(Featured Image: Prince 4Ever, 2016; photo by Justine Walpole, © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)
This Monday, November 21, marked the seven-month “anniversary” of Prince’s untimely passing. A day later, we got the first officially-sanctioned posthumous release of his music: Prince 4Ever, a two-disc (or, for those like me living firmly in the digital era, 40-track) compilation spanning the 15 years from the release of his 1978 debut album to his acrimonious 1993 falling-out with Warner Bros. Records. Most of 4Ever is, quite frankly, not for People Like Us: the majority of its track listing overlaps with previous compilations Ultimate, The Very Best of Prince, and The Hits/The B-Sides–still the O.G., as far as I’m concerned–and more often than not the versions included are the vastly inferior single edits. There are a few previously uncompiled mixes (most notably a blessedly rap-free “Alphabet St.”), as well as some deeper cuts: “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy makes its first appearance on CD as an individually-sequenced track, and the 1989 movie tie-in “Batdance” is collected for the first time since its initial release. I also appreciate the sprinkling of fan-favorite songs, like the (amazing) 1981 U.K.-only release “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and the (even more amazing) 1986 single “Mountains.” In general, though, if you’re reading this blog, there is nothing here you haven’t heard before–with one possible exception. I’m talking, of course, about “Moonbeam Levels.”
Recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions in July of 1982, “Moonbeam Levels” has been circulating since the mid-to-late 1980s, when it was initially mislabeled as “A Better Place 2 Die.” It’s acquired a reputation in the ensuing decades as one of the best, and best-known, outtakes in Prince’s voluminous catalogue. In 2013, the song even received a few noteworthy public performances: first by Elvis Costello with Princess (a.k.a. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Prince, and later by the man himself, as part of a piano medley supporting protégée Shelby J at the City Winery in New York. Now, you know I have all kinds of opinions about Prince outtakes, but I’m not even gonna front: “Moonbeam Levels” was a great choice for the first officially-released “bootleg” to see the light of day after Prince’s death. So, now that it’s finally seen a legitimate release, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to put our usual chronological content on hold and take a closer look at the song.
Per Nilsen’s The Vault tells us that “Moonbeam Levels” was recorded at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles on July 6, 1982, the day before the 1999 cut “Lady Cab Driver.” It’s hard to imagine two more different tracks. “Lady Cab Driver” is grimy punk-funk: an unrelenting eight-minute cyborg James Brown groove that boils over with sexual menace right until the moment guest vocalist “J.J.” brings it to its (literally) orgasmic climax. The song’s only concession to “crossover” potential is Prince’s blistering guitar solo–and even that is more Eddie Hazel than Eddie Van Halen. On an album that foregrounded Prince’s divided conscience between pleasing his core R&B audience and appealing to the wider (and whiter) pop/rock market, “Lady Cab Driver” is arguably the blackest song–both literally, in terms of race, and more figuratively, in terms of mood.
“Moonbeam Levels,” on the other hand, is basically a power ballad. At just over four minutes, it’s significantly slimmer than the majority of 1999, a double LP heavy on the long-format grooves beloved by urban clubgoers. Musically, there’s a slight gospel influence, but not much more than, say, “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger; the main stylistic touchstone is the soaring early-’70s pomp-rock of artists like David Bowie and Queen, with just a dash of late-’60s psychedelia for flavor. In short, this is Crossover Prince in full bloom: an early entry in the canon of reduced-funk ballads and rock radio staples that would, in just a few short years, place him in the middle of ’80s pop’s Mount Rushmore, right between Michael Jackson and Madonna. It’s thus tempting to read the prominent posthumous release of “Moonbeam Levels” as yet another in a long line of concessionary moves, marketing Prince as a rock-oriented “crossover” artist rather than the funk and soul innovator he was at his core. My friend Andre has argued convincingly to that effect over on his blog, Andresmusictalk.
But here’s the thing: “Moonbeam Levels” is also weird. It’s weird like a lot of Prince’s crossover-era material is weird: presenting a deceptively radio-friendly face to the public, only to reveal a sublime freakiness lurking just beneath the surface. Usually, the idiosyncrasies don’t emerge until after the 7″ version fades out; see, for example, the album version of “1999,” or the extended 1985 B-side “Girl.” But “Moonbeam Levels” is weird right from its opening moments: a halting Linn LM-1 drum machine beat, punctuated by a hissing noise like a blast of synthetic steam. Prince’s voice is hushed as he starts to sing, accompanying himself with a delicate piano line: “Yesterday I tried 2 write a novel, but I didn’t know where 2 begin / So I laid down in the grass, trying 2 feel the world turn.” There’s a touch of the literary in these lines: not only in their use of poetic language and self-conscious invocation of prose writing, but also in the intimate way they place us into this character’s inner world. So it’s disorienting when the next line pulls us back out, replacing Prince’s first-person narrator with a third-person omniscient voice and glossing over the themes of personal and global apocalypse that run through so much of his early-’80s work: “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III / All that’s left is pain and sorrow, as far as he’s concerned.” A layer of Blade Runner synthesizers creep into the mix as he sings; then, with a high-pitched electronic “whoosh,” he launches abruptly into the chorus: “Please send all your moonbeam levels 2 me / I’m looking 4 a better place 2 die.”
The first 30 seconds of “Moonbeam Levels” sound like a transmission from another galaxy; but it’s an integral part of Prince’s brilliance that, by the time he hits the chorus, it also sounds like a big, lighters-in-the-air arena rock moment. Somewhere in this dichotomy is everything I love about pop music. The notion of sending “moonbeam levels” to a lonely boy in Minneapolis (or outer space) is, like all the best pop songs, both deeply ludicrous and deeply meaningful; Prince sells it, though, with power chords and that tremulous, ineffable falsetto. I’ve sung along to this song dozens of times, and I still couldn’t tell you what that chorus means–but I also know what it means. That’s what great pop music does. And what Prince did so well–one of many things, of course–was to dwell on the delightful fissures between reason and emotional truth that all great pop creates; he made it his wheelhouse, the default mode for his best songwriting. Prince wore his weirdness on his sleeve, so that even his most accessible music felt somehow otherworldly. “Moonbeam Levels” is more bizarre, in sound and in thematic tone, than practically anything on the radio in 1982; it could have been a massive hit.
Of course, I would be remiss to talk about this song without touching at least a little more on the artist I already named as one of its primary influences: David Bowie. Bowie and Prince are interesting because they’re often grouped together in the popular consciousness, even though there’s little to connect them concretely. Both men, of course, were famous at the height of their careers as much for defying the mores of gender expression as for their music; both were critical darlings before they were commercial stars, with reputations for elevating prosaic pop music to a form of postmodern art; both experimented, albeit from opposite sides of the racial/generic divide, on blending “white” rock music with “Black” R&B. But they did all this seemingly independent of one another. Others have named Bowie as an influence on Prince, but Prince barely acknowledged him. As we’ve noted before, his list of influences stayed remarkably consistent over the years: Sly, James, Larry, Chaka, and so on. So fans of both artists have had to connect the dots on our own, finding echoes of Ziggy Stardust in moments like the infamous guitar-fellating scene in Purple Rain.
On “Moonbeam Levels,” however, the connection finally becomes explicit. There is no doubt in my mind that Prince had Bowie on the brain when he recorded this song; the similarities are just too prominent, from the overt science-fiction themes–much more anomalous in Prince’s catalogue than in Bowie’s–to the glammy, Mick Ronson-esque filigrees Prince adds to his guitar playing on the second chorus. There are also distinct differences, to be sure. Bowie’s lyrics were always more oblique and self-consciously arty than Prince’s; if he’d ever written about a character who longed for a “nice condo overlooking the rings of Saturn,” he would have done so with significantly more irony. Prince, for his own part, couldn’t resist dappling in a bit of mawkish (but effective) sentimentality, from which Bowie would have recoiled: “A newborn child knows nothing of destruction, nothing of love and hate,” he sings on the bridge, seemingly out of nowhere. “What happens in between is a mystery because we don’t give a damn about his fate.” His Bowie homage skips out on Bowie’s lyrical impassivity, to its benefit; Prince, like Ziggy Stardust, may seem like he comes from another planet, but his humanity is evident and deeply felt. Nowhere is this more evident than in the song’s conclusion: while Bowie and Prince shared something of an obsession with death–Prince’s informed by his upbringing as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Bowie’s by his extensive readings in existentialist philosophy–the conclusion of his search for a “better place 2 die” is ultimately a hopeful one. In the end, his protagonist doesn’t “really wanna die”; he’s resolved to “fight 4 perfect love until it’s perfect love he makes.” It’s all the humanistic passion at the end of Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” with none of the nihilism.
So it makes sense that “Moonbeam Levels” would finally come out in 2016: a year when, more than ever before, Bowie and Prince are connected in the minds of music listeners, their differences smoothed away in death. Prince, of course, passed away in late April–just a few months after Bowie, who succumbed to cancer of the liver in early January. During one of his last concerts at Paisley Park, Prince briefly eulogized Bowie, saying that while they only met once, “he was real nice to me. Seems like he was that way with everybody.” Later, less than a week before his own passing, he played a stirring cover of Bowie’s 1977 song “Heroes” at one of his final dates at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Releasing “Moonbeam Levels” in the wake of these two icons’ untimely deaths feels like a confirmation, at last, of something fans of both artists have always suspected: that Bowie and Prince shared more than a propensity for shopping in the women’s clothes department; that they were, in their own ways, two of the same kind of artist, visionaries who made pop music as gloriously weird as it was anthemic.
The 2016 release of “Moonbeam Levels” also solves a longstanding “problem”: until now, the song never really seemed to belong anywhere. Fans have long speculated that its place on 1999 was taken by “Free”: another, more conventional (and inferior) piano-led ballad recorded earlier in 1982. A handwritten track listing has also emerged for an early 1989 configuration of Prince’s lost album Rave Unto the Joy Fantastic, which curiously placed “Moon Beam Levels” as the last song–right after the goopy ballad “Still Would Stand All Time,” later to serve as the emotional climax for 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. I can understand why Prince would have associated “Moonbeam Levels” thematically with Rave’s futuristic gospel, but sonically it wouldn’t have made much sense: the song’s electro-glam arrangement really belonged in the Purple Rain era, or perhaps on some alternate-universe Revolution album from 1983, when Prince was really starting to get his footing in the art of freaky, post-psychedelic arena rock.
On Prince 4Ever, though, it serves a much more practical purpose: embodying the vast potential of the Vault for an audience of neophytes, and demonstrating exactly what the initiated have been talking about when we say Prince has outtakes that put many artists’ greatest hits to shame. A lot of the people reading this post probably heard “Moonbeam Levels” long before yesterday’s official release–maybe even a couple of decades before (it is, to my ears, the same as the previously-circulating take, though obviously in much higher fidelity). But, like everything else about Prince 4Ever, it’s not really for People Like Us: it’s for our friends and family members, to play for them and hope it blows their minds, just like it blew ours the first time we heard it on some third-generation cassette tape or low-bitrate MP3.
Which, I suppose, brings us back to the issue I mentioned earlier: is “Crossover Prince” the Prince that needs to be remembered in 2016? I think every Prince fan probably has their own answer to that question–and, frankly, we all have our own musical and cultural biases informing those answers. I already mentioned my friend Andre, who’s suggested that the time is ripe for Prince to be remembered as an artist firmly in the Black musical tradition. I don’t disagree, but I also have to admit: Prince’s crossover stuff floors me, for all the reasons I described above; his ability to redraw the borders of mainstream pop music, to imbue it with his inner weirdness (and, yes, his inner Blackness) is for me an integral part, maybe even the integral part, of his artistic appeal. On the other hand, there’s also the fact that, as someone who got into music through the “classic rock” canon, I’m grappling with the racist biases implicit in that framework. I’m well aware of the problematic nature of critics praising Prince for “transcending race” –a compliment that never seems to be paid to, say, the Beatles–yet there’s still a part of me that wants to see Prince remembered as more of a David Bowie, less of a James Brown.
The bottom line, however, is that no one song can truly represent the vastness of Prince’s artistry: placing that burden on a single, posthumously-released outtake will always be a fool’s errand. So now, whatever the reasoning behind its choice, we have “Moonbeam Levels”: hopefully the first release of many. I can only hope that the songs to come continue to reveal Prince as the truly multifaceted artist he was: a master not only of pop craft and rock guitar, but of funk grooves, electronic beats, soulful melodies, and his own, indescribable mélange of all of the above. Again, “Moonbeam Levels” was a great first choice. But now that the Vault has finally been opened, I think the best is yet to come.
(Note: Made a small edit to fix my incorrect characterization of “Gotta Stop” as a B-side; I had The Hits/The B-Sides on the brain.)