Horny Toad

Horny Toad

(Featured Image: Engraving of “The Frog King,” a.k.a. “The Frog Prince,” from a presumably 19th- or early-20th-century edition of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales; artist unknown.)

August 17, 1983: “Delirious” is released as the third U.S. single (and fourth worldwide) from 1999, an album nearly 10 months in the rearview mirror. Two weeks ago to the day, Prince and his newly-christened band the Revolution had played an epochal show at First Avenue in Minneapolis, where they debuted five songs (three of them master recordings) from his upcoming sixth album, Purple Rain. In less than a year’s time, the album would come out and achieve a level of commercial success which would make Prince’s previous breakout hit, the Number 6 single “Little Red Corvette,” look like a mere prologue. But for now, he’s in victory lap mode: riding the coattails of “Corvette”’s success with a second Top 10 hit, backed by a soundalike B-side recorded in his Kiowa Trail home studio the previous summer.

That B-side, “Horny Toad,” does not rank among Prince’s most renowned work. It’s rarely even singled out as one of the best tracks on The Hits/The B-Sides–the collection where, I’m willing to wager, most contemporary listeners first heard it. The closest thing to an official accolade I can find is its bottom-100 placement on the 500 Prince Songs blog (which seems about right)–unless, that is, you count a 2016 shout-out from Wired magazine’s Brian Raftery, who calls it “rollickingly stupid” (also correct).

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Delirious

Delirious

(Featured Image: Courtship rituals of early ’80s French rocker gang the Del Vikings; photo by Gilles Elie Cohen, stolen from VICE.)

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).

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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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Turn It Up

Turn It Up

(Featured Image: “This one goes to 11”; Nigel Tufnel’s custom Marshall stack in This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner, 1984. © MGM Home Entertainment.)

Along with the Time tracks and “International Lover,” Prince also cut a few orphan songs at Sunset Sound in mid-January 1982. The first, “You’re All I Want,” was recorded on January 16: the day after an unreleased Time song called “Colleen,” and three days before “Wild and Loose.” The recording has never leaked into wide circulation, though Prince Vault reports that its synth line would later be repurposed for the 1983 B-side “Horny Toad.” Prince reportedly gave a tape to Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary as a birthday present; later, the song would reemerge (retitled “U’re All I Want”) as a potential track for his and Eric Leeds’ jazz fusion project Madhouse.

The second orphan had a shorter, but arguably more fruitful history. Prince recorded “Turn It Up” on January 20, the day after “Wild and Loose”; it was the second-to-last track he recorded in Los Angeles before resuming the Controversy tour in Richmond, Virginia. And, while it also hasn’t received an official release at the time of this writing, it is in circulation as a bootleg: quite possibly the most widely-heard 1999-era outtake this side of “Moonbeam Levels.”

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