(Featured Image: Prince and band prepare to fight on the 1999 inner sleeve; L to R: Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Prince, Lisa Coleman, Dr. Fink, Dez Dickerson. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)
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. According to a recent tweet by former associate Jeremiah Freed (better known by his nom de podcast Dr. Funkenberry), Prince had originally planned for “Turn It Up” to be the album’s lead single. It’s speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also intended to be the title track, given how exhortations to “turn it up” recur throughout the songs recorded for the album: including “All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Lust U Always,” and the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch.” As Josh and Christy Norman of the Mountains and the Sea podcast recently observed, the phrase can even be made out spray-painted behind Prince and the band in a late 1981 photo taken for the “Let’s Work” 12” sleeve.
But whatever its intended title, when Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo, the reception was cooler than anticipated. “‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince in an interview with music journalist Alan Light. “‘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).
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(Featured Image: The Time’s Morris Day and his sparring partner, the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr, circa 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu.)
The Time’s second album, What Time is It?, was released on August 25, 1982–just two weeks after the self-titled debut by Vanity 6. It easily outperformed both Vanity 6 and the Time’s own debut, and effectively tied with Prince’s previous album Controversy: peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard 200 and Number 2 on the Black Albums (recently renamed from “Soul”) chart.
Despite their success–or, more likely, because of it–Prince was determined to keep the spinoff group in their place. Studio tech Don Batts recalled him showing up to one of the band’s rehearsals with a rough mix of the finished record: “He threw the cassette at [guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey man, you play really good on your album,’” Batts told biographer Per Nilsen. “That kind of comment, it was like saying, ‘Hey puppets!’” (Nilsen 1999 108).
More than anything, though, Prince kept his grip on the Time’s strings by saving their best material for himself. It’s hard to hear What Time is It?’s underwhelming closing track, “I Don’t Wanna Leave You,” without imagining a stronger alternative in its place: something that would end the album with a bang, rather than a whimper. Something, that is, like “International Lover,” which Prince had originally conceived for his side project back in January before poaching it for the finale of his own forthcoming album.
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(Featured Image: Sales brochure for the 1982 Chevrolet Corvette; stolen from the GM Heritage Center.)
Upon his return to Chanhassen from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail: 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).
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(Featured Image: Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman act out Prince’s sapphic S&M fantasies in the too-hot-for-TV “Automatic” video; © Warner Bros.)
By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).
The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.
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