Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sugar Walls” by Sheena Easton

Sheena Easton came up in a working class family in Bellshill,Scotland. It was her good grades that got her a college scholarship-after which she opted for a day job as a speech and drama teacher while singing in clubs at night during the late 70’s. Having learned her vocal craft from Motown and other American soul records she heard on the radio,Sheena’s career started on the basis for a movie she was going to star in about a hopeful singer. Instead she BECAME that singer-singing to EMI in by the early 80’s. Her early hits included lightly soulful dance singles like “Modern Girl” and “9 to 5 (Morning Train)”.

Sheena’s first three albums basically found her in the mold of a West Coast pop vocalist with a lot of rather gentle,sleek production qualities. Her 1983 album Best Kept Secret showcased a more new wave inflected sound-heavier on the synthesizers. Enter Prince. His delicate yet provocative composing style was well suited to the female singers he was starting to write for,at least in his eyes. When it was time for her next album in 1984’s A Private Heaven,Sheena was poised for a major pop breakthrough at the same time as Prince’s. The result was a hit he wrote for her on the album called “Sugar Walls”.

The album starts out with Prince’s trademark Linn drum hi hats and snare hits. Then a very Asian sounding polyphonic synthesizer enters the mix. As the refrain comes in,the snares still hit hard. Meanwhile the low guitar purrs in the back-round of the mix like a low roaring lion while the synth bass line basically holds up that keyboard melody,which re-emerges throughout the song in shorter bursts. On the repeated choruses,that same guitar rocks up with more of a snarl to it. The orchestral synths come to a heated frenzy just before the music strips down into it’s own fade out.

Musically speaking,this song is written in what my friend Henrique Hopkins referred to as the pentatonic scale. This is actually a musical scale or mode with five notes per octave. It’s a common link between West African,European folk,Asian and American jazz and blues styles. The use of the brittle synthesizers showcased Prince was on the same wavelength with Michael Jackon when he wrote “Centipede” for his sister Rebbie that same year. And that was combining the brittle synth-dance grooves with a pan continental structure much like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “neo geo” style of music.

Instrumentally the combination of Prince’s pan ethnic dance groove with Sheena’s vocal tailoring to Prince’s female archetype,this song is perhaps known for the public stir it’s double entendre based lyrics created. Tipper Gore added the song to her and the Parents Research Music Counsel’s “filthy 15” list of pop songs with obscene lyrics. While this would lead to the modern day Parental Advisory sticker on some CD’s today,it tended to overshadow how Prince actually innovated the Minneapolis dance/funk sound in a very different compositional structure with this 1984 Sheena Easton hit.

 

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Filed under 1980's, Linn Drum, Minneapolis Sound, neo-geo, pentatonic scale, Prince, rhythm guitar, rock guitar, Sheena Easton, synth bass, synth funk, synthesizer, Uncategorized

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