(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)
Prince and Chris Moon recorded 14 tracks together at Moonsound, not counting “Farnborough” or the untitled “piano intro.” Eight of them still aren’t in circulation, so all we really know are their titles: “Aces,” “Diamond Eyes,” “Don’t Forget,” “Don’t Hold Back” (Prince was really into giving orders in 1976, apparently), “Fantasy,” “Since We’ve Been Together,” and “Surprise.” One, “Leaving for New York,” is in circulation, but only in its earlier incarnation as a home recording (more on that next week). Another, “Make It Through the Storm,” was demoed with Minneapolis singer Sue Ann Carwell in 1978 and eventually released (without Prince’s involvement) in 1981. A few others made it all the way to his debut album, 1978’s For You: including “Baby,” “I’m Yours,” “Jelly Jam” (as the instrumental coda of “Just as Long as We’re Together”), and “My Love is Forever” (originally recorded as “Love is Forever”). But the best-known and most important track to come out of the Moon-Nelson partnership was the song that would ultimately become Prince’s debut single: “Soft and Wet.”
Like most great works of popular music, “Soft and Wet” came into being through a combination of sexual and chemical indulgence and cynical commercial calculus. Moon, who started out writing the lyrics for most of his and Prince’s collaborations, recalled the song’s inspiration thusly: “I had Sundays off, and that particular Sunday I had a fortunate experience with more than one girl. It was a late-night party, and these girls had come back to my studio,” he told biographer Matt Thorne. “And I think I’d drunk a little too much rum because the next morning I felt like hell and had to go to work.” Moon locked the door of his office at Minneapolis marketing firm Campbell Mithun (now part of McCann Worldgroup), “recovering from this wild night before and…replaying in my mind some of the highlights” (Thorne 2016). Ever the adman, he’d been toying with a “marketing theme” to help sell his new protegé to an audience of teenage girls, which he famously summarized as “implied naughty sexuality” (Nilsen 1999 28). At that moment, sitting in an office building at ten in the morning, “tired, a little bit hungover,” Moon wrote the “anchor tune that would summarize this marketing concept” (Thorne 2016).
Moon’s story is, to be frank,more than a little self-aggrandizing. For one thing, he’s effectively claiming to have invented the concept of double entendre in popular music: an assertion with which I’d imagine scads of earlier artists, from Robert Johnson to Julia Lee to the Ohio Players, would take issue. But he is right in considering “Soft and Wet” to be one of the fundamental keys to Prince’s musical persona; it’s just that it took Prince a few tries–and, it’s worth noting, a lyrical overhaul–to get it right.
The Moonsound version of “Soft and Wet” is an amusingly frothy slice of pop-funk, but it isn’t much more than that. The opening keyboard riff is in place: a stop-start, staccato funk pattern that sounds to these ears like the kind of thing the late Bernie Worrell would have played for Parliament-Funkadelic. Most of the basic structure is there, as well: introduction, first verse, second verse, bridge, synthesizer solo, third verse, a reprise of the first verse, then finally ending on the chorus. But Prince’s constellation of influences hadn’t yet coalesced into something definably his, and as a result the song feels cobbled together–particularly the bridge, which pairs a Stevie Wonder-esque electric piano line with a low-register harmony vocal that is pure Larry Graham. Finally, with all due respect to Chris Moon, his lyrics are entirely too precious, crammed with distracting references to Greek mythology that are less “naughty implied sexuality” than “sexually frustrated Classics major.” In particular, the opening lines Moon dreamt up in his office at Campbell Mithun would have been some of the most portentous this side of Jim Morrison had they been released as written: “Angora fur, the Aegean Sea / It’s a soft, wet love that you have for me.” Nothing gets those teens going like the Aegean Sea!
Moon’s lyrics were still intact when Prince re-recorded “Soft and Wet” in the winter of 1976-77 at Sound 80 Studios, with “David Z” Rivkin–who you may recall as the engineer for Grand Central’s first demo, as well as the older brother of future Revolution drummer Bobby–behind the boards. The sound is much improved, however, with the requisite jump in fidelity that comes when one moves from a semi-professional eight-track studio in a converted hair salon to a state-of-the-art 16-track setup. Prince’s arrangement is also less tentative, more assured, with the tempo slightly increased for an extra jolt of energy. He opens the song with the familiar gasp that helps distinguish the final version, providing a nice counterpoint to the later line, “leave me without…breath.” His synth solo is more developed, with a stronger melodic line and a fuller-bodied sound–thanks, in large part, to the Oberheim Four Voice he reportedly “borrowed” from Pierre Lewis of local band the Lewis Connection, then “wouldn’t give it back” (Riemenschneider 2013).
All in all, the Sound 80 version of “Soft and Wet” sounds more like the work of a singular vision than the earlier Moonsound demo. Prince’s influences remain clearly identifiable–those deeper vocal harmonies still unmistakably evoke Larry Graham–but their specific application is far less heterogeneous. This was, according to David Z, no small effort on Prince’s part: “He did all the instruments. He had a little cassette machine into which he’d hummed each part,” he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. “The horn part, the guitar part–he had it all separated. It was really evolved.” Aside from the lyrics, the only real flaw of this early pass is a detectable hesitancy in Prince’s vocals: “When anybody came in the studio while he was singing, he wanted me to turn the light off because he didn’t want anybody to look at him,” Rivkin recalled. At one point, the engineer’s wife “came in while he was singing ‘Soft and Wet,’ and he was a little embarrassed. He got over that shyness, that’s for sure” (Star Tribune 2004).
Indeed, all the pieces would finally fall into place on the released version of “Soft and Wet,” recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California sometime in late autumn 1977. The word “lubricous” keeps coming to mind: from that opening gasp to the last vocal flourish, the whole thing feels slick–not in the sense usually employed by pop critics, meaning overproduced (though other songs on For You certainly fit that bill), but in the more literal sense, meaning slippery. With “Soft and Wet”’s third and final iteration, Prince took the “implied naughty sexuality” of Chris Moon’s lyrical conceit and extended it to the music: I don’t know how he did it, but the whole song feels sexual–vaginal, even–leaving no doubt as to what particular “soft, wet” thing the title is referencing.
Prince’s new lyrics, too, add some much-needed immediacy to the innuendo. His revised opening line dumps Moon’s self-consciously elevated symbolism for brash direct address: “Hey, lover!”–a phrase he may have borrowed from the fragmentary home recording circulating under that name. The verse continues in equally bold fashion, with a series of genital “entendres” that are single-and-a-half at best: “I got a sugarcane / That I wanna lose in you / Baby can you stand the pain?” And at the point in the verse when Moon is going on about being a “roaming traveler on a bended knee,” Prince just tells it like it is: “There’s so many things that you do to me.” I don’t know about y’all, but if I was a girl, my bikini area would be a lot softer and wetter after hearing the latter.
Of course, when compared with his work to come, even Prince’s more eyebrow-raising lyrics for “Soft and Wet” come across as a little tame. That’s definitely what Chris Moon discovered upon the release of Dirty Mind in 1980, after which he recalled having the following phone conversation with Prince: “I said, ‘I see you’re still staying with the “Soft and Wet” theme. But you’re making it a little more blatant. What is this I hear about “Head”?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, well, I decided to make it a little more straightforward so that everyone would get it’” (Miller 1983). Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure we “got it” loud and clear the first time.
One last, entirely tangential bit about “Soft and Wet”: while googling around about the song, I stumbled across a character named “Soft & Wet” who turned up in a 2011 installment of Araki Hirohiko’s long-running, legendarily homoerotic manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I’m not even going to try to summarize how “Soft & Wet” fits into the series, but suffice to say the name isn’t a coincidence: the creature is distinguished by a very Princelike white-and-purple color scheme, with a symbol on his chest that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one His Royal Badness went by in the mid-to-late 1990s (see below). All I can say is, references to Prince really do show up in the strangest places.
Next week we’ll be taking a step back to Prince’s early home recordings with “Leaving for New York,” then it’s on to our next For You track with “Baby.” In the meantime, starting this Saturday I’ll be writing weekly guest blogs on Andresmusictalk. If you’re a fan of the music I cover, either here or on Dystopian Dance Party, then Andre’s site is worth checking out anyway; but d / m / s / r readers will be especially interested to know that he’s currently celebrating “Prince Summer,” and I’ll be helping out with some posts devoted to the Purple One’s manifold side projects. Of course, because I can never turn down an opportunity for easy self-promotion, I’ll be posting links to each of my guest blogs as they come. See you then!