Prince’s first side project, the Time, began with a fundamental musical concept: They were a vehicle for the hardcore funk and R&B from which he had mostly steered away in his own career, with an added touch of New Wave rock and roll in the vein of contemporary acts like the BusBoys. Everything else about the group, from their boutique vintage wardrobe to frontman Morris Day’s tongue-in-cheek pimp persona, was an elegant outgrowth of this conceit. By contrast, Prince’s second side project, the Hookers, began with an image, and not an especially sophisticated one–the name pretty much summed it up. So it’s no surprise that the music he composed for the group in mid-to-late 1981 had a distinct whiff of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what stuck: There was minimalist electro-punk (“Drive Me Wild,” “Make-Up”), New Wave-ized girl group pop (“Wet Dream,” “Jealous Girl”), and, with “Money Don’t Grow on Trees,” even a dash of vintage R&B.
If you visited princesongs.org over the weekend, you may have already noticed that D / M / S / R’s long-delayed migration from WordPress.com to a self-hosted blog is finally complete! Well, mostly complete, anyway: I’m still working on getting the podcast feed back up and running, and I still need to figure out how to transfer a couple of stray comments over from the old site. I’m also having issues setting up the Patreon WordPress plugin–ironically one of the reasons I originally decided to self-host–so for now we’re going to have to handle Patreon-exclusive posts the same, slightly inelegant way we did on the old site.
But still, D / M / S / R looks and feels different now, and I hope you like it. I personally think it’s a lot slicker-looking and more readable; the WordPress theme I used (their default 2020 theme, believe it or not) puts a lot of emphasis on the content, and I followed their lead by cutting back on the sidebars and other bells and whistles. Also, you may notice that “Dance / Music / Sex / Romance” is now properly capitalized; this, like my original decision to use lower-case letters, is 100% based on what I think looks better with the default font.
But enough about that. We’re here to check in on my progress on this crazy project, which I started just about four years and one month ago. Last year, you might recall, I was wringing my hands over producing only 26 posts from June 2018 to May 2019. I had hoped to improve my output for 2019-20, but, well, you know what happened; a confluence of internal and external factors, most notably but not exclusively including a global pandemic, resulted in my taking an unprecedented three months off of all nonprofessional writing. In case you’re wondering, my total number of posts for this past year was 21, counting the Patreon-exclusive “bonus track” post for “You’re My Love.”
This is normally where I would start wringing my hands and making apologies and promises and self-deprecating jokes about being done with the project in 2036 (a number, by the way, that I am increasingly considering to be a genuine ballpark estimate). Here’s the thing, though: if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that shit is unpredictable and mostly outside my control. We’re all lucky to have made it past the halfway point of 2020 at all; worrying about “productivity” in times like these is just going to make my hair go gray more prematurely than it already is.
So this year, I’m not making any apologies or promises. Instead, I genuinely want to celebrate what I achieved in the past year, which was as challenging a year for me as any in recent memory. First and foremost, I got through three albums:
Besides that, the Patreon I launched last year–despite being suspended for almost as many months as it was in operation–has held more or less steady at a very respectable 20 monthly supporters. In fact, I want to welcome two new patrons, Alexander Ostroff and Anthony John Battaglia, who came on board just in the last week. The Patreon, you might recall, was meant to help my productivity, and on sum I think it has; this year has just been such a bastard that it’s hard to point to any objective evidence to support my gut feeling. As always, I’m appreciative of any support (including non-monetary), and not in the least offended if my work is not a priority for you to pay for at any given time. Do what you’ve gotta do! But I am going to be earning those Patreon dollars this month, and in the months to come, with a mix of early and exclusive posts that I think you’ll like.
Last but not least, the blog relaunch finally gave me the opportunity to make those revisions to old posts I’ve been promising for, oh, about two years now. I made a bunch of tiny formatting tweaks to almost every post, but if you’re interested in seeing some more substantial revisions, they’re linked below:
“Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?”
“I Feel for You”
“Gigolos Get Lonely Too”
“Turn It Up”
“If It’ll Make U Happy”
“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”
Now, for what to expect in Year Five: I recently put together a rough plan for what might be called the “long Purple Rain era,” which includes Purple Rain proper along with Around the World in a Day, the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life, and the self-titled albums by Apollonia 6 and the Family. It comes to a total of 75 posts–roughly three years of writing, at my recent pace. My ambitious goal is to get it done a lot sooner: I’d love to wrap up Around the World in a Day by December 2021, so I can be writing about Parade by 2022. I think it’s technically possible if I can stay close to a post a week in the next 17 months; but, again, I’m not going to make any promises. A lot can happen (or not) in a year.
What I can say is that I’m feeling more invigorated about this project than I have, probably, since the year I launched it; and whether I make my ambitious goal or not, I want to make the fifth year of D / M / S / R its best yet, in terms of quantity but also (and more importantly) quality. Thank you to everyone who has supported this blog in any way since 2016; I hope you keep reading and enjoying it in the years to come, however many there end up being. I’ll leave you with this video I put together for last month’s DM40GB30 symposium, which I think does a good job of encapsulating my current philosophy about the blog:
(P.S. One last bit of housekeeping: the move to self-hosting unfortunately means that, if you subscribed to email alerts for my old WordPress.com blog, you’ll need to resubscribe for this one. Scroll down to the footer and you should see a box that reads “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” I promise this is the last time I’ll be relaunching like this in the foreseeable future, so this should be a one-time inconvenience!)
The Time’s 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 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.
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 I’m a sucker for that ersatz Farfisa. Besides, the song’s sexual forthrightness feels like the clearest evidence (with one obvious exception) for my argument 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.
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:
Just as he’d done for his own Controversy, Prince put the finishing touches on the Vanity 6 album 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 arithmetically 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).