Long Before Trump, Prince Makes a Great ‘America’
In the late '90’s and '00’s, the U.S. and Russia were getting along so famously that it made Prince’s political work from the '80s like "Ronnie Talk to Russia" seem kind of dated. Cut to 2017 where today’s headlines make that song, "Free," "1999" and "America" seem more urgent and current than ever.
"America" was the sixth track and fourth (global) single from Prince’s seventh album, Around the World in a Day. According to PrinceVault, it was recorded at the height of Purple Rain mania on July 23, 1984 at the Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse in Eden Prairie, Minn. It was whittled down from a jam session that ended (on record at least) when the tape ran out at 21:46. The entire track was included on the 12-inch single, with the final 15 seconds faded out.
"America" was also one of the few Prince tracks during the Revolution era to actually feature the full band on record (Brad Marsh joined in on tambourine). “We were playing and rehearsing for hours and hours, and we hit on this one groove that we continued to play for five hours,” said Wendy Melvoin in Matt Thorne’s book Prince: The Man and His Music. “Prince came in and did that ‘America’ solo and started singing and turned it into the song we know. To this day, we can put that song on and feel that band’s energy and feel what we were like at our best together – a f---ing freight train.”
The Revolution shot a 10-minute live video for "America" while they were in Nice, France during the filming of Under the Cherry Moon. According to Thorne, the show was one of the few times Prince played "Temptation" in full. The video shows Prince in a trench coat, with what appears to be his future "Kiss" video outfit on underneath, topped by the hat he wears in the "Mountains" clip.
Watch Prince and the Revolution Perform "America"
When the Minutemen sang, “I try to work / I keep thinking about World War Three” in "Paranoid Chant", they very well could have been talking about Prince. The threat of nuclear war looms large over Prince’s '80s albums. On "1999," he asked, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?” In 1981, he pleaded, “Ronnie, talk to Russia before it’s too late.” On "America," he lamented, “Now Jimmy lives on a mushroom cloud.” Engineer Susan Rogers was sympathetic to Prince’s fears. In Possessed: The Rise and Fall of Prince, Rogers tells Alex Hahn, “Nuclear destruction is something that can really, really frighten you. It was very important to him to feel safe and protected.”
"America" is definitely anti-communism, but it’s also a warning shout to modern America. “Communism is just a word / But let the government turn over, it’ll be the only word that’s heard.” Prince viewed patriotism as a way to keep the war pigs at bay. In the song, “Jimmy Nothing never went to school / They made him pledge allegiance / He said it wasn’t cool.” In a 1985 review of Around the World in a Day, the New York Times said “'America' might be termed a patriotic protest song. No draft cards are being burned here. In fact, one of the song's capsule character sketches seems to suggest that those who reject patriotism and dabble in nihilism may get their just rewards in a nuclear cataclysm.”
“He didn't like politics,” Sheila E. told Billboard where the video can be seen. “He didn't like a lot of it, but we talked about it all the time. It's the reason why he wrote ‘America.’ That was '85 when it was released. He wrote it during the time of [President Ronald] Reagan and when our country went to war with Libya. That's his response to what was happening then, which is still legitimate and relevant today.”
The liner notes for most of Prince’s early records included the cryptic message, “May you live to see the dawn." After "America," Prince lived to see many more dawns and many more 4th of Julys in his all-too-short lifetime. For those of us who remain, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, we can cling to the words in the chorus like spiritual life preservers in a sea of political rhetoric:
Freedom. Love. Joy. Peace.
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