Categories
Ephemera, 1977-1978

Make It Through the Storm

When last we left our intrepid hero, he was in New York City, shopping the demo he’d recorded at Moonsound over the summer. But Prince turned out to be a harder sell than he’d expected. “He thought the first person who heard him would sign him,” his then-collaborator Chris Moon told biographer Matt Thorne. “And it didn’t happen, and neither did the second guy or the third guy” (Thorne 2016).

Eventually, Prince came to Moon once again for help. “He called me up and said, ‘Oh, man. I called up all these record companies and they won’t have anything to do with me. I can’t even get in to see them,’” Moon told another biographer, Dave Hill. “He says, ‘I need your help. I want you to get me an appointment with one.’ I hung up and thought, ‘Jesus Christ’” (Hill 32). A few unsuccessful cold calls later, the legend goes, Moon hit upon a ballsy gambit: he told the secretary for Atlantic Records that he was representing Stevie Wonder. “Two minutes later, the boss is talking to me on the phone,” Moon recalled to Per Nilsen of Uptown magazine. “I said, ‘This is Chris Moon and I’m representing Prince. If you like Stevie Wonder, you’re gonna love my artist. He’s only 18, he plays all instruments, and he’s not blind!’” (Nilsen 1999 29)

Moon’s subterfuge got Prince in the door at Atlantic, but to no avail: “the next Stevie Wonder”’s sound was cryptically deemed “too Midwestern” by the label’s representatives (Hendricksson 1977). So in a way it’s fitting that the most important connection Prince made in the fall of 1976 was located back in the Midwest: all the way home in Minneapolis.

Categories
For You, 1978

Baby

As we mentioned last week, Prince recorded 14 finished songs at Moonsound in the summer of 1976; when it came time to shop his work to record labels, however, he and Chris Moon pared it down to a four-song tape with just “Soft and Wet,” “(My) Love is Forever,” “Aces,” and “Baby.” The idea was to concisely demonstrate the full breadth of what the 18-year-old prodigy from Minneapolis was capable of. “Soft and Wet,” of course, was the naughty funk number. “Love is Forever” was slick and commercial–assuming it resembled the released version, anyway–with a pronounced disco flavor and arena-rock guitar leads. “Aces” was, according to Moon, the experimental showpiece: a seven-minute-long, proggy-sounding opus intended to “give Prince an ability to step into many different directions–Mediterranean, Indian, all these different feels I envisioned him experimenting with” (Thorne 2016). And “Baby” was the ballad.

Prince initially asked Moon to come with him to New York and represent him as a manager–an idea his collaborator flatly refused. “I said to him, ‘The piece I do is putting the music together, writing the lyrics, producing,'” Moon recalled to Per Nilsen. “‘The piece I don’t do, the piece I have no experience in, is booking your hotel, making sure that your ass is on a particular point at a particular time, making sure that you’re wearing the right kinda clothes. I don’t care about that, I’m not interested in that'” (Nilsen 1999 29). So Prince made the trip solo, staying in New Jersey with his older half-sister Sharon Nelson.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976 Roundup Posts

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

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 (Do Yourself a Favor)” 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 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 very 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 writer 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

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 hear from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976

Leaving for New York

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 told 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 rest of Shampayne served Prince with an ultimatum: Moonsound, or the band. He chose Moonsound, of course–but his version of the story suggests that the decision wasn’t just about ditching his friends at the earliest opportunity. In Prince’s telling, it was 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 his bandmates. “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). 

Categories
For You, 1978

Soft and Wet

Prince and Chris Moon recorded 14 tracks together at Moonsound, not counting “Farnborough” or the untitled “piano intro.” Eight of them still aren’t in circulation, so all we really know are their titles: “Aces,” “Diamond Eyes,” “Don’t Forget,” “Don’t Hold Back” (Prince was really into giving orders in 1976, apparently),  “Fantasy,” “Since We’ve Been Together,” and “Surprise.” One, “Leaving for New York,” is in circulation, but only in its earlier incarnation as a home recording (more on that next week). Another, “Make It Through the Storm,” was demoed with singer Sue Ann Carwell in 1978 and eventually released (without Prince’s involvement) in 1981. A few others made it all the way to his debut album, 1978’s For You: including “Baby,” “I’m Yours,” “Jelly Jam” (as the instrumental coda of “Just as Long as We’re Together”), and “My Love is Forever” (originally recorded as “Love is Forever”). But the best-known and most important track to come out of the Moon-Nelson partnership was the song that would ultimately become Prince’s debut single: “Soft and Wet.”

Like most great works of popular music, “Soft and Wet” came into being through a combination of sexual and chemical indulgence and cynical commercial calculus. Moon, who started out writing the lyrics for most of his and Prince’s collaborations, recalled the song’s inspiration thusly: “I had Sundays off, and that particular Sunday I had a fortunate experience with more than one girl. It was a late-night party, and these girls had come back to my studio,” he told biographer Matt Thorne. “And I think I’d drunk a little too much rum because the next morning I felt like hell and had to go to work.” Moon locked the door of his office at Minneapolis marketing firm Campbell Mithun (now part of McCann Worldgroup), “recovering from this wild night before and…replaying in my mind some of the highlights” (Thorne 2016). Ever the adman, he’d been toying with a “marketing theme” to help sell his new protegé to an audience of teenage girls, which he famously summarized as “implied naughty sexuality” (Nilsen 1999 28). At that moment, sitting in an office building at ten in the morning, “tired, a little bit hungover,” Moon wrote the “anchor tune that would summarize this marketing concept” (Thorne 2016).

Moon’s story is, to be frank,more than a little self-aggrandizing. For one thing, he’s effectively claiming to have invented the concept of double entendre in popular music: an assertion with which I’d imagine scads of earlier artists, from Robert Johnson to Julia Lee to the Ohio Players, would take issue. But he is right in considering “Soft and Wet” to be one of the fundamental keys to Prince’s musical persona; it’s just that it took Prince a few tries–and, it’s worth noting, a lyrical overhaul–to get it right.