After falling under the spell of Purple Rain, the following months were a dizzying descent into rabid fandom. With five earlier albums to discover, plus albums from the likes of Sheila E. and The Time, I essentially devoured one album a month right up to the release of Around The World In A Day in April 1985. I loved the album, but by then I had developed a voracious appetite for Prince music, and these nine tracks weren’t enough to feed my habit.
A few months later I caught the tail end of a song on the radio, a song in which someone who sounded like Prince was singing “Hello!” I became obsessed with this snippet, but as a 15-year-old with no money, no driver’s license, and no Internet, the song could not have been further away from me. Was it even a Prince song, or was it a guest appearance on another artist’s album? Or was it just one of the many sound-alikes of the era? I thought that “Oh Sheila” was Prince for a few days, and that André Cymone’s version of “The Dance Electric” (taped off the radio) was Prince for about thirty years.
A few weeks later, I was flipping through the singles at the Wherehouse when I saw that the “Pop Life” single had a B-side titled “Hello.” It had to be the same song, right? I had just enough cash in my pocket to afford the 12-inch version; I figured that if “Hello” wasn’t the song I was expecting, at least I’d end up with an extended version of the wonderful “Pop Life.”
The extended “Pop Life” was a worthy purchase, living up to its subtitle (“Fresh Dance Mix”) with some jazzy piano and a bawdy fourth verse (“What’s the matter with your sex? Is fifteen minutes your best?”). And “Hello” was indeed the song I was expecting, and then some.
The introductory groove was so odd and dissonant that I thought the vinyl was warped or my record player was faltering. And since this was my record player…
…that seemed like a reasonable possibility. But the vinyl looked perfect, and it sounded just as eerie when played back on my parents’ stereo, which was not limited by the use of an animated rodent’s arm.
The 7-inch version of “Hello” (later released on The B-Sides in 1993) was the kind of cold funk rock track that the Revolution specialized in; you could imagine the band jamming to it when Prince shows up late to rehearsal in Purple Rain. (Although, like so many other Revolution-era tracks, Prince Vault claims that the recording was essentially a one-man show, with Prince providing everything except Jill Jones’ backing vocals.) But the 12-inch version (also labeled a “Fresh Dance Mix”) took the odd creaky groove of the original and distorted it even further. The result was unique and challenging, but it would be hard to define it as Fresh, and it certainly wasn’t easy to Dance to this Mix.
The music would grow on me, but the lyrics were immediately fascinating. Let’s remember how rare it was to get a straightforward answer from Prince either lyrically or in interviews during the first few decades of his career…
A statement of purpose like “Sexuality” spiraled into an odd rant about “tourists” with “89 flowers on their back.” His semi-autobiographic film Purple Rain tweaked his personal details to the point where to this day many casual Prince fans believe that his real-life mother was white. “Papa” had a haunting realism to it, but it described the death of Prince’s father thirty years earlier, which must have come as a shock to Prince’s entirely alive father. When he announced his retirement from touring in the Spring of 1985, he didn’t say, “I’ve been pondering my mortality and want to concentrate on more spiritual matters.” He announced, “I’m going to look for the ladder” because “sometimes it snows in April.” The songs “The Ladder” and “Sometimes It Snows In April” had yet to be released, so this was incomprehensible at the time.
So when Prince recorded “Hello” to respond to the “We Are The World” controversy, when he set out to let people know that he tried to tell them that he didn’t want to sing, but he’d gladly write a song instead, it was shocking that the opening lyric was…
I tried to tell them that I didn’t want to sing
But I’d gladly write a song instead
His explanation for the night’s events probably didn’t change many minds on the subject. For one, those who would seek out a B-side were probably already in his corner to begin with. And he didn’t refute any key details, outside of making it clear that it was paparazzi that were roughed up by his bodyguards, and not fans as was reported in some circles.
Instead of an apology, fans got a glimpse into Prince’s discomfort with fame, and his distrust of those outside his inner circle.
I was sitting pretty with a beautiful friend
This man tries 2 get in the car
No introduction – “how’ve U been?”
Just “Up yours, smile – that’s right, U’re a star!”
U call ‘em bodyguards, but I call them my friends
I guess I’m used to having them around…
We’re against hungry children; our record stands tall
The jerky literalist in me is tempted to read this as Prince having more of a problem with children than with hunger, but that’s beside the point.
The Revolution’s record did stand tall; Prince was rightfully proud of the donations, charity concerts and food drives that were a part of the Purple Rain tour. In Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy, engineer Susan Rogers remembers Prince staying up all night to finish mixing “4 The Tears In Your Eyes” in a mobile truck outside the Superdome a few days after “We Are The World” was recorded. The next day, Rogers found some food leftover from a party in the stadium and brought it to Prince as they finished the track. She explains…
A bit later, I remember reading in People magazine that at the “We Are the World” session, they had champagne and caviar. In the papers, they had just torn Prince up: “How dare he? He doesn’t care about starving kids.” And I thought, “No, actually, he was the one who went hungry on their behalf, who sat up all night and was happy to eat stale bread and warm soda to make a track for your record. He’s the one who didn’t have caviar and champagne.” But you can’t say those things. I asked him, “Aren’t you going to say anything?” And he said, “No, if you say anything, they got you.”
He did have something to say with “Hello,” however. And if there was any doubt that he didn’t come here to beg forgiveness for skipping the “We Are The World” session, that was erased with the next lyric:
But there’s just as much hunger here at home
In retrospect, there is obviously nothing controversial about showing concern for hungry American children. But by shifting the focus to domestic poverty, he is dismissing USA For Africa to a certain extent. When “Hello” was released, the entire nation was still huffing “We Are The World” fumes from a paper bag, so this lyric was borderline blasphemous. (In less than a year, however, USA For Africa would tackle domestic hunger with Hands Across America, to which Prince would donate over $13,000.)
That was the gist of the 7-inch edit, but the 12-inch included my favorite rant of Prince’s career. It had everything you could hope for in a Prince rant: it was heartfelt, self-deprecating, hypersensitive, hilarious, naive, and just a little unhinged.
Prince seems to be crying for help; his voice is cracking (or altered) as he shrieks:
“Why can’t U be like the others?”
I call out over and again
“Why can’t U learn 2 play by the rules?”
His self-doubt is short-lived, however. He knows why he can’t play by the rules:
Because I am not the others
I am unique in the respect I’m not U
Still, you can tell he was wounded by his recent press coverage, and this song is teeming with the sensitivity that would lead to a song like “Billy Jack Bitch” a decade later.
I wouldn’t try 2 hurt U
Despite all the ways U try 2 hurt me
U call me a fraud, an uncaring wretch
But I’m an artist and my only aim is 2 please
I love that last line, but it has always intrigued me. I can’t think of another 20th century Prince lyric that describes his “aim” in this manner, with the possible exception of the first lyric on his first album in 1978 (“All of this and more is for you”). It’s a narrow definition of the role of an artist, and I don’t believe that Prince adhered to this over the next few decades. Instead, he strove to make the highest quality art he could, regardless of how many people it pleased.
Isn’t life cruel enough without cruel words, cruel words?
U see, words are like shoes
They’re just something 2 stand on
Yeah, I’m not 100% sold on the shoe metaphor either, but he’s going to turn it around, just wait…
I wish U could be in my shoes
But they’re probably so high, U’d fall off and die
Yes! Yes! Yes!
4 U words are definitely not shoes
They’re weapons and tools of destruction
And your time is boring unless U’re putting something down
Apparently Prince was on Twitter in 1985.
What would life be if we believed what we read
And a smile is just hiding a frown?
Come now, isn’t life a little better with a pair of good shoes?
It is, Prince. It is.