Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

(Featured Image: Back cover of Controversy, 1981; © Warner Bros.)

Over in these parts, I’m still focusing on my written explorations of Prince’s recorded catalogue; but I’ve kept my hand in the podcast game thanks to Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast. This time, we’re talking about what I think may still be my least favorite song on the Controversy album–though I will say it’s an interesting discussion nevertheless:

Press Rewind: “Ronnie, Talk to Russia”

If you’re someone who misses the days when d / m / s / r had its own semi- regular podcast, remember that that’s my current stretch goal for the Patreon and we’re about halfway there–so, if you’d like to see me start recording monthly podcasts again and you haven’t become a supporter, please do consider tossing a buck a month my way. This will not only allow me to justify the hours spent recording and (especially) editing these podcasts, but it will also help me to pay for the software that allows me to edit in all that legally-dubious music:

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Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)

(Featured Image: Sean Young’s femmebot fatale, Rachael, in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, 1982; © Warner Bros.)

Having recorded the majority of 1980’s Dirty Mind and 1981’s Controversy at home in Minnesota, Prince shifted gears and made liberal use of Sunset Sound during the sessions for his fifth album in early 1982–his most reliance on a professional recording studio since the 1979’s Prince. On April 28–two days after recording “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” and a day after cutting an early version of his 1985 hit “Raspberry Beret”–he even did something relatively rare for him: using the more advanced facilities in L.A. to re-record a “demo” from his home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen.

While his precise motivations for this remake are impossible to surmise, it seems unlikely that recording quality was one of them. A little more polish and the original “Something in the Water” could have passed for a studio take, with its three distinct keyboard parts layered like gauze over elastic bass and pistonlike Linn LM-1. The most prominent of those parts–an angular hook resembling the sound of numbers being dialed on a touch-tone phone–sounds like a more melodic mutation of the synth line from another home studio creation, “Annie Christian.” But where that song’s cold, technologically detached arrangement had extended to Prince’s robotic vocals, here he plays off against the science-fiction musical tropes with an organically soulful melody and acoustic jazz piano.

This literally cyborgian aesthetic has led some to detect the influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in the song–both for its themes of synthetic androids experiencing human emotions and for its soundtrack by Greek musician Vangelis, who similarly blended cutting-edge electronics with more traditionally noir-ish jazz motifs. But Blade Runner didn’t premiere in theaters until June 25, a solid two months after both the original “Something in the Water” and its remake. Most likely, then, the resonances between the two works are coincidental: Prince and Vangelis both drawing from the same well of alienated postmodernity as contemporary synthpop artists like Gary Numan and the Human League.

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Free

Free

(Featured Image: A family picnics with giraffes in a 1982 ad for the Soviet VAZ 2101; photo stolen from Soviet Visuals.)

In late April 1982, the majority of the tracks Prince had completed for his fifth album fell under one of two categories: extended electro-funk grooves (“All the Critics Love U in New York,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “D.M.S.R.”) and slippery R&B slow jams (“International Lover”). But the song he recorded on April 25, just five days after “D.M.S.R.,” was an outlier both on the album and in his career to date: a theatrical rock ballad with vaguely propagandistic undertones called “Free.”

From its opening moments, “Free” lays on the grandiosity, with the sound of a heartbeat overlaid by marching footsteps and waves crashing on the shore–clips raided from Sunset Sound’s library of sound effects, the same source as the traffic noise from “Lady Cab Driver” and “All the Critics.” Just as these sounds fade away, Prince enters the mix, his gossamer falsetto accompanied by a crystalline piano line. Bass and drums slip softly into formation, followed by dramatic guitar chords when he hits the chorus: “Be glad that U are free, free to change your mind / Free to go most anywhere anytime / Be glad that U are free, there’s many a man who’s not / Be glad for what U had baby[,] what you’ve got.”

Freedom, of course, was an emerging theme of Prince’s long before he’d decided to dedicate a full song to it. “It’s all about being free” had been the mantra of “Uptown”; “Sexuality” had exhorted the listener to “let your body be free.” Then there were the songs that preached freedom without using the word–notably “D.M.S.R.,” with its calls to “screw the masses” and “[d]o whatever we want.” But something about “Free” feels fundamentally different. Rather than an exhilarating promise of liberation, here Prince describes freedom as a solemn duty, more in keeping with the “freedom isn’t free” bromides of American conservatism than with the radical traditions that informed his earlier work.

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Moonbeam Levels

Moonbeam Levels

(Featured Image: Prince 4Ever, 2016; photo by Justine Walpole, © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)

This Monday, November 21, marked the seven-month “anniversary” of Prince’s untimely passing. A day later, we got the first officially-sanctioned posthumous release of his music: Prince 4Ever, a two-disc (or, for those like me living firmly in the digital era, 40-track) compilation spanning the 15 years from the release of his 1978 debut album to his acrimonious 1993 falling-out with Warner Bros. Records. Most of 4Ever is, quite frankly, not for People Like Us: the majority of its track listing overlaps with previous compilations UltimateThe Very Best of Prince, and The Hits/The B-Sides–still the O.G., as far as I’m concerned–and more often than not the versions included are the vastly inferior single edits. There are a few previously uncompiled mixes (most notably a blessedly rap-free “Alphabet St.”), as well as some deeper cuts: “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy makes its first appearance on CD as an individually-sequenced track, and the 1989 movie tie-in “Batdance” is collected for the first time since its initial release. I also appreciate the sprinkling of fan-favorite songs, like the (amazing) 1981 U.K.-only release “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and the (even more amazing) 1986 single “Mountains.” In general, though, if you’re reading this blog, there is nothing here you haven’t heard before–with one possible exception. I’m talking, of course, about “Moonbeam Levels.”

Recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions in July of 1982, “Moonbeam Levels” has been circulating since the mid-to-late 1980s, when it was initially mislabeled as “A Better Place 2 Die.” It’s acquired a reputation in the ensuing decades as one of the best, and best-known, outtakes in Prince’s voluminous catalogue. In 2013, the song even received a few noteworthy public performances: first by Elvis Costello with Princess (a.k.a. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Prince, and later by the man himself, as part of a piano medley supporting protégée Shelby J at the City Winery in New York. Now, you know I have all kinds of opinions about Prince outtakes, but I’m not even gonna front: “Moonbeam Levels” was a great choice for the first officially-released “bootleg” to see the light of day after Prince’s death. So, now that it’s finally seen a legitimate release, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to put our usual chronological content on hold and take a closer look at the song.

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