26: DMSR

1999 (1982)
In the summer of 1979, disco was at its peak and The Bee Gees were celebrating their sixth consecutive number 1. The US charts looked ripe for the brand of falsetto-sung R&B that Prince had just finished recording for his sophomore album. Then a rock DJ made headlines when he detonated a crate of disco records at a baseball game and rioters stormed the field chanting “disco sucks” and “death to disco”. Fueled by homophobia, racism and the surge of conservatism that would usher in the Reagan era, this violent backlash soon ballooned nationwide, not only venting its ire at disco, but at any music not deemed white and heterosexual enough. The disco bubble burst. My Sharona replaced Chic’s Good Times at the top of the charts and it was another decade until the tainted Bee Gees got near the top 10 again. Classic rock and country began their long chokehold of the airwaves.

Prince must have sensed these winds of change. On that night of the Disco Demolition in Chicago, he and his band were in Colorado, recording throwback rock songs under the name The Rebels, including a diss on disco written by Dez Dickerson called Disco Away. The songs were deemed too generic though. A creative dead end. If he was to cross over it wouldn’t be by pandering to demand and watering down his sound. It would be on his terms.

A year and two tours later Prince unveiled his new approach for the new decade. Inspired by new wave, he incorporated rock elements into the funk of his childhood and gave birth to the Minneapolis Sound – a genre that would transform the charts by the mid-80s. Introduced on Dirty Mind, and developed further on Controversy, The Time and Vanity 6, it was on the 1999 album where this genre found its perfect form. Despite being omitted on early CD versions of the album, DMSR is the Minneapolis Sound par excellence. A synth and drum machine manifesto to all those about to follow in his funksteps. It resurrected disco’s call to lose yourself on the dance floor, and even featured a tom tom breakdown, but was cloaked in the grit and grime of funk that never would have passed Studio 54’s door policy. Instead of revelling in extravagance, Prince the dance instructor tells us to “work your body like a whore” and how it doesn’t matter what we’re wearing – in fact the less clothes the better.

This wasn’t the disco-world of celebrity excess, this was an invite for everybody to let their hair down and get a-freakin. The White, Black and Puerto Rican Uptowners were encouraged to sing, as were the Japanese albeit over a slightly racist synth hook. New fans attracted by Little Red Corvette’s rock choruses received helpful instructions on when to clap, whereas old fans got Jamie Starr references to dissect. All were catered for. There’s a reason why the word “everybody” is mentioned 21 times. As long as you enjoyed dancing, playing music, sex or romance, there was a space for you in this discotheque of the disaffected.

But as he tells us on the album’s title track, parties weren’t meant to last. Like every memorable all-nighter, DMSR doesn’t peter out but ends in mayhem and someone calling the police. An actual emergency or shut down by a Disco Sucks killjoy?

Disco didn’t die. It retreated underground to be nurtured by clubs like the Paradise Garage. But during its hibernation, Prince knew something that record-makers have known since the days of Chubby Checker. People will always like dancing to dance records about dancing.

34: Let’s Pretend We’re Married

1999 (1982)
You’ve probably heard how parental advisory stickers on albums were introduced after Tipper Gore caught her daughter listening to Darling Nikki, but their invention can be traced back to another Prince song and a different 11-year-old girl. In October 1983, while listening to the 1999 album with their daughter, two Cincinnati parents were so shocked by Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s lewdness that it caused them to launch a campaign against “porn rock”. This crusade was taken up by the national Parent-Teachers Association who later teamed up with Tipper’s PMRC to pressure the record industry into issuing the stickered warnings. As origin stories go, Let’s Pretend We’re Married is a much more worthy catalyst for a movement of parental pearl-clutching than the comparatively tame Darling Nikki. Both songs contain risqué opening couplets but it’s not until the f-bombs start dropping in the spoken section of Let’s Pretend We’re Married’s climax when you really hear Prince acting out the “pure sex” persona that he once told his band would be his identity. It contains what may be the most sexually explicit line he ever included on an album and if it still shocks today, imagine the effect it had on early-80s conservative America. In a way though, the track reflects the Christian values of its time. Only a culture with strict views about sex before marriage could birth a song that views marital sex as a guilt-free carnal carnival. Nowadays, we’ve been primed by comedians to associate marriage with drudgery and the idea that lovers would pretend to be husband and wife in order to “go all night” sounds more absurd than the reverse scenario – a married couple spicing up their lovelife by roleplaying a one-night-stand. Even back then it was more usual to have songs like Babooshka and Escape (The Piña Colada Song) with lyrics about marriages chasing the thrill of the forbidden. Prince flipping this message into forbidden sex chasing the thrill of marriage is more subversive to us today than any four-letter outburst. Only Prince could make the concept of marriage sound perverted. It’s the polar opposite of John Cooper Clarke’s view that getting married is like having your sexual relationship ratified by the police. Establishment approval has never been as desirable as forbidden fruit, which incidentally is also the reason why the parental advisory warnings that Let’s Pretend We’re Married and Darling Nikki outraged into existence inevitably failed. As Ice T rapped on Freedom of Speech, “the sticker on the record is what makes ‘em sell gold”. If that couple in Cincinnati really wanted to stop kids from listening to the album they should have instead focused on the song’s closing lines and fought for a sticker that read “parental approval, religious content”.

36: Lady Cab Driver

1999 (1982)
Do you know that Watchmen comic panel which became a meme? The one of Dr Manhattan on Mars saying he’s tired of Earth, people and being caught in the tangle of their lives. That’s Prince in his taxicab solitude. He’s doing exactly what he said he would do in Annie Christian, and using taxis as a transitory, liminal space to retreat into and shelter from the world’s evils. It’s his coping mechanism for fleeing trouble-winds. But he’s not alone in this escape pod and it soon becomes the setting for one of his fantasy conquests, like The Ballad of Dorothy Parker or Darling Nikki, where redemption is delivered via a sexual encounter with a stranger. I say it’s the setting but presumably when we start hearing the bed-springs we’ve left the cab and are at the nameless driver’s “mansion” after she accepted his fare in tears. Or could this sexual fantasy be playing out in the passenger’s mind while he’s still in the back seat, drifting off to the bass-led funk of the cab’s engine? When this section starts three minutes in, Prince’s vocals, previously drained of any emotion other than ennui, suddenly flare up with Yeats’ lust and rage. Jill Jones’ pleasured moans accompany the sound of Prince thrusting out his anger on subjects including jealousy of his half-brother Duane, politicians, discrimination, greed, Yosemite Sam (?!) and, to pick up his theme from Sexuality, Disneyland tourists. Once he hits his stride, he mellows and starts dedicating each thrust to the creator of man, heavenly bodies, and those Disneyland tourists again. He eventually remembers his manners and addresses the woman he’s having sex with – a dedication which, in a lightning-quick scaling of Diotima’s ladder gets expanded out to women in general, and then to platonic love. Prince’s final tribute is to the wind, as he now recognises the cold trouble-winds of the first verse and chorus as the motivating force propelling him onward. Like Dr Manhattan, a sexual partner has helped him reach an epiphany in his solitude. He realises life isn’t something he should be trying to escape from. “This galaxy’s better than not having a place to go” he concludes and we’re returned to the gentle pace of the opening section, now with seagulls and seven chimes of a clock. Could this be the new dawn? Welcome bursts of guitar follow which unfortunately do not spiral out of control and drown out the rest of the track like it does in its initial template: the posthumously released Rearrange. That wouldn’t have fit the narrative of an existensial crisis averted but given the choice of listening to turmoil or inner peace, I would pick turmoil every time. Plus, it beats trying to work out what the sound of a mouth gargle and a trumpeting elephant represent.

39: Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)

1999 (1982)
When Prince called Darling Nikki “the coldest song ever written” he had obviously forgotten about Something In The Water (Does Not Compute). This ice-plunge into loneliness and alienation can be found in the middle of Prince’s coldest album, sandwiched between Automatic’s tears and the cool healing zephyr of Free. A depth where even those space-surviving water bears fear to tread. Other than Prince’s voice, the only sounds you hear are a shivering Linn drum, minor synth chords and Prince’s logic board bleeping unsatisfactorily as it fails to compute why every girl treats him so bad. His internal computer will eventually concede that its faulty programming is to blame, but that’s for the next album’s more introspective Computer Blue. For now, contaminated drinking water is the best answer it can grasp at. The ‘original’ version of Something in the Water (posthumously released on 1999 Deluxe) provides an interesting insight into how the song progressed. This first take was a fuller composition with bass and piano and though still powerful, isn’t quite as chilling as the one he re-recorded, where he strips the instruments out and leaves in their place a howling void and a piercing scream that emits from the iron core of his being like a death ray of despair. Few screams in his catalogue match it. And after he delivers it, where can you go from there? Like in Do Me, Baby he’s left depleted. You hear a spat curse and then a mic knock (on what sounds like the phrase ‘second coming’) as Prince stumbles towards the exit, mumbling semi-incoherently. It will take a couple of tracks before he regains the energy to try and flee this desolation with the help of a lady cab driver.

87: Delirious

1999 (1982)
Prince’s brief rockabilly fascination started, according to Dez Dickerson, with them seeing the Stray Cats in London and being so in awe of the band they both started styling their hair like them. It ended a year or two later with Prince’s ultimate take on the genre: Delirious. Along the way he churned out several lesser attempts – with B-side Horny Toad and Controversy’s Jack U Off the only two he saw fit to release – but with Delirious he found his sound and could hang up his blue suede shoes (although not his pompadour which would make several later appearances) for good. It’s little wonder why a genre initially deemed too black for country radio and too white for R’n’B stations would appeal to someone trying to escape radio segregation himself. And this may be another reason why he abandoned the genre post-1983. Little Red Corvette proved to be his skeleton key to unlock the pop, rock and R&B charts but if Delirious had bridged the divide instead would Purple Rain have been an album of synthy 8 bar blues and Elvis impressions? I shudder to think. Luckily, in this universe’s timeline Delirious remains the culmination of a flirtation. A quirky counterweight to the scary techno future that’s unfolding around it. The rest of the album casts its hooks deep into your psyche, activating dark, unexplored areas you have no name for. Delirious aims for the big red button in your sternum marked ”goofing off’. Listen to the Indigo Nights rendition and it has the same effect. Break glass in case of dangerous levels of seriousness. You can see why Eddie Murphy borrowed the title.

103: International Lover

1999 (1982)
In 1982 air travel was still considered glamorous. It was before the days of budget airlines and shoe-bombers, before flying became the carrot at the end of a fraught gauntlet run through a trainee authoritarian state. So it’s not surprising International Lover has lost its sexiness a little over time. The lyrics have always been funny but now have an aura of an improv group receiving the audience suggestions of ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘airline safety announcement’. Luckily it’s Prince’s second ballad in the Do Me, Baby mould and he could croon knock-knock jokes over the top and it would still make your knees week. International Lover was set to be a Time song before Prince realised it needed screams that Morris couldn’t provide so upgraded its seat to became the light relief at the end of an album of apocalyptic robo-funk. There may be a Cold War outside but inside there’s sex, laughter and Prince going full cosplay with the captain’s hat he wore in the Automatic video.

109: Automatic

1999 (1982)
Deep within the cold, slow-beating heart of 1999 lurks a song so hypnotic that four minutes in, just after its natural finishing point, it mesmerises Prince himself. This causes him to start muttering barely-coherent, semi-conscious desires about pleasure and pain. With the composer now incapacitated there’s nobody around to draw the groove to a close. It continues. Six minutes in and its tentacles are embedded so deep they’re able to extract Prince’s innermost, darkest fantasies. We get a touch of International Lover pilot roleplay, a mention of torture, then a chorus of moans and screams from Marquis de Sade’s jail cell. You can see this S&M fantasy play out in the accompanying video where Lisa and Jill tie a submissive Prince to a golden bed and whip him under a harsh blue light. Sated by these extracted visions Automatic withdraws before the ten-minute mark and falls into a deep slumber. It will be 12 months before it feels the need to feast again.

382: Free

1999 (1982)
Given his high-profile slave rhetoric in the middle of his career, it’s interesting that even back in the early eighties Prince was writing songs based around the concept of freedom. The previous two albums featured songs about freeing your mind (Uptown) and body (Sexuality), whereas Controversy, like Sign O’ the Times after it, included a line about some people seeing death as the ultimate freedom. This theme obviously culminated in 1996’s Emancipation where in particular artistic independence had become the muse, but given that not long before he wrote Free Prince had felt, for maybe the first time, his creative autonomy restricted with his label’s refusal to put out Let’s Rock (later retitled as Let’s Work) as a one-off single, it’s not unthinkable that the frustration with his label may have first found its outlet in this piano-rock, power ballad. Free acts as 1999‘s escape valve, a socially conscious slow jam releasing the pressure built up from three sides’ worth of hypnotising machine funk. An insulator between what feels like the album’s cold and hot sections. After this clearing of air, the music begins to sound looser and warmer. Less nihilistic. The intro starts with the sound of armies trudging over foreign soil but this time Prince isn’t telling them “to fight your own damn war” he’s wanting everybody to “fight together… 4 the right 2 be free”. And Prince marches over the battle line with this message of optimism and unity until his voice descends into anguished screams, to be tended to by the backing vocals which appear like the lady with the lamp emerging from the fog. A national anthem for the lonely and downspirited, reminding them to count their blessings and silver linings as “there’s others doing far worse than us”. By the way, it may seem planned but it’s purely coincidental that I’m posting this song which ends with the lyric “be glad 4 what U had and for what U’ve got” today on Thanksgiving. Or is it I wonder? Kismet is a mysterious maiden.