Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

(Featured Image: How have I not used this one already?! 1979 publicity photo; © Warner Bros., stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

I know I always begin these roundup posts with a reference to the obscene length of time since the last one, but this time I’m drawing attention to chronology for an entirely different reason. I wrote the first post in this roundup in April of 2017; the last one went up a week ago today. That year-and-a-half-long gap speaks to my abysmal writing pace, sure–but it also speaks to the sheer scope of non-album music Prince produced between 1979 and 1981.

When I originally decided to lump together these three years, I was concerned that I was casting too wide a net; but I think the posts collected here ended up telling an interesting story. From the recording of Prince in spring ’79 to the release of Controversy in fall ’81, Prince underwent a transformation–one that can’t entirely be explained by the album, Dirty Mind, that falls in-between. These posts trace the steps of that transformation: from reluctant R&B heartthrob to full-blown Black New Waver. It’s a fascinating journey to say the least. So, with no further ado, here’s how I rank the steps along the way:

13. “Everybody Dance” No surprise here: I said in my original post that “Everybody Dance” is barely a song. But it was a great excuse to write about his legendary debut performance at Sam’s (a.k.a. First Avenue), so I can’t begrudge it too much.

12. “The Loser” The dirty secret about the Rebels “album” is that, for all its importance to Prince’s artistic development, it really isn’t very good. The Gayle Chapman-sung “The Loser” isn’t even my least favorite track; that dubious honor goes to the instrumentals, or if those don’t count, the original version of “If I Love U 2 Nite” (sorry, Gayle, not your fault). But it is my least favorite of the tracks I’ve written about: by no means terrible, but thoroughly unremarkable, except perhaps as an early example of Prince flexing his songwriting muscles by experimenting in unexpected genres.

11. “Kiss Me Quick” This one, which I actually hadn’t heard until soon before I wrote about it, is also a mostly unremarkable genre exercise; but I give it the nod over “The Loser” because the specific genre (disco) happens to be one I think Prince was extremely good at. I can see why this was never properly released, but I also could have seen it ending up as an album track on Prince and being more than passable.

10. “Hard to Get” Another frankly mediocre Rebels track, but one I prefer to “The Loser” if only because my own personal biases lean more toward Stones-esque cock-rock than mild Bonnie Raitt pastiche. If there was a complete recording circulating of the ice-cold 1981 New Wave version, it would have been ranked higher… so, uh, what’s the hold-up, Sony and/or bootleggers?

9. “Broken” A very fun song in Prince’s subcanon of rockabilly/early R&B pastiches, but one that was easily replaced by “Jack U Off,” which was easily replaced by “Delirious,” etc. It isn’t necessarily a song that I reach for, but it’s a nice little bit of ephemera from the Dirty Mind tour.

8. “I Don’t Wanna Stop” This one is ranked as high as it is strictly because of potential: I like the version by Ren Woods enough to know that Prince’s version would surely be better. Maybe someday we’ll finally be able to hear it (ahem, Sony).

7. “Strange Way of Saying I Love You” Is this one too low? Yeah, maybe; it is kind of an earworm, especially now that the version in circulation doesn’t sound like it was recorded from a boom box outside a gymnasium where the song was being played. But I think we’ve officially reached the point in the list where my ranking is more arbitrary than usual.

6. “Rough” Is this one too high? Yeah, maybe; but I’m a sucker for the kinds of songs Prince wrote for the Time, as well as any moment when his Cars influence starts to peek through (listen to the synth bass on “Good Times Roll” at 1:05 and just try to tell me it doesn’t sound like “Rough”). That, and this post about Alexander O’Neal’s brief stint as a Prince protégé was just hella fun to write.

5. “She’s Just a Baby” One of Prince’s more conventional R&B ballads from this era, I’m even more fond of it now that I’ve formulated my theory that it was originally penned for the Time (but if that’s the case, why, oh why did he decide to use fucking “Girl”?!). Besides, whose heart doesn’t skip a beat or two thinking about a young (but not too young!) Susan Moonsie?

4. “The Second Coming” Yes, it’s only about a minute’s worth of multi-tracked a cappella Prince harmonies. But, counterpoint: it’s a whole minute’s worth of multi-tracked a cappella Prince harmonies. I’ve written before about the rapturous qualities of Prince’s falsetto; if that’s your type of thing, then “The Second Coming” might just be your own personal Rapture.

3. “You” Probably the one Rebels song that actually lives up to the hype, and definitely the only one ever covered by Paula Abdul. Coincidence? Probably.

2. “Lisa” An early glimpse of Prince’s synthpop phase dating from mid-1980, it wouldn’t have fit on the guitar-centric Dirty Mind, but boy is it a slapper. Bonus: if you can, try and track down the 1982 rehearsal version that recently entered circulation, with Prince vamping over clavinet-style synthesizer and his Linn LM-1 for damn near 45 minutes. It’s excessive, sure, but it just shows how hypnotic and tensile a groove this is.

1. “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” I am an outspoken stan of New Wave Prince, so it should be no surprise that I highly rate this NWP gem from 1980. Imagine if Devo were sexual beings, or if the Knack weren’t total sleazeballs; then imagine either one of them with about 9,000% more soul. One of Prince’s underrated talents in the early ’80s was his ability to highlight the sexual tension in New Wave’s stiff, nervous grooves; this, one of my favorite B-sides/non-LP singles in his discography, is a shining example of that talent.

Since it’s only been a couple of weeks since my Controversy roundup, I don’t see much point in updating the tag clouds; there’s also nothing new to add to the Spotify playlist, since all but one of these tracks is not currently available for (legal) streaming. So I’ll just say that, while this week was largely occupied with what I hope to be an exciting upcoming project, I’ll be back next week to kick off 1982. See you then!

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You

You

(Featured Image: Prince and Gayle Chapman, circa 1980; photo stolen from Lipstick Alley.)

As we discussed last week, one of the key functions of the Rebels project was that it allowed Prince to test out new and divergent musical approaches before incorporating them into his own “official” work. In particular, keyboardist Matt Fink later told biographer Per Nilsen, Prince “wanted to try this punk rock/new wave thing with The Rebels because he was too afraid to do that within the ‘Prince’ realm. It was an experiment” (Nilsen 1999 58). The experiment turned out to be a successful one: Prince’s next album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, would be heavily influenced by both the sounds of New Wave and the confrontational attitude of punk. But before there was “Dirty Mind,” “Sister,” or “When You Were Mine,” there was “You”: the laboratory where he constructed his edgy new style, and a minor classic in its own right.

Like “The Loser” and “If I Love You Tonight,” “You” was conceived as a vehicle for keyboardist and backing singer Gayle Chapman. Unlike those songs, however–or, indeed, any of Prince’s earlier attempts at writing from a woman’s perspective–here he casts Chapman in a much more sexually aggressive role. She shrieks the lyrics like a banshee in heat, licking her lips over a prospective lover’s hard-on and even threatening him with rape: the first known appearance of one of Prince’s darkest early lyrical tropes. Within a few months, Chapman would leave the band: a decision that has often been attributed to her objection to Prince’s increasingly outré lyrics. But, as she noted to the Beautiful Nights fan blog, “I sang ‘You.’ So, what? (Singing lyrics) ‘You get so hard I don’t know what to do.’ How stupid was I? ‘Take your pants off!’” (Dyes August 2013).

Continue reading “You”

The Loser

The Loser

(Featured Image: Back cover of The Glow by Bonnie Raitt, 1979; © Warner Bros.)

In addition to providing a creative outlet for his backing band, the Rebels project also offered Prince an opportunity to experiment with different styles outside the context of his official albums. For the most part, that meant hard rock and New Wave: as we discussed last week, “Hard to Get” was as straightforward a Rolling Stones rip as Prince ever recorded; songs like his “You” and Dez Dickerson’s “Disco Away,” meanwhile, bore the influence of Boston FM rock/New Wave act the Cars, whose sophomore album Candy-O was reportedly in heavy rotation at the group’s mid-1979 tour rehearsals (Thorne 2016). But in two of his compositions for keyboardist Gayle Chapman, Prince explored less familiar territory–with admittedly mixed results.

The more substantial of the pair was “If I Love You Tonight,” a soft rock ballad distinguished mainly by its oddly theatrical conceit: Chapman playing the role of a woman on the brink of suicide and desperate for connection, apparently inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Thorne 2016). The track would be revised thoroughly in the years to come–so much that I’m waiting until one of the later versions to discuss it in depth. The other song, “The Loser”–long mislabeled by bootleggers as “Turn Me On”–seems to have been recorded only once, making it unique among Prince’s Rebels songs; and the version that does exist is little more than a stylistic pastiche of his late-1970s labelmate, roots rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt.

Continue reading “The Loser”