Prince Sets a New Course on ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
When you think of Prince, you think of a crossover wunderkind. But a rock-inflected song like "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" made nary a dent in the pop charts after being released on Jan. 23, 1980.
In fact, "Little Red Corvette" wouldn't hurtle Prince into wider public consciousness for more than three years. In the meantime, however, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" made Prince's intentions known: This career wouldn't be contained by any old R&B paradigm. More than that, it signaled that Prince intended to take a decidedly idiosyncratic path in fulfilling his outsized ambitions.
At first, it didn't do him any favors. "I Wanna Be Your Lover," the first single off Prince's self-titled 1979 album, had become his first-ever chart-topping R&B hit. Many other artists might have been tempted to dig themselves into a creative rut. Instead, Prince followed that up with "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad," a nervy blast of guitar-fueled attitude.
Problem: His old audience stayed away in droves, and he hadn't yet secured a new one. "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" became the first of nine straight songs to miss the Billboard Hot 100. Along the way, he scored a Top 10 R&B hit with 1980's "Uptown," but that clearly wasn't enough for Prince. (Though it went no where with pop audiences, "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" also became a Top 20 R&B hit.)
Still, Prince had hit upon a new sound, an audacious blending of R&B, rock and new wave that heralded not just a new artist but the emergence of a new audience – one that, like Prince, would not be defined by race.
"As that original lineup came together," guitarist Dez Dickerson says in Let's Go Crazy, "we felt like Transformers – that all the parts had come together. We thoroughly believed that we were supposed to be the biggest band in the world."
The success of "I Wanna Be Your Lover," not "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad," led to a coveted guitar turn on American Bandstand – but even there, Prince went his own way. He was standoffish, even snarky, and he said the host was in part to blame.
Watch Prince's Debut on 'American Bandstand'
Dick Clark opened with a back-handed compliment, intimating he couldn't believe something so funky had emerged from Minneapolis. "That tripped me out," Prince later told the Star-Tribune. "That really gave me an attitude for the rest of the talk."
Prince gave him one- or two-word answers ("no," "maybe" and "don't know"), laughed and said nothing, lied about his age, even held up four fingers when asked how long he'd been playing music, rather than verbally responding. Another piece of the Prince persona – that of endlessly intriguing enigma – was also falling into place.
He'd shoot videos with the same touring band, peopled at that point with three key contributors to Prince's future 1999-era breakthrough – Dickerson, drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Matt "Dr." Fink. Other voices were only just now beginning to make their way into the studio space. Still, no one else received any credit on Prince. This eventually led to a rift with bassist Andre Cymone, who was only later officially acknowledged as a backing vocalist. By 1981, Prince's childhood friend had left for a solo career.
"My first album I did completely alone," Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985. "On the second, I used Andre, my bass player, on 'Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?' He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn't hear. There was a typo on the record, and Andre didn't get any credit. That's how the whole thing started. I tried to explain that to him, but when you're on the way up, there's no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to."
The above video for "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?" was also the last with Gayle Chapman, whose religious beliefs put her in increasing conflict with Prince's raunchier material. Dickerson soon departed for similar reasons, as well.
Prince simply kept going. Even later, during his most collaborative moments, Prince continued to struggle with letting others in. That too, was part of his process, his mystique – and, he always believed, his success. Maybe Prince just never believed that others could see what he could, far outside the constrictions of genre and racial expectations.
In keeping, Prince – not Dickerson – played the scorching solo that ends "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad" during his initial tours, just as he did on the original session. (Later, Prince took to memorably exclaiming "bitch!" just before turning his attention to the task at hand.) If you listen closely, you can hear the first flowerings of the kind of eye-poppingly sophisticated, yet totally rock 'n' roll guitar moments still to come on "Let's Get Crazy" and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
More importantly, all of these departures meant that the final pieces of the classic-era Revolution – bassist Brownmark, keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin – were starting to fall into place.