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.
By June of 1981, Prince had recorded mostly complete versions of “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and, possibly, “Sexuality,” at his home studio. He recorded four more songs that month at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles: “Let’s Work,” “Do Me, Baby,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” and “Jack U Off.” The HSR sessions were completed with Bob Mockler, the engineer who had helped put the finishing touches on both Prince and Dirty Mind. According to biographer Per Nilsen, Prince booked a full week at the studio, but completed the songs in a handful of days: “We just worked so fast together,” Mockler recalled. “Prince would just go and put the drum part on the tape, and then he’d put everything to the drums, playing a bass part, then a keyboard part, then a guitar part, background vocals, a rough lead vocal. Once he got the backing tracks down, he did a serious lead vocal. Everything was in his head. We’re out of there in a day with a finished track” (Nilsen 1999 80).
In August, Prince returned to L.A. to finish his fourth album; but equipment problems at HSR necessitated that he move operations to nearby Sunset Sound. He booked the largest room, Studio 3, as a “lockout session,” meaning “he had that studio 24 hours a day for as long as [he] wanted,” engineer Ross Pallone recalled. Pallone would have the studio ready each afternoon around four; Prince “would show up sometime between [eight] and 10, and we would work all night… I remember going home to my house between [four] and [six] in the morning, and sleeping till about [two], then going back to the studio every day” (Brown 2010).
One of the perks of the lockout session was that Prince “could have anything equipment-wise he wanted set up in there–be it outboard gear or musical instruments–and no one could touch it,” Pallone told author Jake Brown (Brown 2010). The artist took this opportunity to record a new song, “Private Joy,” with a brand new toy: the Linn LM-1, a state-of-the-art drum machine designed by musician and engineer Roger Linn. Released in 1980, the LM-1 was the first drum machine to use digital samples of live acoustic drums, rather than the synthesized white noise and sine waves utilized by earlier models. Prince wasn’t the first artist to own an LM-1; Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Leon Russell, Boz Scaggs, Stevie Wonder, and even Daryl Dragon–the “Captain” of Captain & Tennille–all ordered theirs direct from Linn (Vail 292). But more than any of his contemporaries, Prince would leave an indelible mark on the machine’s prominence in pop music and its expressive possibilities.
As we’ve noted before, when Prince began recording in the spring of 1980, he had no specific project in mind. “The previous albums were done in California, where they have better studios,” he told Andy Schwartz of New York Rocker. “I’d never wanted to do an album in Minneapolis” (Schwartz 1981). But after less than a month of work, he’d decided that his new “demos” were good enough to release as his next proper album. “I was so adamant about it, once I got to the label, that there was no way they could even say ‘we won’t put this out,’” he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I believed in it too much by that time” (Wilen 1981).
Prince’s resolute belief in the album that would become Dirty Mind played like a repeat of the bold position he took during the making of For You. But without an Owen Husney in his corner, this time even his management needed to be convinced. Prince brought his home recordings to Los Angeles to play for Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli. As he recalled to Schwartz, “They said, ‘The sound of it is fine. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio. It’s not like your last album at all.’ And I’m going, ‘But it’s like me. More so than the last album, much more so than the first one’” (Schwartz 1981). The managers “thought that I’d gone off the deep end and had lost my mind,” Prince told Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. It was only after some “long talks” with the artist that they finally relented (Salewicz 1981)–with the caveat that he have the tapes remixed at a professional studio.
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.”
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.”