Uptown

Uptown

(Featured Image: Lipps, Inc., circa 1979; © Casablanca Records.)

“MOJO: Growing up in Minne-wood, as it’s been now called, simply because that is the hot point on this planet right now…

“PRINCE: Well, it’s been called a lot of things, but it’s always Uptown to me.

“MOJO: Uptown?

“PRINCE: Yes.

“MOJO: What was it like growin’ up Uptown?

“PRINCE: Pretty different. Uh, kinda sad, to be exact. (laughs) I mean, the radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out… I was gonna have to get somethin’ together. Which is what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown. That consisted of a lot of bike riding nude, but ya know…it worked.”

– Prince Interview with the Electrifying Mojo, Detroit Radio WHYT, 1985

“Uptown” is a real place in Minneapolis: a commercial district in the southwest part of the city, centered around the historic Uptown Theatre at the intersection of Hennepin and Lagoon Avenues. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a bohemian enclave, part of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. The legendary record store Oar Folkjokeopus (“Oar Folk”), home of underground rock label Twin/Tone, was in nearby Lowry Hill East (“the Wedge”)–as was the CC Club, a regular haunt for punk groups like the Replacements. “It was kind of like this exotic mixture between rock ‘n’ roll, comedians, entertainers, and then just hipsters that worked in the neighborhood,” musician and author Paul Metsa told the City Pages in 2013. “A lot of writers and artists hung out there. And what I loved about it, it was very working-class, and still is. Everybody was equal in that place” (LaVecchia 2013).

But “Uptown,” as Prince commemorated it, was also a product of the imagination. Before he recorded the song, Prince was not associated with the neighborhood, nor with its accompanying art and music scene. In fact, he’d played only two solo dates in the Twin Cities: one at the Capri Theatre in north Minneapolis, and one at the downtown Orpheum Theatre; his gigs with Grand Central had been limited to the predominantly Black Northside. And his home in suburban Wayzata–credited, mythically, on the Dirty Mind inner sleeve as “somewhere in Uptown”–could scarcely have been further away, geographically or culturally, from the Uptown that existed in physical space. “Uptown,” then, is a place that Prince turned into an idea: a kind of inverse to Paisley Park, his most famous idea turned into a place.

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Head

Head

(Prince and Gayle Chapman on Rick JamesFire It Up Tour, 1980; photo stolen from Reddit.)

“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazine in 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”

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Hard to Get

Hard to Get

(Featured Image: The “Spandex kids” backstage at the Roxy Theatre, November 26, 1979. Back row, L to R: Tim Devine, Warner Bros. product manager; Lou Wills, West Coast promotion/Black music marketing; Cortez Thompson, national promotion director/Black music marketing; J.J. Johnson, KDAY Los Angeles radio; Bobby Z. Middle row, L to R: singer Randy Crawford, Prince, Mo Ostin, Matt Fink, Gayle Chapman. Bottom row, L to R: André Cymone and the disembodied head of Dez Dickerson.)

By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).

Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was further reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.

The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their Capri Theatre debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979). 

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I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

(Featured Image: Prince and his new band–L to R: André Cymone, Matt Fink, Dez Dickerson–on stage at the Capri Theatre, Minneapolis; photo by Greg Helgeson, stolen from Mpls St Paul magazine.)

Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For You the following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.

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