Strange Way of Saying I Love You

Strange Way of Saying I Love You

(Featured Image: Prince, Lisa, and friends in a 1980 poster from the Dirty Mind tour; photo by Allen Beaulieu, stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

Over the last several months, we’ve covered most of the extant material Prince recorded during a much shorter period in 1981: two full albums–one for himself, one for the Time–and the beginnings of a third project for the Hookers. Most artists would consider this more than enough to rest on their laurels for at least a year; but Prince created music as much for recreation and communication as he did for a vocation. One of the most famous stories from his early career is about the origins of “Strange Way of Saying I Love You”: a song he recorded, for all intents and purposes, as an apology to keyboardist Lisa Coleman.

Lisa, as we’ve noted, was the first non-local to join Prince’s band: she’d relocated from Los Angeles to prepare for the Dirty Mind tour in mid-1980. When the second leg of the tour ended the following year, she was still without a fixed abode of her own, so she moved in with Prince in Chanhassen. The arrangement worked for a while: during the recording of The Time, Lisa came in handy as Prince’s live-in session musician and part-time engineer. But at some point that year, she told Vulture, “he started talking to me about getting my own place and having my own life in Minneapolis. Like, Now you’re here, Lisa, so what are you gonna do? He was giving me a talking to about moving out, but I didn’t quite understand that was what the conversation was about. It just felt tense” (Marchese 2017).

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Roundup: Controversy, 1981

Roundup: Controversy, 1981

(Featured Image: 1981 promotional poster for Controversy; © Warner Bros.)

It’s a little hard to believe that I posted my Dirty Mind roundup almost exactly one year ago today. The ensuing year has been hectic for mostly day-job-related reasons, but I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride again. As always, thanks for coming along with me on this journey.

I have a weird relationship with the Controversy album; catch me at a moment when I’m wearing my critic hat and I’ll probably tell you it’s Prince’s second-weakest record of the ’80s (sorry, Batman). But it’s also an essential stepping-stone to his more anointed classics of that decade: it’s hard to imagine 1999 or even Purple Rain without Controversy there to lay the groundwork. And while it clearly has lower lows than its more-loved predecessor, it also has higher highs: no single song on Dirty Mind was as epochal as Controversy’s title track.

Anyway, here’s how I rank the Controversy tracks (at least for today):

8. “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” As recently as a couple of months ago, I would have put “Annie Christian” in the bottom spot. But over the summer while listening to Controversy on vinyl, I had an epiphany: “Annie Christian” actually kinda slaps. So I guess that makes “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” the album’s low point by default, and the shoe frankly fits: it’s short, silly, and pretty right-wing to boot. I kinda like the demented pace and delivery, though.

7. “Annie Christian” Look, I only said it “kinda” slaps. Still feels like a rough draft for better songs–namely “Something in the Water” from 1999, as frequent commenter Arno sagely pointed out–but it’s peak New Wave Prince, which means I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

6. “Jack U OffLet me be clear that I have affection for this song because: a) I love all of Prince’s rockabilly moments, and b) it is so goddamn stupid. But as much as I don’t condone throwing garbage at performers, I can kind of understand why the crowd at the Rolling Stones shows reacted the way they did. On the other hand, I can totally imagine Mick Jagger singing this song and killing it. Can Mick Jagger please sing this song?

5. “Sexuality” I suspect this may be my most surprising placement on this list, as I know it’s well-loved; I love it too, for its futuristic synthpop pulse and its introduction of the signature “Prince scream” (“IOWA,” as he memorably spelled it on Twitter). I guess I just feel like the “tourists” sermon, delightfully weird as it is, takes a little bit of the wind out of its sails. Anyway, anything in the top five is splitting hairs–it’s a great track.

4. “Let’s WorkBased on the album version alone, this probably would swap places with “Sexuality”; I’m giving it the nod for the 1982 12″ mix, which is 110% My Shit. “Hard dick and bubblegum is all you get!”

3. “Private Joy” Okay, maybe this one is my most surprising placement, and I can’t promise that it isn’t partly reactionary; it’s just that I so often see this song being dismissed as candyfloss filler, and it’s so much more than that. Not only the introduction of Sunset Sound and the Linn LM-1, two cornerstones of Prince’s mid-’80s peak, but also just a weird, densely-arranged pop concoction that only Prince could have made. Listen to all of the voices he uses in the mix! A low-key art-pop masterpiece and a preview of even better, weirder things to come.

2. “Do Me, Baby” The opposite of “Let’s Work,” this one would probably be lower if it weren’t for the completely bonkers denouement of the album version, in which Prince self-pleasures and self-soothes alone in the studio at Sunset Sound. This is a song that really separates the men from the boys, as it were: if you can’t hang with Prince after hearing him whimper, “I’m so cold… hold me,” then you probably can’t hang with Prince. Keep in mind, this is only track three of the album… he’s already come (at least) once, and there’s still a whole vinyl side to go!

1. “Controversy” (Parts 1, 2, & 3I guess I kinda showed my hand by citing it at the beginning of the post, but then, I’m sure the fact that I wrote a combined total of over 6,500 words on “Controversy” was a clue to my affection. If you want to know who Prince was–at least in the first half of the ’80s–just listen to this song. Preferably loud.

As always, I’ve captured the tag cloud for posterity:

timeroundupcontroversy-cloud

Not much change from The Time roundup back in May, though I did notice that Gayle Chapman snuck back in! Meanwhile Owen Husney (whose book I still need to read) and Pepé Willie (who should probably write a book) are still hanging on for dear life. We haven’t heard the last of either of them, incidentally. Also, to no one’s surprise,  Controversy was my most loquacious series of posts yet: approximately 1,758 words per song (counting “Controversy” as three) vs. 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, 1,379 for For You, and a mere 833 for The Time.

Next week, I’ll be jumping back into Controversy-era ephemera with a quick post on a widely-bootlegged cut from 1981. Also, another review podcast with Harold and KaNisa! See you then.

Also, whoops, almost forgot the Spotify playlist!

Podcast: 40 Years of For You

Podcast: 40 Years of For You

(Featured Image: Cover art for For You, 1978; photo by Joe Giannetti, © Warner Bros.)

dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.

I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.

Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.

I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.

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André Cymone, Godfather of the Minneapolis Sound: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

André Cymone, Godfather of the Minneapolis Sound: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

(Featured Image: Cover art for André Cymone’s epochal 1982 album Livin’ in the New Wave; © Columbia Records.)

Note: Following last month’s post on “Do Me, Baby,” I knew I wanted to give André Cymone another, proper sendoff before he disappears from our pages until 1984. So, here’s the latest in my series of thought experiments, imagining an alternate reality in which André, not Prince, was the Grand Central member who went on to greater solo success. For anyone just dropping in, the idea here is to bring attention to the web of contingencies that shaped Prince’s career; to shake up our sense of inevitability and offer a glimpse at one of the many possible alternatives had things gone even slightly differently. It’s also, in this case, an opportunity to reevaluate Cymone’s legacy beyond his friend’s deceptively long shadow. As always, have fun and don’t take this too seriously. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week!

For a brief but significant period in the 1980s, the cutting edge of R&B and pop could be found in the unlikely locale of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Known as the “Minneapolis Sound,” this unique hybrid of funk, rock, and nascent electronic and New Wave styles emerged almost organically from the Twin Cities’ small but vibrant Black communities in the late 1970s. It thus wouldn’t be fair to give a single artist credit for “inventing” the genre; but the fact remains that when most music fans think of Minneapolis, one man in particular comes to mind. I’m talking, of course, about André Cymone.

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Roundup: Dirty Mind, 1980

Roundup: Dirty Mind, 1980

(Featured Image: Outtake from the Dirty Mind cover photo sessions, 1980; photo by Allen Beaulieu.)

It’s been a long six months since my last roundup post, but this time I’m not going to make any promises about picking up the pace: my inherent slothfulness aside, Dirty Mind also marks the beginning of my personal favorite era for Prince, and I want to do it justice. Hopefully, with this latest batch of posts, I’m off to a good start; as always, I’m looking forward to the rest!

Here’s my ranking of the songs from Dirty Mind:

8. “Do It All Night” First, let me be clear: I consider Dirty Mind to be Prince’s first set of wall-to-wall classics, so when I say “Do It All Night” is my least favorite track, it’s barely a criticism. It’s just that on an album that introduced a bolder, rawer Prince, this was one of the few tracks that sounded like it could have been held over from his previous record. It’s still a jam, though–and, as I noted in the post, it really came to life in concert.

7. “Sister” Again, no disrespect intended to what remains Prince’s most literal interpretation of the punk aesthetic. It’s just that “Sister” is less a great song than it is a great segue: doubling down on “Head”’s gleeful vulgarity, before getting political with “Partyup.” I never really listen to “Sister” on its own, but I can’t imagine the album without it.

6. “Gotta Broken Heart Again” I’ve already confessed my love for Prince’s early, simple R&B ballads, and this is one of the simplest and purest of the bunch. Sometimes I think I might even like it more than “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (don’t tell anyone I said that, though).

5. “UptownThis might be blasphemy, but for me this song is significant mostly for what it represents: the first of Prince’s grand utopian visions, an idealized multicultural Minneapolis invented out of sheer willpower, and an early example of the intersectional identity-fucking he’d perfect in the years to come. As a song, it doesn’t do much for me that “Controversy” wouldn’t improve upon later; but that doesn’t stop me from singing along when it comes on in the car.

4. “Dirty Mind” Like “Do It All Night,” this isn’t breaking as much new ground as you might expect, subject matter-wise; but in this case, the sound is pure throbbing future erotica, pointing the way to even deeper New Wave and electronic indulgences to come.

3. “When You Were Mine” Prince’s best pop song to date, and one of his catchiest ever; plus, it’s the one track on Dirty Mind I can (somewhat) comfortably listen to with my five-year-old, so that scores it a few bonus points.

2. “Head” Yeah, it’s “just” a funky song about blowjobs, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of this song to Prince’s oeuvre. So much of the rest of his 1980s, from the literal and musical miscegenation to the “Filthy Fifteen” explicit lyrics, can be traced directly back to “Head.” In its own way, this is Prince’s “Brown Sugar”: an unfiltered, borderline obscene id dump that nevertheless says something deeply significant about rock and roll.

1. “Partyup” My favorite track on Dirty Mind is also quite possibly the least “dirty”; in my opinion, though, this sudden album-closing pivot toward conventional politics gives the other songs an even more liberatory charge. On his next album, of course, Prince would deal even more explicitly with current events, but not with anywhere near this level of ease, concision, or panache.

Now let’s take a look at those tags:

tagcloud-1979dirtymind-tagcloud

Obviously things are skewed a bit by the podcast, but there are some interesting trends to be observed: old collaborators (Owen Husney, Pepé Willie) are beginning to recede, while new ones (Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman) are starting to emerge. In case anyone had any doubts, this was also the longest series of posts I’ve done so far: 1,653 words on average, vs. 1,383 for Prince and 1,379 for For You.

I’m hoping to jump into the brave new post-Dirty Mind world next week; first, though, I need to deliver that podcast episode that was supposed to come out today. New ETA is Monday. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist!