Automatic

Automatic

(Featured Image: Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman act out Prince’s sapphic S&M fantasies in the too-hot-for-TV “Automatic” video; © Warner Bros.)

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.

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Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

(Featured Image: Back cover of Controversy, 1981; © Warner Bros.)

Over in these parts, I’m still focusing on my written explorations of Prince’s recorded catalogue; but I’ve kept my hand in the podcast game thanks to Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast. This time, we’re talking about what I think may still be my least favorite song on the Controversy album–though I will say it’s an interesting discussion nevertheless:

Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

If you’re someone who misses the days when d / m / s / r had its own semi- regular podcast, remember that that’s my current stretch goal for the Patreon and we’re about halfway there–so, if you’d like to see me start recording monthly podcasts again and you haven’t become a supporter, please do consider tossing a buck a month my way. This will not only allow me to justify the hours spent recording and (especially) editing these podcasts, but it will also help me to pay for the software that allows me to edit in all that legally-dubious music:

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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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How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?

How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?

(Featured Image: Grand piano at Sunset Sound; bottle of Asti Spumante not pictured. Photo stolen from Wax Poetics.)

From their first session together in 1981, Peggy McCreary had been Prince’s go-to L.A. recording engineer. McCreary, a.k.a. “Peggy Mac,” was a former waitress at Hollywood hotspot the Roxy Theatre who had worked her way up through the ranks to become the first female staff engineer at Sunset Sound, with credits on records by Little Feat, Kris Kristofferson, Van Halen, and Elton John. When she got the Prince gig, it was “just a fluke,” she recently told Variety. “I was available the weekend that Hollywood Sound called and said, ‘Our board went down, do you have an engineer and room?’” (Aswad 2019). But the artist’s salacious reputation had preceded him: “the receptionist said, ‘Peggy can’t work alone in the studio on the weekend with him. He writes really dirty songs about giving head and stuff,’” McCreary recalled to Pitchfork. “I thought, ‘Oh God. Who’s gonna be walking into the studio?” (Sodomsky 2019).

As it turned out, the person who arrived at Sunset Sound that weekend was “extremely polite, quiet… [and] short”–a far cry from the oversexed libertine of Dirty Mind infamy (Kiene 2019). In fact, Prince was so demure in person that McCreary found him difficult to understand: “He would mumble what he needed from behind a flap of hair,” she recalled. She finally had to confront him directly: “I said, ‘You know what? If you want me to work with you, you’re going to have to talk to me, to my face, so I can hear you!’” (Sodomsky 2019). Sensing that she’d offended him, McCreary assumed that they’d never work together again; but when he returned to the studio the following January, he requested her for the session.

Soon, the no-nonsense engineer and the reticent wunderkind had developed a close, if occasionally dysfunctional, working relationship. Peggy and Prince “were always about to kill each other,” the Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson told sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “but she got such a great sound on everything.” McCreary continued to bristle at Prince’s aloof manner and workaholic tendencies: “He didn’t appreciate mistakes,” she later recalled. “Nobody does, but mistakes happen. It’s just human error”–something Prince had little patience for (Tudahl 2018 48). But he was also capable of showing his appreciation, albeit in mostly idiosyncratic ways. He christened “Colleen,” an unreleased instrumental possibly intended for the Time, after McCreary’s middle name (Aswad 2019). The next day–McCreary’s birthday–he called her into the studio to record another track. “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” she told Pitchfork. But at the end of the session, “he stood there at the door with a little smile on his face and threw the cassette at me and said, ‘Happy birthday’” (Sodomsky 2019). The track, a “rockabilly song” called “You’re All I Want,” remains in her possession to this day.

Perhaps McCreary’s warmest memory of Prince took place on the evening of April 26, 1982, when he asked her out of the blue what she liked to drink. “I said ‘Remy Martin, why?’” McCreary recalled to Variety. “And he said ‘Order a bottle of Remy Martin [and] a bottle of Asti Spumant[e].’ [I] never let my guard down in the studio–you did not f[uck] up around him, it was devastating if you did–so I said, ‘No, Prince, I don’t wanna drink.’” But Prince insisted; and a few drinks later, he was playing the grand piano in Studio 2 of Sunset Sound, singing and keeping time with his feet on the pedals. McCreary remembered “being buzzed and thinking ‘Is this song really as good as I think it is?’” (Aswad 2019).

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Free

Free

(Featured Image: A family picnics with giraffes in a 1982 ad for the Soviet VAZ 2101; photo stolen from Soviet Visuals.)

In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”

From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”

Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.

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