(Featured Image: Outtake from the 1999 photo sessions, by Allen Beaulieu; © the Prince Estate.)
Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.” As usual, it’s on Patreon first, with the public blog to follow next week. Whether you read it now or then, I hope you enjoy it!
In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to put the finishing touches on the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the appropriately extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”
In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.
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(Featured Image: With an old friend at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles, January 25, 1982; that’s Steve Fargnoli in the background. Photo stolen from Consequence of Sound.)
Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in mid-January 1982 concluded with–and was most likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.
Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with 1980’s flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Favorite Soul/R&B Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.
It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros. Records, and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”
(Featured Image: Notorious “baby groupies” Lori Mattix and Sable Starr; photo stolen from Miss Pandora.)
As noted earlier, Prince began work on the Time’s second album during a three-week break from the Controversy tour, where the group was serving as his opening act and occasional thorn in his side. It thus makes sense that what would become the album’s opening track, “Wild and Loose,” centered around one of the most prevalent scenarios in the life of a touring musician: the backstage (and back-of-bus) dalliances between the band and their young, female admirers.
Just as he had with the Time’s earlier song, “Cool,” Prince tapped his own band’s guitarist, Dez Dickerson, to help write the song: “Prince called me on the phone with a song title,” he told the alt-weekly Nashville Scene in 2014, “and about 15 minutes later, I called him back with lyrics based on the title” (Shawhan 2014). Dez, who had spent years touring in journeyman rock groups before linking up with Prince, had more familiarity with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle than anyone else in the camp. But his take on the song “kept the content rated G,” as he later recalled, so “Prince altered it somewhat from my original version” (Dickerson 205). The final lyrics, when viewed from a contemporary lens, seem calculated to shock and titillate: “Hangin’ by the backstage door, decked out like a queen / Your body’s sayin’ 21, but your face says 17.”
(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)
In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
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