(Featured Image: Cover of The Rebels, 1980; © Warner Bros.)
Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!
The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.
The Rebels story begins with André Cymone (née André Simon Anderson) and Prince Nelson (his real name, believe it or not), two veterans of the “uptown” Minneapolis funk scene. Bassist Cymone and guitarist Nelson had been playing together since their early teens, when they formed Grand Central, a funk-rock outfit that was a fixture of local battles of the bands in the mid-1970s. The group (later rechristened “Champagne”) was popular, and almost got their big break in 1976: a contract with Isaac Hayes’ HBS (Hot Buttered Soul) record label. Sadly, the HBS deal fell through when Hayes filed for bankruptcy later that same year; Champagne folded not long after. Cymone and Nelson, however, retained their musical partnership, recording an unsuccessful demo tape as a duo and gigging with local bands like Flyte Tyme, 94 East, and Enterprize. But it wasn’t until 1978 when their new musical direction became evident, upon catching a show by local post-punks Spooks at the downtown punk club Jay’s Longhorn Bar. While largely unimpressed by Spooks’ musical chops, Cymone and Nelson were taken with their raw energy, and quickly set about finding a way to merge their funk pedigrees with a new, punk rock attitude and delivery.
First, though, they needed a band. Cymone and Nelson recruited Bobby “Z.” Rivkin, a drummer adept in both rock and R&B with whom they’d previously played in 94 East. Nelson’s cousin (and another Grand Central veteran), Charles Smith, introduced them to keyboardist and singer Gayle Chapman, from nearby St. Louis Park; Rivkin brought in a second keyboard player (also, coincidentally, from St. Louis Park), Matt Fink. Lastly, the growing band took out an ad in the Twin Cities Reader to recruit a second guitarist, Desmond “Dez” Dickerson. The beefy lineup–two guitars, two synths, four vocalists–reflected a “more is more” philosophy that set them apart in the underground rock scene; their race and gender diversity, meanwhile, suggested both their range of musical influences and their ambition to break through Minneapolis’ implicit color lines. Nelson in particular would play up his ethnic ambiguity, chemically straightening his hair and appearing deliberately lighter-skinned on the cover of their debut album; but the group’s inherent “Blackness” nevertheless remained an undeniable part of their appeal: the Rebels, more than any other punk or New Wave group in Minneapolis at the time, were funky, and they quickly built a following among fans of more established “punk-funk” acts like Talking Heads.
The Rebels made their live debut in April 1979 at 7th Street Entry: a hot new underground spot, formerly the coat check room of the First Avenue institution Uncle Sam’s. The group, having spent the preceding four months in grueling rehearsal, made an immediate splash. Nelson performed wearing little more than a pair of bikini briefs and thigh-high women’s nylons; Cymone wore completely transparent plastic pants; Chapman was in lingerie; Fink, in a touch of Devo-esque postmodernism, wore a set of doctor’s scrubs and a stethoscope. The group’s look, a kind of camp parody of both porn chic and Spandex-rock excess, was leavened by their ruthless stage presence: a whip-fast 30-minute blitz through songs that blended raw funk with blistering rock. Word quickly spread of the Rebels’ incendiary live act, and they became a staple at the Entry and other small clubs around town.
Later that year, the legendary Minneapolis independent label Twin/Tone released the Rebels’ debut single. While somewhat lacking in the energy of their live show, it nevertheless served as a concise summary of their appeal. On the A-side was Nelson’s “You,” a New-Wavey hard rock number and a showpiece for Chapman’s powerful vocals; the Cymone-penned B-side “Thrill You or Kill You,” meanwhile, paired a funk groove with punk’s nervous energy and menace. Both sides of the record received some major play on college radio stations, which in turn fueled high-profile dates opening for the likes of Devo and Iggy Pop.
It was the Devo connection that drew the attention of Warner Bros., who had earned critical acclaim with the group’s first two albums but were actively seeking something more “commercial,” along the lines of the Cars. They found it in the Rebels’ sharp songcraft and undeniable sex appeal–particularly Nelson, whose androgynous good looks and energetic stage presence made him a favorite with women and men alike. But even as they were on the cusp of a major label deal, the Rebels were already beginning to come apart at the seams. Chapman objected to Nelson’s increasingly boundary-pushing behavior, which included staged kissing and other, more lewd acts; the final straw was his new song, “Head,” which required her to simulate fellatio with Nelson onstage. She abandoned the group in the spring of 1980, just as the band was about to sign with Warner.
Fortunately, the label was able to assist in finding a replacement Rebel: Lisa Coleman, the 19-year-old daughter of former Wrecking Crew sessioneer Gary L. Coleman and a classically-trained pianist. Coleman brought an expanded musical palate and a more aloof sexuality to the group; she did not simulate any sex acts with Nelson, though she did play a distinctly self-aware coquette in performances of “Head.” Based in Los Angeles at the time, she relocated to Minneapolis to join the group as they prepared to record their debut album at Sound 80.
At this point, the Rebels were more or less stable, though warning signs were again beginning to appear. To oversee the sessions, Warner recommended Brian Eno, the producer of Devo’s debut album, along with landmark records by David Bowie and Talking Heads; Nelson, however, insisted that he produce them himself, with the help of Bobby’s brother David Z. The issue split the band, several of whom were excited to work with Eno, but the label ultimately acquiesced. In the end, it was probably the right choice: Nelson’s simple, unadorned production is a perfect match for the Rebels’ raw energy. But tensions were brewing nevertheless over the guitarist’s growing dominance of the group: his increasingly prolific songwriting, along with Warner’s subtle encouragement of him as the de facto frontman, was beginning to push the other members of the band to the sidelines.
These tensions were reflected in the final album, which placed Nelson conspicuously front and center on the cover art. The track list, too, was dominated by Nelson compositions: Cymone contributed a re-recorded version of “Thrill You or Kill You” and co-wrote the anthemic “Uptown”; Fink received a co-writing credit for the synthesizer hook on Nelson’s “Dirty Mind”; the rousing punk-funk closer “Partyup” was co-written by former Grand Central drummer Morris Day; but otherwise, it was Nelson’s show. Even the new version of “You” featured Nelson on vocals, rather than Chapman’s official replacement, Coleman. None of this sat well with his bandmates–especially Cymone, who threatened to quit the group after he found out Nelson had been overdubbing his bass parts. In the end, Warner enticed him back by releasing his “Uptown” as the lead single; it did well, cracking the Top 10 on the Soul and Dance charts, but not as well as Nelson’s “When You Were Mine,” a prickly pop song in the Elvis Costello/Joe Jackson tradition that would become the band’s biggest commercial success.
By the time the Rebels set out for their first headlining tour in late 1980, the “classic” lineup’s days were numbered. Nelson was pushing the band into more and more provocative directions: Dickerson, like Chapman before him, was turned off by some of his new material, particularly “Sister,” an apparently pro-incest song with an arrangement (heard in a few circulating live bootlegs) that was the closest the Rebels ever came to pure punk. At the end of the tour in 1981, Nelson opted to leave the group; Warner Bros., who still had high hopes for harnessing his obvious star power, agreed to retain him as a solo artist.
Unfortunately for W.B., those hopes would be dashed once Nelson–now going only by his given name, Prince–turned in his first album. Recorded once again at Sound 80 in less than four weeks, it included no obvious singles; worse still, the material was his most X-rated to date, with titles like “Irresistible Bitch,” “Feel U Up,” and “Jack U Off.” The latter was initially his choice for an album title, but the label released it as Prince: the only change the increasingly obstinate artist allowed them to make. Given the choice between shelving an unsellable record and sending it out to die, Warner made the best of it and gave Prince a quiet release in late 1981; with no radio play and many major retailers refusing to stock the record, it sold about as well as you’d imagine, and Prince was let go from the label.
Meanwhile–and thanks in no small part to Prince’s disappointing performance–the Rebels got another chance at an album without their erstwhile creative center. The result, 1982’s Livin’ in the New Wave, was both more radio-friendly and more of a band effort than their debut: in addition to a batch of songs from Cymone (including the title track), Dickerson contributed the Coleman-sung “He’s So Dull” and his own “After Hi School,” while Coleman wrote and sang backup on the underrated funk jam “The Stick.” The album did well enough–its glossy production by star synthpop technician Trevor Horn certainly didn’t hurt–but lacked the personality of its predecessor; by the end of the year, the Rebels had gone their separate ways.
Though they only lasted a scant three years as a musical unit, the members of the Rebels continued to influence the direction of pop music in the 1980s–and, by extension, the decades to come. After his solo album debacle, Prince went underground, relocating to Detroit and producing a series of landmark mid-’80s techno singles: “Drive Me Wild,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “All Day, All Night,” and of course, the legendary “Erotic City.” In 1987, he was poised to release his long-delayed second LP, The Black Album, when a religious experience–inspired, legend has it, by a bad trip on ecstasy–caused him to denounce his past music and enter the ministry; he later reemerged in the 1990s with a series of independently-released (and bizarre) albums of sacred music, credited to an unpronounceable glyph. Dickerson also attempted to strike out on his own, but his solo career never got off the ground; by the end of the decade he, too, had been born again and was recording primarily Christian music.
Cymone had a more conventional career path. After the Rebels’ demise, he went back to R&B music, putting together a band with the core members of Grand Central’s old rivals Flyte Tyme: keyboardists James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Monte Moir, bassist Terry Lewis, and drummer Garry “Jellybean” Johnson. The new group, with Cymone on guitar and lead vocals, was dubbed the Time and had some notable R&B hits, including “Let’s Work” and the immortal slow jam “Do Me, Baby”–a relic, incidentally, of Cymone’s pre-Rebels partnership with Nelson. When the Time had run their course, Cymone wrote and produced songs for other acts, including his then-wife Jody Watley.
Last but not least, Coleman, Fink, and Bobby Z recruited Lisa’s partner Wendy Melvoin, her brother David Coleman, and Wendy’s brother Jonathan Melvoin to form the neo-psychedelic group the Revolution. They released a few well-regarded albums, including 1985’s Around the World in a Day and 1987’s Dream Factory. After the group disbanded, Wendy and Lisa went on to a successful career composing music for film and television; Fink and Bobby turned primarily to production.
In recent years, renewed interest in the Rebels has prompted a few brief reunions of the Livin’ in the New Wave era of the group, though the Holy Grail remains a return to the “classic” lineup of Nelson, Cymone, Dickerson, Coleman, Fink, and Bobby Z. Most of the members of the group have seemed amenable to the idea; Nelson, however, has remained elusive. His one public statement on the issue was a cryptic handwritten letter in response to a journalist, reading only, “The rain will come down, then U will have 2 choose. If U believe, look 2 the dawn and U shall never lose.” Needless to say, it seems unlikely that he will ever play with his old bandmates again. Yet even if we have heard the last of Prince Nelson, the mark he and the Rebels left on contemporary music remains indelible. Rebellions, of course, are never built to last; but for what it achieved in a relatively short time, this one’s success is undeniable.
(While I have obviously invented much of the above history, I am nevertheless indebted to Michaelangelo Matos’ “Everybody is a Star: How the Rock Club First Avenue Made Minneapolis the Center of Music in the ’80s,” for giving me just enough knowledge about the Twin Cities punk/college rock scene to create a convincing facsimile.)