Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

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.

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D.M.S.R.

D.M.S.R.

(Featured Image: DJ Steve Holbrook in the booth at the Taste Show Lounge in Minneapolis, circa 1983. Note the Time poster on the right. Photo by Charles Chamblis, stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society.)

Beginning with his third album in 1980, Prince had been steadily building up a mythology–occasionally bordering on a philosophy–for himself. Dirty Mind had “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.

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Review: Ultimate Rave

Review: Ultimate Rave

(Featured Image: Cover art for Ultimate Rave; photo by Steve Parke, © NPG Records/Sony Legacy.)

Hi again! As promised, I’m back with my review of the new Ultimate Rave collection, which went up today on Spectrum Culture:

Review: Ultimate Rave

I wish I could say that the critics had been wrong all along and this is a buried, misunderstood gem, but quite frankly, it isn’t; even 20 years later, this still one of (the Artist Formerly Known as) Prince’s most deeply mediocre records. But I find that the additional hindsight, as well as Sony Legacy’s excellent presentation, has made me a lot more affectionate than I may have been otherwise. I look forward to this deluxe treatment being given to more of the albums that deserve it!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in supporting this release but have found the price tag too steep, at time of posting it’s a little less than $16 on Amazon; that’s about $10 less than I paid for it, even lower compared to list price. And if you use my affiliate link, you can support me, too!

Okay, that’s enough shilling for one day. See you tomorrow!

Wild and Loose

Wild and Loose

(Featured Image: Notorious “baby groupies” Lori Mattix and Sable Starr; photo stolen from Miss Pandora.)

As noted earlier, Prince began work on the Time’s second album during a three-week break from the Controversy tour, where the group was serving as his opening act and occasional thorn in his side. It thus makes sense that what would become the album’s opening track, “Wild and Loose,” centered around one of the most prevalent scenarios in the life of a touring musician: the backstage (and back-of-bus) dalliances between the band and their young, female admirers.

Just as he had with the Time’s earlier song, “Cool,” Prince tapped his own band’s guitarist, Dez Dickerson, to help write the song: “Prince called me on the phone with a song title,” he told the alt-weekly Nashville Scene in 2014, “and about 15 minutes later, I called him back with lyrics based on the title” (Shawhan 2014). Dez, who had spent years touring in journeyman rock groups before linking up with Prince, had more familiarity with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle than anyone else in the camp. But his take on the song “kept the content rated G,” as he later recalled, so “Prince altered it somewhat from my original version” (Dickerson 205). The final lyrics, when viewed from a contemporary lens, seem calculated to shock and titillate: “Hangin’ by the backstage door, decked out like a queen / Your body’s sayin’ 21, but your face says 17.”

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Review: Prince – Before the Rain

Review: Prince – Before the Rain

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince: Before the Rain by Allen Beaulieu, from Amazon.)

I have, I’ll admit, been lax in covering the Prince photo books released since I launched this blog in mid-2016. This is no reflection on their quality: I’ve heard nothing but good things about Steve Parke’s Picturing Prince: An Intimate Portrait, and I was lucky enough to receive Afshin Shahidi’s (very good) Prince: A Private View for Christmas last year. But while I am no more immune to Prince’s visual appeal than the next heterosexual man, up until now I’ve put my focus on covering new music and books that are directly related to my research. I’m making an exception, however, for Allen Beaulieu’s Prince: Before the Rain.

If you’ve been reading this blog, it should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Allen Beaulieu’s work. Beaulieu’s iconic photographs for Dirty MindControversy, and (especially) 1999 were almost as important as the music in shaping my relationship with Prince as an artist, and they remain among the images I associate with him most. So, when Parke’s book came out in 2017, I’ll admit that my first thought was, “When is Beaulieu’s coming out?” And when Before the Rain was finally announced early this year, I preordered it on sight.

Given my predilection for Beaulieu’s photos, it should come as no surprise that I found his book to be entirely worth the wait. Before the Rain includes a wealth of shots from the photographer’s most stunning sessions with Prince: including the album cover photos mentioned above, as well as images originally printed on tour merchandise or in magazines. If there’s a picture of Prince that you love dating from between 1980 and 1983, the chances are very good that it’s in here. But there are also plenty of shots you probably haven’t seen, most of which are equally incredible–and many of which capture a more intimate side of the artist that the previously-released photos only hinted at.

Among the less familiar shots are dozens from the Dirty MindControversy, and 1999 tours, capturing Prince, the band, and opening acts the Time and Vanity 6 both onstage and off. Beaulieu was less confident and skilled as a candid photographer than he was in a more controlled environment, and the comparative quality of the tour photos bears out his self-assessment as a “studio cat.” But what these images lack in polish, they make up for with sheer magnetism; it’s a thrill to see Prince in these formative years, relaxed and often in a playful mood with people like his bandmates, Vanity, and the Time’s Morris Day.

Also worth the price of admission are the book’s surprisingly meaty written sections, which include historical passages by Minneapolis-based journalist Jim Walsh, as well as album reviews by Eloy Lasanta, a.k.a. YouTube personality Prince’s Friend. These sections aren’t completely without flaw: there are a few niggling factual errors–most notably a couple of shots from Prince’s October 5, 1981 date at Sam’s, which are mislabeled as coming from his March 9 date; and one perplexing case where a 1986 photo of the Revolution credits his early ’90s band, the New Power Generation. But the stories in Before the Rain transcend these relatively minor faults, shedding valuable light on the creation of many of Beaulieu’s most enduring images and sharing personal stories about a formative period in Prince’s career.

Again, it should come as no surprise that I loved Before the Rain: more than any other photo book to date, it sits directly in my wheelhouse. But I also can’t imagine it failing to impress anyone currently reading this blog. For fans of Prince, particularly his pre-Purple Rain work, this is as essential a purchase as any of the other books I’ve recommended to date. And if Beaulieu happens to have any material left for a sequel, I’ll be the first in line to buy a copy.

You can provide some modest support to dance / music / sex / romance by using my Amazon affiliate link to purchase Prince: Before the Rain (or anything else in the encroaching holiday season).