Roundup: Prince, 1979

Roundup: Prince, 1979

(Featured Image: Back cover of Prince, 1979; photo by Chris Callis, © Warner Bros.)

Well, here we are: another album’s worth of posts complete. I’d always preferred Prince’s second full-length to its predecessor, For You, but I rediscovered it in a big way while writing about it for this blog. Critical consensus tends to cite 1980’s Dirty Mind as the moment when the pieces all fell into place, but I’d actually argue that it happened here first: whatever it is you like about Prince, you can find it on his self-titled 1979 album. Unless what you like about Prince is Tony M’s raps, I guess. You’ll have to wait about 12 years for those.

Anyway, here’s how I rank the songs, at least at the moment. Feel free to let me know your own rankings in the comments:

9. “With You” The one weak spot on an otherwise pretty damn stellar album. If he’d replaced this with, say, “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?,” we’d have nothing but hits on our hands.

8. “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” For the record, there’s a big gap between this and “With You”; I gave other songs an edge just because I prefer burners to ballads. A gorgeous, dreamy, arty slow jam, brimming with potential for even better things to come.

7. “Still Waiting” Prince at his most R&B-classicist. Like I said in the original post, it doesn’t hold up quite as well against later songs in this vein, like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”; but it’s heartfelt and expertly crafted, and it really came alive in concert.

6. “Sexy Dancer” I used to think this song was dated because “disco”; now I listen to it and it just feels ahead of its time. Early electronic music, from Frankie Knuckles to the Egyptian Lover, owes a lot to “Sexy Dancer.”

5. Bambi” Yes, yes, the lyrics are so un-P.C., but the headbanger in me can’t resist that sledgehammer of a riff. Prince’s Grand Funk worship has never been so gloriously evident.

4. “I Feel for You” Maybe the most head-slappingly obvious shoulda-been-a-single in Prince’s discography. Chaka’s version is great, of course, but “I Feel for You” was pure pop-soul perfection from the start.

3. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Speaking of shoulda-beens, the fact that this wasn’t a hit in early 1980 blows my mind, and is a testament to the absurd level of segregation (not to mention homophobia) in the music industry at the time. It’s arena-level power pop that out-Bostons Boston, but it missed the Hot 100 because the guy wailing on his guitar looked “ethnic” and dressed “queer.” Disco Sucks sucked.

2. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” Predictable choice, I know, but it’s just so goddamn good. Prince’s first major hit, and his first absolute classic song. That’s worth celebrating.

1. “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” Now, for a less conventional choice: I know I said I prefer burners to ballads, but I fucking adore this song. I don’t even have that much to say about it, specifically; it’s just so wonderfully Prince. One day, I want to listen to this song the way it was meant to be listened to: in a bubble bath, surrounded by caged doves.

As you can see, the tag cloud has shifted significantly from last time:

1978-tagcloudtagcloud-1979

André Cymone is still Prince’s most important collaborator, but L.A. is starting to catch up with Minneapolis as the center of his universe. That, of course, will change very soon. And hey, here’s a piece of data that might only be interesting to me. I was worried I was writing less about the tracks on Prince than I was about For You, so I went ahead and ran the numbers: average post length was 1,383 words for the former, 1,379 words for the latter. Guess we have ourselves a sweet spot.

I have to say, I’m super excited about the coming weeks, and if you’re reading this now, I hope you’ll stay on board. Next week, as I mentioned yesterday, we pick up with the Rebels side project; then it’s on to one of my all-time favorite records, the aforementioned Dirty Mind. And somewhere in there, I’ll be working in another experiment in alternate history, plus reviews of the new books by Ben Greenman and Mayte Garcia. This April, for obvious reasons, is a sad month for Prince fans; but we’re also lucky, because he’s left us such a wealth of material to remember him by.

I’ll see you next week for a new, “proper” post. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist, if that’s your kind of thing: 

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Bambi

Bambi

(Featured Image: “Can a handsome, virile man come between two women who love each other passionately?” Cover of The Other Kind by Richard Villanova, Beacon, 1963; photo stolen from Pulp Covers.)

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.”

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Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

(Featured Image: Prince and André Cymone, 1980; photo by James Tarver, stolen from prince.org.)

Like its predecessor, Prince’s second album was recorded almost entirely solo, with the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist also serving as his own producer. Also like the first album, however, the self-aggrandizing liner note credit “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” was a slight exaggeration. Just as he had on the For You sessions, Prince’s bassist and longtime musical partner André Cymone accompanied him to California–along with his second most veteran bandmate, drummer Bobby Z. And while their full contributions to the album are unclear–they’re listed in the liner notes as “Heaven-sent Helpers,” whatever that means–it does seem that André played a significant role in shaping one song in particular: the second track–and, in early 1980, second single–“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Years later, after André had left the band and revealed his contributions to this and other Prince songs, his old friend did give him some credit–albeit with his usual mix of deflection and pique. “He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn’t hear,” Prince explained to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, but a “typo” kept him from receiving any credit. “I tried to explain that to him, but when you’re on the way up, there’s no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to” (Karlen 1985). Charles Smith, Prince’s and André’s former Grand Central bandmate, offered an alternative explanation: “Prince started shaping the second album when he moved to the house on France Avenue,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. “I watched Prince and André do the work for the album, ‘Bambi,’ ‘Still Waiting,’ and all that stuff. André came up with the end of ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and a lot of the bass lines were André’s” (Nilsen 1999 54-55).

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I’m Yours

I’m Yours

(Featured Image: At Unique Records, San Francisco, 1978; photo stolen from Noisey.)

There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977 test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).

It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than one of pragmatic frankness. As we’ve noted before, Prince was acutely aware of the hypersegregated nature of the pop music market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to be a “crossover” artist was fed in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.

The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (again, read: white) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from African American-oriented teen magazines like Right On!Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”

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My Love is Forever

My Love is Forever

(Featured Image: Prince in his first press kit, 1977; photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions.)

Sessions for Prince’s second demo at Sound 80 commenced on December 29, 1976 and lasted through the remainder of the winter. This time, a total of six songs were completed: new versions of “Soft and Wet,” “Baby,” “Jelly Jam,” “Make It Through the Storm,” and “Love is Forever”–now renamed “My Love is Forever”–plus a brand new song, “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Just like with the earlier sessions at Moonsound, however, the final demo was limited to only a few tracks. Per Nilsen’s The Vault reported the tape as consisting of “Baby” and “Soft and Wet,” with “Make It Through the Storm” “as a ‘back-up’ if record company executives wanted to hear more” (Nilsen 2004 16-17). According to a recent auction listing, however, at least one configuration seems to have featured “Just as Long as We’re Together,” “Jelly Jam,” and “My Love is Forever.”

princedemo
Photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions

In addition to the demo tape, Prince’s management also prepared a luxe press kit to distribute to labels in Los Angeles. “We attacked it all first class, ’cause if we went in as just the average Joes, it wasn’t gonna look like a first-class effort,” Owen Husney recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “We spent 1,500 dollars on fifteen press kits… The usual press kit has clippings, and stories about your mom, and all the other bands you played in. All I did was have a picture of Prince on the cover. It said, ‘American Artists Presents Prince’, and inside there was just five sheets. And on those sheets there was just one picture, and one quote from Prince above each one” (Hill 40). The minimalist presentation had the additional effect of playing up Prince’s enigmatic air, which remained a cornerstone of his public persona for the duration of his career. “[T]here was a mystery about him even then,” Husney told NPR’s Audie Cornish shortly after Prince’s death in April. “And so as a manager I noticed that, and I was able to just make that a part of who he was in all of our publicity and everything going forward. We did a first press kit with him that said very little, because Prince said very little. Because his music does the talking” (Cornish 2016).

Continue reading “My Love is Forever”