The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

(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.

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Still Waiting

Still Waiting

(Featured Image: Sam Cooke by Michael Ochs, 1959.)

In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied,  “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).

It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).

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Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

(Featured Image: Prince and André Cymone, 1980; photo by James Tarver, stolen from prince.org.)

Like its predecessor, Prince’s second album was recorded almost entirely solo, with the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist also serving as his own producer. Also like the first album, however, the self-aggrandizing liner note credit “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” was a slight exaggeration. Just as he had on the For You sessions, Prince’s bassist and longtime musical partner André Cymone accompanied him to California–along with his second most veteran bandmate, drummer Bobby Z. And while their full contributions to the album are unclear–they’re listed in the liner notes as “Heaven-sent Helpers,” whatever that means–it does seem that André played a significant role in shaping one song in particular: the second track–and, in early 1980, second single–“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Years later, after André had left the band and revealed his contributions to this and other Prince songs, his old friend did give him some credit–albeit with his usual mix of deflection and pique. “He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn’t hear,” Prince explained to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, but a “typo” kept him from receiving any credit. “I tried to explain that to him, but when you’re on the way up, there’s no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to” (Karlen 1985). Charles Smith, Prince’s and André’s former Grand Central bandmate, offered an alternative explanation: “Prince started shaping the second album when he moved to the house on France Avenue,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. “I watched Prince and André do the work for the album, ‘Bambi,’ ‘Still Waiting,’ and all that stuff. André came up with the end of ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and a lot of the bass lines were André’s” (Nilsen 1999 54-55).

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With You

With You

(Featured Image: Found photo from Atlanta high school prom, circa 1970s; stolen from Found Photo Atlanta.)

Along with “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “One Man Jam,” and “I Feel for You,” Prince, André Cymone, and Pepé Willie demoed a handful of other tracks at New York’s Music Farm Studios on February 17, 1979. André recorded an early version of his song “Thrill You or Kill You,” as well as a slow jam that would later emerge credited to Prince alone: “Do Me, Baby” (more on that later, obviously). And Prince took the opportunity to lay down an early take of another song that would end up on his second album, the downbeat ballad “With You.”

I’m gonna level with you guys: I don’t like this song. I’ve written about some songs for this blog that I like less than others, but this is the first one I’ve genuinely disliked; the one I either skip or zone out for when I’m listening to the album, then promptly forget about after it’s finished. Obviously, “With You” won’t be the last song we cover that I don’t like–again, Carmen Electra–but it will be the last for a while. And I suppose that, in itself, is remarkable.

The other remarkable thing about “With You” is its placement on the Prince album. Not only is it the second consecutive ballad on the record (after the far superior “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”), but it’s also the Side B opener–a truly baffling choice. It takes the following track, “Bambi,” to finally kick the record back into gear. “With You” is the slow dance at homecoming no one asked for–particularly since it’s following a song that is literally about slow dancing (and, um, ejaculating, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).

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