Ice Cream Castle, 1984

Ice Cream Castles (Old and Ignant)

The Time (or at least two of them) temper their trademark funk into a more laid-back form.

After the completion of “My Drawers” on January 12, 1984, the Time had five new songs in the can–enough to form the core of their third album. But they were still missing the pièce de résistance. For this, Prince turned once again to a half-finished song by Jesse Johnson: a funky jam called “Old and Ignant” which the guitarist had demoed with singer Morris Day. “Prince kept telling me[,] ‘It’s so cool how you played the bass on the AND instead of the 1,’” Johnson shared on Facebook in 2014. “[G]reat compliment[,] even though at that time I didn’t know what he was talking about” (Johnson March 21).

Prince kept telling me, ‘It’s so cool how you played the bass on the AND instead of the 1’… [G]reat compliment[,] even though at that time I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Jesse Johnson
Prince and band (that’s Dr. Fink in the background) rehearse, circa 1984; © the Prince Estate.

Prince toyed with “Old and Ignant” for at least a few days before attempting it at Sunset Sound on January 13. A rehearsal is circulating, dated late 1983 or early 1984, which includes elements from the nascent track, alongside snatches of fellow work-in-progress “Erotic City,” liberal quotes from Sly and the Family Stone’s “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” and “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey,” and a far-future glimpse at the jam posthumously released as “Soul Psychodelicide.” Mostly, though, it’s a vehicle for Prince to bellow the words, “White girls!” like a concussed James Brown–hence its unofficial title of “‘White Girls’ Jam.” Arguably, with Prince and guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister Susannah increasingly becoming an item, the concept was fresh in his mind.

When it came time to record the track for real, Prince recruited Johnson and Day on guitar and drums, respectively, while he filled in on piano. According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, this mostly-instrumental early runthrough featured Prince “humming where he wanted to eventually place vocals” and “stating where the musical changes would be.” Tudahl writes that the “groove drifted slightly into James Brown’s 1976 track ‘Bodyheat’”–as, indeed, it often did during this period–“but only briefly before Prince ended the song with his customary ‘on the one’” (Tudahl 2018 232). Presumably, this time Johnson knew what he meant.

Prince was into Joni; I wasn’t.

Morris Day
Joni Mitchell’s Clouds, one of the Time’s less likely inspirations; © Reprise Records.

By the time Prince and Day reconvened to finish the song on January 14, relatively little remained of the original “Old and Ignant”–just the skeleton of the groove, a loose theme of interracial romance, and a main hook built around the words, “We are young.” In his effort to polish the tune for public consumption, Prince eschewed all but a few of the irreverent “white girls” callouts, in favor of more self-consciously poetic imagery borrowed from a real-life white girl: the “ice cream castles in the air” from Joni Mitchell’s folk-pop standard “Both Sides, Now,” transformed into “ice cream castles in the summertime.” Day, citing his increasing complacency in the band, later admitted the reference went over his head: “Prince was into Joni,” he writes in his 2019 memoir; “I wasn’t” (Day 93).

Unfortunately, once “Ice Cream Castles” (as the track was now officially known) stopped quoting Joni, its literary quality took a dip. The aforementioned lyrical theme of young love crossing racial boundaries is admirable in theory; but in practice, bluntly expository lines like, “You are fine, you are white, I am of color,” tend to land with a thud. One also can’t help but wonder whether Prince had anyone specific in mind when he wrote about “[m]ad sisters” having to wait their turn while he dallied with his pale new paramour.

More impressive are the song’s musical elements, which find the Time (or at least two of them) tempering their trademark funk into a more laid-back form. As Day recalled to Rolling Stone, “at that time, there were groups like the Fixx, the Cure doing those haunting, melodic songs and we wanted to do one of our own.” While I confess that I don’t quite hear the Cure, “Ice Cream Castles”–and its light, bright lead synth line in particular–certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on a post-Dare Human League record. Better yet is the track’s latter half, when in Day’s words, it “turns a corner from being a pop song and starts to get funky.” As mentioned above, even the “white girls” chant gets a brief resurrection–along with corresponding shoutouts to black, “oriental” (it was a different time), and Jamaican women. Prince and Day, the latter explained to Rolling Stone, appreciated all “the different flavors” (Grant 2017).

[A]t that time, there were groups like the Fixx, the Cure doing those haunting, melodic songs and we wanted to do one of our own.

Morris Day
The music video for “Ice Cream Castles”: Morris Day’s last appearance with the Time in more than three years. © Warner Bros.

It would have been interesting to see the Time continue to follow the musical path laid out by “Ice Cream Castles”; but alas, it was not to be. The track was not only the last recorded for its semi-namesake, Ice Cream Castle–the titular castles, plural, having been mysteriously reduced to a singular–but also the last recorded by this lineup of the group, full stop. When they reconvened in early March to shoot the music video (see above), Day had already moved to Los Angeles and was poised to launch a solo career. It would be his final appearance with the Time for more than three years.

Meanwhile, as usual, Jamie Starr had the last laugh. When Prince completed the final sequence for Ice Cream Castle, he bookended the album with a curious motif: the sound of a music box, cranked to the limit so that its tune comes out as a chaotic jumble of notes. It’s as apt an aural metaphor as any for this side project with a life of its own–a machine that Prince could program, but never fully control. For now, at least, the machine had finally ground to a halt.

“Ice Cream Castles”
Electric Fetus / TIDAL

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