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Ephemera, 1981-1982 Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive Bonus Track: You’re All I Want

Like many of the Vault tracks that ended up on 1999 Super Deluxe, “You’re All I Want” was known to collectors by name and reputation long before it was widely circulating. Former Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary likes to tell the story behind the song’s recording on January 11, 1982–her birthday, as she recalled with some consternation to Pitchfork’s Sam Sodowsky: “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” When Prince arrived at the studio that morning, McCreary said, “he was dressed totally different than I had ever seen him: black leather boots, jeans—which he never wore—white t-shirt, and a black leather jacket” (Sodowsky 2019). Perhaps inspired by his wardrobe, the track he worked on that day was a rockabilly song–a genre he’d been toying with in earnest since he caught a show by retro-rock revivalists the Stray Cats in London the previous spring.

Prince kept McCreary working through the day and into the night: the session ended around “11 or 12,” she recalled to Andrea Swensson for Minnesota Public Radio’s The Story of 1999 podcast, “and we had started early. And I thought, ‘OK, well now there’s [no] birthday for me today.’ So anyway, he starts to leave, and I always made him a cassette of the mix, and I handed him the cassette and I was just cleaning up and doing some patches and stuff like that… he walks to the door and he looks over at me and he smiles, and he tosses this cassette over his shoulder, and he says, ‘Happy birthday,’ and he walked out. And I just stood there with my mouth open. He didn’t even wait for a response, a thank you or anything. It was just that was my happy birthday song, so it’s coming out, and Warner Bros. is releasing it, so I can’t say I have an unreleased Prince song anymore. Bummer.”

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Uncategorized

DM40GB30: Pandemonium Roundtable Panel

Last Friday, July 10, was the 30th anniversary of the Time’s fourth and (technically) final album, Pandemonium; so, to mark the occasion, the fantastic De Angela Duff has shared the Pandemonium roundtable from last month’s DM40GB30 symposium with myself, Darling Nisi, and Ivan Orr and Ricky Wyatt of the Grown Folks Music podcast.

I think it’s obvious from the conversation that we all had a great time (and if you’re looking for an extra great time, try taking a drink every time De Angela–whose favorite Time album is famously Pandemonium–pops into the live stream to interject). It was extremely flattering to be asked to share the “stage” with folks as knowledgeable about the Time and their place in the R&B scene as Ivan and Ricky, and KaNisa did a stellar job as always moderating. Can’t wait to do this again next year!

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

No Call U

The months after Jill Jones joined Prince’s orbit were “one crazy blur,” she recalled in a recently-published interview with writer Miles Marshall Lewis. From the “spring of ‘82 all the way until July, we were pretty much in the studio daily,” working on the Time and Vanity 6 projects alongside his own fifth album. “And who knew what was going to end up where, with who, what. I was just ready for the ride” (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”). Initially, her role was strictly as a backing vocalist: providing support on the 1999 album and tour for both Prince and Vanity 6. But the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr had grander plans: namely, turning his newest protégée into a star in her own right.

Not all of these plans went off without a hitch. Jones resisted Prince’s overtures to change her name to Elektra, after the recently-introduced Marvel Comics character; a decade later, that moniker would of course find a more willing beneficiary in Carmen Electra, née Tara Leigh Patrick (Lewis 2020 “Part 2”). But she did allow him to give her a makeover inspired by prototypical blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe: “Prince said I looked like every girl with long brown hair and I needed something to stand out,” she told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “He said, ‘When Vanity walks in a room, people know she’s a star. You need your own thing’” (Gonzales 2018 66).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.”

In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to finish the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the fittingly extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”

In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.

Categories
1999, 1982

Free

In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”

From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”

Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.