SOTT day 18: Strange Relationship by @ehphd

Day 18 of part 1 of the Sign “O” The Times themed #PrinceTwitterThread series: Strange Relationship by @ehphd.

*taps mic*

Hi! So as part of the #PrinceTwitterThread that @deejayumb and @EdgarKruize organized on Prince’s classic 1987 Sign o The Times era (#SOTTDELUXE), I’ll be doing a thread tonight about “Strange Relationship”. Follow along!

So the song finds Prince narrating a confession of sorts, whereby one partner is acknowledging the wronging to the other. This wrongdoing takes the shape of manipulation, (borderline) abusive, and just generally toxic and, well, strange

Peep some of the lyrics…

-“I guess U know me well I dont like winter/But I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold”

-“I didnt like the way U were so I had to make U mine”

-“Baby I just cant stand to see you happy/ More than that I hate to see you sad/Honey if U left me I just might do something rash”

So what’s this strange relationship (ship ship ship)?

Well P first records “SR” in March 1982/3, & as Jill Jones told Duane Tudahl for his *Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984* (https://www.duanetudahl.com/welcome), Vanity inspired it.

Peep a quote in next tweet

“It was just a strange relationship. It was really true that he didn’t want to see her happy and he didn’t want to see her sad…Because she started dating other people…and he got pissed…so she was getting something and that was the only thing he had to yank her back.” –J.J.

While Prince didn’t release this 1982/3 version (and instead shelved it in the vault), two years ago the Estate released the Prince home studio rehearsal tape *Piano and a Microphone 1983.* And a piano sketch of “SR” is on there. Check it out

So as the story goes, P takes “SR” out of the vault in 1985, hands it to Wendy & Lisa, & asks them to contribute some ideas to the song. And while that, too, was put back in the vault, we got a chance to hear this version via the SOTT super deluxe release:

As you can tell, Wendy and Lisa went heavy on the sitars (more on that in a sec), flutes, congas, etc., which all came from Fairlight digital synthesizer. Here’s what Lisa said to Andrea Swensson (https://www.thecurrent.org/feature/2020/08/27/prince-the-story-of-sign-o-the-times-episode-1) about their use of the Fairlight on this version of “SR”…

“We had like all these amazing sounds that suddenly you could have like a sitar…which was so rare back then; you’d have to find a sitar player or something, but this was like it was all right there at your fingertips. We were just loading songs up with strange sounds…”

So…Lisa’s not quite right about sitar sounds being rare on songs before the Fairlight. As I note in my book (https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/sounds-from-the-other-side), the electric sitar was popular in Black music during the 1970s and beyond (shout out Motown and Philly soul)

Also calling the sitar “strange” taps into this long history of white musical exoticism/othering (also in my book) & the quote also seems to suggest that W&L added the sitar, congas, etc. to SR because they were “strange sounds” that could emphasize the “strange relationship” 😬

It’s also worth noting, and props to @deejayumb for tell me about this, the “yeah yeah” voices seem to be from Mick Fleetwood’s “The Visitor,” a song (& album) he recorded in Ghana. The song was written by CK Gayno and featured the Ghana Folkloric Group (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcy_w8Vu-ps)

*The Visitor* was of course part of a trend w/ ppl like Paul Simon, Brian Eno, David Bryne, etc. And Im reticent to say outright that “SR” samples “the Visitor” b/c certain non-Western musics were circulating in U.S. music in such a way at this time that the “original” got masked

Anyway, after P disbands the Revolution & goes on to work on the Camille album, he revamps “SR,” adds his Camille voice & practically removes L&W’s contributions (sitar too). And while he shelves the Camille album, he eventually puts it on SOTT for release

There are some major sonic and lyrical differences between the W&L version and the SOTT version. Sonically, the difference in the low Prince voice in the W&L version and high Camille voice in the SOTT version become a lesson in the socialization of gendering (and gender in) voice

What do I mean by that? In the W&L version, the lower (read masculine) voice of Prince readies the ear to a seriousness that matches the darkness of the song. On the flip side, the higher (read: feminine) Camille voice gives it a levity that betrays the serious lyrical tone

2nd thing on the sonic tip, despite the “levity” of the SOTT version, there are moments that a darker, nonhuman guttural voice can be heard harmonizing with Camille, a possible signaling of Camille’s violent alter ego Spooky Electric, as the figure driving the toxic relationship

Lastly on the sonic tip, we might read the stripping of the W&L parts (sitar et al) but keeping the Ghanaian voices as not simply about Prince moving from a band to solo, but also a diasporic gesture and attachment that further underscores and augments the Blackness of SOTT

Lyrically, the versions are basically the same, but the lyrics take on new meaning in SOTT. For one, both versions lack a gendered referent (no use of she/her/hers or he/him/his). This matters on the SOTT version b/c it’s attributed to the gender & sexual boundary pushing Camille

So how might the gender and sexual possibilities (and possible readings) of “If I was your Girlfriend” (as outlined by @deejayumb in his thread) be the natural precursor to “SR”? And what does it mean that “SR” is the only song about intimacy on the album w/o any use of pronouns?

And if we want to get a little meta, one might argue that some of the lines might act as disses to W&L on the SOTT version. “I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold” (taking out the sitar). “I didn’t like the way you were so I had to make you mine” (P makes SR a solo release)

But to be less petty, there is one change in the song that I’ve wondered about and don’t have an answer to. In the W&L version the 3rd verse has the line “I’ll take all the blame but I’m only human.” But in the SOTT version the line is “I’ll take all the blame yo baby I’m sorry”

What’s the reason for this change? The alteration makes the narrator appear a bit more contrite. But what happened in P’s life between 85 and 87 to make that small change? A new “strange relationship?” A new view on relationships? Does Camille have an alt definition of the human?

Regardless, we would find Prince still slightly altering the lyrics of “SR” throughout his live performances. One of the ones that sticks out to me is one that we hear on One Nite Alone…Live!:

The 2nd verse to both the W&L & SOTT versions is: “I came and took your love I took your body/I took all the self-respect you ever had/I took U for a ride and baby I’m sorry…” But on the ONAL version P replaces the “I’s” with “U’s,” returning the gaze & blame on the partner

Im sure the ONAL performance wasn’t the first time he did this (those with better knowledge about his live shows can tell me when this happens), but I wonder what/who was the reason for this change? He curiously kept this lyrical version through the 2016 Piano & A Microphone Tour

And speaking of, and this will be how I close, it’s important to note that on that tour P paired “SR” with a cover of Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart” (a song Prince had been performing since the late 80s)…

Both songs deal with the toxicity of a relationship but from different and mirrored places. SR cops to inflecting pain, while UMH centers the experience of that pain. For P, SR is suspended in/by strangeness. But for Ray, UMH demands to be set free. Strange relationships indeed

Ok that’s it for me on this #PrinceTwitterThread! I hope yall enjoyed it. Tomorrow, @dmsrblog will bring side 3 home w/ “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” All thanks again to @deejayumb and @EdgarKruize for the invite! 💜 #SOTTDELUXE

Oh, I mentioned this earlier in the thread but I have a book coming out next week *Sounds from the Other Side: Afro-South Asian Collaborations in Black Popular Music*. You can preorder it here:

https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/sounds-from-the-other-side

And if money is kind of tight or you’re more of an online/virtual reader, the open access version of my book can be fond here:

https://manifold.umn.edu/projects/sounds-from-the-other-side

Originally tweeted by Elliott H. Powell (@ehphd) on 27 October 2020.

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