Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

Hi, everyone! In an effort to break up the flow of this blog a bit, I’d like to insert the occasional “Roundup” post whenever we come to the close of a particular phase of Prince’s musical career. So, now that we’re officially finished with 1976 ephemera and moving into For You territory, here are the songs so far. And hey, since everyone loves a totally subjective ranking–this is the Internet, is it not?–I’ll give them to you in ascending order of my personal preference:

9. Home Recordings, 1976 These probably shouldn’t even be on the list, as it’s a little unfair to consider them “songs.” What can I say, though, I dig some of ’em.

8. “If You See Me” Sorry, Pepé; Prince’s and Jesse’s versions both blow yours out of the water.

7. Moonsound Instrumentals The first time I posted this, I thought the version I’d heard of the legitimately funky “Jelly Jam” was recorded at Moonsound; it wasn’t, and as a result these recordings have dropped a bit in my esteem. Still, they show promise.

6. “Nightingale” Historically interesting and poignant, but so twee.

5. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” More sexist than sexy, but also sort of endearingly dorky. It’s nice to know that at least 17-year-old Prince wasn’t smoother than 31-year-old me.

4. “I Spend My Time Loving You” Like “Nightingale,” this one’s a little on the twee side, but the vocal and guitar performances are moving beyond Prince’s years.

3. “Leaving for New York Like I said in the post, probably Prince’s most musically accomplished song to date. I slept on this one for ages, then I listened to it in the car and it just came alive. A sublime indication of a blossoming talent.

2. “Rock Me, Lover” It’s slight, sure, but like I said in the article, it offers a valuable glimpse of Prince’s future as a more feminist (or at least submissive) brand of lover. As teenage masturbatory fantasies go, I’ll take this over “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” any day. Also, great discussion with Jane Clare Jones in the comments.

1. “Sweet Thing” To be perfectly honest, this is the only song we’ve discussed so far that I really go out of my way to listen to. A beautiful, delicate cover version that I may even prefer to the original by Chaka Khan and Rufus. On a more personal note, this was the post that made Chaka retweet me and blow my blog the fuck up (at least for a couple of days). For that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Also, let’s not forget the two introductory posts that fill in a few early gaps in Prince’s recorded oeuvre. I obviously can’t rank these because I haven’t heard any of the songs (though I’m sure the one of five-year-old Skipper banging rocks together was dope):

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1965-1968
Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

Finally, because I’m weirdly fascinated by tag clouds, here’s a snapshot of the tags I’ve used so far and their relative frequency. The data isn’t perfect because of a few crossposts that have fucked with the chronology, but it should still be interesting to see how the people, places, and songs we discuss change over time. To me, I mean. It will be interesting to me.

tagcloud1

Tomorrow, we continue with the next chapter of our journey: the series of studio recordings that ultimately resulted in Prince’s first album. If you’ve been rocking with me so far, I mean this sincerely: thank you so much. The response to this blog–especially these early, obscure entries–has honestly been beyond anything I dared to hope for. It’s so gratifying to get the feedback from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

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Leaving for New York

Leaving for New York

(Featured Image: “Home of the Brave,” Ted Croner, 1948.)

Though it was a major boon for his own development as a songwriter and producer, for the rest of his band, Prince’s agreement to collaborate privately with Chris Moon went over about as well as you might expect. Curiously, Moon remembers Morris Day taking the snub hardest: “he was a pretty flamboyant, outrageous, strong personality even back then,” he said to biographer Matt Thorne, “so I think it struck him as difficult that the quietest person in the band had been picked over him, the front man” (Thorne 2016). Morris, of course, was the group’s drummer, not the “front man”; it’s unclear whether Moon was speaking figuratively, or confusing him for someone else.

In any case, the other members of Shampayne served Prince with an ultimatum: Moonsound, or the band. Prince chose Moonsound–but his version of the story, at least, suggests that the decision was more complicated than simply ditching his friends at the earliest opportunity. In Prince’s telling, it was actually his trip to New York in the autumn of 1976 that caused the rift, and it was symptomatic of a larger gap in ambition between himself and the rest of the group. “I asked them all what they wanted to do, ‘Do you want to stay here, or do you want to go to New York?’” he explained to Musician magazine’s Barbara Graustark in 1981. “No one wanted to do it. They liked their lifestyle, I guess. I don’t think they really liked the idea of me trying to manipulate the band so much. I was always trying to get us to do something different, and I was always teamed up on for that. Like, in an argument or something like that, or a fight, or whatever…it was always me against them” (Graustark 116-117). 

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Moonsound Instrumentals

Moonsound Instrumentals

(Featured Image: Prince recording at Sound 80 (not Moonsound) in early 1977. Photo by Larry Falk.)

Sometime in the spring of 1976, the band formerly known as Grand Central (recently rechristened “Shampayne”) recorded their second and final demo at an eight-track recording studio with an unusually fanciful name. “Moonsound, Inc.” was founded in the early 1970s, in the basement of a rented house on 25th Street and Portland Avenue (Hill 29). Its namesake was a British expatriate advertising agent, recording engineer, aspiring songwriter, and all-around renaissance man named Chris Moon, whose accommodating fees–$15 an hour, clients provide their own tape–made Moonsound a popular destination for Minneapolis’ small but active African American musical community.

moonsound
Photo stolen from Discogs

The studio, such as it was, moved around town for the better part of the decade: to another basement on Stevens Avenue, and eventually to a large, single-story structure on Dupont, next door to an automotive impound (Numero Group 2013). In between, Moon set up shop in a 1,500-square-foot former hair salon on the south end of the city, near Lake Nokomis. It was at this location where Prince Rogers Nelson would record some of his most important early work; first, though, there was the Shampayne demo.

In an interview with biographer Dave Hill, Chris Moon recalled Shampayne recording “three or four sessions. They’d come in, do the rhythm track one day, then the vocals, and then the mix and so on” (Hill 29). Moon told Per Nilsen that he found the band to be “talented, but not exceptionally talented.” Like Pepé Willie before him, however, he did see “exceptional” talent in their soft-spoken, diminutive, big-haired guitarist. “Prince would normally show up a bit earlier than everybody else, thrash around on the drums a little bit, twinkle on the piano, guitar, bass or whatever,” he said to Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 26). In Debby Miller’s 1983 cover story for Rolling Stone, Moon elaborated: “Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw… He looked pretty tame. Then he’d pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over” (Miller 1983).

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Nightingale

Nightingale

(Featured Image: KQRS radio personalities pose on the station’s roof, circa 1973; photo stolen from Radio Tapes.)

We’ve already mentioned in passing how Prince’s celebrated musical heterogeneity–that genre- and race-agnostic blend of funk, soul, rock, and pop influences that would come to be known as the “Minneapolis Sound”–was at least in part a product of unique historical and geographic circumstances. It may be hard to believe today, when radio playlists are as standardized as they are irrelevant, but broadcasting in the pre-Clear Channel era was a highly localized industry. This not only made it possible for your proverbial Alan Freeds and Wolfman Jacks to wield an influence as tastemakers in their respective territories, but it also created a highly segregated musical landscape based on the perceived demands of regional audiences–which, let’s face it, often translated to the racist preconceptions of the advertising industry. In the business parlance of the times, an area populated primarily with white listeners was known as a “vanilla market.” And, with a mere 1.7 percent African American population as of the 1970 census, the Twin Cities were about as “vanilla” a market as they came.

What this meant, essentially, was a paucity of the kind of urban Black radio on which most of Prince’s peers from the rest of the country were raised: as biographer Dave Hill put it, “the people who controlled the airwaves of Minneapolis and St. Paul virtually declared that blacks did not exist” (Hill 18). The one station in the area that regularly played music by African American artists, KUXL, only broadcast from sunrise to sundown–keeping in mind that in the dead of winter, that could mean as early as 5:30 p.m.–and even then, it was predominantly a gospel station. Prince thus grew up on a musical diet that was a lot closer to what one might imagine for a white artist of his generation, tuning in after hours to the “progressive” FM rock station KQRS. “KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station,” he recalled to Minnesota Monthly in 1997. That’s where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell” (Keller 1997). And if that sounds like an odd list of favorites for a Black teenager in the mid-’70s, their influence is clearly borne out in Prince’s music.

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