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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Purple Music (Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy)

Purple Music (Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy)

(Featured Image: Languishing on the inner sleeve of 1999, 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the color purple took on the deep significance it would come to hold in Prince’s creative universe. The reference to a “purple lawn” in his 1976 song “Leaving for New York” was an interesting piece of trivia, but it felt more like an early attempt at Joni Mitchell-esque lyrical impressionism than the genuine birth of a motif. It wasn’t until much later, after the pastel pinks and blues of 1979’s Prince and the stark monochrome of 1980’s Dirty Mind, when the color began to show up in earnest. The album cover for 1981’s Controversy featured a lavender font, with Prince sporting one of his trademark studded trenchcoats in a matching color. And of course, at some point after he moved into his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Prince had the exterior painted from its original cream color to an electric purple.

Whether the color’s private importance to Prince was a recent development or a long-simmering fixation, however, it was on his fifth album in 1982 that he finally shared it with the world. 1999 is rife with lyrical references to purple: it’s the color of the title track’s apocalyptic sky; the “rock” he invites listeners to “take a bite of” in “D.M.S.R.”; the “star in the night supreme” to which he compares his lover in “Automatic”; the promised “love-amour” and the “high” he craves in “All the Critics Love U in New York.” The album’s artwork, too, is dominated by purples of all shades: from the deep royal purple of the background to the phallic, red-tinged shades of the lettering, to the cool violet tones of the inner sleeve photo of Prince with his backing band. Yet not even this veritable explosion of purple makes as clear a statement as another song, recorded at some point during the 1999 sessions and titled simply “Purple Music.”

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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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Patreon Exclusive: You’re My Love

Patreon Exclusive: You’re My Love

(Featured Image: Official artwork for the Originals version of “You’re My Love”; © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)

Got something today for the patrons: an exclusive post on “You’re My Love,” the most surprising–and arguably the most controversial–track on last month’s Originals. For those who haven’t yet become patrons, here’s a taste:

Last month’s Originals had plenty of surprises for even dedicated Prince collectors–but none quite as surprising as “You’re My Love,” a track recorded in March 1982 at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio and later gifted to, of all people, country music crooner and rotisserie chicken mogul Kenny Rogers. Most reviews of the collection greeted the song with mild (or not-so-mild) bafflement. Paste’s Zach Schonfeld intimated that “there’s a reason” Prince didn’t keep “You’re My Love” for himself. PopMatters’ Chris Ingalls panned it as a “bland-yet-serviceable 1980s pop song” that “sees Prince almost veering into parody with a Vegas-style croon.” In her excellent piece for The Quietus, Soma Ghosh dismissed the song as “schmaltzy.” Even Michael Howe, the A&R professional in charge of Prince’s posthumous Vault releases, described it as a “full-on Holiday Inn lounge vibe” in an interview with The West Australian.

To hear what I have to say about the track, it will cost you a buck a month–but that buck a month also helps make it possible for me to post regular blog posts each week, and will entitle you to more exclusive content in the weeks to come. If that sounds like a good deal to you, then check it out here:

Patreon Exclusive: You’re My Love

Otherwise, I’ll be posting my next regular piece on “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” tomorrow, which will cost you–to coin the phrase–not even one lousy dime. See you then.