(Featured Image: Prince in 1978; photo by Darlene Pfister, Minneapolis Star Tribune.)
One thing Prince established very early on was a near-constant rate of musical productivity: as we observed way back at the beginning of this blog, he spent the vast majority of his day-to-day adult life–not to mention a good amount of his childhood–participating in some form of songwriting, recording, rehearsal, or performance. So it should come as no surprise that when Prince moved into his first house in the summer of 1978, the otherwise-unassuming 5215 France Avenue in Edina, Minnesota brought with it another first: his first home studio. Indeed, according to his cousin and former Grand Central drummer Charles Smith, the rest of the house was mostly an afterthought for Prince: “The basement was full of equipment but he didn’t have any furniture in the house,” Smith told biographer Per Nilsen. “He didn’t have any carpets. He just had a rocking chair and a little TV for his games.” Eventually Prince’s girlfriend at the time, Kim Upsher, would help decorate and make the place “look like a home” (Nilsen 1999 43). But it’s clear that creature comforts placed a distant second for Prince, below his ability to create whenever the muse struck him. The lifelong blurring of the lines between studio and living space that he’d set into motion while still living in the Andersons’ basement was, by mid-1978, in full swing.
The France Avenue “studio” wasn’t exactly Paisley Park, of course: just a basement space with instruments and a portable TEAC four-track reel-to-reel. But it did the job, giving Prince an opportunity to flesh out new ideas without booking expensive studio time–which, after the hefty $170,000 recording cost of For You, probably came as a relief to the bean counters at Warner Bros. Many of the demos for Prince’s second album were reportedly recorded at home, and a few of the tracks that ended up on 94 East’s infamous Minneapolis Genius compilation (more on that to come). There were also several songs known only by their titles: “Darlene Marie” (also known as “Darling Marie”), “Do It Again,” “Gypsy,” “I am You,” “I Met a Virgin Queen,” “I’m Leaving L.A.,” “Love Affair,” “Love of Mine,” “Rocking Chair,” and “We Would Like to See You Again,” as well as a re-recording of the 1976 demo “Rock Me, Lover.” And then there are the circulating recordings: starting with today’s six untitled instrumentals.
Prince’s 1978 instrumentals are fundamentally rough sketches, not unlike his untitled home recordings of 1976; the main difference is that both the aural fidelity and his musicianship had improved exponentially in the interim. What’s interesting about these tracks, however, is that they find Prince exploring musical styles and textures that are very different from what was on For You, or even what would appear on his albums in the future. The fiery guitar runs on “Instrumental #1,” for example, are the clearest recorded evidence to date of Prince’s much-vaunted Santana influence. “Instrumental #2,” meanwhile, pairs a frantic drum machine rhythm with some smooth guitar soloing that is pure jazz fusion. Most intriguing of all is “Instrumental #3”: just under a minute of Afro-Cuban percussion (played, most likely, by Terry Jackson of Grand Central)–something that wouldn’t enter Prince’s official musical vocabulary until he started recording with Sheila E in the mid-1980s.
Granted, not everything is quite so distinctive. “Instrumental #4” is just the chord progression for another song, “Miss You” (to be discussed later); stripped of Prince’s vocals, though, it sounds distressingly like music from YouTube’s royalty-free library. “Instrumental #5” appears to be a bass track for the same song. The slightest of them all, “Instrumental #6” is just under 40 seconds of (presumably) Prince vamping on double-tracked bass and guitar. It’s admittedly funky, but it’s the kind of thing he could play in his sleep by this point.
But then, that’s kind of the appeal of circulating recordings like this. Sometimes fans listen to bootlegs, Prince bootlegs in particular, because of the chance of discovering a lost masterpiece as great as anything he’d officially released; more often, however, the appeal is more voyeuristic: you get to be the fly on the studio wall, soaking up every note (or at least what feels like every note) the artist played. And with Prince, because he often recorded solo and at home, that experience is even more intimate. There’s no studio chatter coming from the control room; just Prince, alone with his ideas and his instruments. Not all of it is amazing in and of itself–but the fact that we can hear it, albeit illegally, is pretty damn cool nonetheless.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at some more of the circulating home recordings from late 1978 and early 1979: none of them masterpieces, necessarily, but all of them more fleshed-out than the ones we discussed today. When available, I’ll try and post links to the songs streaming online, but in many cases–this being one of them–I’m afraid you’re on your own. I’ll do my best to describe the tracks for those who don’t have access, though. As always, thanks for reading…see you again soon!
(Note: I made a small factual correction to my original claim that Prince “bought” the house on France Avenue–he actually rented it. I also attributed the Afro-Cuban percussion on “Instrumental #3” to Terry Jackson, based on new information from The Rise of Prince 1958-1988 by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert. There’s a great/terrible story in that book about Prince offering Terry a spot in his backing band, only to retract it under the pretense that timbales aren’t “part of the future of R&B music”–then, almost six years later, lording it over his old friend when he produces The Glamorous Life by Sheila E. I’ve already recommended The Rise of Prince a few times more generally, but let me just take this opportunity to say I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read new stories about Prince at his pettiest.)