Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

Hi, everyone! In an effort to break up the flow of this blog a bit, I’d like to insert the occasional “Roundup” post whenever we come to the close of a particular phase of Prince’s musical career. So, now that we’re officially finished with 1976 ephemera and moving into For You territory, here are the songs so far. And hey, since everyone loves a totally subjective ranking–this is the Internet, is it not?–I’ll give them to you in ascending order of my personal preference:

9. Home Recordings, 1976 These probably shouldn’t even be on the list, as it’s a little unfair to consider them “songs.” What can I say, though, I dig some of ’em.

8. “If You See Me” Sorry, Pepé; Prince’s and Jesse’s versions both blow yours out of the water.

7. Moonsound Instrumentals The first time I posted this, I thought the version I’d heard of the legitimately funky “Jelly Jam” was recorded at Moonsound; it wasn’t, and as a result these recordings have dropped a bit in my esteem. Still, they show promise.

6. “Nightingale” Historically interesting and poignant, but so twee.

5. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” More sexist than sexy, but also sort of endearingly dorky. It’s nice to know that at least 17-year-old Prince wasn’t smoother than 31-year-old me.

4. “I Spend My Time Loving You” Like “Nightingale,” this one’s a little on the twee side, but the vocal and guitar performances are moving beyond Prince’s years.

3. “Leaving for New York Like I said in the post, probably Prince’s most musically accomplished song to date. I slept on this one for ages, then I listened to it in the car and it just came alive. A sublime indication of a blossoming talent.

2. “Rock Me, Lover” It’s slight, sure, but like I said in the article, it offers a valuable glimpse of Prince’s future as a more feminist (or at least submissive) brand of lover. As teenage masturbatory fantasies go, I’ll take this over “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” any day. Also, great discussion with Jane Clare Jones in the comments.

1. “Sweet Thing” To be perfectly honest, this is the only song we’ve discussed so far that I really go out of my way to listen to. A beautiful, delicate cover version that I may even prefer to the original by Chaka Khan and Rufus. On a more personal note, this was the post that made Chaka retweet me and blow my blog the fuck up (at least for a couple of days). For that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Also, let’s not forget the two introductory posts that fill in a few early gaps in Prince’s recorded oeuvre. I obviously can’t rank these because I haven’t heard any of the songs (though I’m sure the one of five-year-old Skipper banging rocks together was dope):

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1965-1968
Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

Finally, because I’m weirdly fascinated by tag clouds, here’s a snapshot of the tags I’ve used so far and their relative frequency. The data isn’t perfect because of a few crossposts that have fucked with the chronology, but it should still be interesting to see how the people, places, and songs we discuss change over time. To me, I mean. It will be interesting to me.

tagcloud1

Tomorrow, we continue with the next chapter of our journey: the series of studio recordings that ultimately resulted in Prince’s first album. If you’ve been rocking with me so far, I mean this sincerely: thank you so much. The response to this blog–especially these early, obscure entries–has honestly been beyond anything I dared to hope for. It’s so gratifying to get the feedback from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

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Soft and Wet

Soft and Wet

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

Prince and Chris Moon recorded 14 tracks together at Moonsound, not counting “Farnborough” or the untitled “piano intro.” Eight of them still aren’t in circulation, so all we really know are their titles: “Aces,” “Diamond Eyes,” “Don’t Forget,” “Don’t Hold Back” (Prince was really into giving orders in 1976, apparently),  “Fantasy,” “Since We’ve Been Together,” and “Surprise.” One, “Leaving for New York,” is in circulation, but only in its earlier incarnation as a home recording (more on that next week). Another, “Make It Through the Storm,” was demoed with Minneapolis singer Sue Ann Carwell in 1978 and eventually released (without Prince’s involvement) in 1981. A few others made it all the way to his debut album, 1978’s For You: including “Baby,” “I’m Yours,” “Jelly Jam” (as the instrumental coda of “Just as Long as We’re Together”), and “My Love is Forever” (originally recorded as “Love is Forever”). But the best-known and most important track to come out of the Moon-Nelson partnership was the song that would ultimately become Prince’s debut single: “Soft and Wet.”

Like most great works of popular music, “Soft and Wet” came into being through a combination of sexual and chemical indulgence and cynical commercial calculus. Moon, who started out writing the lyrics for most of his and Prince’s collaborations, recalled the song’s inspiration thusly: “I had Sundays off, and that particular Sunday I had a fortunate experience with more than one girl. It was a late-night party, and these girls had come back to my studio,” he told biographer Matt Thorne. “And I think I’d drunk a little too much rum because the next morning I felt like hell and had to go to work.” Moon locked the door of his office at Minneapolis marketing firm Campbell Mithun (now part of McCann Worldgroup), “recovering from this wild night before and…replaying in my mind some of the highlights” (Thorne 2016). Ever the adman, he’d been toying with a “marketing theme” to help sell his new protegé to an audience of teenage girls, which he famously summarized as “implied naughty sexuality” (Nilsen 1999 28). At that moment, sitting in an office building at ten in the morning, “tired, a little bit hungover,” Moon wrote the “anchor tune that would summarize this marketing concept” (Thorne 2016).

Moon’s story is, to be frank,more than a little self-aggrandizing. For one thing, he’s effectively claiming to have invented the concept of double entendre in popular music: an assertion with which I’d imagine scads of earlier artists, from Robert Johnson to Julia Lee to the Ohio Players, would take issue. But he is right in considering “Soft and Wet” to be one of the fundamental keys to Prince’s musical persona; it’s just that it took Prince a few tries–and, it’s worth noting, a lyrical overhaul–to get it right.

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Moonsound Instrumentals

Moonsound Instrumentals

(Featured Image: Prince recording at Sound 80 (not Moonsound) in early 1977. Photo by Larry Falk.)

Sometime in the spring of 1976, the band formerly known as Grand Central (recently rechristened “Shampayne”) recorded their second and final demo at an eight-track recording studio with an unusually fanciful name. “Moonsound, Inc.” was founded in the early 1970s, in the basement of a rented house on 25th Street and Portland Avenue (Hill 29). Its namesake was a British expatriate advertising agent, recording engineer, aspiring songwriter, and all-around renaissance man named Chris Moon, whose accommodating fees–$15 an hour, clients provide their own tape–made Moonsound a popular destination for Minneapolis’ small but active African American musical community.

moonsound
Photo stolen from Discogs

The studio, such as it was, moved around town for the better part of the decade: to another basement on Stevens Avenue, and eventually to a large, single-story structure on Dupont, next door to an automotive impound (Numero Group 2013). In between, Moon set up shop in a 1,500-square-foot former hair salon on the south end of the city, near Lake Nokomis. It was at this location where Prince Rogers Nelson would record some of his most important early work; first, though, there was the Shampayne demo.

In an interview with biographer Dave Hill, Chris Moon recalled Shampayne recording “three or four sessions. They’d come in, do the rhythm track one day, then the vocals, and then the mix and so on” (Hill 29). Moon told Per Nilsen that he found the band to be “talented, but not exceptionally talented.” Like Pepé Willie before him, however, he did see “exceptional” talent in their soft-spoken, diminutive, big-haired guitarist. “Prince would normally show up a bit earlier than everybody else, thrash around on the drums a little bit, twinkle on the piano, guitar, bass or whatever,” he said to Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 26). In Debby Miller’s 1983 cover story for Rolling Stone, Moon elaborated: “Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw… He looked pretty tame. Then he’d pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over” (Miller 1983).

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