Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

(Featured Image: How have I not used this one already?! 1979 publicity photo; © Warner Bros., stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

I know I always begin these roundup posts with a reference to the obscene length of time since the last one, but this time I’m drawing attention to chronology for an entirely different reason. I wrote the first post in this roundup in April of 2017; the last one went up a week ago today. That year-and-a-half-long gap speaks to my abysmal writing pace, sure–but it also speaks to the sheer scope of non-album music Prince produced between 1979 and 1981.

When I originally decided to lump together these three years, I was concerned that I was casting too wide a net; but I think the posts collected here ended up telling an interesting story. From the recording of Prince in spring ’79 to the release of Controversy in fall ’81, Prince underwent a transformation–one that can’t entirely be explained by the album, Dirty Mind, that falls in-between. These posts trace the steps of that transformation: from reluctant R&B heartthrob to full-blown Black New Waver. It’s a fascinating journey to say the least. So, with no further ado, here’s how I rank the steps along the way:

13. “Everybody Dance” No surprise here: I said in my original post that “Everybody Dance” is barely a song. But it was a great excuse to write about his legendary debut performance at Sam’s (a.k.a. First Avenue), so I can’t begrudge it too much.

12. “The Loser” The dirty secret about the Rebels “album” is that, for all its importance to Prince’s artistic development, it really isn’t very good. The Gayle Chapman-sung “The Loser” isn’t even my least favorite track; that dubious honor goes to the instrumentals, or if those don’t count, the original version of “If I Love U 2 Nite” (sorry, Gayle, not your fault). But it is my least favorite of the tracks I’ve written about: by no means terrible, but thoroughly unremarkable, except perhaps as an early example of Prince flexing his songwriting muscles by experimenting in unexpected genres.

11. “Kiss Me Quick” This one, which I actually hadn’t heard until soon before I wrote about it, is also a mostly unremarkable genre exercise; but I give it the nod over “The Loser” because the specific genre (disco) happens to be one I think Prince was extremely good at. I can see why this was never properly released, but I also could have seen it ending up as an album track on Prince and being more than passable.

10. “Hard to Get” Another frankly mediocre Rebels track, but one I prefer to “The Loser” if only because my own personal biases lean more toward Stones-esque cock-rock than mild Bonnie Raitt pastiche. If there was a complete recording circulating of the ice-cold 1981 New Wave version, it would have been ranked higher… so, uh, what’s the hold-up, Sony and/or bootleggers?

9. “Broken” A very fun song in Prince’s subcanon of rockabilly/early R&B pastiches, but one that was easily replaced by “Jack U Off,” which was easily replaced by “Delirious,” etc. It isn’t necessarily a song that I reach for, but it’s a nice little bit of ephemera from the Dirty Mind tour.

8. “I Don’t Wanna Stop” This one is ranked as high as it is strictly because of potential: I like the version by Ren Woods enough to know that Prince’s version would surely be better. Maybe someday we’ll finally be able to hear it (ahem, Sony).

7. “Strange Way of Saying I Love You” Is this one too low? Yeah, maybe; it is kind of an earworm, especially now that the version in circulation doesn’t sound like it was recorded from a boom box outside a gymnasium where the song was being played. But I think we’ve officially reached the point in the list where my ranking is more arbitrary than usual.

6. “Rough” Is this one too high? Yeah, maybe; but I’m a sucker for the kinds of songs Prince wrote for the Time, as well as any moment when his Cars influence starts to peek through (listen to the synth bass on “Good Times Roll” at 1:05 and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like “Rough”). That, and this post about Alexander O’Neal’s brief stint as a Prince protégé was just hella fun to write.

5. “She’s Just a Baby” One of Prince’s more conventional R&B ballads from this era, I’m even more fond of it now that I’ve formulated my theory that it was originally penned for the Time (but if that’s the case, why, oh why did he decide to use fucking “Girl”?!). Besides, whose heart doesn’t skip a beat or two thinking about a young (but not too young!) Susan Moonsie?

4. “The Second Coming” Yes, it’s only about a minute’s worth of multi-tracked a cappella Prince harmonies. But, counterpoint: it’s a whole minute’s worth of multi-tracked a cappella Prince harmonies. I’ve written before about the rapturous qualities of Prince’s falsetto; if that’s your type of thing, then “The Second Coming” might just be your own personal Rapture.

3. “You” Probably the one Rebels song that actually lives up to the hype, and definitely the only one ever covered by Paula Abdul. Coincidence? Probably.

2. “Lisa” An early glimpse of Prince’s synthpop phase dating from mid-1980, it wouldn’t have fit on the guitar-centric Dirty Mind, but boy is it a slapper. Bonus: if you can, try and track down the 1982 rehearsal version that recently entered circulation, with Prince vamping over clavinet-style synthesizer and his Linn LM-1 for damn near 45 minutes. It’s excessive, sure, but it just shows how hypnotic and tensile a groove this is.

1. “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” I am an outspoken stan of New Wave Prince, so it should be no surprise that I highly rate this NWP gem from 1980. Imagine if Devo were sexual beings, or if the Knack weren’t total sleazeballs; then imagine either one of them with about 9,000% more soul. One of Prince’s underrated talents in the early ’80s was his ability to highlight the sexual tension in New Wave’s stiff, nervous grooves; this, one of my favorite B-sides/non-LP singles in his discography, is a shining example of that talent.

Since it’s only been a couple of weeks since my Controversy roundup, I don’t see much point in updating the tag clouds; there’s also nothing new to add to the Spotify playlist, since all but one of these tracks is not currently available for (legal) streaming. So I’ll just say that, while this week was largely occupied with what I hope to be an exciting upcoming project, I’ll be back next week to kick off 1982. See you then!

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Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?

(Featured Image: Prince embodies his contradictions in the poster from Controversy, 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

By the time Prince began work on his fourth album in mid-1981, he already had a few classics under his belt. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a perfect first hit and calling card: a concise, albeit airbrushed introduction to the artist’s multi-instrumental chops, knack for catchy pop hooks, and flirtatious sex appeal. “Uptown,” though less commercially successful, demonstrated his burgeoning ambition and the sociopolitical undercurrents of his multi-racial, gender-fluid funk. But it was the aforementioned fourth album’s title track that would truly capture the essence of Prince. “Controversy” was his artistic DNA, pressed onto wax and played back at 331revolutions per minute.

To summarize any artist with a single song is no small feat. To do so for an artist like Prince, who reveled in his ambiguities and contradictions, is even more impressive. The brilliance of “Controversy” is the way it places these ambiguities and contradictions at the center of Prince’s artistic persona: his indeterminacy becomes his defining characteristic. Philosopher Nancy J. Holland writes that Prince’s destabilized persona makes him “perhaps the best example in contemporary popular culture of how the postmodern moves beyond the mere reversal of hierarchical oppositions (God/man, good/evil, male/female, man/nature, mind/body, etc.) that have governed the dominant discourse in the European tradition for at least two millennia… By deconstructing, undermining, and redefining these binaries, Prince opened the possibility of a new culture” (Holland 2018 322).

In many ways, “Controversy” is ground zero for this postmodern Prince and the “new culture” he promised. It thus feels appropriate to take an in-depth look at the song through three of the particular binaries he would spend the next 35 years “deconstructing, undermining, and redefining”: racial, sexual, and spiritual. And yes, I do mean “in-depth”; I’m giving each of these three binaries its own, full-length post. So let’s get to it.

Continue reading “Controversy, Part 1: Am I Black or White?”

Podcast: The Crazy Things You Do – A Conversation with Kimberly C. Ransom

Podcast: The Crazy Things You Do – A Conversation with Kimberly C. Ransom

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

For the first d / m / s / r podcast of 2018 (!), it was my pleasure to speak with budding educational historian and Prince scholar Kimberly C. Ransom. Kimberly presented at the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference last May–those of you who listened to my series of podcasts on that event probably heard her name come up once or twice–and her essay, “A Conceptual Falsetto: Re-Imagining Black Childhood Via One Girl’s Exploration of Prince,” was published last fall in the Journal of African American Studies’ special Prince issue. If any of my listeners haven’t checked out that issue yet, I’m hoping this interview will offer some incentive: Kimberly’s essay in particular brilliantly interweaves her lifelong love for Prince with an incisive critique our often-pathologized discourses of Black childhood. She also has a surprisingly lovely singing voice.

As we embark on a brand new year of dance / music / sex / romance, allow me to direct your attention to our iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play feeds; if you feel compelled to subscribe, rate, or review us on your service of choice, it will be much appreciated. And of course, if you enjoy the podcast (or blog!), don’t be afraid to spread the word. Lots more exciting things to come!

Continue reading “Podcast: The Crazy Things You Do – A Conversation with Kimberly C. Ransom”

Rough

Rough

(Featured Image: Ray Sharkey and Peter Gallagher in The Idolmaker, 1980; © MGM.)

Prince, as we’ve discussed, had been harboring ambitions to write and produce for other artists since virtually the moment he signed to a record label himself. But after his partnership with Sue Ann Carwell and his “ghost band” the Rebels both fell through, his focus turned by necessity to his own music. It wasn’t until after the release of Dirty Mind when Prince shifted gears back to his budding Svengali ambitions, and plans for a new protégé act began to take shape.

At first glance, it seems strange that Prince would be so intent on fostering other artists at this early stage in his career. There was, of course, the issue of his prolificacy; as the non-LP single release of “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” demonstrated, he was already beginning to write and record more quality music than could be contained by his own albums. It’s also a matter of record that Prince was a fan of Taylor Hackford’s 1980 film The Idolmaker: a dramatization of the life of rock and roll promoter and manager Bob Marcucci, who had discovered, groomed, and promoted teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In retrospect, however, the most compelling rationale for Prince’s Svengali streak comes from one of his earliest collaborators, David “Z” Rivkin. The way Rivkin tells it, Prince wanted to be at the center of a “scene” in Minneapolis, so he made one in his own image: “he said, ‘It’s better if there’s a lot of people doing the same style, because that way it looks like a movement,’” Rivkin recalled to author and researcher Duane Tudahl. “He said, ‘I want to have an army going forward[,] that way no one can deny it’” (Tudahl 2017 344). Just as he’d done with the “Uptown” mythology, Prince was inventing the conditions for his own success.

Continue reading “Rough”

My Life with You I Share: An Alternate Timeline Review of For You

My Life with You I Share: An Alternate Timeline Review of For You

(Featured Image: Warner Bros. press photo, 1978; stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

Note: In the last several weeks of writing about the songs on Prince’s debut album, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.

Continue reading “My Life with You I Share: An Alternate Timeline Review of For You”