It’s 1984 or 1985, Prince and the Revolution are in California, and they decide to drive out to Joni Mitchell’s house in Malibu for dinner. All devotees—Prince says his favorite album ever is 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns—they chat and admire her paintings, and then Prince wanders to the piano and starts teasing out some chords. “Joni says, ‘Oh wow! That’s really pretty. What song are you playing?’” as band member Wendy Melvoin later recalls. “We all yelled, ‘It’s your song!’” Prince will perform his gorgeous arrangement of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” in concerts up to the final month of his life.
This anecdote from David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell is rare for being sweet and funny, not sad or rancorous. It’s endearingly humbling, while still hinting at her ample ego: She really does love her own stuff, even when she doesn’t know it’s hers. And why shouldn’t she? For more than a decade, the singer from Saskatchewan bounded from masterpiece to masterpiece, her second-string songs superior to almost anyone else’s best. Yet, among her generation’s legends, she is the most persistently sidelined.
Mitchell excelled at channeling the subconscious of her time, especially as it was negotiated between men and women, but she was also always trying to get outside that orbit. She didn’t want to be a case of anything, except herself. The very chords she played were unique, belonging to no tradition except the one she generated with her own tuning system. She’s called them her “chords of inquiry—they have a question mark in them.” It wasn’t until she began working with jazz musicians that she found a band that could follow her (the rock dudes were hopeless). Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter took her as a musical peer. With rare exceptions, she refused to let anyone else—that is, any man—produce her albums, making her a pioneer in the studio too. No wonder Prince identified.
In 1960, four years after the venerable Blue Note Records signed pianist Jutta Hipp to their label, she stopped performing music entirely. Back in her native Germany, Hipp’s swinging, percussive style had earned her the title of Europe’s First Lady of Jazz. When she’d moved to New York in 1955, she started working at a garment factory in Queens to supplement her recording and performing income. She played clubs around the City. She toured. Then, with six albums to her name and no official explanation, she quit. She never performed publicly again, and she told so few people about her life in music that most of her factory coworkers and friends only discovered it from her obituary. For the next forty-one years, Jutta patched garments for a living, painted, drew and took photos for pleasure, all while royalties accrued on Blue Note’s books.
I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.
“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.
I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did.
Here’s Dave Gruhn, a 71-year old Nashville guitar dealer who helped sell off part of Eric Clapton’s collection:
“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.
He is asked about Clapton, who himself recently downsized his collection. Gruhn sold 29 of his guitars.
“Eric Clapton is my age,” he says.
How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer? He shakes his head.
“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”
Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.
“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”
“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”
Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article? Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined. In her Ukulele Anthem, Dresden Dolls front-woman Amanda Palmer says you can teach someone to play the ukulele in “about the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb — you do the math.” A kid can pick up the uke and find it satisfying in considerably less time than it takes to master the guitar. A few years back, a young Hawaii resident named Jake Shimabukuro made heads spin with his ukulele cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, proving that the uke’s simplicity doesn’t limit its musical possibilities.
Scientists say cockroaches are one of the few things that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Add prog rock to that list. Defined loosely by its intentional complexity, over-instrumentation, jazz elements, and classically-trained, ambitious musicians who rejected simpler, visceral forms of rock, the “progressive” form known as prog rock has been dissed and dismissed since it paraded its feathered hair onto the scene in the early 1970s. Even though its progressive ethos progressed itself out of existence, the prog oeuvre still has legions of fans and just as many enemies.
Why? In The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh examines the genre to search for answers. Did prog ever achieve its lofty goals of pushing rock into “a higher form of art”? I mean, where do you go when you’ve already reached the stars? Down into hell? For some, hell is an Emerson, Lake & Palmer synthesizer solo without end, or even one with an end.
The genre’s primary appeal, though, was not spiritual but technical. The musicians presented themselves as virtuosos, which made it easy for fans to feel like connoisseurs; this was avant-garde music that anyone could appreciate. (Pink Floyd might be the most popular prog-rock band of all time, but Martin argued that, because the members lacked sufficient “technical proficiency,” Pink Floyd was not really prog at all.) In some ways, E.L.P. was the quintessential prog band, dominated by Emerson’s ostentatious technique—he played as fast as he could, and sometimes, it seemed, faster—and given to grand, goofy gestures, like “Tarkus,” a twenty-minute suite that recounted the saga of a giant, weaponized armadillo. The members of E.L.P. betrayed no particular interest in songwriting; the group’s big hit, “Lucky Man,” was a fluke, based on something that Greg Lake wrote when he was twelve. It concluded with a wild electronic solo, played on a state-of-the-art Moog synthesizer, that Emerson considered embarrassingly primitive. An engineer had recorded Emerson warming up, and the rest of the band had to convince him not to replace his squiggles with something more precise—more impressive. In the effortful world of prog, there was not much room for charming naïveté or happy accidents; improvised solos were generally less important than composed instrumental passages.
The audience for this stuff was largely male—Bruford writes ruefully that, throughout his career, women “generally and rather stubbornly stayed away” from his performances. The singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, an obsessive prog-rock fan, suggests that these musicians were “afraid of women,” and that they expressed this fear by shunning love songs. What they provided, instead, was spectacle. As the American crowds got bigger, the stages did, too, which meant more elaborate shows, which in turn drew more fans. Weigel notes that, in one tour program, the members of Genesis promised to “continually feed profits back into the stage show.” (At one point, the show included a stage-wide array of screens displaying a sequence of hundreds of images, and, for the lead singer, a rubbery, tumorous costume with inflatable testicles.) Yes toured with sets designed by Roger Dean, the artist who painted its extraterrestrial album covers. Dean’s innovations included enormous, sac-like pods from which the musicians could dramatically emerge. Inevitably, one of the pods eventually malfunctioned, trapping a musician inside and prefiguring a famous scene from “This Is Spinal Tap.” The competition among bands to create bigger and brighter spectacles was absurd but also irresistible, and quite possibly rational. American arena stages, like LPs, needed to be filled, and so these bands set out to fill them.
Holly Maniatty is moving faster than anyone in the Wu-Tang Clan. She bounces up and down, her whole body undulates, her hands fly as she signs, her eyes flare precisely, her mouth articulates the lyrics. She is in the front row at the Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tennessee, where she’s interpreting the concert for Deaf fans. The other American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at the show looks at her in awe. Maniatty doesn’t pause.
Maniatty, who grew up in rural Vermont and holds degrees in interpreting and ASL linguistics, is a sensation in the Deaf community and among hip-hop fans. When she interpreted a Killer Mike concert, also at Bonnaroo, the rapper was so impressed with her rapid movements and visible passion that he jumped off the stage and began dancing with her. With a smile, he rapped a series of nasty words and phrases. Maniatty kept up; the crowd went wild.
Maniatty is an in-demand ASL concert interpreter and has grown in fame, appearing on late night shows from Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Fallon. Her skill is hard-won; for a single concert, she often prepares for up to 40 hours, to understand every aspect of the musical group she’ll sign for. She wants to provide near-perfect information to her Deaf patrons, so she learns everything: the group’s entire backlist, where they grew up, what charities they give to. By knowing the group she’s interpreting, she can more precisely — and more quickly — interpret their performance.
Maniatty wants to use her profile to bring greater equality to Deaf people. “There’s this whole population of culture in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served,” she tells me. Likewise, she wants attention turned not toward her but toward the Deaf performers who are breaking stereotypes of what it means to be a performing artist and what it means to be Deaf. She mentions her great respect for Deaf performers like Sean Forbes, Dack Virnig, and Peter Cook.
Maniatty and I discussed the boundaries of language, the complexities of interpreting, and raising awareness for the Deaf community. Throughout it all, she was upbeat and energetic, stressing how grateful she is to get to do what she does. Deaf or hearing, it’s hard not to look forward to her next concert.
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How did you become interested in ASL?
I had ideas about going to art school and I really felt like I wanted to be an interpreter and I went for it wholeheartedly. I was very fortunate to be accepted to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology). The National Technical Institute for the Deaf is there so they have a large population of Deaf students. I lived in a dorm with Deaf people and interacted with Deaf people, and most of my friends were Deaf, so I was really lucky to have that immersive experience, and because of that, I gained the language quickly. Since then, it’s really been one of the fulfilling things I could ever think of in life, really.
I worked for a short time as a staff interpreter at RIT and as a freelance interpreter, and just randomly was asked to do a concert. They were having a hard time finding an interpreter for it. I jumped in and found that I really loved the work because of the preparatory process: going through the music and analyzing the lyrics, and doing what an interpreter would call “text analysis” of the intent of the speaker and, hopefully, the received message of the person you’re interpreting for. I fell in love with that process.
That was in between my two degrees, and I went back to school to get a degree in ASL Linguistics because I felt like there was so much more that I needed to know about the language before I could really do this at the highest level. The University of Rochester has a fabulous program that includes linguistics classes, brain, and science classes, but also a lot of Deaf history, and Deaf folklore, and Deaf poetry. I was able to take those classes, and it really helped build my skill. From there, I just started doing shows and patrons liked the interpreting that I was able to offer, and they requested me to do shows.
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After I moved to Portland, ME, I got involved in Bonnaroo and interpreted there, and, again, that was patron-driven: someone that I had interpreted for before asked if I was able to go to Bonnaroo, and I contacted the accessibility department there.
Starting at Bonnaroo was a big step for me because it wasn’t just one show a night. Over the course of a weekend, an interpreter at a festival can do fifteen to twenty shows in just three to four days. That was a big step for me and brought me to another level of being able to do a variety of music throughout one day. You could go from something that was more lyrical and folk all the way to something that someone would refer to as a hardcore rap show. It definitely stretched my skills, and I think built me up to be a better interpreter every single year that I did it. I just really enjoyed that.
There’s a fabulous team of interpreters that come from all over the country to do Bonnaroo so it was a great opportunity to learn from other professionals, and we had this great, little brain trust going on — learning from each other and working together and supporting each other through that process. It was one of the pivotal interpreting opportunities I had.
Where does your particular skill set lie?
That’s such an astute question. No one has ever asked me that. I think the things that most prepares me for this work is my ability to look at communication as a whole entity — almost this global package. I try to use as many different possible ways to communicate a message as possible. Obviously the sign language, but then there’s the poetic aspect of music that you’re always trying to relay and put that experience out there for a person that’s at a show.
I always go back to what I would term as “the old Deaf masters,” like Clayton Valli and Patrick Graybill and The National Theater for the Deaf and all those old things we watched on VHS tapes when I was in college — that’s how old I am. Going back to them and seeing how they creatively used their language and then incorporated that into the way you communicate as a human being. So accessing people’s visual representations of things — like if they’re talking about a political movement, what was the picture that went along with that political movement? Or what was the striking Pulitzer image that goes along with that, and trying to access that through the interpretation. I research how the performer moves, and I think that speaks a lot to how they feel about one particular song or album. You see the way they shift their body posture and even the way they’re projecting their voice can be different based on the album, which goes back to a time in their life.
The more you look at communication as a global thing — a global delivery as opposed to just looking at the language itself — you’re able to communicate things a lot more efficiently and a lot more effectively than if you were just kind of thinking, How can I translate this instrument to sign language? Music is about so many more things than that, and if you’re going from very rich and lush movement to ASL, which is also a very rich and lush medium, you want to take advantage of everything you have.
…the most important thing is that they’re experiencing the same thing as somebody else is. They’re dropping with the beat at the same time; they’re having that emotional moment. I’ve interpreted shows before and almost everyone in the crowd is tearing up, and you want that for the patron that you’re interpreting for.
Is there something we can learn about translation from how you interpret ASL?
I do think that there are implications with any language — cultural implications. In Taiwan, February 14th is not Valentine’s Day; it was their February 14 Massacre so you couldn’t go from English to Taiwanese or whatever dialect you were using there and not understand the implication when somebody mentions February 14th. I think that in any language, you have to understand the cultural implications, and ASL is so deeply tied with American cultural experience.
I’ve learned, obviously, from my Deaf professors that you have to understand that cultural implication. I grew up near Canada in Northern Vermont, and on Quebec license plates, it says, “I will remember.” I never really understood that, and then I had a professor who was from France who explained to me the whole cultural implication of “I will remember,” as in Quebec will always remember their relationship as being kind of separate from Canada. So it’s interesting. If you delve into the culture of the language, you’ll have a more complete translation and one that moves people in the appropriate way.
What’s the most important part of interpreting music for Deaf patrons?
I think the most important thing is that they’re experiencing the same thing as somebody else is. They’re dropping with the beat at the same time; they’re having that emotional moment. I’ve interpreted shows before and almost everyone in the crowd is tearing up, and you want that for the patron that you’re interpreting for. Ultimately the goal is that they’re feeling the exact same thing as everybody else. When you hit that interpreting sweet spot, there’s nothing else like it. You’re just like, “Yes! Mission accomplished!”
Tell us about the connection you make with Deaf patrons.
I did a Beastie Boys concert, and the patrons were really excited about it, and I worked really hard to make sure the cultural references in Beastie Boys songs and the funny puns were tangible. There are moments when everyone’s like, “Oh no. He just didn’t say that” all at the same time, including the Deaf patrons. That’s what you go for. Those are the moments when the twenty to forty hours of preparation for the ninety-minute show are absolutely worth it.
I don’t know about you, but I definitely had experiences where I’m at a concert and I think a song means one thing, and then I’m in a crowd of people and we’re all kind of feeling the same thing, and then I see the performer and I’m like, “Oh, that’s what they meant?” I think people have those a-ha moments, and you want to provide an opportunity for someone to have that a-ha moment. They will never forget the moment they really understood what that song meant, or what it meant to the person that wrote it. That’s really the challenge. You’re just setting an opportunity before somebody, and they grasp it just like everybody else.
I think people have those a-ha moments, and you want to provide an opportunity for someone to have that a-ha moment. They will never forget the moment they really understood what that song meant, or what it meant to the person that wrote it.
It just became my thing over the last ten years of interpreting. The Beastie Boys concert was a huge education for me because I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute. What is this song about? Wait, who and what are they referencing?” I didn’t grow up in metro New York City so I didn’t know about the Pelham train so I had to look that up and I read all of that. And I mean that whole song has like seventeen different historical references about Manhattan in it and for someone who didn’t grow up there, that’s huge.
I ended up falling in love with the simplicity of hip-hop. It’s this really lush and diverse use of language. Everyone’s really excited about Hamilton because it’s telling a story in a more modern way, but hip-hop’s been doing that for a long time. They broke barriers. They broke social barriers, racial barriers standing for a long time. I think the masterful way that people use language in hip-hop songs is just amazing. It just fascinates me. I read everything I can about hip-hop culture. Every single time, in the same way that I feel like I learned something new about American Sign Language on a weekly basis, I’m learning something new about hip-hop on a weekly basis.
Holly shakes hands with Method Man from the Wu-Tang Clan while interpreting their concert at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
Hip-hop is often the place where the vernacular of American English is first stretched. Are you likewise trying to expand the possibilities of ASL?
I’m a second-language learner, so I will never use ASL to one hundred percent of its potential like a native user. I understand and respect that. ASL is so complex and has so many beautiful nuances. It really is a perfect medium to translate any kind of hip-hop, just the way in which you can communicate so many concepts very, very quickly. Many of the aspects of ASL are spatial. We use first-person perspective and storytelling mode. It’s literally the perfect medium to make this accessible in a different language.
To what extent is the body a vital interpreting tool?
I think it’s super important. In preparation for a show, you have to think about the lyrical story and the story of the person who wrote it, but you have to think about the musical story too. Jay Z, in 99 Problems, uses this really awesome technique where there’s this weird static noise behind the lyrics where he’s “becoming” the cop that pulls him over. The way in which people are mixing and DJs are mixing their songs with these acoustic effects is really relayed in your body and the way you’re positioning your body in interpreting, and I think that — as much as the words — is important. The context is important, and the beat is just as important. There are some songs you know in just the first three seconds, like It’s Tricky from Run DMC. And that’s really important. If you can make your body movements equally as iconic as the music that’s written, it just enhances the access to the concert and to the musician.
What’s the most creative you’ve ever had to be when signing a lyric?
I think one challenge was when we were doing a back-to-back concert with Eminem and Jay Z. They’re very different performers, with very different approaches to the way they deliver the same genre of music. You have to be able to show that. Eminem had done a lot of sampling of other R&B like Rihanna, so that was a big challenge — to be really visceral like him and then kind of emotional like her in the same song and just kind of switch back and forth between that based on the lyrics and the hook.
I think, too, ideally as an interpreter, you’re making yourself vulnerable to whatever emotion the music is about. So there are some songs that are emotional and you have to go there, and it’s a risk. You really go the whole way and try to make the interpretation as accessible as possible even if it’s emotionally risky for you and other people there.
What do you see as your contribution to the Deaf community at large?
I hope my contribution to the Deaf community is bringing a greater spotlight to their need for access to interpreting. Not just concert interpreting — any kind of interpreting. The Americans with Disabilities Act just had its birthday; it’s twenty years old and people still struggle on a daily basis to get interpreting services for basic things like doctor’s appointments and surgeries.
I hope that somebody hears about this crazy person doing whatever concert and then looks at my page and sees maybe something about a Deaf performer like Sean Forbes or Dack Virnig and then they check out Deaf performers and then they go to their page and say, “Oh wow, this Deaf person is posting that the EDHI law is up for renewal in the United States House and that’s for early detection of hearing loss in children so that there can be ASL services and early intervention services.” There’s this whole population in America that sometimes is easily overlooked and not served.
Interpreters have an inside look on people’s lives. It’s a huge privilege being in a partnership with the Deaf community and Deaf culture. I will continue interpreting. and I will continue trying to be an advocate for access for Deaf people.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cody Delistraty is a writer based in Paris. Follow him on Twitter: @delistraty.
I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory. Read more…
After their 1986 debut Licensed to Ill, the world had high expectations of the Beastie Boys. But their second album, Paul’s Boutique, was viewed as a commercial failure. The hip-hop trio then had the creative freedom to pursue whatever they wanted next, and the result, 1992’s Check Your Head, presented their most ambitious vision yet, and allowed Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D to finally come into their own. At Flood Magazine, Marty Sartini Garner describes how the Beastie Boys discovered themselves.
But the album is guided by a kind of audacity that refuses to recognize itself as audacity. It doesn’t even dare you to suggest that following the sunbaked rock of “Gratitude” with a conga-led organ jammer is a bad idea; it succeeds almost entirely on the power of the Beastie Boys’ conviction that it would succeed, that the contours of their map might be recognizable even if the landmarks aren’t. “They could relate and dig deeper with Check Your Head, because it fit their [evolution] in a lot of ways, too,” Diamond says of the audience they discovered when they finally took the album out on tour. “It may not have been the same trajectory of music that they discovered along the way, but they could relate.”
It was “this freedom to [try] shit and be inventive and use the whole century as a palette,” as Nishita puts it. “Let’s just smash it all together.”
Prince made too much music for just one person. He knew this, banking thousands of hours of unreleased material in the vaults of his Paisley Park studios. A year after his unexpected death on April 21, 2016, we’re no closer to realizing what he stashed away in his vaults, but what he gave away in his lifetime represents an important chapter in his legacy.
A year after his unexpected death. Prince was the soundtrack to the most naively optimistic years of my life, the years that my life was first my own. Years full of risk and erratic income and the first time I fell in love as something resembling an adult. A year after his unexpected death. I still catch my breath when there’s a Prince song on the radio. I can’t sing along without my voice literally choking on the emotion I still feel from this loss.
At Pitchfork, Stephen Thomas Erlewine reminds us that Prince existed beyond his own discography. We know about “Manic Monday” and “The Glamorous Life” and “Jungle Love,” but there was so much more. And much of it went to women.
Prince’s cottage industry as a songwriter for hire was a key part of his purple reign in the mid-’80s. He wasn’t contracted to write hits but instead gave songs to acts he deemed worthy. Usually these were women, which emphasized Prince’s androgyny and feminine empathy, but also reflected the practical reality that he no longer had Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6—the short-lived girl-groups he built, respectively, around his ex-girlfriends Vanity and Apollonia in the early ’80s—as a vehicle for exploring this side of himself. Certainly “Sugar Walls,” the tune he gave to Sheena Easton in 1984, felt like a throwback to Vanity 6’s sex-saturated 1982 hit “Nasty Girl,” and Easton delivered it with a heavy-handedness befitting its single-entendre. But if “Sugar Walls” treads familiar territory, “Manic Monday”—written for the scrapped second Apollonia 6 album—was a genuine departure into psychedelic pop. In the Bangles’ hands, “Manic Monday” carried a bittersweet sparkle suiting the Paisley Underground scene, which inspired the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day.
There’s an Apple Music playlist included at the end of Erlewine’s homage to Prince’s diverse side projects. You might want to grab your headphones.