Last Sunday, I spoke with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones about…well, a lot of things, which is why we ended up having to break our podcast up into four episodes. For this first installment, we talk about our stories as Prince fans and articulate some of the reasons why his music–and, to a not-insignificant extent, the man himself–continues to mean so much to us. In the weeks to come, I’ll post the later installments, where we discuss the two recent books by Ben Greenman and Mayte Garcia, and try to unpack some of our thoughts around Prince’s death last April. I hope you enjoy it.
The recording sessions for Princebegan in earnest in late April of 1979, with overdubs and mixes completed by June 13: about seven weeks, all told, barely half the time Prince had taken to complete his debut album. Indeed, while For Youand Princeare often grouped together by critics, in practice the two albums are a study in contrasts. Rather than the state-of-the-art Record Plant, Prince used Alpha Studios in Burbank, California: a relatively modest facility located in the home of owner and engineer Gary Brandt. And where on For You Prince had seemed determined to use every inch of the studio console, his approach to its successor was markedly scaled back; according to Brandt, Prince deliberately limited himself to only 16 of Alpha’s 24 available tracks (Brown 2010).
Prince’s stripped-down aesthetic was born partly of preference and partly of necessity. In later interviews, Prince would suggest a growing dissatisfaction with For You’s fussy production: he had tried to make “a perfect record,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland in 1981, but “it was too scientific” (Sutherland 1981). Working with 16 tracks at Alpha Studios would likely have felt more comfortable to an artist used to the humbler accommodations of Sound 80 and his own home studio in Minneapolis; crucially, it was also much cheaper. For You’s recording budget, you might remember, had ballooned to some $170,000–almost the entire amount Warner Bros. had allotted for Prince’s first three albums. So this time around, Prince told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I realized that I had to make some money to prove to them that I was a businessman” (Norment 34). By recording quickly and economically, Prince would ensure that the new record came in on time and under budget. “He was really in a hurry,” drummer Bobby Z recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “There was quite a bit of debt to the label, and he needed a hit. His back was against the wall” (Nilsen 1999 54).
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 Youthe 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.
Of the home demos currently in circulation from mid-to-late 1978, some are more “demo”-quality than others. Today’s is one of those tracks: “Down a Long Lonely Road,” a light sketch of a song with a not-inconsiderable gospel influence. To be honest, I don’t have much to say about it. It feels like it was recorded just to get a stray melody on tape, or even as a test to hone Prince’s abilities at layering vocals; like the much more fleshed-out “For You,” it’s an a cappella recording, with Prince harmonizing across multiple tracks. The whole “song” consists of just two lines, repeated ad infinitum: “Down a long, lonely road, I’ve been cryin’ / Lookin’ for someone to care.”
For fans, the appeal of this demo is in its intimacy: it’s a rare (if low-fidelity) opportunity to hear Prince’s ever-strengthening vocals in isolation, without the baroque studio frippery of the aforementioned “For You.” It’s also, as mentioned above, a strong early indication of the influence of gospel music on his songwriting and performance style. It’s a well-known aspect of Prince’s “origin story” that he was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, from which he’d later say the “experience of the choir” was the only thing he took with him (VH1 1997). On “Down a Long Lonely Road,” he makes himself the choir, or at least a vocal group; were it not for the unusual delicacy of his singing voice, it would sound for all the world like some old Folkways recording of a long-forgotten Black church group from the 1940s.
It’s unclear–but doubtful–if “Down a Long Lonely Road” was ever intended for completion, either by Prince himself or for a potential side project. Much more likely, it was something he recorded in the moment and filed away: part of what must be interminable hours of musical detritus from a man who, lest we forget, spent the majority of his waking life in the studio. That we’re able to hear it and write about it now is an interesting bit of happenstance: this is one of the tapes that just happened to leak to collectors, so now it’s under the microscope. Next time, we’ll pick up with another such recording–but with guitar!
(Note: I was unable to locate “Down a Long Lonely Road” anywhere for streaming…if you come across it, let me know in the comments and I’ll throw up a link.)