Cartoonist Hazel Newlevant discusses Wendy & Lisa’s contribution to Prince’s legacy. All images from Hazel Newlevant’s No It U Lover (2014)
If you can do it all, and if you have a singular vision that combines genres and pushes forward music, do you need anyone else? Who do you choose to surround yourself with? Prince was the most talented multi-instrumentalist in a generation, a prodigious songwriter and arresting performer. His reputation as a sole genius makes it easy to overlook the contributions of his collaborators. He masterminded entire albums by The Time and Vanity 6, playing every note on their records, and providing guiding tracks that Morris Day and Vanity had to follow exactingly with their vocals. Prince’s hyper-controlled methods didn’t sit well with everyone; many musicians quit his employ over the years to seek creative freedom elsewhere.
Prince had a penchant for picking young, beautiful and unknown women to work with. Some he chose more for their looks than musical talent, such as Apollonia, whom he groomed to replace previous collaborator Vanity and to play his love interest in the 1984 film Purple Rain. Knowing this, it would be easy to mistake Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist and guitarist of The Revolution, his band of the era, for two such extensions of Prince’s image. But the pair left their creative fingerprints indelibly on Prince albums from Purple Rain through Around The World In A Day and Parade all the way to the famously auteur-ish Sign O’ The Times, released after The Revolution’s breakup in 1986.
Understanding Wendy and Lisa, and how they affected Prince’s music, is key to the conflict between Prince as a musical mastermind, who wanted absolute control over his sound and image, and Prince as a collaborator.
Lisa Coleman joined Prince’s band around the time of 1980’s Dirty Mind, and her breathy vocals can be heard on “Head”. Her father was a session musician, and she had already played on one flopped Partridge Family-esque album as a child, making her a seasoned pianist despite being fresh out of high school. Prince was so impressed when he heard her demo tape, he invited her to Minneapolis to audition. When they jammed, Lisa says, “from the first chord, we hit it off.”
Thrilled as Lisa was to join Prince’s band, it was painful to leave behind her sweetheart Wendy Melvoin. “I had fallen in love with Wendy, my childhood friend, and suddenly we were looking at each other differently, but I had to leave on the road all the time. It was always just torture.” Prince heard Wendy’s guitar playing during her frequent visits with Lisa, and when Dez Dickerson left the band in 1983, Wendy was a ready replacement. The “are they or aren’t they” aspect of Wendy and Lisa’s relationship was the perfect complement to Prince’s sexually fluid, multiracial vision of The Revolution: “Black, White, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’!” With the final line-up of Wendy and Lisa, Brown Mark, Bobby Z and Dr Fink, The Revolution were at hand.
Wendy had a way of breaking tension in the studio with her playful, forthright tone. She could tease Prince as none of the other band members dared, and wasn’t afraid to tell him when she didn’t like something. When writing Purple Rain, Prince started to work with The Revolution more collaboratively. The members would often jam together until they found a groove they liked, or Prince would leave them to work on their own parts, rather than writing everything himself. Wendy and Lisa provided the sultry spoken word introduction to “Computer Blue”: “Wendy?” “Yes Lisa”. “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes Lisa”. “Shall we begin?” “Yes Lisa”. Their role in the Purple Rain film solidified their public image. Although they didn’t contribute to the composition of the track “Purple Rain” as much as the film implies, the couple’s fictional conflict with Prince about their creative input prefigured later, real-life conflicts.
Wendy shaped Prince’s music in another way, by introducing him to her twin sister Susannah Melvoin. Prince was immediately taken with her, despite her being in a relationship when they met, and wrote the song “The Beautiful Ones” for her. He created a new group called The Family to showcase Susannah, along with former members of The Time. After the huge success of Purple Rain, Prince was ready for a new musical direction, and relied on Wendy and Lisa to help him get there – asking them for input, or to point out when a song sounded like something he’d done before. On tour, Wendy and Lisa played Prince’s records by white rock ’n’ roll acts from their childhood – The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
Prince returned to the studio in 1984 to record the next album. Lisa’s brother David Coleman, a talented multi-instrumentalist in his own right, got it rolling by composing “Around The World In A Day” for his sister. He used a wide variety of sounds – oud, cello, finger cymbals, darbuka. When the girls played the song for Prince, he liked it so much he made it the title track of his new album. He rerecorded the song with David’s blessing, and used this wider sonic palette throughout Around The World In A Day. Wendy and Lisa lent their vocals to album hits like “Pop Life” and “Raspberry Beret”. Critics were surprised by how quickly the new album came together. “It’s true that I record very fast,” Prince told MTV. “It goes even quicker now that the girls help me.”
Parade, the next album, features more of Wendy and Lisa’s songwriting. “Sometimes It Snows In April”, a song about the death of a friend, has a spare arrangement, primarily framed by Lisa’s signature jazzy piano playing, punctuated with Wendy’s electric guitar strumming. Prince’s voice soars over top on the verses, before they join him for the chorus, their voices harmonising. The whole song is by just the three of them. The song’s elegiac tone seems even sadder and more beautiful in light of Prince’s own death in April.
The collaboration became even more enmeshed while working on a projected follow-up, called Dream Factory. This album promised to be Prince & The Revolution’s most sprawling and musically ambitious yet. It was never released – instead, Prince recycled many of the highlights into Sign O’ The Times. Wendy described the process of writing “Strange Relationship”: “We got a master tape that had Prince’s vocals, piano and drums. He said, ‘Take it and finish it.’ So Lisa and I went back to Los Angeles and created the other parts to it. The sitar sound came from a sample from the Fairlight.” Dream Factory also contained improvised, instrumental tracks by both Wendy and Lisa, recorded as they warmed up in Prince’s home studio. These added a casual intimacy to the album, and Prince clearly cared about showcasing their musicianship.
The Dream Factory sessions were a period of deep creative and personal connection between the three. Prince asked Wendy and Lisa to be his surrogates in an interview with Rolling Stone, where Wendy described their relationship: “It’s silly, us all being so intense about it and swooning over each other, but it’s meaningful. Not that the rest of the band doesn’t understand Prince – they do. We’re just a bit more spiritual with him.”
However, near the end of recording Dream Factory, Wendy and Lisa’s relationship with Prince soured for a number of reasons: Prince still had an on-again, off-again romance with Wendy’s sister Susannah – the lyrical inspiration for “Strange Relationship” – and it angered Wendy to see him womanising while he expected Susannah to remain faithful. If Prince arrived at the studio in a bad mood, they suspected he’d been fighting with Susannah the night before. He started changing their contributions without consulting them, and continued to expand The Revolution. It swelled to 12 members, including a second guitarist and backup-dancing bodyguards. Prince wanted everything bigger, more full of entertainment, while the women wanted to rein it in.
When the pair visited Prince to demand to be treated as creative equals, he instead decided to strip their contributions from Dream Factory. Wendy and Lisa remained to finish the Hit N Run tour with Prince, before The Revolution dissolved in 1986. Prince shelved many songs from Dream Factory, and on the ones he kept for Sign O’ The Times, he rerecorded their parts. Lisa described hearing the final product: “We listened to it like, ‘Oh wow...we are gone’. It was like a breakup and seeing your boyfriend with another girl.”
This is not to take away from the artistic accomplishment of Sign O’ The Times. But that record especially is lauded for being solely Prince’s handiwork, and it’s worth celebrating his collaborators. Wendy and Lisa went on to explore their creative impulses as a duo, recording albums together and scoring TV shows like Heroes and Nurse Jackie. Prince found new and different ways of being Prince. The three were never able to fully reconcile, due in part to Prince’s Jehovah’s Witness faith, which led him to reject the queerness he had once embraced, as a “sinful lifestyle”.
In a 1989 interview with the UK TV programme TV:AM, when told that Wendy & Lisa’s new single “Satisfaction” sounded like Prince, Wendy responded simply, “He sounds like us.” Lisa elaborated: “You swap and barter and trade and learn and teach and steal and give.”
Hazel Newlevant’s graphic novella If This Be Sin (along with more comics about Wendy, Lisa, Prince and others) is available via her website.
“What Happened Was: Lisa Coleman And Wendy Melvoin” by Keith Murphy (Vibe, 2009)
“Ladies In Waiting: Wendy, Lisa And Prince: A Musical Love Affair” by Neal Karlen (Rolling Stone, 1981)
“The Revolution Will Be Harmonized” by Barry Walter (Out Magazine,2009)
Prince: Chaos, Disorder, And Revolution by Jason Draper (Backbeat, 2011)
Prince: Inside The Music And The Masks by Ronin Ro (St Martin’s press, 2011)
Wendy & Lisa UK TV Interview on TV:AM (1989)