She’s Just a Baby

She’s Just a Baby

(Featured Image: The Hookers, 1981; L to R: Jamie Shoop, Susan Moonsie, Loreen Moonsie. Photo stolen from Denise Vanity Matthews–the Tumblr, not the person.)

The Time’s first album was completed quickly, even by Prince’s ever-increasing standards: recorded in April 1981, mixed (at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles) by the end of the month, and released another three months later. In the meantime, the man behind the curtain was already devising a second group of protégés: an all-female counterpart to his first group’s male pimp aesthetic, charmingly named the Hookers.

In order to recruit his stable of Hookers, Prince stayed even closer to home than he had for the Time. He drafted his personal assistant, Jamie Shoop, who then-engineer Don Batts described as “a good-looking blonde… kind of a ballsy woman in a man’s world” (Nilsen 1999 63). The other two spots were filled by his girlfriend at the time, Susan Moonsie, and her sister Loreen.

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Mary Don’t You Weep

Mary Don’t You Weep

(Featured Image: Cover art for the forthcoming Piano & A Microphone 1983. Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © the Prince Estate.)

Since the official release of “Moonbeam Levels” in November 2016, the Prince fan community has been clamoring for more unreleased music. The results to date, however, have been more of a trickle than the flood many would prefer. Last June’s deluxe Purple Rain reissue got mixed reviews from the hardcore for its track selection and 2016-ized mix (just for the record, I liked it). Since then, there have been rumors of a remastered edition of Prince and the Revolution’s August 1983 First Avenue debut, an expanded version of 1999, and an official release of Prince’s final “Piano & A Microphone” shows at Paisley Park–none of which have come to fruition. It was only with the single release of “Nothing Compares 2 U” this April that the drought showed any real signs of ending. Shortly thereafter, representatives of the Prince Estate (whatever that means at this point) announced two full-length projects featuring unreleased material: one from the Warner Bros. years and coming this September, the other of more recent vintage and premiering, at least initially, on TIDAL in 2019.

While the latter project remains a mystery, today–the 60th anniversary of Prince’s birth–Warner and the estate finally revealed what to expect from the former: a long-circulating collection of 1983 piano rehearsals, cleverly retitled Piano & A Microphone 1983. For better or worse, it’s on brand with the posthumous releases we’ve seen to date: tasteful, collector-approved, and dating from the 198285 zenith of Prince’s primacy in the pop market. It’s so on brand, in fact, that for the first time in the last 18 months of Prince releases, I actually caught myself feeling a slight tinge of disappointment. The Vault has been open for almost two years; isn’t it about time we got something that hasn’t already leaked?

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The Stick

The Stick

(Featured Image: From Kustom Kar Kommandos, Kenneth Anger, 1965. © Fantoma Films.)

Despite the band name on the label and the six musicians credited on the sleeve, the Time’s first album is often remembered as a thinly veiled solo effort by Prince. This, however, isn’t strictly true: not only was frontman Morris Day largely responsible for the album’s drum tracks, but Prince also drew heavily on his inner circle for songwriting assistance.

Guitarist Dez Dickerson wrote the lyrics for “Cool”–more on that later–and, less successfully, was solely responsible for “After Hi School.” “The idea was for the record to have a youthful vibe,” Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir, so he recorded a four-track demo for a song “where the main character is a kid about to graduate, facing the usual questions from adults, and decisions to be made. Prince liked it, but changed it from its original AC/DC-ish rhythm to a more up-tempo Brit/New Wave feel” (Dickerson 112). The song’s faux-Farfisa accompaniment does recall Prince’s New Wave-flavored “When You Were Mine”; but the cloying lyrics and Morris’ still-untutored vocals do it no favors.

For the album’s most fruitful collaboration, however, Prince didn’t have to look far: in April of 1981, keyboardist and recent Los Angeles transplant Lisa Coleman was still living in his home at 9401 Kiowa Trail. “My room was upstairs,” she later told biographer Matt Thorne, “so he would call me down. ‘Lisa, would you help me do this string part? What about these lyrics? Can you finish this verse?’ He involved me. I punched him in while he was playing the drums, whatever it was” (Thorne 2016). Lisa’s backing vocals are prominent throughout The Time: she, along with Sue Ann Carwell, is one of the “Various Girlfriends” credited in the liner notes. And it was Lisa who provided the lyrical spark–and maybe more–for the album’s comically raunchy closing track, “The Stick.”

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Oh, Baby

Oh, Baby

(Featured Image: The Time’s track list, a scant six songs of disparate provenance; © Warner Bros.)

In the spring of 1981, with Morris Day as lead singer and the majority of Flyte Tyme in tow, work on the album that would become the Time’s self-titled debut began in earnest. The sessions at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio were “quick and dirty,” according to engineer Don Batts. “The whole album went fast and it was produced at a minimal cost,” he told the fanzine Uptown. “I even remember using used tape” (Nilsen 1999 85).

Some of the quickness and dirtiness of The Time is evident in its track list, a scant six songs of disparate provenance. André Cymone had been involved early in the process: “I was trying to put some other groups together,” he said to Uptown. “Just trying to make some money… I saw [Prince] turning down productions, offers from Diana Ross and some other people, this is like good money, and I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, man. Let’s just do some of this. Let’s put together a group’” (Nilsen 1999 84). As we’ve seen, however, relations between Prince and André were quickly deteriorating, and this project was no exception. “All of a sudden, Prince decided he wanted everything his way,” Cymone recalled. “All the songs would go to his publishing company, and he wanted this and that. I was sick of doing everything that way. He didn’t want my name to be mentioned, he wanted me to use a fictitious name. I wanted to get credit for what I was doing” (85).

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I Don’t Wanna Stop

I Don’t Wanna Stop

(Featured Image: Not Prince’s home studio, but it is his reel-to-reel; ad for the Ampex MM-1100, circa 1974. Photo stolen from the Reel to Reel Tape Recorder Museum.)

So far, we’ve been looking at Prince’s Dirty Mind as a singular, cohesive work–which, in fact, it was: easily his strongest and most consistent artistic statement to date. But part of what made it so impressive is that according to Prince, it was never really intended as such. When he began recording in mid-1980, his goal was not an “album,” but a batch of demos: the same kind of home recordings he’d been making since 1976. The resulting tapes were “just personal songs that I wanted to have,” he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner after the album’s release, a fact to which he attributed their immediate, “up-front quality” (Wilen 1981).

Like many of the stories Prince told to reporters circa 1981, there’s an air of myth to his claim that the songs on Dirty Mind were originally deemed too raw for public consumption; I’m inclined to believe him, however, if only because his home studio in Wayzata, Minnesota sounds like the last place one would choose to record a major label album. “The house had a lot of problems,” recalled Don Batts, who worked as Prince’s ad-hoc engineer and studio tech at the time. The mixing console, Batts told biographer Per Nilsen, was “rammed up against a table.” The tape machine, an Ampex MM-1100, was “held together with baling wire and patches, and on a regular basis had numerous tracks that weren’t functional simply because it was that raggedy.” Most dramatically, the drum booth was partially flooded from a nearby cesspool, resulting in a “constant drain of water” on the tracks  (Nilsen 1999 67).

Despite these conditions, Prince spent the bulk of May and June 1980 holed up in the studio, recording not only the entirety of Dirty Mind and affiliated outtakes, but a raft of songs that still haven’t been heard by the public: “American Jam,” the intriguingly-titled “Big Brass Bed,” the bewilderingly-titled “Bulgaria,” “Eros,” “Plastic Love Affair,” and “Rough.” He also recorded at least one song that has been heard by the public, but only by another artist, and seemingly against Prince’s wishes: a bouncy, rather anachronistic little number called “I Don’t Wanna Stop.”

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