Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

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

I’m not gonna lie, folks: this “chapter” of the blog wasn’t always easy to get through. I mentioned before that For You is my least favorite album of Prince’s “classic period,” and his outtakes from that time are, well, outtakes. If nothing else, however, this was valuable training for when I have to trudge through the parts of his discography I like even less; the other day I realized that at some point I’m going to need to spend a couple of months on Carmen Electra’s album, and I promptly broke into a cold sweat.

So, in addition to my usual “thank-yous” for reading, I’d like to also thank my readers for being so patient in the five months (!) between this and the last roundup post. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I feel some burnout on a project that, I’m well aware, will be a part of my life for the next several years. All I can do is continue to do my best and try to do the material justice, even when it doesn’t especially excite me.

And hey, in case you were wondering what songs excited me least, here’s the ranking:

11. 1978 Instrumentals No surprise here: like his home recordings of 1976, Prince’s France Avenue instrumentals are For Devotees Only. But man, what a treat that we get to hear them at all.

10. “Baby, Baby, Baby” Another one for the Devotees Only list: basically just a couple minutes’ worth of Prince strumming and scatting, and yet here I am writing about it 40 years later like it’s the Holy Fucking Grail. If this was just some guy in a coffee shop, it would be unbearable; but it’s Prince, and somehow that makes all the difference.

9. “Donna” A cute, if clearly unfinished little ditty. Also gave me an excuse to share a pretty dope photo of Donna Summer.

8. “Down a Long Lonely Road” The fact that this is ranked so high is proof that I’m being as subjective as possible: it’s barely a song, but what can I say, I like the pure and simple gospel feel. Would have loved to hear this develop into something more.

7. “Make It Through the Storm” I know this is a popular outtake, but it’s not my favorite. Still, an interesting reminder that even in the For You era, Prince didn’t sound quite like anyone else: this is the exception that proves the rule.

6. “Nadeara” I bet he writes songs like this for all the girls.

5. “Miss You” My favorite of the post-For You demos by default: it’s the only one that really holds up as a complete song. Well, with one exception…

4. “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” This is low-key one of Prince’s best early pop cuts, and it dates back all the way to 1976. Would love to hear the Sue Ann Carwell version one of these days.

3. Loring Park Sessions Would I care about this if it wasn’t by Prince? Probably not; like I said in the original post, it’s perfectly good jazz-funk in the Herbie Hancock vein, but nothing earth-shattering on its own merits. The fact that it is by Prince, though–recorded before his first album!–makes it a fascinating listen. I also feel like I’ve seen someone on the Internet share a link to Prince’s “mind-blowing early jazz sessions” at least once a week since last April, so if nothing else these should be easy to track down.

2. “Just Another Sucker” I never really bothered digging into 94 East before I wrote this blog, so “Just Another Sucker” is one of my favorite new discoveries. It’s no masterpiece, but it would have fit Prince’s self-titled second album like a glove.

1. “We Can Work It Out” As a blogger used to toiling in obscurity, I can appreciate an idea like this: a superbly-crafted disco-funk-pop-rock opus only meant to be heard by a handful of people; an elaborate private joke that could have been a legitimate hit. Oh, and check out the handwritten lyrics! These were acquired late last year by the Minnesota Historical Society; I hope they don’t mind me sharing the image below. I’ve also added it to the original post for posterity’s sake. Gotta love that racy doodle.

I Hope We Work It Out, 1977.
Photo stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society

In case you missed it, I also just wrote a rather lengthy post discussing Prince’s first band and his live debut as a solo artist:

I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

Finally, here’s a song without a home for the time being. I wanted to write about “Moonbeam Levels,” the first officially-released outtake since Prince’s passing, while it was still relevant. I’m sure I will revise this post by the time we get to 1982 in our official chronology, but here it is for now:

Moonbeam Levels

And of course, it wouldn’t be a roundup post without a snapshot of the ol’ tag cloud:

1978-tagcloud

Next week, we’re finally making the leap into 1979 with a post on one of Prince’s early classics: “I Feel for You.” I’m looking forward to it! In the meantime, remember that you can always see the full chronological index of songs right here.

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Miss You

Miss You

(Featured Image: “Prince Pandemonium” at the Soul Shack in Charlotte, N.C., 1978; from Right On! magazine, photo stolen from prince.org.)

Even as Prince was plotting his next move as a recording artist in mid-1978, relations were souring with the management team that had helped get him signed in the first place. Owen Husney had organized a small promotional tour after the release of For You, to some success: particularly in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a crowd of 3,000 showed up and threatened to overwhelm security. It was a significant enough event to warrant a short news story from teen magazine Right On!, which ran with the headline “Prince Pandemonium in Charlotte.” “That’s when he said he felt like a piece of meat being carried around,” Prince’s cousin and early mentor Pepé Willie recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “But he was high, really high up there, you know? To bring him back down to earth was a real chore” (Hill 45).

Indeed, the 20-year-old’s small taste of celebrity had only left him less satisfied with the progress of his career–and, in what would become another of his determining patterns, he began to vent his frustrations on his management. “Prince didn’t have enough experience to know that this is a really slow process,” Husney later told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He had been told that he was fantastic so much that he believed that he was really going to be successful straightaway. And when he wasn’t, he was really disappointed. He started to blame Warner Bros. and then he started to blame me… We became very disappointed and started to wear on each other” (Nilsen 1999 49)

Continue reading “Miss You”

Nadeara

Nadeara

(Featured Image: “Private Moment,” Joseph Szabo, 1973.)

Well, it’s the first post of the new year, and once again I’m not as far along as I’d hoped to be; there are still a few loose ends from 1978 to tie up before we move on to the next “chapter.” But those loose ends are at least more substantial than the ones we covered last month, so hopefully they’ll be worth the wait. Today’s post, for example, is about “Nadeara”: a song that feels in many ways like a more fully-realized version of last month’s “Donna”–right down to its namesake, an actual person this time rather than a fictional construct.

Prince’s cousin and former Grand Central drummer Charles Smith described the real-life Nadeara as “a girlfriend, a real important one. Right after the first album came out, he started having her around” (Nilsen 1999 43-44). Along with high school sweetheart (and future Purple Rain extra) Kim Upsher, she’s one of the earliest known figures in Prince’s notorious revolving door of female companions and muses. But that’s just about all we know about her–and the song she inspired doesn’t offer many more clues. Prince’s lyrics are typical of his early songwriting, quivering with a combination of nerves and lust in the face of a vaguely-defined object of desire: “When I first looked into your eyes / That’s when I knew that I wanted you” (see also: “Ever since I met you, baby, I’ve been wanting to lay you down,” “In Love”; “I took one look at you / And all the things that we could do / Dance within my head,” “I’m Yours”). And, like so many of his demos from this era, the song doesn’t exactly overstay its welcome. Clocking in at under two minutes, it’s just a single, short verse and an equally brief chorus: “Oh, Nadeara / Now that you know I love you, baby, what are you gonna do?”

Continue reading “Nadeara”

Donna

Donna

(Featured Image: Donna Summer serving up proto-Vanity 6 vibes in a 1979 concert program; photo stolen from Donna Summer, Queen of Disco.)

Now, I’ll be the first to admit: the last couple of posts on this blog have stretched the definition of Prince “songs.” But today’s track, another home recording from mid-to-late 1978, is the real deal: it has a chorus and verses (well, verse) and everything. Granted, that’s pretty much all it has; it’s clear that “Donna,” at least in its presently circulating incarnation, didn’t make it far past the initial concept phase. But it’s a charming little ditty all the same: cut from a similar cloth as last week’s “Baby Baby Baby,” with a stronger central hook.

Along with the unreleased “Darlene Marie,” “Donna” is also an early example of Prince writing a song around a woman’s name: one of the oldest tricks in the Tin Pan Alley playbook for creating a sense of readymade intimacy in a pop song. Later, especially with the infamous “Darling Nikki,” Prince would play with these conventions, creating characters that were almost literary in their eccentricities and quirks. But in 1978, the titular Donna was as generic as they come: she’s pretty (as “pretty as [she] can be”), and she “belong[s] to another man.” The sole twist, if you can call it that, is that Donna appears to be the one who needs to be reminded of this: the song is all about Prince asking her when she’ll “ever see” that her boyfriend will “try to keep [her] any way he can”–rebuffing her affections, presumably, so he can avoid catching a beat-down. It’s an amusing take on the well-worn forbidden-love concept, but it’s also pretty clearly there just to make the rhyme scheme work.

In retrospect, with its double-tracked falsetto harmonies and simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, “Donna” does seem to point the way toward a few of the songs on Prince’s 1979 sophomore album: “With You” and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” in particular. But if we’re to draw any conclusions from such a raw demo, it’s that Prince hadn’t yet found his footing as a pop songwriter. One gets the sense that commercial songcraft was something he resisted in his formative years, to be pursued only when it was imposed on him by “authority figures” like Pepé Willie, Chris Moon, and Owen Husney. Much later in his career, he would observe that he tended to write “more Top 40” for other artists than for his own projects (Dash 2016). You can, I think, detect a little of that dismissiveness toward “Top 40” songwriting in the rote lyrics and melody for “Donna”: it’s as if he’s saying, “The masses want tripe, right? Well, here they go.” In the years to come, Prince would make an art form out of stretching the boundaries of formulaic pop music to incorporate his own idiosyncratic vision, to his own benefit as well as the benefit of formulaic pop. But he had to learn the rules before he could bend them.

Next time, we’ll look at another early song with a woman’s name in the title: this one based on an actual woman!

“Donna” YouTube