Annie Christian

Annie Christian

(Featured Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” William Blake, 1805.)

As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.

“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.

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Prince Track by Track: “Crystal Ball”

Prince Track by Track: “Crystal Ball”

(Featured Image: From Sign “O” The Times, Prince, 1987; © Showtime Films.)

My recent run of guest appearances on Prince: Track by Track has taken me out of my comfort zone, into some albums that I frankly don’t care much for. But now we’ve finally reached Crystal Ball, allowing me to return–however briefly–to the warm embrace of 1986. But first, Darren Husted and I had to address the elephant in the room that is Crystal Ball’s disastrous 1998 release. As I note, there may be a lesson to be learned in this for those who want Prince’s estate to be run “the way he would have done it.” Listen to both episodes below:

Prince Track by Track: Crystal Ball Album Introduction
Prince Track by Track: “Crystal Ball”

I’ll be back on Track by Track to discuss another epic from Crystal Ball later this month; before then, you can expect another track or two from Controversy. It’s taken some time, but I’m finally getting back to the grind!

Let’s Work

Let’s Work

(Featured Image: Cover art for the “Let’s Work” 12″, 1982; L to R: Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Dez Dickerson, Lisa Coleman. © Warner Bros.)

Mid-1981 was the first great period of prolificacy for Prince. In astonishingly little time, he completed work on his own fourth album, a full-length debut for protégés the Time, and several other assorted odds and ends, including a handful of songs for the Hookers and other tracks with tantalizing titles like “Delivery Boy,” “Friction,” “Gym Class,” “Heart Attack,” “Hump You,” “Poppa Grooves,” “The Rain and You,” “Rearrange,” and “See U Dead.” One of those odds and ends would even end up on the album: the taut, New Wave-inflected funk of “Let’s Work.”

According to legend, “Let’s Work” began life as “Let’s Rock”: Prince’s version of a ’60s-style dance craze song, like “The Twist” or “The Loco-Motion.” He recorded the song, inspired by a dance he’d seen in Minneapolis clubs called “the Rock,”  with the intention of rush-releasing it as a non-LP single in the summer of 1981. But Warner Bros.–mindful, perhaps, of the moribund U.K. performance of his previous loosie, “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”–didn’t bite: a minor setback for Prince that, in retrospect, foreshadowed more serious conflicts with the label to come.

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Cool

Cool

(Featured Image: 1981 publicity photo for the Time. L to R: Jesse JohnsonTerry LewisMorris DayJimmy Jam, Jellybean JohnsonMonte Moir. © Warner Bros.)

While guitarist Dez Dickerson’s most fleshed-out contribution to The Time was the aforementioned “After Hi School,” it was his work as a lyricist that had the more lasting impact. Dickerson wrote lyrics for at least three songs recorded in April of 1981 and (most likely) intended for the new side project. Two of these, “Dancin’ Flu” and “I Can’t Figure It Out,” we only know as titles from The Vault; but the third, “Cool,” would become the Time’s second single and one of their trademark songs. “Prince called me up one day with the title and asked me to write some lyrics to go with it,” Dez recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “I called him back about 20 minutes later with the song” (Nilsen 1999 86).

According to Dickerson, the genesis for “Cool” came during the Dirty Mind tour, on a night when the band was hanging out with Warner Bros. A&R exec Ted Cohen. “I had this voice that I adopted at times, and, that night I just kind of got ‘stuck’ in it, cracking jokes,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “I fell into this thing where I kept telling Ted, ‘Ted, man, you bad! Ain’t nobody bad like you, Ted!’ Well, you guessed it–the voice and the phrase ‘ain’t nobody bad…’, which would later become the signature of the Time’s banter, came from that night” (Dickerson 137).

While I am skeptical of attributing the whole “Morris Day” persona to Dez alone–both Prince and André Cymone, not to mention Morris himself, are also on record as having used the hoarse, jive-talking “pimp voice” most publicly identified with the Time–it is certainly true that “Cool,” and Dickerson’s “ain’t nobody bad but me” lyric, played an essential role in bringing that persona to life. Equal parts smooth and clownish, “Cool” laid the parameters for the hair-slicking, Stacy Adams-wearing, two-stepping caricature from which Morris remains publicly inseparable to this day.

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Dystopian Dance Party: The Prince Issue Podcast with Guest Erika Peterson

Dystopian Dance Party: The Prince Issue Podcast with Guest Erika Peterson

(Featured Image: One of Callie’s rad stickers for Dystopian Dance Party 1.)

As you may or may not know, Dystopian Dance Party is the other, more irreverent project I do with my sister Callie. We recently launched a physical magazine, the first issue of which is dedicated to art and writing inspired by the music of Prince. On this episode of the DDP podcast, Callie and I are joined by our friend Erika Peterson to talk about her work for the magazine–an exhaustive guide to the 3 Chains O’ Gold film–the most absurd/surreal moments of Celebration 2018, and our ongoing beef with Questlove. It’s definitely a bit looser and sillier than the average d / m / s / r podcast, but if you enjoy my other stuff, you should enjoy it:

Dystopian Dance Party: The Prince Issue Podcast with Guest Erika Peterson

For those of you who haven’t picked up the magazine yet, we’re also offering the opportunity to get it for free, along with a set of rewards otherwise exclusively made available to our Kickstarter backers. All you have to do is follow Dystopian Dance Party on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and/or Tumblr, and share a link to this episode with us tagged so we know you did it. Toward the end of May, we’ll choose one or two people to receive a free copy of the magazine, a sheet of custom-designed stickers, three buttons, and a poster of the cover art by Callie. None of this stuff is available anywhere else, so take advantage of this chance to get your hands on it!

And if you can’t get enough of Erika, remember that she also recently appeared on our friend KaNisa’s excellent Muse 2 the Pharaoh podcast. Take a listen if you haven’t already:

Muse 2 the Pharaoh #1

Finally, an update on my next post for d / m / s / r. I had been planning to get something out by the end of the week, but I decided to make some changes which resulted in a delay: basically, I was writing separate posts on “The Stick” and “Cool,” but I decided to combine the two and just write a longer post on “Cool” that also touches on “The Stick” (and “After Hi School,” in case anybody was waiting for that). I fully expect to have this post out next week–which means that we’re finally going to be done with the Time’s first album! After that, we’ll turn to another 1981 outtake, and then back to Controversy. I also have plans for a few podcasts in the pipeline, so there’s plenty to look forward to!