982. The first song recorded during this block of sessions was intended for his own fifth album–though its salacious lyrics and heavy electronic sound kept it stylistically aligned with his latest side project.
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” opens with one of the treated Linn LM-1 beats that had already taken their place among Prince’s sonic trademarks, just seven months after his introduction to the machine. A driving kick and snare rhythm lays the foundation, with rimshots punctuating every other measure. On the tenth measure, a hiccuping conga hit creeps in, and the rimshots, now swathed in reverb, grow more insistent. Finally, a pair of churning bass synths enter the mix: one four on the floor, one double-time. Once again, Prince’s interest in the emergent electronic music that would soon be dubbed techno is evident in the song’s indefatigable pulse; music critic and biographer Dave Hill would describe it as “a long, agitated throb from start to finish” (Hill 130). But where the previous year’s “Sexuality,” for example, was all pulverizing rhythms, “Let’s Pretend” sprinkles on a heaping spoonful of pop sugar, with a tinkling keyboard line that precisely mirrors Prince’s vocal melody.
Well, folks, it’s another week, so I guess that means another 15 minutes of me and Darren Husted talking about Prince. The subject this time around is another of my favorite B-sides, 1983’s “Irresistible Bitch”:
(Featured Image: Prince by Neal Preston, circa 1984.)
Last week, Duane Tudahl’s long-awaited book Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984was finally published, and I was lucky enough to speak to him about it. If you haven’t read the book yet, you need to listen to this podcast: Duane is a knowledgeable and passionate Prince fan-turned-scholar, and his enthusiasm for the project is infectious. And if you have read the book, you should still listen, because he has a lot to share not only about his research and writing process, but also about his experiences with the celebrated Uptown fanzine and his ideas for preserving Prince’s legacy moving forward. NPG/Comerica/Warner Bros., if you’re out there, give this man some consulting work; we can all benefit from someone with his dedication and expertise steering the ship.
Now, for those of you who haven’t read the book yet, allow me to sweeten the pot: I’ve already bought my copy, but I am planning to secure another one (hopefully signed by the author!) and gift it to a lucky listener who reviews d / m / s / r on their podcast app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play). If you’ve never done this before, it’s easy: just subscribe, give the podcast a rating, and leave a short review, then leave a comment on the blog so I know you did it. In about a month, I’ll send my extra copy of Duane’s book to whoever wrote my favorite review. Note that this doesn’t mean your review has to be positive–if you hate my podcast and want to drag me, knock yourself out! As long as you leave a review and tell me where to look for it (and are willing to send me your mailing address, of course), you’re eligible to receive the book.
For now, I hope you enjoy this interview, and I hope you’ll check out Duane’s book–it really is phenomenal. Thanks for listening, and see you again soon!