Ephemera, 1977-1978

We Can Work It Out

Virtually the first thing Prince did upon returning to Minneapolis was book time at Sound 80, where he and drummer Bobby Z recorded a song that allowed him to introduce himself to Warner Bros. in a way that came more naturally.

In the three-sided bidding war that ignited over Prince in Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held the edge. As noted last time, Prince’s manager Owen Husney had a prior association with Russ Thyret, at that time the label’s Vice President and Director of Promotion. Husney told biographer Dave Hill that he considered Thyret “a friend and a man of heart” (Hill 41). “While everybody was wining, dining, giving us lunches, and promising us homes in Beverly Hills, Russ was the man who took us back to his house, sat on the floor, and talked music with us,” he later elaborated to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “And in the back of my mind I was always going toward Warner Bros., because of Russ” (Nilsen 1999 33).

Sure enough, it was with Russ, and Warner, that Prince ultimately signed on June 25, 1977. Personal connections aside, the decision made sense. Warner had a reputation in the industry as an artist-friendly label: its chief executive, Mo Ostin, encouraged a culture of receptiveness to artists’ creative development that would have been appealing to Prince and his management, who insisted on not only a long-term deal, but also the ability for Prince to produce his own records. On the latter point, as we’ll discuss next week, Ostin would need a little convincing; but he was willing to invest a considerable amount of time and money in Prince, and that was most important. “Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe[d] in him so strongly,” Ostin recalled to Billboard earlier this year (Aswad 2016).

The actual dollar amount of the contract Prince signed with W.B. has been disputed, and indeed exaggerated: in his interview with Hill, for example, Husney called it “a multi-million dollar deal,” with an initial sum “well into six figures” (Hill 41). The truth, as Nilsen reported it, was quite a bit more modest: an $80,000 advance, with an additional $225,000 if Prince delivered three albums within 27 months. There was also a second option for renewal, entitling the artist to a quarter million for another two albums, delivered within one year. The promised recording budget for the initial, two-year period was $180,000: $60,000 per album. It was, according to Warner Bros. representatives, the biggest recording contract to date for a solo artist–with the exception, randomly, of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (Nilsen 2004 18).

With Mo Ostin, circa 1978; photo stolen from Billboard.

Warner executives held a luncheon to celebrate Prince’s signing, at which the notoriously introverted Prince was as much of a social butterfly as you might expect. “[W]e found that he was incredibly shy, very taciturn,” Ostin told Billboard. “I mean, he hardly spoke, and it was difficult for him to come out and relate, so I’m sure he was very uncomfortable meeting all these record executives. He was very, very shy and did not talk a lot; at that first meeting we were really taken aback by how little he said. But when you got to his music, that’s when he could really shine” (Aswad 2016).

[Prince] was very, very shy and did not talk a lot… But when you got to his music, that’s when he could really shine.

Mo Ostin

Indeed, virtually the first thing Prince did upon returning to Minneapolis was book time at Sound 80, where he and drummer Bobby Z recorded a song that allowed him to introduce himself to the label in a way that came more naturally. “We Can Work It Out” is a musical showpiece much in the same vein as “Just as Long as We’re Together”; but, perhaps because it was never intended for public release, it’s looser and more relaxed than its often suffocatingly precocious predecessor. Prince begins the song with a standard disco vamp, heavy on the muted wah-wah guitar and reverb-drenched backing vocals. It is–ironically, given its non-album status–his most “commercial”-sounding track since the also-unreleased “Make It Through the Storm,” with a feel heavily reminiscent of the songs Rod Temperton was writing for Heatwave at the time (not to mention, within a few years, Prince’s off-and-on rival Michael Jackson).
Heatwave perform “Boogie Nights,” circa 1977.

Right after the first chorus, however, Prince throws a curveball, and the light disco groove erupts into full-blown arena rock with wailing guitars front and center. It’s the most explicit musical evidence to date of another of Prince’s mantras during his early career: his resistance to being pigeonholed as a “mere” R&B artist. Due perhaps to the overwhelming Whiteness of the radio market where he grew up, Prince was more conscious than most of music industry segregation. To avoid being ghettoized on what were then known as the Billboard “Soul” charts–a separate-and-unequal enterprise if ever there was one–he thus self-consciously styled himself as a “crossover artist,” capable of playing rock music with as much authority as the more stereotypically “Black” styles of soul, funk, and disco. As “We Can Work It Out” proves, though, it would take him a few years to truly nail his genre-hopping impulses: just a couple of bars after the rock guitars come to the fore, he and Bobby settle back into a more insistent, percussive version of the opening groove. But at the very least, the brief stylistic shift adds some flavor to the song, hinting at Prince’s willingness to stretch the boundaries of radio-friendly formats even as he masters their conventions.

I Hope We Work It Out, 1977.
Prince’s handwritten lyrics for “We Can Work It Out”; photo stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Finally, “We Can Work It Out” is remarkable in retrospect because it captures Prince in a rare moment of harmony with his business associates. The lyrics are addressed coyly to “W.B.”–which could of course be the initials of a person, as well as a corporate entity–and Prince plays with the song’s duality as both love letter and professional statement of purpose. Ever the flirt, he opens with a come-on: “Now that I know your name and you know mine / Ain’t it just about time that we got together?” Later, he implores, “Put your trust in me, I’ll never let you down / ‘Cause I know I can count on you to help me make it.” At the end of the song, he lowers his voice comically to a smooth D.J. patter for the signoff, “Makin’ music naturally, me and W.B.” But, as more than a few commentators have noticed, even at this early stage there are storm clouds brewing on the horizon. While the first chorus announces, “Ain’t no doubt about it / We can work it out,” by the end of the song the sentiment has been downgraded to a mere “hope we work it out.” And of course, there’s the ominous sound effect that closes the recording: probably meant to be a thunderclap, it also sounds like an explosion.

Next week, we’ll delve into the actual recording of Prince’s debut album–and, indeed, his first rocky patch with W.B. And of course, check back Saturday for another link to my guest series on Andresmusictalk, covering the history of Prince’s side projects.

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

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