‘P Control’ – The Gold Experience (1995)

This is the opening track from The Gold Experience – Prince’s 17th album. Although officially it was released under the name “0(+>” or “lovesymbol” or “the artist formerly known as Prince” or “I believe if I change my name to an unpronounceable symbol that it will somehow absolve me from fulfilling my contractual obligations” (but we all know who really made the album). It may come as no surprise that this song was originally known as “Pussy Control” (shocking, I know) and it was recorded at Paisley Park studios in July 1994 with additional recording and overdubs happening later in that year and into 1995. There was apparently a promo single where this song was called “Pussy Control” but obviously that kind of language would be too harsh to put on the back of an actual record and expect a store like Kmart to sell it. Crossbows are fine, just no pussy please. I think that there’s more to the name change than that, but more of that later.

The Gold Experience was released by Warner Brothers (warn a brutha!) and NPG Records in September 1995. For someone like Prince / 0(+> / TAFKAP / I believe if I change my name to an unpronounceable symbol that it will somehow absolve me from fulfilling my contractual obligations, this is a long time between recording and release. In fact this track was recorded before the release of the last album of new material – Come (August 1994). The Black Album was also released before this one (to help fulfill his contractual obligations) but it was all old material anyway (which means it was all lame and unlistenable).

So new name, new album, new experience. But how new and fresh is this really. Does this album, and by extension this song, really represent a break from the artist we had known up to this point or is this album just Prince by another name. I’m going to argue both and we’ll see where that gets us.

Looking at the booklet that came with the CD, the lyrics for this song do not appear. “Endorphin Machine” is the first song that gets a look in. Strangely, the last six pages (excluding the back cover) of the booklet are taken up by a review from Jim Walsh (Pop Music Critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press) about the tracks on this album and the shows where the songs were introduced. The back cover of the booklet has the lyrics to “Gold” (kind of the title track I guess). Jim’s article only mentions “P Control” briefly – “After a July Glam Slam gig, Theresa said she thought “P Control” was just another one of 0(+>’s sexist throwaways; I thought that was too easy. I defended it as a lighthearted, if raunchy, take on the power of womanhood”. I don’t think that this song is a “throwaway” track for Prince (I’m going to refer to him as Prince from now on, so save your outrage). It’s the opening track of the album which tells us that at least in Prince’s mind it is “important”. Given that there were better songs available that he could have included on this album to take the place of “P Control” (Days of Wild, Acknowledge Me, Interactive), I think that this song represents a statement that Prince is trying to make. Superficially it may be about “womanhood” but I think there is something more going on here.

This album is the first time Prince appears on an album as the symbol, 0(+>. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” single and The Beautiful Experience EP had come out over a year earlier but this is the first proper album. Come was the last album credited to Prince and the cover proclaimed the death of Prince: 1958 – 1993. On The Gold Experience the song “Endorphinmachine” has an outro that also confirmed that “Prince esta muerto (Prince is dead)” in case you missed the message from the last album.

Listening back to the Peach and Black podcast’s review of The Gold Experience it reminded me how strange this song is as an introduction to a Prince album. There are, apparently, versions of this album where this song does not appear and “Endorphinmachine” is the opening track. Whether this is because of censorship in certain global markets (China, Japan, etc.) or some other reason I could only guess. It’s not like this song was recorded at the last minute to be included (unless the Prince Vault website has the dates wrong) so I think the intention was always to include this song as the opening statement of intent under his new name. A prologue to the “experience”. The album could be described as the Purple Rain of the 90s. It probably shouldn’t be. But I can see how a lazy music critic might be tempted to make that comparison. It does open with an upbeat party song and close with an extended ballad but that’s about it. “Let’s Go Crazy” opens with a keyboard/organ intro and “P Control” opens with a keyboard intro. But the similarities end there. Or at least I’m not going to bother finding anymore. Nonetheless you should feel free to have at it.

Musically, this song feels misplaced on this album; lots of electronic synth sounds and faux-operatic vocals. Definitely a unique opening track to a Prince album. Unprecedented in fact. This may be one of Prince’s best rap performances (which isn’t saying much to be honest) but his high pitched backing vocals are really annoying and deliberately so. The song opens with a weird sounding keyboard intro that mimics a dial-up modem. This is in the age of dial-up and Prince was one of the early proponents of online musical experiences. This album plays with that technological aspect all throughout with the NPG operator coming in between almost every track (at least that’s how it feels). It’s a weird way to start an album, that’s for sure. And then the keyboard fades out and the lady (Mayte, I assume) comes in with some Spanish. There’s a little strum of a guitar/bass and then the beat drops in and the song starts in earnest. The modem keyboard comes back in and we’re off. This song features Michael B on drums, Sonny T on the bass guitar, Mr Hayes on keyboards and Tommy Barbarella on keyboards and Prince on everything else. It doesn’t sound to me like a band recording though. I imagine that everyone recorded their parts and Prince just cut it all together as he pleased. The groove is pretty relentless all the way through this song and the verses are mostly rhythm section and vocals. There is some keyboard in there too but the choruses are where the keyboards make themselves known, especially that modem intro riff. Overlaid with Prince’s “operatic” vocals it kind of feels like these parts of the song are overdone.

There’s a fantastic cover of this song by Richard Cheese (thanks Peach and Black). It’s only two and a half minutes long but today as I write this sentence, it’s my favourite version. It doesn’t have all the lyrics but that doesn’t detract from it in any way.

So why have a song like this open up your album? The first album under the new name. The first album released on NPG records. The digital age is dawning. You want to make a statement. Why make it with this song? The last Prince album (Come) opened up with an eleven minute epic. The first 0(+> album opens up with “P Control”. Why? Why? Why? I think that the title is the first clue – “P Control’. The lyrics may imply that the “P” stands for “pussy” but what it actually stands for is “Prince”. Prince is in control now. New name and all. P has control. Of his destiny and his music. This isn’t technically the last record for Warner Brothers (warn a brutha!) but Chaos and Disorder seems like it was throwaway for Prince and the liner notes state that it was – “Originally intended for private use only”. The Gold Experience however is the intended last will and testament of Prince as a Warner Brothers artist. Prince may be muerto but he’s taking control from beyond the grave and letting us know what the future holds. There is precedent for referring to Prince as P, in the song “My name is Prince” Tony M says – “I’m on a roll with P”. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that this song is really about Prince being in control. Obviously, the lyrics are about “womanhood” but I think that is just a cover for what Prince really wants to tell us.

 

Nuestra presentacion especial comenzara en breve
(Our special presentation will start shortly)
Pero antes un mensaje de nuestros auspiciadores
(But first a message from our sponsors)

I got the lyrics (and the translation) from AZ Lyrics so I’m going to assume that they are accurate here. The first sound you hear on this record is the modem/keyboard intro and then this. So this makes it clear that this song, from the outset, is not part of the album proper but something else. It’s a message. From our sponsors? Warner Brothers? NPG Records? Prince?

 

Uh, yeah
Uh

Good mornin’ ladies and gentlemen (“What hotel number is she in?”)
Boys and motherfuckin’ girls (“319, 319” “Cool”)
This is your captain with no name speakin’
And I’m here 2 rock your world
With a tale that will soon be classic
About a woman U already know
No prostitute she, but the mayor of your brain
Pussy Control (Are U ready?)

The beat comes in and the song starts in earnest. Until that modem/keyboard riff comes back in during the chorus you’re probably thinking that the intro was something separate, but no. A trigger to get you to pay attention and a reminder that you have now entered the digital realm. The modem is dialing into Prince’s new online world. Welcome to the dawn. The opening lyric is “Good morning” which clearly indicates that our sponsors are talking to us from the a.m. Welcome to the dawn. Notice that he states here that the voice you are hearing “is your captain with no name”. Not an unpronounceable symbol of a name. But a non-existent name. Sans name if you will. In Exodus when Moses asks, he is told “I am who I am”. Implying that this god has no name. In this song, our narrator (Prince) is taking the place of god, similar to “I would die 4 U”, and our protagonist (Pussy) is actually a gender inverted version of Prince. She’s someone we already know. She’s no prostitute (i.e. she’s no sell out). She’s in charge of the sound coming into your brain. Are you ready?

 

Aaah, Pussy Control, oh
Aaah, Pussy Control, oh

This is the chorus. Prince is singing in a really high falsetto and slightly off key. It’s like he’s saying “I’m in control and I’ll sing this any way I please”. It’s supposed to echo the keyboard/modem sound and reinforce that what you are hearing is a download (28.8 kilobits per second – lightning fast!).

 

Our story begins in a schoolyard
A little girl skipping rope with her friends
A tisket, a tasket, no lunch in her basket
Just school books 4 the fight she would be in
One day over this hoodie
She got beat 4 some clothes and her rep
With her chin up, she scolded “All y’all’s molded
When I’m rich, on your neck I will step”
And step she did 2 the straight A’s
Then college, the master degree
She hired the heifers that jumped her
And made everyone of them work 4 free?
No! Why?
So what if my sisters are triflin’?
They just don’t know
She said “Mama didn’t tell’em what she told me
‘Girl, U need Pussy Control'” (Are U ready?)

School is where we are supposed to learn our lessons. Prince learnt his lessons about the music industry back when he was skipping rope with The Revolution in the 80s. Straight A’s from Dirty Mind to Purple Rain and then his college education and master degree in being a global superstar. Building his empire and preparing for the fight against the industry. Even when he was being criticised for the way he was dressing (beat for his clothes if you will) and refusing to talk to the press and the “We are the World” controversy (ha! a play on words). When he says that “U need Pussy Control” what he’s really saying is Prince needs to get control of his music.

 

Aaah, Pussy Control, oh
Aaah, Pussy Control, oh

Verse 2
Pussy got bank in her pockets
Before she got dick in her drawers
If brother didn’t have good and plenty of his own
In love Pussy never did fall
And this fool named Trick wanna stick her
Uh, talkin’ more Schick than a Bic
‘Bout how he gonna make Pussy a star
If she come and sing a lick on his hit
Pussy said “Nigga, U crazy if U don’t know
Every woman in the world ain’t a freak
U can go platinum 4 times
Still couldn’t make what I make in a week
So push up on somebody wanna hear that
Cuz this somebody here don’t wanna know
Boy, U better act like U understand
When U roll with Pussy Control” (Are U ready?)

In case you were wondering which verse we’re up to (numero dos). This is the verse where Pussy/Prince is making it clear that the lesson he/she learnt is that you gotta make sure you get paid. Anyone who has followed his career through the 90s and beyond will recognise this as a defining factor of his career. Getting paid and more importantly, making sure that no one else is getting paid off of his work. Or has the potential to get paid. Or is next door neighbours with someone whose uncle might get some YouTube kickbacks for posting a video of his 1 year old dancing to a Prince song. Prince is in Control. Warner Brothers (warn a brutha!) or any other record label would be crazy to think that they could buy him with the promise of some platinum records when he now sits at the helm of a global, digital empire. The fact that Warner Brothers helped him build that empire is not really a concern. Interestingly the record label/music industry/journalism is give the moniker “Trick”, which if you’ve listened to any rap music in the last 30 years you would have already heard. Urban Dictionary gives a few definitions:

“Trick has different meanings depending on the context it is used.
Definition 1: A woman that teases a man in order to get her bills paid or gets him to buy her things. In return she pleases him physically either by having sex with him, kissing him, or giving him head.
Definition 2: A man that pays prostitutes for sex or a man that pays women to hang around him.
Definition 3: A person that purposely gossips or tells information about someone in order to get them in trouble and gets pleasure out of seeing someone’s secrets become exposed in a way that ruins their reputation or makes them look bad.”

And all three definitions apply. Warner Brothers is “teasing” him so they can get paid. The music industry and all its hangers on pay artists to make themselves look or feel more important and music/gossip journalists keep spreading shit about The Kid. But Pussy/Prince is telling them all I have a better way now, I don’t need you to make me a star, I don’t need to go platinum. Pussy has the reins. I always heard the line as “talkin’ more shit than a bit” and I still think that’s what he’s saying but I’m going to leave the lyrics as they appear on AZ Lyrics – so no letters, please.

 

Aaah, Pussy Control, oh
Aaah, Pussy Control, oh

Breakdown
(Are U ready 4 the best Pussy U ever felt?) [x2]

With one more verse 2 the story
I need another piece of your ear
I wanna hip U all 2 the reason
I’m known as the player of the year
Cuz I met this girl named Pussy
At the Club International Balls
She was rollin’ 4-deep
3 sisters and a weepy-eyed white girl drivin’ her haul
I pulled up right beside her
And my electric top went down
I said “Motherfucker, I know your reputation
And I’m astounded that U’re here
I fear U’re lonely and U want 2 know
A 12 o’clock straight up nigga
That don’t give a shit that U’re Pussy Control
Well I’m that nigga, at least I wanna be
But it’s gonna be hard as hell
2 keep my mind off a body
That would make every rich man
Want 2 sell, sell, sell (75, we need another.. 85, 85 here, sold!)
Can I tell U what I’m thinkin’ that U already know?
U need a motherfucker that respects your name”
Now say it, Pussy Control (Are U ready?)

One more verse to go and the story is over (don’t scroll down!). The breakdown before this verse is pretty cool with some nice keyboard work. Not the best pussy you’ve ever felt but not bad. But we’re gonna concentrate on the lyrical content for the remainder. Now our narrator (god) is stepping into Prince’s (Pussy’s) story. God represents freedom from record company “slavery”, an idea he runs with in the years that follow this album. When I think about it, it’s almost as though the narrator is the NPG personified. Freedom is a player in the sense that “he” gets around (slut!). And when he rolls up to Pussy she has her entourage in tow – Michael B, Sonny T, Mr Hayes and Tommy Barbarella. The gender inversion has been extended to the rest of the band, although I’m not too sure if Tommy would be happy to be described as “weepy-eyed”. Freedom/god is letting Pussy/Prince know that he doesn’t need to be here playing this label/industry based game. If you come with me you’ll get the respect that you need as an artist and not be just a lucrative “body” of work that all the rich industry men can exploit (sold!). Now say it – Prince is in control.

 

Aaah, Pussy Control, oh
Aaah, Pussy Control, oh

And the moral of this motherfucker is
Ladies, make’em act like they know
U are, was, and always will be Pussy Control (Are U ready?)
Peace and be wild (Aaah, Pussy Control)

Say what, huh? (Oh)
Oh no, don’t U think about callin’ her a ho (Are U ready?)
U juvenile delinquent
Best sit your ass down
Talkin’ about Pussy Control
Huh, can U dig it?

Aaah, Pussy Control (Are U ready?)
Oh (Are U ready?)

Aaah, Pussy Control (Are U ready?)
Oh (Are U ready?)

If you haven’t guessed already, the moral of this story (which wasn’t quite over) is that artists (i.e. “ladies”) need to be free and get away from the slavery and prostitution of the music industry (sisters are doin’ it for themselves!). Prince came out very recently (August 2015) urging new artists not to sign with labels and comparing record label deals to “slavery”. Slightly hyperbolic and a little disrespectful to actual slaves (past and present) but that’s our Prince. Record contracts may be shitty deals for some but trying to make it in the entertainment business without some sort of backing is almost impossible. And it certainly worked for Prince’s career during the 80s. But this song is coming straight out of the 90s and by now he is well past being a “ho” for the record label. He can pimp himself out. That is why this track is the opening track of this album. That is the statement that he is making. The song finishes and then the album properly begins. “Welcome to the dawn”, says the NPG operator. This is a new day and this is a new artist. But really it’s the same dude. On the same record label. And whatever sematic tricks he tried to pull with his name change he still had to see out his contract and put out Chaos and Disorder.

The album as a concept is all about the new age digital experience and links in with what came earlier during The Beautiful Experience (album and TV special) and incorporates the leftovers from The Gold Album and Glam Slam Ulysses. This song specifically is about the new direction that Prince is trying to take (trying real hard). New name, new label, new direction, New Power Generation. He’s telling us that god/freedom/the NPG is allowing Prince/Pussy to finally wrestle complete control of his artistic future and the Spanish lady is the angel herald telling us all through the album the real message that he is trying to get out at the beginning of “P Control” and “We March” and at the end of “Endorphinmachine”. After “We March”, the NPG operator’s first words are “Welcome to the dawn” and then we hear “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”. This is where the album really begins and everything else has been prologue. The angel is no longer heard after this point but the NPG operator continues to help us on our journey through the new digital landscape. NPG will show us the way. That’s the message of this song and the album as a whole. That’s why this “weird” song opens this album. Just to be doubly sure, let’s put all the Spanish Angel’s words together:

 

Nuestra presentacion especial comenzara en breve
Pero antes un mensaje de nuestros auspiciadores
Prince esta muerto

Prince esta muerto

Que viva para siempre el Poder de la Nueva Generacion
Uno para todos, y todos para uno

 

Our special presentation will start shortly

But first a message from our sponsors

Prince is dead

Prince is dead

Long live the New Power Generation

One 4 all and all 4 one

 

Welcome to the dawn.
Running time: 5:59

 

References:

The Gold Experience

Chaos and Disorder

Come

AZ Lyrics

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

Peach and Black Podcast

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The Cross – Sign O’ The Times (1987)

The fourteenth song on the Sign O’ The Times album; that’s the fifth track on the second CD or the first track on side four if you have the vinyl. And if you have the cassette then may god have mercy on your soul (and yes, I’m aware that I didn’t capitalise the word ‘god’).

Initial tracking took place on 13 July 1986 at Sunset Sound, in Hollywood (you may have heard of it, it’s in Hollywood).[1] Recorded initially to be included on a double album with The Revolution called Dream Factory (fourth track on side four of the vinyl) and then later when that album was scrapped (along with The Revolution) a new triple album was planned called Crystal Ball where this track was retained (first track on side six of the vinyl). Crystal ball eventually got whittled down to become Sign O’ The Times and this song became a part of “Purple History™”.

Sign O’ The Times was release by Warner Brothers in March 1987. So even with two album changes and a band change it was only about nine months from the first tracking of this song to its release. I’m no musician but that seems like a lot of stuff to happen in a relatively short time. You can check the Prince Vault[2] website for the various configurations that the three albums went through plus additional tracks added from the Camille album that went into Sign O’ The Times. It took the demise of a band and three other albums to make Sign O’ The Times happen. At this point in his career and even since then this is arguably his “Great Work™”. A magnum opus if you will. His Frampton Comes Alive.

As mentioned, the song itself was written and recorded well before the album was even being considered in the form it was finally released. So its inclusion here is basically an editing/curating exercise. Not that this takes anything away from the song itself but I mention it in order to highlight that the song itself may not be reflective of the period in which it was released. Which is a common theme with many of Prince’s songs that get worked on for a while and then they’re put away to age and mature before they are enjoyed properly.

There is some controversy around this track in modern Prince fam-dom. Ever since he became a Jehovah’s Witness he began to change the lyrics in the song when performing it live to “the christ” and no longer sings it as it appears on the album. Apparently this is because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that JC died on one piece of timber and not two. What difference that makes to the price of fish is anyone’s guess but at the end of the day it’s his song so he can change whatever he likes.

Being a child of the compact disc age, I can only imagine what it must have been like to hear this record for the first time on vinyl. The song begins very quietly and you really have to crank up the sound to hear the opening notes. The way it’s positioned on the album I think helps with the impact of the song. This song opens up side four of the vinyl (the home stretch!). I’m going to ignore the CD version because I think that CDs would have been an afterthought in this era (and the less said about cassette tapes, the better). The last song on the previous side (side three) is “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” – an upbeat dancey song that is all about love and heartbreak. In fact all of side three is about love and relationships and all the songs have an upbeat party vibe (If I Was Your Girlfriend is kind of mid-tempo but definitely not a ballad or anything lame like that). So side three ends on a party track with a three and a half minute instrumental outro that has you jumping all over the room with your library card falling out of your pocket. Then the music stops, the needle on the record player returns home and you have to walk over in the silence, flip the disc and drop the needle again. And then for half a moment the silence makes you wonder if you’ve picked up a defective copy before you hear the music drift in and you turn up the volume so you can hear it better. Now you have soft guitar and sitar sounds wafting out of your speakers where moments before there was energy and movement and a wall of noise. It marks the beginning of the end. And that’s a big part of what this song is reminding us of – the end. Our end. Or rather, what Prince perceives our end to be; which is in fact, no end at all.

This was one of the first songs that I learned to play on guitar. It’s basically two very simple chords – E and Asus2. All you have to do is move two of your fingers up one string each and you’ve got it. The rhythm is pretty simple too. As one of the boys on the Peach & Black podcast mentioned, the beginning of this song sounds like it was written by someone in high school. The sitar sound even sounds like it might be made on a guitar of some kind with some sort of effect machine thingy. Then again, it could be the real thing (like I said – not a musician).

When Mrs Thrawn heard this song she said that it reminded her of The Doors, which may sound obvious, but that had never occurred to me until she said it. She even found the words to be “Doorsy” if you ignore the religious references (which she missed on first listening). Going back to the Peach & Black team, M.C. mentioned that some of this was almost grunge like (specifically, the second half of the song), which kind of makes sense since this song was written in 1987 and that’s right about the time that grunge was starting to emerge (Soundgarden was formed in 1984). Prince always has his ears open for the latest sounds and it wouldn’t surprise me if he had heard some grunge music by this stage.

The intro is such a quiet little guitar riff. I assume it is a guitar but it sounds very sitar-like. The guitar, vocals and sitar (or second guitar?) meander through to the 1:20 mark. Then the kick drum comes in on its own for about 20 seconds until we are joined by the little drummer boy (pa rum pum pum pum). Then just passed the halfway point in the song everything gets kicked into rock mode and whatever quiet meditation you were contemplating gets blown away. Again, thinking back to our vinyl listener who’s hearing this for the first time. They’ve flipped the disc, turned up the volume so they can hear whatever this Prince fellow is crooning about and then all of a sudden – whack! You get a face full of the rock. Nothing on the album up to this point has really prepared you properly for this song. It’s not about romance or love (in the romantic sense), it doesn’t sound remotely similar to anything else on the album and he’s tricked you into cranking up the volume on your gramophone to ensure that you get the full force effect of his faith.

So we’ve got a grunge-y/Doors-y/eastern/rock/gospel track opening up the last side of the album. It starts off quiet and simple and slow, the lyrics are sung softly and sweetly and then halfway through someone presses the ‘rock’ button on the amplifier and everything kicks up a few gears. The song really takes off musically and the lyrics (chorus and verse) repeat but are delivered with the power that is part anger, part desperation, part love and part hope. The backing vocals only come in right at the end (Prince’s Heavenly Choir™) to finish it off.

It’s such a basic song musically and lyrically that any variation or flourish is so deliberate that it carries some meaning beyond what is on the surface. Exhibit A – when the kick drum first comes into the song at that 1:20 right after Prince sings the word “bear” and just before “the cross”. The single kick drum pounding away on its own like that evokes a sense of a hammer pounding away. Hammering nails into a cross.

But I get ahead of myself.

 

Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry, He is coming
Don’t die, without knowing, the cross

The lyrics come in at the 0:32 mark. As mentioned above, there’s only one guitar (the “sitar” has dropped off by now) playing a simple chord progression as accompaniment. The vocal is soft, calm and reserved. It is, to say the least, a stark opening. Not off with his head Stark, but bleak nonetheless. The first two lines are pretty dark. No love, no hope, no light. At this point you probably wanna just skip to the next song but you know (if you’ve read the album sleeve) that the title of this song isn’t “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”. It’s called “The Cross” – a phrase which comes with a freighter full of baggage. And if you know anything about popular music and christianity, you know that there is likely a little more to this song (so keep listening). The next line starts to reveal some of what we can expect. It’s not all “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”, so don’t cry, “He” is on his way. What he plans to do when he gets here, that’s not quite clear. But he’s coming, so don’t die. Because there’s no way you could find out about him or his cross (or the latest summer trends from Paris) if you were dead. I find it interesting that in a lot of his songs Prince uses the words ‘come’ and ‘coming’ when talking about adult themes and the ol’ “in/out, in/out” but in this song there are no such connotations. Not that he has ever shied away from mixing the holy and the profane (“God is coming, like a dog in heat”) but in this song he’s really tried to strip away all that noise and write a modern hymn. He’s preaching the good news and he wants you to hear it. To know ‘the cross’. He wants that you should become well acquainted with an instrument of death and torture. “It’s a symbol” I hear you say, which is true. But it symbolises the idea that the torture and death of someone can somehow magically save you or me or anyone from “Murder, Death, Suicide and Tears™”. He uses the sitar sound again (which symbolises the cross or JC) and it comes back in after he sings the last word in this verse. It’s reassurance.

 

Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all of us
If we can just bear the cross

When I started listening to this song, I thought that these lines meant something like “bad things to the left and nice things to the right”. After repeated listens, I now think that the flowers here represent funerary arrangements and that these two lines are meant to mimic the negativity of the opening lines. Poverty and death to go with the hopelessness and rain. And once again, hope is salvaged by ‘the cross’. What kind of hope? Well there’ll be bread apparently. But I guess if you gotta cater for 7 billion-plus then you have to stick to simple fare. As mentioned above, this is where the kick-drum comes in and begins to hammer away at the cross. The sitar also comes back after this verse. As the song progresses the music and instrumentation start to tell the story of the crucifixion in the background while the lyrics tell the lead story of what that crucifixion means to Prince (and what it could and should mean to you).

 

Sweet song of salvation
A pregnant mother sings
She lives in starvation
Her children need all that she brings

She’s pregnant and she has children. That’s plural. That means a starving woman who already has at least one child is pregnant again. It sounds like she needs some family planning, not salvation. It would be easy for me to sit here and write about how the woman has no one to blame but herself and that she should learn to keep her legs closed (blah, blah, blah). But that would be Donald Trump level analysis and here we try to go deeper than the first nanometre. There are a lot of women, poor and other wise, but especially poor, who don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to pregnancy (in all parts of the world). That she’s now pregnant again is more of a structural/political issue that won’t be solved by singing. Maybe she should spend less time singing and more time bringing, but then again there’s no reason she can’t do both. This verse is also where the little drummer boy finally comes in (pa rum pum pum pum) and no surprise it lands just before he starts to sing of children. He’s witnessing the crucifixion and playing his drum.

 

We all have our problems
Some big, some are small
Soon all of our problems
Will be taken by the cross

This verse marks the end of the lyrics such as they are and they repeat from here. There is a small drum fill that comes in at the start of this quatrain. It’s calling you to pay attention – this is important. The culmination of what I’m trying to tell you is here. You see we all have problems of various sizes but soon it’ll all be alright, don’t you know. There’s a drum sound here that sounds like a drumstick hitting the rim of the drum and it hits and the end of each of the first three lines (father/son/ghost). If the kick drum is the hammer and nails then this new sound is the final construction of the cross. We’re almost done. We’re about to be taken away (like at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” – another song where “he’s coming”). He’s taken us from the first verse where he talks about the elemental level of weather and darkness to the next level down of the city and cemetery then down to the human level and the struggles of the poor and then finally in the final verse it comes down to the individual and everyone’s personal struggles. The point of which was to highlight to you that no matter the level of suffering or the problems that you face in your life, all you really need is god. Or more specifically, the god that Prince believes in (polytheists need not apply). The one with the cross to bear. So much so that he drops out all the music before singing “the cross”, symbolising the final breath of the saviour. The nails have been hammered, the crucifix has been erected and the rest is silence. Or is it…?

 

Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry for He is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross, y’all

Just before this verse starts, the sitar has another little solo (“the cross” just letting us know that everything will be okay) and then the guitar gets shifted into overdrive. The only change in the lyrics here is the addition of “y’all” at the end of the verse. “You all”. The perspective has shifted slightly now. It’s not about us anymore, it’s about you all. The drums pick it up a little in this verse and there are now two guitars (at least). Sitar solo after the verse still indicating the cross/saviour is with us but now the reserved hymn that we started with has morphed into a powerhouse celebration gospel song. Vocally, Prince takes it to another level. His voice is almost raw. As though he has been crucified and his throat is dry and worn.

 

Ghettos to the left of us
Flowers to the right
There’ll be bread for all, y’all`
If we can just, just bear the cross, yeah

Bread for all of you all. Not me, you. The music continues in a similar vein to the previous verse so nothing really to see here other than the party continuing. The word “just” does get repeated here though. Because you see, bearing the cross is really a simple thing. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Everyone should do it. All y’all.

 

We all have our problems
Some are big, some are small
Soon all of our problems, y’all
Will be taken by the cross, y’all (?)

There’s a percussion thing (xylophone maybe?) that comes in on this verse that kind of sounds like a pipe and the guitars and vocals seem to go up another notch. These additions add layers to choir depth to the celebration. The way he screams out “cross” on the last line tells you everything you need to know about how the singer feels about his subject matter. I’ve got a question mark next to the last “y’all” there because I’m not sure. It sounds like it to me but Metro Lyrics has “no” there.

 

The cross

This is where the backing vocals come in for the first time – Prince’s Heavenly Choir™. The saviour has been exalted up to heaven and the heavenly choir sings.

The cross

And then finally all the music fades out, it goes quiet, you think the song is over, but no. Prince’s Heavenly Choir™ comes back to remind you what salvation is all about. Him.

 

Running time 4:46.

 

The first half of the song was all about us finding out about the cross and salvation (whilst the cross itself is being constructed in the background). Then in the second half the song becomes about “y’all”. Prince is now our saviour and is telling us that we will be saved. Thematically, this makes sense because in the first half of the song the cross is still being constructed and the teacher is still a mortal man (or half mortal on his mother’s side). By the second half of the song (after death and resurrection) the teacher has become the saviour and we all better listen to what he’s telling us. Do what I tell you all and everything will be fine. You can join Prince in heaven and become a member of Prince’s Heavenly Choir™.

 

 

References:

Sign O’ The Times (released 1987)

The Peach & Black Podcast

Sign ‘O’ The Times, Michaelangelo Matos, Continuum International Publishing, 2004.

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

Metro Lyrics

Mrs Thrawn

 

 

[1] Tip o’ the hat to Matthew Wrather for ripping off his call sign – www.overthinkingit.com.

[2] http://www.princevault.com

 

‘When You Were Mine’ – Dirty Mind (1980)

This is the second track from Prince’s third album – Dirty Mind. Initial tracking for the album (and this song) was recorded somewhere in May-June 1980 at Prince’s Lake Minnetonka home studio (along with the rest of the album). Whether he purified himself in the lake before (or after) recording is unknown. Final mixing and overdubs were done in LA in June 1980. The album was engineered by Jamie Starr, one of Prince’s aliases.

Dirty Mind was released by Warner Brothers in October 1980. That’s six months from initial recording to release. Not a bad effort if you ask me and released only a year after the previous album (Prince).

His output from this period of the early 80s was immense. Prince “fams” speak reverentially of “Prince’s Vault” and the treasures therein. This song is part of that legacy and if it hadn’t been released it would have definitely become one of those bootleg tracks that fams love to gush over (regardless of the sound quality).

This song and album come at a time of high productivity and creativity for Prince. With his own home studio he was able to record whenever he felt like it and luckily for all of us he felt like it often. Because of his home set up the sound quality on this album isn’t the greatest but as with so many things in life, sometimes just getting it done is more important than getting it perfect.

This album is where Prince started to take his music and lyrics (especially lyrics) in a new direction. More flamboyant, more risqué, more in line with what would come later. The road to Purple Rain starts here.

This track isn’t especially daring or freaky (compared to the rest of the album), although it does touch upon some “adult themes”. Yet somehow it is a standout track on this album. The host of the Peach & Black Podcast, M.C., described it as “one of his best pop songs ever”[1] and I’d have to agree. At its heart it is a break up song about a boy who loves a girl who no longer loves him. And judging by most of the lyrics, likely never did.

Musically it has that 50s/60s vibe to it (at least in my mind). Overall it’s not a huge musical departure from the previous two records. I’ve heard his first two albums described as “Stevie Wonder wannabe” and to be honest the music on this track doesn’t move too far away from that mould (not that Stevie is a 50s act – he signed with Motown in 1961 at age 11). I can even imagine The Beatles shaking their mop tops to this beat.

Prince grew up in the early to mid-70s and I feel like with this song he is tapping into the sounds of his childhood and the songs that he would have heard his parents and relatives listening to. Bear in mind that when he’s recording this song he’s only 22 so his childhood is not that long ago. But already he’s working on his third studio album (where he again writes, performs and produces almost all of the tracks) and has exponentially more experience in the studio and writing music than ever before.

When my wife heard me listening to this song on repeat in preparation to write this article she mentioned that it sounded like something that might fit onto the Grease soundtrack and I don’t really disagree with her, at least musically. It’s a kind of retro, funk, pop that is constructed so well in its simplicity that you can’t help but enjoy it.

In this song, the music is innocent and sweet and nostalgic but lyrically it’s dirty, angry, raw and emotional. This is something that Prince has done multiple times over his career where the feel and vibe of the music and melody is in total contrast to the lyrics that he’s singing. I think it works great here. It balances out the message with a funky/retro sound. And if you aren’t listening to the lyrics then it is an upbeat party track that makes you want to move and groove. Even if you do listen to the lyrics you’ll still likely end up tapping your feet.

I’ve heard Ani DiFranco do a live version of this song as a straight out ballad (with special guest Maceo Parker). In that form the song doubles down on the sadness and the slyness and cheekiness of the original is replaced with pain. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not the same.

It opens up with the synth, some twangy clean guitar sounds, bass and drums thumping away in the background. Prince is playing all the instruments and singing all the vocal parts. It’s the whole one-man –band show that he became well known for.

There is an interesting little synth solo (2:08) where he comes in with a scream that is really cool but essentially it is just a really well constructed, basic pop song. Now when I say ‘basic’ I don’t mean to undermine it in any way, I just mean that there are a lot of good, uncomplicated elements that come together to form this catchy little pop song. To quote the Captain, it’s “amazing in its simplicity”[2].

After the solo there’s a breakdown that starts at about 2:20 (just vocals and guitar) which adds a cool little variation to the song too. This part goes over really well in concert and the crowd gets to sing along. And he likes to play this song a lot. Almost every tour it gets a run and it is always awesome.

This song was voted number 26 in the Peach & Black Podcast fan vote for all-time favourite Prince song, which is pretty good considering there are something like 500-plus officially released songs in the Prince catalogue (as at 01/08/2015).

A few Peach & Black quotes:

“Only a genius could have written such a simple pop song and make it sound so good”[3]

“You don’t have to be super tricky and technical if you can just write a decent song in the first place.”[4]

“Classic pentatonic pop song” [5]

“It’s never not great” [6]

“In Prince’s career (up to this point) this was by far the best pop song he had ever written and still one of the best since.”[7]

“Instantly listenable” [8]

Okay, so let’s get down to it. What is this song actually saying?

When you were mine
I gave you all of my money
Time after time
You done me wrong
It was just like a dream
You let all my friends come over and meet
And you were so strange
You didn’t have the decency
To change the sheets

 

“When you were mine”, that is to say, “when you belonged to me”. This is Prince starting off as the possessive ex-boyfriend. From the opening we know he’s talking about the past. This is not a song about what he wants to do or his dreams or his future. This is about the past. As the song progresses we come to learn that this was not a particularly happy past. And the present is not so pleasant either.

When you were mine, I owned you and I paid you for your services. But still “You done me wrong”. In fact, she let his friends (not just random guys/girls) come over and “meet”. Meet who or what, I wonder. With her? And what made her “strange”.

Two of the definitions for “strange” in the Urban Dictionary are:

A description commonly applied by male American, bachelors in the 50s and 60s to the anonymous mass of women whom they aspired to engage in casual sex with.

A clever, still slightly naughty, synonym for more profane terms like ‘pussy’ or ‘trim’.[9]

Given that this song seems to be thematically rooted in the 50s and 60s and clearly there is some sort of messy sex action happening here I’m going to assert that both definitions apply.

Now whether the casual sex we’re talking about her is recreational or more of a business venture is up for debate but I feel that the lyrics seem to infer that our man Prince has fallen for a prostitute.

A prostitute gets paid and if she has a lot of customers (all of Prince’s “friends”) then she likely wouldn’t have time to clean any sheets. I think referring to his fellow customers as friends is also an interesting lyrical turn. They definitely share common interests and what more could you ask from a friend.

Oh girl, when you were mine
I used to let you wear all my clothes
You were so fine (so fine)
Maybe that’s the reason
That it hurt me so

 

On the Genius website (genius.com) they refer to Prince’s diminutive size here as the driver for why he would let her wear all of his clothes. And yes, his clothes would likely fit her reasonably well. His fashion sense has always been fairly “feminised” which is no bad thing but the reason I think this line is here is because it ties into the next part.

You see, he lets her wear his clothes so that when he is looking at her she is reminding him of himself. And that is why she looks so fine. Because she looks like Prince and he is a narcissist and sees himself as the centre of the universe. Her body and the way she looks fits his frame so she can look “good” to him in his own clothing.

In the last half of the verse he is essentially admitting that the reason that he is suffering is not so much because he loves who she is as a person but it’s just that he really likes how she looks. Implying that if maybe she was just a little uglier it would be a little easier on his poor lonely penis heart.

I know (I know)
That you’re going with another guy
I don’t care (don’t care)
Cuz I love u, baby, that’s no lie
I love you more than I did
When you were mine

 

The chorus is where our hero starts to ramp up into crazy ex-boyfriend mode. He knows that she’s moved on. She’s got other clients and she doesn’t want to see him anymore because one would assume that he’s a little clingy and controlling. She’s moved on but he still loves her. In fact, he loves her more than he did when they were “together”. He wants her back because he can’t find anyone else (within his price range I imagine) who would fit into his outfits and look enough like him to turn him on. He loves her more now because he can’t have her.

For most normal people love grows when people spend time together, not when they’re apart. This lyric just highlights the dysfunction of our protagonist as someone who is moving beyond the socially acceptable parameters of male/female relations and standard sex work.

When you were mine
You were kinda sorta my best friend
So I was blind (so blind)
I let you fool around
I never cared (didn’t care)
I never was the kind to make a fuss
When he was there
Sleeping in between the two of us

 

When they were “together” they were “kinda” best friends? Sorta? If you have to pay your best friend what does it say about how well your life is going?

He says he “let” her fool around. As though she asked for permission and he gave it. This is just his deluded attempt to rationalise the fact that she is always going to be fucking some other guy/s. The fact that he focuses on a single “him” at the end of the verse confirms she has stopped fucking Prince at the same time as all of her other customers (which he interprets as her “fooling around”). The “him” that was between the two of them is not a literal person but rather a symbol of all the cocks that have come before and will continue to come after. That have pleasured her. That have asked her to be their fantasy (and not Prince’s).

I know (I know)
That you’re going with another guy
I don’t care (don’t care)
Cuz I love you, baby, that’s no lie
I love you more than I did
When you were mine

 

See above.

When you were mine
U were all I ever wanted to do
Now I spend my time
Following him whenever he’s with you

 

Now his obsession has gone into full stalker mode (achievement unlocked!). When she was accepting him as a client (when she was “his”), that’s all he wanted. She was an obsession. An addiction. But now. Now all he can do is follow her from a distance. But not all the time. He only follows her when she is with “him”. That is to say, he only stalks her when she’s working and she is with one of her customers.

Because he can’t handle the fact that she is fucking some other “lover”. He wants to own her. To possess her. To make her do what he wants.

And that is why she cut him off and he is no longer hers.

He’s too possessive and creepy and scary and weird.

I know (I know)
That you’re going with another guy
I don’t care (don’t care)
Cuz I love you, baby, that’s no lie
I love you more that I did
When you were mine
When you were mine, yeah, oh no
Love you, baby
Love you, baby
When you were mine

Repeat chorus, etc., fade to black.

Running time 3:47

So looking back on the lyrics and this interpretation it actually makes more sense that the music and the melody are so upbeat and cheerful. We can now understand that the music represents the manic and delusional mental state of our protagonist. His obsession with this women brings him a kind of joy which is symbolised in the twangy guitar work and happy rhythm section. But on top of that is that piercing synth, this is where the real world is trying to drive a dagger into his fantasy.

Recall that the synth solo starts up and becomes a piercing sound that is joined by a scream from our hero to match the same note. The real world (synth) is trying to break into Prince’s fantasy. But our hero is fighting back reality with his screams to continue to live in his dream world. The bass and drum rhythm changes underneath it all to indicate that something is happening. And then everything disappears apart from our narrator and the twangy guitar. Our hero was won. His fantasy continues.

He’s happy, he’s in love, and she is everything to him. But in reality he is a creepy stalker who fell in love with a prostitute that kind of looks like him when she wears his clothes.

References:

Dirty Mind (released 1980)

The Peach & Black Podcast

Wikipedia

Prince Vault

Urban Dictionary

The Hits – Songbook

AZ Lyrics

Mrs Thrawn

[1] “Dirty Mind Review” Peach & Black Podcast, 27/02/2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=strange