Hi kids! How are U?

As discussed earlier, the “Purple Rain” guitar solo on the big screen made me an instant Prince fanatic as a 14-year-old in the summer of 1984. Being a Prince fan has never been boring, but it was never less boring than in the summer of 1984. Over the next year, I would devour Prince’s five pre-Purple Rain albums, as well as his Purple Rain follow up. I would attend my first Prince concert. I would get glimpses into a secret world of B-sides and other rarities. There was the “We Are The World” controversy and the Tipper Gore firestorm; Prince was constantly in the news.

That was all just around the corner, but to start with, all I had was the Purple Rain soundtrack. I spent the rest of the summer listening to my Purple Rain cassette over and over, absolutely dissecting those 43 minutes and 54 seconds. I tried to isolate all of the instrumental and vocal tracks in “When Doves Cry,” particularly in the last two minutes of the song, the emotional climax that didn’t make the radio edit. What is Prince doing exactly, and how is he doing it? I reveled in little hidden treats, like the faint harmonizing as “Take Me With U” fades. But like millions of others who listened to the soundtrack that summer, I was obsessed with the end of Side 1 more than anything. What, if anything, was Prince saying at the end of “Darling Nikki”?

As Tipper Gore’s least favorite song screeched to a halt, the cold funk rock is replaced by some calming natural sounds and some exceedingly odd vocals. One line sounded kinda like an advertisement for dishwashing liquid to me, and another like a Three Stooges sound effect, but of course, any attempt to decipher this vocal was a waste of time. It was almost certainly a recording of Prince played backwards. In the days of MP3 shuffling, you might not have heard this in years, but I bet it’s still imprinted on your brain. Sing along if you remember the words.

Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah…
Ooohhhhh-ooh-oh-ose. Ay-muh! Ay-muk!
Oooohhh-ooh-ose
It must be Dawn™ on her hands
Ooh-wah nah-suhk nyock!
Nyuk!
Ooh-ooh-ee-ah yah. Ooh-uhhh-la!

Those fans who had the vinyl LP could simply spin the record backwards to decipher the message, but I didn’t know anyone who had the LP. Besides, this was my turntable in 1984.

mickey
Oh, don’t jump down my throat, audiophiles. If you were born in the sixties or seventies, you had that turntable too.

But the point is, backmasking was largely associated with Satanism at the time. And if Prince had no problem singing the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” what kind of ghastly lyrics would he feel the need to disguise? Whatever it was, did I really want Mickey Mouse to be staring at me when I heard it?

Hail Satan, kids!
Kill your parents, kids!

(Mickey didn’t stop me from laboring to hear “it’s fun to smoke marijuana” while spinning the 45 of “Another One Bites The Dust” backwards a few years earlier, but I think I’m veering off course here.)

So, I had no vinyl LP, and I had no Internet. If I wanted to know what Prince was saying, I would have to decipher the message myself.

My first idea was to make a copy of the song, open up the cassette, cut out the relevant section of tape, and then splice the tape back together so that “Darling Nikki” was reversed. (By the way, if “Reverse Darling Nikki” isn’t a sexual position, it should be.) In retrospect, this seems like a foolproof plan and an amusing little project. But at the time, I had a certain reverence for the humble cassette tape, and had little confidence in my ability to take one apart, rearrange it, and successfully put it back together. Would I have to buy special tape, or could I splice with just a little piece of Scotch tape? There would be X-Acto blades involved, and tiny screwdrivers, and clumsy adolescent fingers. Maybe I could ask my father for assistance (“Dad, I can’t quite make out what Satan is trying to tell me at the end of this pornographic song… little help?”), or maybe not.

My only other idea involved the fact that if I hit REWIND on my little Toshiba boombox while PLAY was already depressed, you could hear the tape playing in reverse at a decent volume, although it was at about 10x speed so it was unintelligible. I sprang into action. What if I played the song using FAST FORWARD while recording it on my sister’s boombox, and then played this new recording in high-speed reverse? Good idea, dummy, now you’re hearing it in reverse at 100x speed. I experimented like this for the better part of the afternoon. I was excited, so I measured once and cut a few dozen times. I won’t bore you with the details of my many failures.

I was just about to give up when I discovered that if I hit RECORD, PLAY and FAST FORWARD at the same time, my Toshiba would at least appear to record at high speed. And if it was recording at high speed, when played back at normal speed, the track should sound slow, right? And if that slow track was played at high speed in reverse? It was worth a shot. I played “Darling Nikki” on my sister’s boombox while doing the proto Ctrl-Alt-Delete move on my Toshiba.

When it was finished, I held down PLAY and REWIND and heard… nothing. Maybe the FAST FORWARD button being depressed had rendered the stereo unable to record. Or maybe it degraded the sound and I should turn up the volume just in case. I cranked it up to full volume, and one second later…

Hello.

I nearly wet myself. My improvised recording method had not degraded the sound at all; remarkably, it was perfectly clear, if a little fast. More importantly, it was loud, and I jumped when I heard it, my finger slipping off the REWIND button. This resulted in “hello” being played again, backwards, at a super slow speed and at ear-splitting volume. It was terrifying, frankly. I hit STOP and waited a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding before turning the volume down and trying again.

Hello
How are U?

Fine, Satan; that’s nice of you to ask. The conversational tone seemed anticlimactic, but oddly appropriate. After trying so hard to make contact, it was gratifying to receive a cordial welcome. There have been people working in the SETI program for decades who would kill to hear a simple “Hello, how are U?” Anyway, let’s start over…

Hello
How are U?
I’m fine
‘Cause I know that the Lord is coming soon
Coming, coming soon
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…

And that was that.

When the smoke cleared, all that was left was the most straightforward religious message on a Prince album since the Lord’s Prayer appeared in “Controversy.” In both cases, the delivery was subversive and unsettling, regardless of the content. The Lord’s Prayer was recited earnestly, but wedged between Prince questioning his sexuality and pining for mass nudity. His latest message of salvation was presented at the end of one of his most lascivious songs using a technique associated with the occult. Things were never quite as they seemed in the land of Prince; he always defied simple interpretation. Needless to say, this only added to my fascination.

Now that I was a certified audio engineer, I applied my new technique to “Baby I’m A Star,” where some unintelligible lyrics could be faintly heard in the beginning of the song and again at the end. When played backwards, you could hear a female voice (Wendy?) saying something along the lines of…

Like, what the fuck do they know?
All their taste is in their mouth
Really, what the fuck do they know?
Come on, baby
Let’s go crazy!

I clearly didn’t analyze this as much as “Darling Nikki,” because only after typing out these words 32 years later did I get the weird little “they have no taste” joke. At the time, I just assumed it was vaguely dirty.

Do you remember when you first heard the deciphered messages on the Purple Rain soundtrack?

U Call Me

If you want to be aware when new info is posted at Califragisexy, or just send a message, there are plenty of ways to get in touch with me here. There is a link in the sidebar that will allow you to Follow this blog and be notified of any updates via email. You can also follow Califragisexy on Twitter (@SFCaliFS) for blog updates and more.

And please email me at superfunky@califragisexy.com. Mostly because I’d love to hear from you, but also because I love that email address. It would be ridiculous to say that I’m “proud” of that email address. I mean, all it took to acquire it was a few dollars and a few minutes of configuration. And yet…

accomp

Science.

I flirted with iwonderu.com and doornumberpants.com, but in the end, I couldn’t pass up that email address.

There is also a contact form on the Contact page if you’d prefer to get in touch with me that way. And please join the discussion in the Comments sections. Or if you have something more substantial to say, I plan on posting guest submissions from time to time. Send ’em on over!

It’s just one lousy dime, baby… why can’t U call me sometime?

An Innocent Man

On Christmas Day in 1983, cassettes of Rock ‘n Soul Part 1 by Hall & Oates and Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man were waiting under the tree for me. And since none of you can prove otherwise, let’s say that I didn’t receive Air Supply’s Greatest Hits as well. I was a 13-year-old suburban kid raised on AM radio, and I didn’t have an older brother who was into Violent Femmes or Afrika Bambaataa or anything, so I was thrilled with these gifts (and with Heartbeat City by The Cars, which I would score on my 14th birthday in May). I loved pop music, but like most youngsters, I had no appreciation for subtext or complexity. I was immediately grabbed by the synth-pop hooks of The Cars, and by Billy Joel’s wordplay, and by the simple yet lovely melodies of Air Supply (would you stop looking at me like that, please?), and that was as deep as it got.

Prince? By the summer of 1984, I had literally only heard two songs from his four pre-1999 albums. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect pop song, and one of my favorite songs of 1979. Its suggestiveness sailed right over my 9-year-old head, of course. I immediately knew something deeper was going on when I heard “Controversy,” but I had no idea what that might be. I caught the album version while making a rare exploration of the right side of the AM dial when I was 11. A few seconds in, it already sounded like nothing I had heard before, and by the time Prince recited the Lord’s Prayer and chanted “I wish we all were nude,” I nearly broke out in hives. But the song would soon fade from my consciousness as I journeyed back to 610 KFRC, where “Controversy” was not bumping “Jessie’s Girl” off of the playlist.

“1999” and “Little Red Corvette” stormed Top 40 radio in 1983, and, as a human with functioning ears, I found them irresistible. Still, I had little appreciation for their lyrical audacity or their shattering of musical genres. On the Billboard Hot 100 for 1983, “Little Red Corvette” is nestled between Toto’s “Africa” and Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” and in my worldview, that made perfect sense. I wasn’t quite ready to peel back the layers of “When Doves Cry,” the #1 single of the summer of 1984. I remember watching the music video, where a naked Prince emerges from a steamy bathtub and beckons the viewer to join him.

doves

My heart was racing, but I told him “I… I… I’ve got homework to do” as I scampered out of the room.

And so, like most true fans, I have Harrison Ford to thank for opening my eyes to the power of Prince’s music.

***

In August of 1984, some friends and I went to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which had finally made it to our small-town movie house after opening in May. We were crushed to learn that the Spielberg blockbuster was sold out, and we begrudgingly decided to see the only other film that was playing at the theater: Purple Rain. The summer of 1984 was an inescapable Princely pop culture avalanche that we were collectively sick of, but the Seavue Twin was pretty much the only entertainment option for a group of 14-year-olds in Pacifica, so Purple Rain it was.

As I watched the movie, I quickly became enamored with the clownish funk of the Time, but despite the raucous performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” that opened the film, I still couldn’t quite get on board with Prince. I wasn’t equipped to process the shrieking of “The Beautiful Ones” or the shredding of “Computer Blue” or the stage humping of “Darling Nikki.” My friends and I spent the first hour laughing at the obviously amateur cast, although things became somewhat quieter as the story took a darker turn. When Prince’s character somberly took the stage following his father’s suicide attempt, I had no idea that Hall & Oates were minutes away from being a part of my past.

Purple-rain-cover

After an awkward silence and a mumbled introduction, the Revolution laid out the opening chords of “Purple Rain.”  I had heard the radio-edit of the song that summer and hadn’t been impressed with it, but within the context of the film, Prince’s emotional performance was riveting. During the final chorus, the giggling teenagers in the theater waved their hands at Prince’s urging (“if ya know what I’m singing about up here, come on raise your hands”), and while most of them were being sarcastic, I was secretly being sincere.

The song then continued past the radio cutoff to reveal a soaring solo that I had never heard before, and I was mesmerized. Prince fought his guitar as if it was trying to escape him, beating out a series of seemingly random sounds that somehow struck me as beautiful and moving. He eventually stumbled upon a simple mid-tempo riff and repeated it again and again with increasing desperation, grinding hope, frustration, glory and countless other emotions out of his helpless instrument. The solo eventually gave way to Prince’s majestic howls of redemption, after which he triumphantly revisited the guitar riff a few times before leaving the stage.

I did not have the vocabulary to describe it, and judging by that last paragraph, maybe I still don’t. But a door had been opened to a vast and vivid new world that only moments ago I was completely unaware of. Nothing I had heard before had prepared me for (or even hinted at) this world. Granted, Air Supply seemed pretty shaken up when they realized they were all out of love, but it wasn’t the same. The idea that a guitar can convey so much more than a lyric sheet may seem obvious to mature music fans, but it was a revelation to me at the time. In seven minutes, my entire outlook on music had changed. The film’s final performances of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” were simply a coronation. A lifelong Prince fan was born.

If Indiana Jones was a little less popular, would I have got there on my own? I mean, I wouldn’t be an Air Supply enthusiast, okay? College girls would have beat that out of me. But beyond that? It’s impossible to tell. Maybe I would have enjoyed Purple Rain on HBO that fall, but wouldn’t have been spellbound by the guitar solo as heard on the tinny speakers of our 20” Zenith. I’d still be a casual fan, but keep in mind that Prince provided annual excuses for casual fans to jump off the bandwagon.

1985: Prince releases Around The World In A Day, an abrupt right turn after Purple Rain
1986: Under The Cherry Moon bombs spectacularly on the big screen
1987: The Revolution is unceremoniously disbanded
1988: An airbrushed Prince absurdly poses naked on the cover of Lovesexy

Prince-lovesexy
“Last call! Everybody off the bandwagon!”

I could have checked out at any time, leaving a void to be filled by… Metallica? Dungeons & Dragons? Ayn Rand? Maybe right now you’d be reading Yes Can Do, my wildly popular Hall & Oates blog. I’ll never know. When the Purple Rain guitar solo opened a door to a new world that August night in Pacifica, I walked through, and the door closed behind me. There was no going back. He could have followed up Lovesexy with a double album featuring only bagpipes and armpit farts, but I wasn’t going anywhere. In my Prince fan origin story, that guitar solo is my radioactive spider.