(Featured Image: Prince, 1979; photo by Jurgen Reisch, © Warner Bros.)
The recording sessions for Prince began in earnest in late April of 1979, with overdubs and mixes completed by June 13: about seven weeks, all told, barely half the time Prince had taken to complete his debut album. Indeed, while For You and Prince are often grouped together by critics, in practice the two albums are a study in contrasts. Rather than the state-of-the-art Record Plant, Prince used Alpha Studios in Burbank, California: a relatively modest facility located in the home of owner and engineer Gary Brandt. And where on For You Prince had seemed determined to use every inch of the studio console, his approach to its successor was markedly scaled back; according to Brandt, Prince deliberately limited himself to only 16 of Alpha’s 24 available tracks (Brown 2010).
Prince’s stripped-down aesthetic was born partly of preference and partly of necessity. In later interviews, Prince would suggest a growing dissatisfaction with For You’s fussy production: he had tried to make “a perfect record,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland in 1981, but “it was too scientific” (Sutherland 1981). Working with 16 tracks at Alpha Studios would likely have felt more comfortable to an artist used to the humbler accommodations of Sound 80 and his own home studio in Minneapolis; crucially, it was also much cheaper. For You’s recording budget, you might remember, had ballooned to some $170,000–almost the entire amount Warner Bros. had allotted for Prince’s first three albums. So this time around, Prince told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I realized that I had to make some money to prove to them that I was a businessman” (Norment 34). By recording quickly and economically, Prince would ensure that the new record came in on time and under budget. “He was really in a hurry,” drummer Bobby Z recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “There was quite a bit of debt to the label, and he needed a hit. His back was against the wall” (Nilsen 1999 54).
Whatever the reasons for his change in direction, Prince undeniably represented a rebirth for the 20-year-old artist. Even the eponymous title felt more like it belonged to a debut album than a sophomore effort; and when the record was finally released on October 19, 1979, the person on the cover looked so different that he might as well have been an entirely new artist. Joe Giannetti’s For You cover photo had depicted Prince as a blurry, ethereal presence, the contours of his head barely visible in the candlelit murk. But the Prince cover, shot by fashion photographer Jurgen Reisch, is as frank and bold as the earlier image was muted and mysterious: here the artist is nude, literally and figuratively, with nothing to obstruct the viewer from his piercing gaze. Before, his big hair and wispy moustache had suggested a long-lost Jackson brother, but now he presented a disconcerting mix of racial and sexual signifiers. The afro had been processed into a blowout–a “Farrah Fawcett do,” as New York magazine writer Ashley Weatherford recently described it–that almost makes him look like a teenaged Latina girl; until, that is, one looks down and sees the moustache and patch of chest hair, startling signs of virility in an otherwise completely effeminate image. In its own way, the cover of Prince is as subversive of traditional representations of race, gender, and sexuality as the more overt later provocations of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1988’s Lovesexy.
The album’s opening track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” is similarly bold–if not quite as disruptive of mainstream sensibilities. Here, too, a comparison to the previous record is instructive. For You had opened with its title track, an a cappella baroque-soul benediction in which Prince humbly offered himself to the listener. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” is another self-offering, but one with significantly more edge. His desires this time are unapologetically, uneuphemistically carnal, not to mention all-enveloping: he wants not only to be “our” lover, but our “mother,” our “father,” and our “sister, too”; and, of course, he wants to be “the only one who makes you come running”–with just enough of a pause after the word “come” to ensure we pick up what he’s putting down.
Like its sister song of sorts, “I Feel for You,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was written for Patrice Rushen, another up-and-coming artist who had lent some uncredited synthesizer to Prince’s first album. He offered the song for Rushen to include on her own 1979 album, Pizzazz, but he was also inspired by her on a deeper level; according to his unpublished liner notes for Warner’s The Hits compilation, he “had a mad crush on her at the time and the song is about her” (Dash 2016). Prince’s advances were rebuffed on both counts: Rushen didn’t record either song, and she remained immune to his charms. But whatever Prince lost in potential romance, he gained with his first bona fide hit. Upon its single release in August of 1979, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” spent two weeks at the top of Billboard’s R&B chart; more significantly, it also reached Number 11 on the Hot 100, his biggest crossover success until “Little Red Corvette” in 1983.
It’s easy to see why “Lover” connected with audiences at the time: from its opening snare crack, the song is an uninhibited groove, with a bright, pulsing keyboard and guitar hook that leaps from the speakers straight into your hips. Prince’s vocals are more confident and charismatic than ever: that ebullient, Little Richard-esque whoop he lets out after the lines “They say I’m so shy / But with you I just go wild” is certainly a career-to-date highlight. And on the album version, the extended instrumental coda gives Prince the one-man band an opportunity to show off his musicianship, as well as his unique strain of Minneapolis funk: more mannered than Parliament or James Brown, but not as anemic as other lite-funk from the same period (e.g., “Ladies’ Night” by Kool & The Gang), nor as mechanical as disco. It was a new funk for a new era, performed with a distinct lightness of touch, as breathy and delicate as the singer’s girlish falsetto.
But it also still holds up to this day. Based on purely anecdotal evidence, I find that “I Wanna Be Your Lover” has aged surprisingly well in the 37 years (!) since its initial release. Last summer in Washington, D.C., I saw Canadian electronic producer Pomo drop it into the middle of his set as a tribute; the club lit up like he’d just put on “Bad and Boujee.” Certainly, Prince seemed to have some lasting affection for the track. Though he would come to distance himself from its parent album, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” remained a fixture in concert setlists for every decade of his career except the 1990s; and when he and the New Power Generation recorded “My Name is Prince” in 1992, it (along with 1981’s “Controversy”) was one of two songs prominently sampled from his own catalogue.
Of course, we can’t talk about “I Wanna Be Your Lover” without touching upon Prince’s January 1980 performance on American Bandstand, which remains one of the most infamous moments of his early career. Accompanied by his touring band–Bobby Z, Gayle Chapman, André Cymone, Dez Dickerson, and Matt Fink–Prince lip-synced both “Lover” and the just-released second single from Prince, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” But the real event was the interview in-between, which found the insouciant frontman stonewalling host Dick Clark, causing him to flounder for a supremely awkward two minutes. At the interview’s peak–or its nadir, depending on whom you ask–Clark asked how many years Prince had been recording before his first album; in response, the artist silently held up four fingers. A decade and a half later, Clark would maintain that it was “one of the most difficult interviews I’ve ever conducted, and I’ve done 10,000 musician interviews” (Bream 2013).
For better or worse, the American Bandstand interview was an instantly iconic Prince moment; it certainly got people talking, not least among the artist’s own camp. Pepé Willie has maintained that Prince “got stage fright”: “I ripped him a new one on that one,” he told biographer Matt Thorne. “He came back to Minnesota, and I said to him, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ …[H]e told me, ‘That will never happen again, Pepé.’” Bandstand producer Larry Klein would offer a similar theory, claiming that “audiences had misinterpreted what [he thought] was basic shyness on Prince’s part” (Thorne 2016). Prince himself indicated that he was annoyed by the host’s condescending attitude toward his hometown: “That tripped me out when Dick Clark asked how I could come from Minneapolis, of all places,” he told Minneapolis Star journalist Jon Bream shortly after the interview aired. “That really gave me an attitude for the rest of the talk. TV personalities are hard to talk to. They come out of certain bags. Music is music. A place is a place” (Bream 1980).
More recently, however, it’s become evident that Prince’s treatment of Clark was premeditated: in the green room before the show, he “hatched this idea not to say anything,” Dickerson told Dave Hill. “He said, ‘If he asks you anything just shake your head, don’t talk’” (Hill 77). Chapman has since corroborated Dickerson’s claim: “Prince told us when he started the interview we were not to say anything,” she recalled to Matt Thorne. “No smiling and no talking. And I couldn’t help it–Dick said my name and I smiled.” Both former band members have suggested that Prince’s attempt at generating intrigue ultimately made him look silly: “Dick Clark is a professional at his gig and he had this child on his show thinking he’s being mysterious,” as Gayle put it (Thorne 2016). “When I came home and saw somebody’s tape of it, I thought it just made him look foolish, but other people thought it was brilliant,” Dickerson said. “I thought it made us look like total buffoons. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is so stupid. I feel so dumb!’ You know, ‘We’re illiterate, but we play well.’ But I guess one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” (Hill 77-78).
Well, sorry Dez (and Gayle), but I guess you must be my upstairs neighbor. Dick Clark may have been a professional, but even in 1980, American Bandstand was irredeemably square: a relic of an earlier, cornier era, the home of facile, whitebread and white-teethed interviews where every song had a good beat and was easy to dance to. Just three years earlier in Britain, punk provocateurs the Sex Pistols had appeared on Thames Television’s live tea-time program Today and created a moral uproar after hurling profanities at the middle-aged (and, to be fair, visibly drunk) host Bill Grundy. Prince on Bandstand was obviously neither as controversial nor as epochal, but it represented an acknowledgment that at the cusp of the 1980s, youth culture had changed irrevocably: Prince, quite simply, had more to gain by making Dick Clark memorably uncomfortable than by kissing his ass and acting like the “other idiots that go on that show,” as Bobby Z put it (Nilsen 1999 64).
In his interview with Thorne, Pepé Willie said that he wanted Prince to “call radio stations and thank them for playing his records”–a noble idea, to be sure, but about as far from post-punk cool as could be imagined (Thorne 2016). By rebelling to Clark, the squeaky-clean public face of the 1970s pop music industry, Prince was signaling his underground cachet. His insolence may have frustrated the adults in his life, but to the people who mattered–the kids who would soon be lining up to see his increasingly punk-influenced shows and buy his ever-more-outré records–it made an important statement: Prince was on American Bandstand, but he was never of it. Indeed, it was perhaps this moment that set into motion his unique trajectory as an artist whose influence straddles both the cult and the mainstream: almost 40 years later, it’s still a space he shares with few outside of David Bowie.
Next week, more Prince. We’re moving right along! And if you haven’t checked out the new bio by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, do so–if you’re reading this blog, I promise it will be your kind of thing. Later!