(Featured Image: Prince recording at Sound 80 (not Moonsound) in early 1977. Photo by Larry Falk.)
Sometime in the spring of 1976, the band formerly known as Grand Central (recently rechristened “Shampayne”) recorded their second and final demo at an eight-track recording studio with an unusually fanciful name. “Moonsound, Inc.” was founded in the early 1970s, in the basement of a rented house on 25th Street and Portland Avenue (Hill 29). Its namesake was a British expatriate advertising agent, recording engineer, aspiring songwriter, and all-around renaissance man named Chris Moon, whose accommodating fees–$15 an hour, clients provide their own tape–made Moonsound a popular destination for Minneapolis’ small but active African American musical community.
The studio, such as it was, moved around town for the better part of the decade: to another basement on Stevens Avenue, and eventually to a large, single-story structure on Dupont, next door to an automotive impound (Numero Group 2013). In between, Moon set up shop in a 1,500-square-foot former hair salon on the south end of the city, near Lake Nokomis. It was at this location where Prince Rogers Nelson would record some of his most important early work; first, though, there was the Shampayne demo.
In an interview with biographer Dave Hill, Chris Moon recalled Shampayne recording “three or four sessions. They’d come in, do the rhythm track one day, then the vocals, and then the mix and so on” (Hill 29). Moon told Per Nilsen that he found the band to be “talented, but not exceptionally talented.” Like Pepé Willie before him, however, he did see “exceptional” talent in their soft-spoken, diminutive, big-haired guitarist. “Prince would normally show up a bit earlier than everybody else, thrash around on the drums a little bit, twinkle on the piano, guitar, bass or whatever,” he said to Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 26). In Debby Miller’s 1983 cover story for Rolling Stone, Moon elaborated: “Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw… He looked pretty tame. Then he’d pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over” (Miller 1983).
After one of the Shampayne sessions, Moon approached Prince in private with a business proposition: he wanted a collaborator to work on some original music with him, and Prince–musically gifted, “quiet,” “mild-mannered,” and (so he thought) “with not much ego”–seemed ideal for the role (Hill 30). In return, Moon would provide him with free studio time and hands-on training. “It’s a very simple thing,” he recalled saying to Prince. “I don’t want any contracts, no paperwork, just a handshake. I will develop you as an artist. I will build a package around you, and I will try to get you out there.” Prince, by way of response, “thought about it a couple moments,” then “grunted in a positive way.” With this (semi-) verbal agreement in place, Moon gave Prince a set of keys to the studio: “a 17-year-old kid from the north side of Minneapolis, whom I really didn’t know,” he remembered. “I just handed over the key to everything that I own” (Nilsen 1999 26).
He needn’t have worried, because it quickly became evident that this 17-year-old kid was all business. “He’d stay the weekend, sleep on the studio floor,” Moon recounted to Rolling Stone. “I wrote down directions on how to operate the equipment, so he’d just follow the little chart–you know, press this button to record and this button to play back… Pretty soon, I could sit back and do the listening” (Miller 1983). Prince’s ambitions as a multi-instrumentalist also became evident when Moon tried to bring in some more experienced musicians, particularly drummers. “He had a driving force to play as many instruments as he could,” Moon said to Dave Hill. “Although not highly touted or expressed, it was definitely there, because at my suggestion that we bring in other people, I remember his reaction as being one of a little disappointment” (Hill 30). Moon brought in “two or three different drummers” early in the sessions–including future Revolution member Robert “Bobby Z” Rivkin–“but Prince was frustrated by having other people playing… He started working harder on the drums and I encouraged him” (Nilsen 1999 27).
In hindsight, of course, none of this is terribly surprising: Prince’s status as a self-producing, multi-instrumentalist auteur is firmly established. But it’s worth remembering that in 1976, this approach–particularly for an unestablished artist still in his teens–was even less conventional than it is today. Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis both played multiple instruments, but they didn’t necessarily insist on playing them all on the same track. Todd Rundgren recorded the first three sides of his 1972 double album Something/Anything? solo, but this was a bit of a one-time gimmick–that is, at least, until 1978’s Hermit of Mink Hollow, which replicated the feat. Even Stevie Wonder, the gold standard for one-man bands before Prince, didn’t begin the practice until 1971, a decade into his career as a recording artist. When one considers Prince’s early work chronologically, the audacity of his Moonsound recordings becomes even more evident. With Grand Central and 94 East, he’d been a lead guitarist, not even a frontman; the majority of the Russell Avenue home recordings, while impressive, didn’t betray the ambition to be anything more grandiose than a singer-songwriter. But at Moonsound, he wanted to–and, ultimately, did–do it all.
Two instrumentals from the Moonsound sessions are in circulation, each in their own way attesting to Prince’s one-man band aspirations. The first, which circulates under the title “Piano Intro,” is pretty much as described: about 35 seconds of acoustic piano flourishes and glissandi that proves, if nothing else, that Prince had been brushing up on his keyboard skills since his home recordings earlier that year. But the more significant of these lesser-heard Moonsound recordings is the second: a seven-and-a-half minute jazz-rock-funk fusion piece, which may or may not have been titled “Farnborough.” While the song itself is nothing particularly memorable, it’s here that Prince’s aforementioned vaunting ambitions–as multi-instrumentalist and genre-shifting polymath–come into their sharpest focus yet.
The song begins with some soft, pastoral acoustic guitar strumming, recalling the folkie underpinnings of “Nightingale” with just a dab of lite psychedelia. Accompanying himself on bass and (to my knowledge) drums with brushes, the arrangement builds to a dreamy descending piano line, then mutates into a smooth, bossa nova-inspired groove. The influence of Larry Graham on Prince’s funk bass style is readily apparent; he would later readily admit that he taught himself the instrument by playing along with Larry on Sly and the Family Stone records. A second jazzy, descending riff–this time on guitar and bass–and we’re back to the introductory passage. Rinse and repeat, but with more pronounced musical embellishments and solos.
Again, “Farnborough” (or whatever it’s called) isn’t some lost classic. Like a lot of Prince’s early music, it goes on too long for what it is; in 1976, he hadn’t yet mastered the art of engineering a truly hypnotic groove out of minimalist components. View it in context, however, as the sole work of an unsigned 17-year-old from Minnesota with all of a few weeks’ studio experience, and the potential it reveals is staggering. Even the range of influence alone is impressive: I hear Stevie, of course (that bossa nova section could have fit right in on Fulfillingness’ First Finale), but I also hear a lot of the aforementioned Todd Rundgren, who was ploughing a similar (albeit much more manic) furrow of soft rock-meets-prog-meets-jazz on albums like 1974’s Todd. Like I’ve already said many times before, Prince would improve radically on the template he developed in his teens. But the fact that he was already so far along in developing that template was a fascinating achievement in itself.
Later this week, I’d like to take stock of what we’ve discussed so far and get ready to move into the next phase of the blog: the songs that would eventually make up Prince’s 1978 debut album, For You. Then (if I write fast enough), we’ll tackle the first really big song: “Soft and Wet.”
(Note: This article covered a third instrumental, “Jelly Jam,” when it was originally published. Since posting, however, I’ve been able to get my hands on a copy of Per Nilsen’s The Vault, which states that the version of “Jelly Jam” currently circulating was recorded at Sound 80, not Moonsound. I’ve thus moved the discussion to later in the chronology. Spelling of “Champagne” has been “corrected” to “Shampayne.” Also, once again, these early recordings have proven elusive on streaming channels; if anyone finds a link out there, hit me up in the comments.)