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.
While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.
This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.
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.
It’s been about nine months since the last time we completed an album around here–which, if nothing else, means that we’re just about keeping pace with Prince himself, who released Vanity 6 just under 10 months after his own Controversy. Let’s see if we can finish 1999 by October!
In the meantime, here’s how I rank the songs on Vanity 6:
7. “3 x 2 = 6” For the record, I don’t think this is a bad song; but I understand why a lot of Prince fans do. As I noted in my post last week, the arrangement is a bit of a slog, and Vanity’s karaoke-caliber vocals are, shall we say, an acquired taste. Still, the pathos of it all still draws me in.
6. “Wet Dream” Another one that I actually like more than the consensus opinion, I think this one could have been a hit if Prince had given it to a stronger singer and kept the lyrics a little more PG-13. Also, any song that gives me a chance to reference Hokusai’s “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” is okay by me. Also also, bonus points for “Wet Dream (Cousin),” a clip from the soundtrack for the most wholesome imaginary porno never filmed.
5. “Bite the Beat” Maybe I should rank this below “Wet Dream,” but my enduring love for New Wave Prince means that I’m a sucker for that ersatz Farfisa. Besides, the song’s sexual forthrightness feels like the clearest evidence, save one obvious track, for the argument in my head about Vanity 6 serving as predecessors for today’s crop of hyper-explicit female rappers (cf. Cupcakke).
4. “Drive Me Wild” I think I’m once again in the minority on this one, as I happen to prefer the other Susan Moonsie-fronted electro track on the album; I also know I’m in the minority for preferring the minimalist album track to the more conventionally funky–and much, much longer–12″ version. I guess I just feel like I have a lot of options when it comes to Prince’s extended robo-James Brown workouts; but if I want to hear him inventing electroclash, it’s basically this and…
3. “Make-Up” Yup, that’s right, I’m the weirdo who was excited–almost to the exclusion of everything else on the album–to see this on the tracklist of last month’s Originals. And just for the record, it lived up to expectations. Fingers crossed that a Prince-sung version of “Drive Me Wild” comes out–either on an Originals-style compilation or, preferably, as part of an expanded Vanity 6 reissue–so I can reevaluate.
2. “If a Girl Answers (Don’t Hang Up)” Whether or not you, like me, hear this song as a drag performance, I think most of us can agree that it’s a highlight of the album and one of the funniest songs in the extended Prince canon. Plus, that Terry Lewis bassline makes it a rare Vanity 6 song that actually sounds like it was performed by the Time.
1. “Nasty Girl” Look, they can’t all be unorthodox choices. A classic is a classic, and if any song on Vanity 6 qualifies for that title, this is the one. I’d put “Nasty Girl” up against any Prince song from 1982–a claim I don’t make lightly, as the 1999 era is in strong contention for my all-time favorite.
With that, I hope that I’ve made my case for Vanity 6 as a worthy part of Prince’s early discography. It’s a scrappy, often sordid, borderline amateurish effort: a quick and (literally) dirty side project recorded mostly at home, with mostly nonprofessional singers, in a little over a month. But its scrappiness is key to its charm, and helps to make what could be a truly slick and exploitative enterprise feel, at minimum, genuine. I guess what I’m saying is, it may be smut, but at least it’s DIY artisinal smut.
Now, as we shift our focus to the other two albums Prince recorded in 1982, here’s a snapshot of the tag cloud:
The most significant addition is probably the Linn LM-1, which makes sense as we’re now firmly in Prince’s golden age for that particular instrument. Another interesting change to note: Sound 80 has officially fallen off the board, in favor of other recording locations–chiefly Sunset Sound, which we’ll be hearing about a lot more moving forward.
For my own reference as much as anything, I wrote about 1,269 words per post on Vanity 6; not too shabby for a side project, that’s only a little less than the 1,379 per post I wrote for For You and significantly more than the 833 per post I wrote for The Time.
It’s a short week for me with Fourth of July weekend looming, but thanks to supporters of the Patreon, I’m still committed to a post this week, and every other week moving forward! I will aim to publish my piece on “If It’ll Make U Happy” Wednesday. Meanwhile, my thanks to our newest patron, Anne Clark. If you’d like to join Anne and the 11 other supporters who have already jumped on board, please consider checking out the Patreon here. We’ve already reached our first goal–hence the guaranteed weekly posts–which means it’s time to start thinking about the second one. At the moment, I’ve said that if the Patreon reaches $100 a month I will go back to monthly podcast episodes, but I also know that that may not be what you all actually want. I plan on checking in with the patrons this week to determine whether or not that should be our next goal, so if you want to be part of that conversation, get your pledges in soon!
Meanwhile, though there haven’t been many changes due to Vanity 6 remaining out of print, here’s the Spotify playlist:
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.