October 19, 2018 marks the 39th anniversary of Prince’s self-titled second album–not the most glamorous occasion, perhaps, but reason enough to reassemble the review panel from our For You podcast for a reappraisal. Once again, Zach is joined by Harold and KaNisa for a track-by-track discussion of this underappreciated album, its resonances throughout Prince’s career, and why it still matters.
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(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)
In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
Last week, I made my long-awaited, surreal, exhausting pilgrimage to the Twin Cities to attend the Prince from Minneapolis conference and Paisley Park’s Celebration 2018. I have complicated feelings, which I’m still processing–and will continue to do so, with the help of some other people who were there, on the podcast in the coming weeks. For now, though, I have some basic reactions to Celebration, and to the newly-released Prince song that was debuted on the event’s first day.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Celebration coming in–reports of last year’s event suggested a combination music festival, fan convention, and cult indoctrination–but in my experience, it was basically a corporate retreat for hardcore Prince fans. There were hours of panel discussions with ex-band members Gayle Chapman, Dez Dickerson, Matt Fink, and Bobby Z; photographers Allen Beaulieu, Nancy Bundt, Terry Gydesen, and Nandy McLean; and dancers Tomasina Tate and, um, Wally Safford. There were screenings of Prince concerts from the Piano & A Microphone, HitnRun 2015, and–via the associated “Prince: Live on the Big Screen” event at the Target Center–Welcome 2 America tours. There were live performances by Sheila E, fDeluxe (née the Family), and a (fantastic) new supergroup of New Power Generation alumni dubbed the Funk Soldiers. And, of course, there was the debut of the music video for Prince’s previously-unreleased studio version of his pop standard “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
One of the most fascinating things about the 1981 debut album by the Time is the way that, if you listen to the tracks in a certain order, you can practically hear the band’s classic sound take shape in real time. As we established in the last post, however, “Oh, Baby” was not an example of that classic sound. Morris Day, the group’s drummer turned lead singer, was still tentative in the role, his voice too strained to sell a seductive ballad.
“Girl,” the second and (blessedly) only other ballad on The Time, is not an improvement–if anything, it’s worse. Morris sounds whiny and adenoidal, like a teenage boy whose voice is in the middle of changing. Prince’s backing vocals–even more audible here than on the rest of the album–hit a piercing, dog-whistle tone in the chorus that cuts through the rest of the mix like a knife, and only gets more annoying the more you turn down the volume. Morris, meanwhile, just gets louder: as on “Oh, Baby,” he starts the song at a whimper and ends at a bellow. The whole thing feels like bad karaoke, an impression that is only enhanced by the bland, lifeless arrangement. It’s the weakest Prince song since “With You,” but without even that track’s competent performance.
As warned/promised last month, I have been up to my neck in drafting my chapter for the upcoming Prince and the Minneapolis Soundanthology (which is now two days late as of this writing–sorry, editors). As always, however, my much more consistent colleague in chronological Prince studies Darren Husted has come to the rescue with another episode of his podcast Prince: Track by Track featuring yours truly:
As usual, I picked a track that I consider a bit of a dark horse favorite. I hope you enjoy listening as Darren somehow manages to reference an obscure Michael Cera coming-of-age film, and I spend a solid minute and a half clearly describing a vagina without actually saying the word “vagina.”
We’ll be back to our regular schedule (I hope) next week, assuming I finish my chapter and/or my editors don’t kill me first. Have a great weekend!