(Featured Image: Guy Bourdin, from Spring 1978 Charles Jourdan campaign.)
The sessions for Prince’s debut album at the Record Plant went from October 1 to December 22, 1977, with overdubs completed at Sound Labs in Los Angeles, early January 1978. The project began smoothly enough: “It took Prince a couple of weeks to sort of warm up to us, but after that we got along really cool,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano later recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “He absorbed things and learned very quickly… I think he was impressed with the set-up. It was a very professional studio with a 24-track and platinum records on the wall” (Nilsen 1999 36-37). As we discussed a few weeks ago, Prince had grudgingly accepted the appointment of Tommy Vicari as an “executive producer” to supervise the project; he was a quick study, however, and exercised full creative control. “The situation didn’t allow Tommy to be an opinionated producer,” Fontano told Nilsen. “And Prince is not the kind of artist who asks, ‘Well, what do you think?’” Vicari “may have made suggestions like ‘why don’t we try this?’ or maybe done an edit, something of that nature,” but his role was ultimately limited to “making sure everything was recorded properly… and put on tape in a professional manner” (37).
But as the sessions continued, Prince’s perfectionism became an obstacle. “He wanted everything to be just right,” his manager at the time, Owen Husney, said to Nilsen. “He was into it totally. I remember David Rivkin having conversations with Prince saying, ‘You know, your vocals are too on. The harmonies are too exact. You’re spending too much time to make the album perfect. Don’t make it perfect’” (Nilsen 1999 37). In a 1981 interview with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, Prince agreed with this assessment–though, characteristically, he laid much of the blame on Vicari’s shoulders. “He was supposed to help out and cut corners…basically teach me the studio,” he recalled, “but he didn’t. So I took a long time to do the album…it was pretty painstaking.” Later in the interview, however, he admitted his own role in the “painstaking” process: “I wanted to make it good, and bereft of mistakes, and in the process it took a long time to make… It was a perfect record, and um, I don’t know, it was too scientific, I guess” (Sutherland 1981).
The extended production time–with Prince recording marathon-style, as was his wont–resulted in For You going way over budget; its final recording cost was $170,000, just $10,000 shy of the budget allotted for Prince’s first three albums. By December, relations between Prince and his handlers were understandably strained: “The record went stale on me,” Vicari recalled to biographer Jon Bream in 1984. According to Bream, Prince was also eager to edge Vicari out of the project once he’d acquired some proficiency in the studio. At one point, he erased Vicari’s name from the engineering credits, replacing it with his own; at another, he asked the executive producer if he could do some mixing, mostly so he could receive yet another credit on the final album. “Look, why don’t you press the record and take the picture, too?” was Vicari’s reply (Bream 1984). As can be seen from the back cover above, Prince appears to have taken Vicari’s sarcastic advice to heart; he was, indeed, credited with “Dust Cover Design,” though the photo was taken by Joe Giannetti.
Probably the most dramatic moment of the For You sessions occurred during the recording of “So Blue”: incongruously, the album’s most placid ballad. In an outreach born of thinly-veiled dismay over the album’s slow progress, Warner Bros. executives Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker dropped in to the Record Plant to observe their new signee at work. “Lenny said, ‘God, that’s really good, but you might want to put a bottom-end on that,’” Husney recalled to Nilsen. “And Prince said, ‘That’s it! Get out of the studio!’ And he kicked us out” (Nilsen 1999 38). Fortunately, Waronker took the conflict in stride; Husney later recalled the exec telling him, “Don’t worry about it. The song is great. I get where he’s coming from” (Star Tribune 2004). But it was an early indication that Prince’s relationship with his label wouldn’t always be quite as harmonious as either party had hoped.
In the end, Prince did cave to radio protocol and add bass to the track–though, in all fairness, radio was hardly under any threat from “So Blue.” On a record even many Prince fans tend to forget, “So Blue” is arguably the most forgettable. It suffers from the same fate as its analogue from the original album’s first side, “Crazy You”: sandwiched as a palate cleanser between the sprightly “My Love is Forever” and closing rocker “I’m Yours,” two of the boldest tracks on Side Two (or, as the liner notes eccentrically dubbed it, “The Other Side”). Yet for me, at least, it isn’t as rewarding a listen. I do like the song’s arrangement; between the unadorned acoustic guitar, the phasing effects in the background (applied, I’m pretty sure, to a bell tree), and the noodling bass synthesizer, it’s the most “Seventies”-sounding track on the record: which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, already sounds strikingly of its time for an artist so closely connected with the following decade. But my enjoyment of the song itself suffers from having already heard similar, and better, songs on Prince’s later albums. From this perspective, “So Blue” feels like a rough early draft for other vintage Rhythm & Blues-flavored ballads like 1980’s “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” or even 1982’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” Hearing Prince’s take on the style in this embyronic form is interesting, and not unpleasurable, but I can’t imagine choosing to listen to it over the aforementioned cuts.
It’s a shame I don’t like “So Blue” more than I do, really, because it seems to be one of Prince’s most personal songs from that period. The lyrics sound at first listen like rote love-and-loss stuff, right down to some especially clunky clichés (really, Prince, “I feel just like the sky / I’m so blue”?). According to Owen Husney, however, they were actually written for him, soon after a manager-client spat that ended with Prince walking out of Husney’s home “in a huff.” “He called me several hours later, and he had written a song—you know, not about me or anything,” he told NPR’s Audie Cornish earlier this year. “And he played me the song, and it just was his way of saying, ‘I know what happened between us and I’m sorry.’ I just remember sitting on the kitchen floor and listening to that song and getting tears in my eyes. And then we were patched up and on we went” (Cornish 2016). It wouldn’t be the last time Prince used songwriting to help make an apology; as we’ll later see, for example, Lisa Coleman has told a similar story about the inspiration for Prince’s unreleased track “Strange Way of Saying I Love U.”
We’re now just one song away from the end of our look at Prince’s first album; it’s taken a little longer than I’d hoped, but still, it’s a nice milestone to hit. The next few weeks are going to be pretty busy for me, so I’m only planning on one major post a week for at least a little while; I’ll also be skipping this weekend’s Prince (Protégé) Summer post, as I’ll be spending the holiday with my family out of town. If you’re just starved for my writing, though, remember to check out my other hustle at Dystopian Dance Party: I haven’t written about Prince on there in a little while, but the content is eclectic enough that I have to imagine there’s something of interest for most. Otherwise, I’ll see you all next week!