When We’re Dancing Close and Slow

When We’re Dancing Close and Slow

(Featured Image: Joni Mitchell by Norman Seeff, 1976.)

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, though, “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” is actually a pretty unusual track. Where later Prince ballads like 1981’s “Do Me, Baby”–actually demoed in early 1979 by André Cymone–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.

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(Featured Image: Donna Summer serving up proto-Vanity 6 vibes in a 1979 concert program; photo stolen from Donna Summer, Queen of Disco.)

Now, I’ll be the first to admit: the last couple of posts on this blog have stretched the definition of Prince “songs.” But today’s track, another home recording from mid-to-late 1978, is the real deal: it has a chorus and verses (well, verse) and everything. Granted, that’s pretty much all it has; it’s clear that “Donna,” at least in its presently circulating incarnation, didn’t make it far past the initial concept phase. But it’s a charming little ditty all the same: cut from a similar cloth as last week’s “Baby Baby Baby,” with a stronger central hook.

Along with the unreleased “Darlene Marie,” “Donna” is also an early example of Prince writing a song around a woman’s name: one of the oldest tricks in the Tin Pan Alley playbook for creating a sense of readymade intimacy in a pop song. Later, especially with the infamous “Darling Nikki,” Prince would play with these conventions, creating characters that were almost literary in their eccentricities and quirks. But in 1978, the titular Donna was as generic as they come: she’s pretty (as “pretty as [she] can be”), and she “belong[s] to another man.” The sole twist, if you can call it that, is that Donna appears to be the one who needs to be reminded of this: the song is all about Prince asking her when she’ll “ever see” that her boyfriend will “try to keep [her] any way he can”–rebuffing her affections, presumably, so he can avoid catching a beat-down. It’s an amusing take on the well-worn forbidden-love concept, but it’s also pretty clearly there just to make the rhyme scheme work.

In retrospect, with its double-tracked falsetto harmonies and simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, “Donna” does seem to point the way toward a few of the songs on Prince’s 1979 sophomore album: “With You” and “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” in particular. But if we’re to draw any conclusions from such a raw demo, it’s that Prince hadn’t yet found his footing as a pop songwriter. One gets the sense that commercial songcraft was something he resisted in his formative years, to be pursued only when it was imposed on him by “authority figures” like Pepé Willie, Chris Moon, and Owen Husney. Much later in his career, he would observe that he tended to write “more Top 40” for other artists than for his own projects (Dash 2016). You can, I think, detect a little of that dismissiveness toward “Top 40” songwriting in the rote lyrics and melody for “Donna”: it’s as if he’s saying, “The masses want tripe, right? Well, here they go.” In the years to come, Prince would make an art form out of stretching the boundaries of formulaic pop music to incorporate his own idiosyncratic vision, to his own benefit as well as the benefit of formulaic pop. But he had to learn the rules before he could bend them.

Next time, we’ll look at another early song with a woman’s name in the title: this one based on an actual woman!

“Donna” YouTube

For You

For You

(Featured Image: For You, 1978; photo by Joe Giannetti, © Warner Bros.)

The contract Prince signed with Warner Bros. stipulated that he deliver his first album to the label within six months. But before he could begin work, there were a few issues that needed to be addressed: specifically, the executives at W.B. remained wary of giving full production responsibilities to an unproven teenager from Minnesota. “Warners basically said, ‘We know he’s talented, we know he can play the instruments, we know he can write songs, but does he have record sense?’ Those are distinct areas,” Prince’s then-manager Owen Husney told biographer Per Nilsen. “The question was, ‘Does he have the ability to make a record that will sell?’” (Nilsen 1999 35)

Warner wasn’t sure, so they did what any record label would do in their situation: they hedged their bets. In an odd echo of Columbia’s earlier, failed strategy, W.B. chairman Mo Ostin tried to convince Prince to work with an experienced star producer: Maurice White. But not even the superior White brother could dissuade the 19-year-old phenom from his ambitions. Prince, according to Husney, wrote a lengthy note laying out the reasons why the Earth, Wind & Fire leader wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed their music and felt it wasn’t going anywhere in the eighties… He didn’t want that. He felt it was going to pigeonhole him. So I called back Mo and I said our decision was still ‘no.’ We wanted to be self-produced” (Nilsen 1999 35).

In the end, Husney and Ostin settled on a compromise–once again, following the earlier negotiations with CBS almost to the letter. Warner flew Prince back out to Los Angeles, under the pretext of offering him some free studio time. As he worked, however, the label sent producers and executives to surreptitiously observe his process: including head of A&R Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman (best known at the time for his work with Randy Newman), Gary Katz (producer of Steely Dan), and Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, et. al.). “He thought some of these people were janitors,” Husney claimed to Nilsen. “They were all walking in and out of there. Prince had no idea who the heck it was” (Nilsen 1999 35). But the ruse worked, and in the artist’s favor: Waronker and Templeman in particular were impressed, and agreed that Prince should be allowed to self-produce. “You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision,” Waronker later recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish” (Star Tribune 2004). With Warner Bros. sufficiently convinced, Prince became the youngest producer in the label’s history.

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Just as Long as We’re Together

(Featured Image removed at request of rights holder.)

In early April, 1977, Owen Husney and Gary Levinson flew with Prince to Los Angeles, armed with their new press kits and a fully-formed persona for their artist. Most dramatically–and, for future biographers, confoundingly–the managers fudged the date of Prince’s birth, passing him off as a year younger than he really was. “I knew if he was worth so much at 18, he was worth that much more at 17,” Husney later explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In all aspects of their presentation, Husney and Levinson took pains to set themselves apart from the competition: “L.A. at that time was jeans; open, untucked shirts, and cowboy boots,” Husney recalled. “We were all wearing three-piece suits; we had one made for Prince, too. And we sent the tape on a silver reel” (Star Tribune 2004).

Much as Chris Moon had done for Prince in New York, Husney also engaged in a little subterfuge to get their foot in the door. “I lied my way in everywhere,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. He started with Russ Thyret, Vice President and Director of Promotion at Warner Bros., with whom he’d had a previous business association: “I said to Russ, ‘Listen, CBS is flying us out for a presentation on this kid that can play all the instruments. He’s 17 years of age. Do you want to take a meeting with him?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’” Only then did he get an appointment with CBS–by informing them that he was being flown out by Warner. “And then I called A&M Records, ‘Listen, CBS and Warner Bros. are flying us out. Would you like to be part of this presentation?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, well, call us when you get here’” (Nilsen 1999 32).

In the end, Prince and American Artists met with five labels in L.A.: Warner, CBS, A&M, RSO (home of the Bee Gees), and ABC/Dunhill. Of those five, the first three put in serious bids–but all were taken aback, to varying degrees, by the extravagant terms proposed by this semi-professional Midwestern management team and their teenage client. As Husney put it to biographer Dave Hill, “We wanted three albums, because it was gonna take that long for him to develop. We wanted him to be his own producer, and to play all the instruments.” A&M, Hill wrote, “stalled on the three-album commitment” (Hill 41). For the others, Prince’s demand to produce his own work was the sticking point. “Not one of the labels wanted him to be his own producer,” Husney said to Nilsen. “They felt that he was just a young kid who had to learn. And I kept saying that I wanted him to be his own producer, and everybody said, ‘Gosh, you’re crazy’” (Nilsen 1999 32).

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