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 put the finishing touches on the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the appropriately 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.
While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.
This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.
Allow me to begin this post with the opposite of my usual spiel: I’m actually almost finished with the next song and will post it tomorrow. In the meantime, though, here’s my latest appearance on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast, on the most obscure track I’ve had the pleasure to discuss:
This episode, it’s 2 Zacks United 4 Prince Conference (sorry) as your usual host, Zach Hoskins, talks to Zack Stiegler, Associate Professor in Communications Media Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As in my last episode with Jane Clare Jones, we’re here to talk about Zack’s time at the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference back in May; but we also touch upon a lot of other interesting subjects, including Prince’s ever-shifting attitudes toward the Internet, his racial consciousness, and the subtle (/sometimes not-so-subtle) current of Afrofuturism in his work.
Again, I’ll be posting more of these conversations in the weeks to come–already have another one in the can, in fact!–and would love to speak to anyone else who attended the conference and wants to chat. If you enjoyed this and would like to hear more, remember to subscribe and (if you want!) review the podcast on any of the major services: iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play. I’ll also be adding the episode to Mixcloud, but frankly I’m not always as good at doing that in a timely fashion. See you again soon!