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.
According to engineer Bob Mockler, “Our competition on [Prince] was Michael Jackson and Kool and the Gang, and I think we looked them right in the eye” (Brown 2010). Indeed, they did: the album went Platinum, peaking at Number 22 on the Billboard 200–just nine spaces below Kool & The Gang’s Ladies’ Night (though it fell significantly short of Jackson’s blockbuster reinvention as a solo artist, Off the Wall). As noted before, debut single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was also a hit, topping the R&B charts and reaching Number 11 on the Hot 100. After that, Prince lost its momentum: second single “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” reached Number 13 on Hot R&B Singles, but missed the Hot 100 entirely; “Still Waiting,” released in March of 1980, did even worse, peaking at only Number 65 on the R&B chart. But the album remained an unqualified success; in many ways, it was the bold opening statement For You should have been. And it introduced several of Prince’s most enduring songs: not just “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, but also “I Feel for You,” even “Sexy Dancer.”
Looking back, however, the most pleasurable moments of Prince, for me at least, are among its least celebrated. As I discussed last week, “Still Waiting” is an overlooked gem; “Bambi,” while backwards in its sexual politics, is among Prince’s finest rockers; and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is another potent early sign that the kid was more than just a raunchier Stones to M.J.’s pop-funk Beatles. But maybe my favorite of them all is the song’s closing track, the majestic “It’s Gonna Be Lonely.”
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 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 Lennon and McCartney. 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, 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).
The sessions for Prince’s second album went much more smoothly than those for his first, but they were not completely without incident. Prince’s new managers, Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, had initially booked 30 days at Alpha Studios; but as the deadline approached, only rough mixes of the album’s nine tracks had been completed, and another client was scheduled to use the facilities. According to Alpha’s owner and engineer, Gary Brandt, Cavallo and Ruffalo “insisted that I give Prince any amount of time he wanted in the studio to mix the album. They wanted me to cancel everything and give it all to Prince” (Nilsen 1999 55). But Brandt was unable to extend the studio time on such short notice, so sessions were moved downtown to Hollywood Sound Recorders.
HSR’s staff engineer at the time, Bob Mockler, would become a figure of some significance in Prince’s early career: he would also assist with recording and mixing on both 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy. Prince’s appreciation for Mockler can be inferred from the credit that appears on the final album, “Remixed by Bob Mockler and Prince”; as Mockler put it to biographer Per Nilsen, “That’s probably the last time he ever put anybody’s name before his” (Nilsen 1999 55). Indeed, Mockler seems to have had more creative input on the recording process than any of the artist’s collaborators since Chris Moon. Along with his aforementioned work on “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow,” his influence can be heard on one track in particular: the pulp-flavored cock rocker “Bambi.”
Prince, as we’ve noted before, had a tendency to distance himself from his second album in the years following its release; he seemed to consider its unabashedly commercial nature a compromise of his artistic ideals. And while I don’t necessarily agree with those views–I think Prince holds up very well as an album, hit-thirst be damned–when I look at the first side of the record in particular, I can kind of see his point. It is, as much as For You had been, a transparent proof of concept for Prince as an artist, presenting in turn each distinct facet of his musical personality circa 1979: opening with the frothy pop-funk hit, following it up with the bid for rock credibility, then moving straight into the dance-club heater. It’s as if he sequenced the first half of the album specifically for the charts he wanted it to make: Soul, Top 40, Disco. So it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that track four, and the Side B closer, represented that other crucial component of his signature sound: the seductive R&B ballad.
As predictable as it might seem at face value, however, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is actually quite unusual. Where later Prince ballads like 1981’s “Do Me, Baby” sound like the archetypal post-Quiet Storm slow jams that they are, this song’s closest sonic precedent is “So Blue”: an oddball album cut from the second side of For You. Like that earlier song, “Close and Slow” owes as much of its ambience to folk-infused 1970s soft rock as to any kind of R&B; in particular, it’s another early signal of Prince’s artistic debt to Joni Mitchell.