As we discussed last week, one of the key functions of the Rebels project was that it allowed Prince to test out new and divergent musical approaches before incorporating them into his own “official” work. In particular, keyboardist Matt Fink later told biographer Per Nilsen, Prince “wanted to try this punk rock/new wave thing with The Rebels because he was too afraid to do that within the ‘Prince’ realm. It was an experiment” (Nilsen 1999 58). The experiment turned out to be a successful one: Prince’s next album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, would be heavily influenced by both the sounds of New Wave and the confrontational attitude of punk. But before there was “Dirty Mind,” “Sister,” or “When You Were Mine,” there was “You”: the laboratory where he constructed his edgy new style, and a minor classic in its own right.
Like “The Loser” and “If I Love You Tonight,” “You” was conceived as a vehicle for keyboardist and backing singer Gayle Chapman. Unlike those songs, however–or, indeed, any of Prince’s earlier attempts at writing from a woman’s perspective–here he casts Chapman in a much more sexually aggressive role. She shrieks the lyrics like a banshee in heat, licking her lips over a prospective lover’s hard-on and even threatening him with rape: the first known appearance of one of Prince’s darkest early lyrical tropes. Within a few months, Chapman would leave the band: a decision that has often been attributed to her objection to Prince’s increasingly outré lyrics. But, as she noted to the Beautiful Nights fan blog, “I sang ‘You.’ So, what? (Singing lyrics) ‘You get so hard I don’t know what to do.’ How stupid was I? ‘Take your pants off!’” (Dyes August 2013).
Along with Chapman’s convincing vamp routine, the Rebels version of “You” was distinguished by its arrangement: a blend of full-throttle hard rock with synthpop textures, more than a little reminiscent of the Cars. An oft-overlooked influence on Prince’s early sound, the Cars represented a bridge between the arena rock he favored on his first two albums and the wirier New Wave of Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy. Guitarist Dez Dickerson has taken credit for introducing the group to Prince’s musical vocabulary: in an interview with biographer Matt Thorne, he recalled frequently playing Cars riffs during rehearsals; Prince, of course, would go on to pepper his own mid-2000s shows with covers of the Cars’ 1979 single “Let’s Go” (Thorne 2016). You can hear a little of “Let’s Go” in the pulsating synthesizer intro of “You”–though the aggressive guitar chords and later solos, likely played by Dickerson, sound more like the title track of its parent album, Candy-O.
With its more cutting-edge sound and aggressive sexuality, “You” was the Rebels track that pointed most directly to Prince’s future work; it’s thus unsurprising that it was also one of a handful of songs from the sessions that received future revisions. Prince dug up the song–now titled simply “U”–in October of 1987, most likely as a demo for another female artist: he keeps the pronouns intact, as well as (a little surprisingly) the line about driving “a girl 2 rape u,” though the weirdly desperate line “I’ll kill myself if I don’t make love to you” has been excised in favor of a brief rap and a decidedly house-influenced piano solo. Though obviously lacking in the urgency of the Rebels version, it’s a fun take on the song: a time capsule of the dance-pop influences that would inform parts of 1988’s Lovesexy and, especially, 1989’s Batman soundtrack.
Indeed, the dance-pop version of “You”/”U” is the one that would be heard by most listeners, as it ended up in the hands of choreographer-turned-singer Paula Abdul in 1990. Abdul slightly slowed down Prince’s arrangement and added her own vocals–this time to no one’s surprise, the rape line is missing–making up for what she lacks in vocal ability with a surfeit of suggestive moans. It’s not a masterpiece, but like Prince’s original rearrangement, it’s good fun.
Speaking of good fun, look out in a couple of days for the second installment of the dance / music / sex / romance podcast, featuring Jane Clare Jones; there will probably be a short writeup of the Revolution concert I’m attending this week, as well. Then, next week, I’m putting on my A.U. fan fiction writer’s hat once again for a look at another possible fate for the Rebels. We’ll be back to our regular programming in early May.
(As noted last week, not a lot of single tracks are floating around for the Rebels sessions, but you can hear the whole project in excellent quality here.)