As of this Friday, the wait is finally over: Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe will at last be in our hot little hands (or at least our hot little streaming services; I ordered my physical copy from the official Prince store, so let’s just say I’m not getting my hopes up about getting it on release day). In the meantime, Warner Bros. has given us one last preview track to tide us over: Prince’s January 1987 recording of “I Need a Man.”
Way back in February of 2020, I asked Darling Nisi and Harold Pride to record a third episode in our series of in-depth retrospectives on Prince’s albums, this one for the 40th anniversary of 1980’s Dirty Mind. The podcast was intended to predate De Angela Duff’s DM40GB30 symposium, which in those simpler times was still scheduled to be held in-person at New York University.
Well, you know what happened next: DM40GB30 was delayed, then went virtual, while I slipped into a pandemic-related depression fog that only lifted, appropriately enough, after I participated in the virtual symposium back in June. Meanwhile, the podcast continued to lavish in the D / M / S / R Vault (a.k.a. the “Documents” folder on my computer) until the end of last month, when I was promptly reminded of just how laborious a task editing a three-hour podcast recording can be.
Now, the wait is finally over: the D / M / S / R podcast is back, in all its wildly self-indulgent glory. I want to thank everyone for their patience, and assure you that there won’t be a two-year wait before the next episode; in fact, I’d recommend you go ahead and use one of the links above to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using one of the links above, because I’m aiming to put out one of these bad boys (i.e., podcasts, not necessarily review episodes) per month. As always, let me know what you think, and feel free to leave a review on your podcast provider if you’re so inclined.
As has become tradition for Warner’s posthumous Prince collections, last month’s Sign “O” the Times Super Deluxe announcement was accompanied by the release of a “new” song from the Vault. “Witness 4 the Prosecution (Version 1)” was recorded on March 14, 1986–one of the first recordings at Prince’s new home studio at Galpin Blvd. in Chanhassen, where he had moved in November of 1985. The stripped-down blues-rock number featured Prince on all instruments, including live drums and some decidedly Hendrixian guitar.
Lyrically, “Witness” finds Prince in a metaphorical courtroom, testifying against a “heinous love affair” in which he claims to be “guilty of nothin’ but always wantin’ you to be there.” “Whatever it is you think that I did,” he argues passionately, “You’re wrong, I wouldn’t even dare.” Susan Rogers, Prince’s home studio engineer from 1983–1987, told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine that the song was written “as a direct result” of his tumultuous relationship with Susannah Melvoin, his live-in partner at the time and the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy (Nilsen 1999 214). “He had gone further with her than anybody else,” Rogers recalled. “She was wearing his ring, he loved her and didn’t want to lose her, but he didn’t think that he could carry out his commitment. They were fighting a lot, and it was sort of over nothing” (195).
After a string of songs exploring, to various degrees, the darker side of his emotional spectrum, Prince capped off his late April and early May 1982 sessions at Sunset Sound with something light and frothy. Sonically, “Delirious” is cut from the same cloth as most of its predecessors on the album that would become 1999: from the driving Linn LM-1 beat to the sparse, but infectious synth line. Yet where songs like “Automatic” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” assemble these building blocks into complex, ever-shifting structures, “Delirious” offers more straightforward pleasures: it’s a simple eight-bar blues, as pure and elemental as Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” or Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
With its solidly retro foundation, “Delirious” is arguably the pinnacle of Prince’s brief, but intense infatuation with 1950s rock ‘n’ roll: an “obsession,” according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, that began when the band caught a show by rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats while in London on the Dirty Mind tour. “We were all blown away with them,” Dickerson told Nashville Scene magazine in 2014, “the look, [singer] Brian Setzer’s amazing sound, just the sheer authenticity of it.” The experience inspired a handful of songs–most famously “Jack U Off” from 1981’s Controversy, but also tracks like the unreleased “You’re All I Want.” Perhaps even more notably, according to Dickerson, it also inspired both him and Prince to style their choppy punk hairdos into Little Richard-style pompadours (Shawhan 2014).
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.