By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.
“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).
Upon his return from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen: replacing the original 16-track console with a new 24-track Ampex MM1200 machine. According to biographer Per Nilsen, this project took about two weeks, overseen by Prince’s go-to home studio tech and engineer, Don Batts. Astonishingly, within hours of the new studio’s setup, Prince had recorded the basic track for one of his most enduring songs, “Little Red Corvette.” “It was incredible to build the studio in that short time and then come up with that tune so quickly,” Batts recalled. But, as he also acknowledged, “That’s how fast it generally went” (Nilsen 1999 100).
Indeed, much about “Corvette” seemed to emerge with almost supernatural ease, as if Prince had merely plucked it from the ether fully-formed. According to legend–and like other 20th-century pop standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”–the song first came to him in a dream, while he was dozing off in the front seat of keyboardist Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction,” Coleman told The Guardian in 2008. “It was so bitching-looking that Prince used to borrow it and dent it, which I’d make him feel bad about. He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette’… even though it was a pink Mercury” (Elan 2008). Prince wrote in his unpublished liner notes for the 1993 compilation The Hits that he “always considered the song a dream because it was written between 3 or 4 catnaps and he was never fully awake” (Dash 2016).
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).
The completed Vanity 6album, like the previous year’s debut by the Time, was a slim thing: a mere eight tracks, just over 30 minutes of music. But its slimness was not, as Brenda Bennett observed, “for lack of material” (Nilsen 1999 106). Among the songs that were at one point considered for the album, but didn’t make the cut, were five tracks recorded for the Hookers project in mid-1981 (“Gym Class,” “I Need a Man,” “Jealous Girl,” “Mink Kitty Cat,” and “Pizza”); two from November 1981 (“Money Don’t Grow on Trees” and “Vagina,” the latter of which may have inspired Vanity’s short-lived original stage name); and at least two more from the same March and April 1982 sessions that spawned the bulk of the album (“Too Much” and “Extraloveable”). Prince “spews songs so fast,” Bennett recalled, but “he didn’t want to over-expose the public to too much stuff… It was under-exposure for over-exposed girls!” (106).
In the end, while the majority of the album was written by Prince himself, a couple of tracks came from elsewhere in the camp: “He’s So Dull,” written and produced by guitarist Dez Dickerson, and “Bite the Beat,” co-written by the Time’s Jesse Johnson. Credited on the album to Johnson and Bennett, “Bite the Beat” would be the guitarist’s first published song–though it wasn’t his first attempt at one. During the early days of the Time, Johnson told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics, “I would play tapes of my songs for him, and Prince would literally start laughing… He’d call Morris [Day] over and be like, ‘Listen to this, listen to this’ and they both laughed” (Gonzales 38).