In addition to providing a creative outlet for his backing band, the Rebels project also offered Prince an opportunity to experiment with different styles outside the context of his official albums. For the most part, that meant hard rock and New Wave: as we discussed last week, “Hard to Get” was as straightforward a Rolling Stones rip as Prince ever recorded; songs like his “You” and Dez Dickerson’s “Disco Away,” meanwhile, bore the influence of Boston FM rock/New Wave act the Cars, whose sophomore album Candy-O was reportedly in heavy rotation at the group’s mid-1979 tour rehearsals (Thorne 2016). But in two of his compositions for keyboardist Gayle Chapman, Prince explored less familiar territory–with admittedly mixed results.
The more substantial of the pair was “If I Love You Tonight,” a soft rock ballad distinguished mainly by its oddly theatrical conceit: Chapman playing the role of a woman on the brink of suicide and desperate for connection, apparently inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Thorne 2016). The track would be revised thoroughly in the years to come–so much that I’m waiting until one of the later versions to discuss it in depth. The other song, “The Loser”–long mislabeled by bootleggers as “Turn Me On”–seems to have been recorded only once, making it unique among Prince’s Rebels songs; and the version that does exist is little more than a stylistic pastiche of his late-1970s labelmate, roots rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt.
Prince and Raitt would eventually connect, but not until years after the Rebels sessions. They briefly worked together in 1987, Raitt recording versions of Prince’s songs “Jealous Girl,” “I Need a Man,” “Promise to Be True,” and “There’s Something I Like About Being Your Fool” for a potential project on Paisley Park. And of course, the artist then-formerly known as Prince would record a cover of Raitt’s adult contemporary hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for his 1996 album Emancipation. But even seven years before their paths officially crossed, Prince would have been aware of Raitt’s music: in late 1979 and early 1980, keyboardist Matt Fink recalled to biographer Alex Hahn, Prince “had stacks and stacks of records in his house that he got free from Warner Bros. …He was listening to just about everything” (Hahn 2003 33). It’s extremely plausible that at least Raitt’s 1977 album for Warner, Sweet Forgiveness, would have been in one of those stacks.
It also makes sense that Prince would experiment with Raitt’s style as a potential model for Chapman, his own spunky redhead with a powerful voice. She certainly adds personality to “The Loser”: emulating Raitt’s ersatz-Southern sass over rootsy guitar licks, electric piano, and clavinet, plus André Cymone’s incongrous (but welcome!) funk bass. The problem is that the song isn’t much more than an able mimic. You can hear some of Prince’s sensibility in the lyrics–Chapman is basically inhabiting the role of the cruel, forthright, but sexually irresistible woman who frequently shows up in his songs around this time–but the arrangement is just too generic, even for a deliberate ghost project like the Rebels.
Fortunately, Prince would hit upon a much more compelling style to emulate for his fourth–and best–Rebels song; that’s where we’ll pick up when we resume our regular posts next week. In the meantime, look out for a few other pieces tomorrow and Friday–including the first installment of my podcast with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones.