By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).
Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.
The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. “I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979).
By all appearances, the Rebels project would have been that album–though stories differ on the precise nature of Prince’s plans. Bobby Z claimed that Prince “envisioned The Rebels being what later Milli Vanilli became: we would do the music and then somebody else would be the image. We would have been like The Monkees. ‘The Rebels’ was just another word he liked” (Nilsen 1999 58). Dickerson, however, told biographer Matt Thorne that these ideas were never set in stone, and there had been discussions of a possible photo shoot for the album (Thorne 2016). Most intriguingly, Prince’s cousin Charles Smith has indicated that this was yet another idea Prince “borrowed” from bassist André Cymone: “He was going to be the producer and pick a ghost name,” Smith recalled to Nilsen. “The cover of the album was going to be the silhouettes of the faces of Prince’s band members, just the shapes of their heads, no faces. You couldn’t see who it was. It was a cool concept” (Nilsen 1999 58).
Whether “the Rebels” were André’s idea or not, the project seems to have functioned at least in part to ease tension between Prince and his closest collaborator. “After the Prince album, Prince and André started to drift apart,” Bobby told Nilsen. “Their friendship had been going on so long. André was trying to get more songs in there” (Nilsen 1999 59). By indulging in a more democratic side project, Prince could allow André–and Dez, another frustrated frontman–their share of the spotlight, while keeping the arrangement entirely on his terms. To his credit, at least, he seems to have taken the project seriously: according to Thorne, Dickerson remembered the bandleader “taking painstaking effort over the project, with whole days given up to getting the tracking and overdubbing right” (Thorne 2016). Keyboardist Matt Fink even recalled Prince presenting the finished product to Warner Bros.; the label passed, however, because “they thought a release under another name would confuse people” (Azhar 17).
Personally, I think Warner might have passed for at least one other reason: to be blunt, the Rebels tracks just aren’t that great. It’s possible, of course, that the circulating recordings aren’t the final mixes–certainly, the bootleg-quality audio fidelity makes them more difficult to enjoy. But if this was supposed to be an officially-released album, it’s a decidedly thin one: nine tracks, two of which are short instrumentals by Dez and André respectively. Of the remaining seven songs, Cymone contributed one other: the nervy punk-funk workout “Thrill You or Kill You,” originally demoed at the Music Farm in February, which would later find a spiritual successor (and a marked improvement) in Prince’s “Irresistible Bitch.” Dickerson, meanwhile, brought two to the table: “Disco Away,” an awkward attempt to have his cake and eat it too by pairing anti-disco lyrics with a dance-rock beat straight off KISS’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You”; and “Too Long,” a bluesy AOR number that sounds a little like something Eddie Money might record.
The remaining four songs were by Prince; even while keeping himself pointedly behind the curtain, the aspiring puppet master couldn’t resist pulling the strings. But it’s also true that, as Bobby Z noted, Prince was simply writing better songs than anyone else in the group (Nilsen 1999 59). This isn’t to say that his Rebels tracks are unsung classics: one in particular was among his slightest compositions to date. But a few of them would remain in his back pocket for a surprisingly long time, popping up again in often drastically revised (and improved) form until as late as 1995.
One of the songs Prince would revisit–albeit not in any official capacity–was “Hard to Get”: a raunchy, Stones-flavored cut that made the sessions’ strongest case for the Rebels as a pure rock and roll band. Indeed, “Hard to Get” is Prince’s most conventional rocker this side of “Bambi,” with a swaggering rhythm guitar riff, honky tonk piano, and either Dez or Prince playing with a slide (!). The lead vocals are shared between Prince and André, with Prince singing in his lower register, while Gayle joins in on the chorus, belting out soulful backing vocals that would sound right at home on a Humble Pie record. It’s no masterpiece–if you told me that it was by any no-name boogie-rock band from the late ’70s, I’d probably believe you–but it’s a fun track, with a shit-hot guitar solo that makes me wish the fadeout was just a little longer.
The later version of “Hard to Get” is almost unrecognizable, recorded in early 1981 when Prince was in full Dirty Mind/Controversy mode. The boozy, bloozy guitars have been replaced by glacial electronic textures, and the lyrics–a contemptuous kiss-off to a woman who won’t put out–are delivered with simmering menace rather than the original’s Jagger-esque preening. It’s a fascinating revision–though it is, in its own way, as much a stylistic pastiche as the original, with Prince swapping out the Stones/Humble Pie for Gary Numan. Unfortunately, the only recording currently circulating is a one-minute clip, but enterprising fans have edited the snippet into something a little more substantial (albeit repetitive).
We’ll be back next week with a song Prince didn’t revisit (for good reason, I’m afraid), plus a couple of other, more exciting things. Hope you enjoy them!