Still Waiting

Still Waiting

(Featured Image: Sam Cooke by Michael Ochs, 1959.)

In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied,  “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).

It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).

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Bambi

Bambi

(Featured Image: “Can a handsome, virile man come between two women who love each other passionately?” Cover of The Other Kind by Richard Villanova, Beacon, 1963; photo stolen from Pulp Covers.)

The sessions for Prince’s second album went much more smoothly than those for his first, but they were not completely without incident. Prince’s new managers, Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, had initially booked 30 days at Alpha Studios; but as the deadline approached, only rough mixes of the album’s nine tracks had been completed, and another client was scheduled to use the facilities. According to Alpha’s owner and engineer, Gary Brandt, Cavallo and Ruffalo “insisted that I give Prince any amount of time he wanted in the studio to mix the album. They wanted me to cancel everything and give it all to Prince” (Nilsen 1999 55). But Brandt was unable to extend the studio time on such short notice, so sessions were moved downtown to Hollywood Sound Recorders.

HSR’s staff engineer at the time, Bob Mockler, would become a figure of some significance in Prince’s early career: he would also assist with recording and mixing on both 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy. Prince’s appreciation for Mockler can be inferred from the credit that appears on the final album, “Remixed by Bob Mockler and Prince”; as Mockler put it to biographer Per Nilsen, “That’s probably the last time he ever put anybody’s name before his” (Nilsen 1999 55). Indeed, Mockler seems to have had more creative input on the recording process than any of the artist’s collaborators since Chris Moon. Along with his aforementioned work on “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” his influence can be heard on one track in particular: the pulp-flavored cock rocker “Bambi.”

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When We’re Dancing Close and Slow

When We’re Dancing Close and Slow

(Featured Image: Joni Mitchell by Norman Seeff, 1976.)

Prince, as we’ve noted before, had a tendency to distance himself from his second album in the years following its release; he seemed to consider its unabashedly commercial nature a compromise of his artistic ideals. And while I don’t necessarily agree with those views–I think Prince holds up very well as an album, hit-thirst be damned–when I look at the first side of the record in particular, I can kind of see his point. It is, as much as For You had been, a transparent proof of concept for Prince as an artist, presenting in turn each distinct facet of his musical personality circa 1979: opening with the frothy pop-funk hit, following it up with the bid for rock credibility, then moving straight into the dance-club heater. It’s as if he sequenced the first half of the album specifically for the charts he wanted it to make: Soul, Top 40, Disco. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that track four, and the Side B closer, represented that other crucial component of his signature sound: the seductive R&B ballad.

As predictable as it might seem at face value, though, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is actually a pretty unusual track. Where later Prince ballads like 1981’s “Do Me, Baby”–actually demoed in early 1979 by André Cymone–sound like the archetypal post-Quiet Storm slow jams that they are, this song’s closest sonic precedent is “So Blue”: an oddball album cut from the second side of For You. Like that earlier song, “Close and Slow” owes as much of its ambience to folk-infused 1970s soft rock as to any kind of R&B; in particular, it’s another early signal of Prince’s artistic debt to Joni Mitchell.

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Sexy Dancer

Sexy Dancer

(Featured Image: “GG’s Barnum Room, ‘Ava’,” Bill Bernstein, 1979.)

“To me, disco was always very contrived music,” Prince told NME’s Chris Salewicz in 1981. “It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios.” In contrast, he claimed, “what I do is just go in and play” (Salewicz 1981). I don’t know if Prince had his own 1979 song, “Sexy Dancer,” in mind when he gave this interview. Most likely he did not; the two years between the song’s recording and his conversation with Salewicz, after all, represent basically an eternity in Prince time. But his comments are nevertheless instructive for understanding the song’s approach to what is–sorry, Prince–clearly an engagement with disco, if not strictly a disco track.

His stated distaste for the genre aside, Prince was clearly no stranger to disco in 1979. In his interview with Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader early that year, he mentioned that he “used to hang out at the Infinity,” a dance club in suburban St. Louis Park (Keller 1979). What he shared with many other musicians of the era, however, was a healthy skepticism for disco’s emphasis on the role of the producer. Disco, Prince told Salewicz, “was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came.” But Prince was his own producer–and, for that matter, his own studio musicians. “It’s easy for me to work in the studio,” he claimed, “because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me!” So, rather than playing to “fill up the breaks” in a producer’s master plan, Prince would “just play along with the other guy”–himself (Salewicz 1981).

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