dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.
I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.
Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.
I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.
Well, it took a little longer than planned, but we’ve officially finished Prince’s first album! For You was a lot of fun for me to revisit, because like many who got into Prince through his ’80s work, I never really listened to it all that much. It’s still far from my favorite Prince album, but looking at in depth has given me a new appreciation. Not only is it an ambitious and beautifully crafted record, but it also provides some fascinating glimpses into Prince’s musical future: the sounds he would further refine, as well as the stylistic dead ends he’d cease to pursue. If you’re a serious Prince listener–and if you’re reading this blog, I can only imagine you are–then you absolutely need to give For You a fair shake.
So, to that end, here are all nine of my posts about the album, in ascending order of my personal preference:
9. “So Blue” Like I said in the original post, this feels the most like filler of anything on For You; having said that, however, there are so many interesting little sonic touches that make it a pleasure to listen to. Most artists would kill to have Prince’s filler.
8. “My Love is Forever” Maybe the most dated song on the record. Love that guitar tone, though.
7. “Just as Long as We’re Together” A virtuoso performance on just about every level, but a little precious for my tastes. Still, you can’t deny the kid has talent, and the “Jelly Jam” coda knocks.
6. “Baby” The most conventional late-’70s R&B track on the album; but Prince’s more-falsetto-than-falsetto voice, and the unusually mature lyrical themes, demonstrate that there’s something much more interesting at work.
5. “Crazy You” A real sleeper; this one went from one of my least favorite tracks on the album to my top five. It’s slight and arguably underdeveloped, but the vibe is undeniable. If he’d put it out in 2016 instead of 1978, hipsters would have already developed a whole subgenre around it, like beachwave or space calypso or some shit.
4. “For You” This used to be the only song on the album besides “Soft and Wet” that I really loved. It’s no longer that, but it’s still up there. Prince’s vocals are breathtaking, and the chutzpah it took to make this the opening track of his first album is admirable.
3. “In Love” I used to think it was “too disco”; now I enjoy its funhouse-mirror version of the Minneapolis Sound. And who among us wouldn’t let 19-year-old Prince “play in their river?”
2. “Soft and Wet” Easily the most “Prince”-sounding song on the album, and not coincidentally the only one that tends to be anthologized. I’m not mad, though; it’s a great track.
1. “I’m Yours” Man, did this song ever grow on me. The guitar pyrotechnics are amazing, of course, but the extreme contrast between Prince’s sledgehammer riffage and his overtly fey vocals is what makes it for me: it’s not quite like anything else in rock. Like I noted in the post, this song more than any other on the album would determine Prince’s musical direction for the next several years; it was definitely the right call.
Like I said yesterday, we’ll be spending one more week wrapping up For You, with a different kind of post I’m trying out for fun. Then, the following week, we’ll pick up with some of Prince’s 1978 home recordings. In the meantime, check back on Saturday for the last of my Prince (Protégé) Summer guest posts on Andresmusictalk. You can also check out the growing companion playlists on Spotify and TIDAL below, if that’s your thing. And, again, thanks so much for reading!
In early April, 1977, Owen Husney and Gary Levinson flew with Prince to Los Angeles, armed with their new press kits and a fully-formed persona for their artist. Most dramatically–and, for future biographers, confoundingly–the managers fudged the date of Prince’s birth, passing him off as a year younger than he really was. “I knew if he was worth so much at 18, he was worth that much more at 17,” Husney later explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In all aspects of their presentation, Husney and Levinson took pains to set themselves apart from the competition: “L.A. at that time was jeans; open, untucked shirts, and cowboy boots,” Husney recalled. “We were all wearing three-piece suits; we had one made for Prince, too. And we sent the tape on a silver reel” (Star Tribune 2004).
Much as Chris Moon had done for Prince in New York, Husney also engaged in a little subterfuge to get their foot in the door. “I lied my way in everywhere,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. He started with Russ Thyret, Vice President and Director of Promotion at Warner Bros., with whom he’d had a previous business association: “I said to Russ, ‘Listen, CBS is flying us out for a presentation on this kid that can play all the instruments. He’s 17 years of age. Do you want to take a meeting with him?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’” Only then did he get an appointment with CBS–by informing them that he was being flown out by Warner. “And then I called A&M Records, ‘Listen, CBS and Warner Bros. are flying us out. Would you like to be part of this presentation?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, well, call us when you get here’” (Nilsen 1999 32).
In the end, Prince and American Artists met with five labels in L.A.: Warner, CBS, A&M, RSO (home of the Bee Gees), and ABC/Dunhill. Of those five, the first three put in serious bids–but all were taken aback, to varying degrees, by the extravagant terms proposed by this semi-professional Midwestern management team and their teenage client. As Husney put it to biographer Dave Hill, “We wanted three albums, because it was gonna take that long for him to develop. We wanted him to be his own producer, and to play all the instruments.” A&M, Hill wrote, “stalled on the three-album commitment” (Hill 41). For the others, Prince’s demand to produce his own work was the sticking point. “Not one of the labels wanted him to be his own producer,” Husney said to Nilsen. “They felt that he was just a young kid who had to learn. And I kept saying that I wanted him to be his own producer, and everybody said, ‘Gosh, you’re crazy’” (Nilsen 1999 32).
Sessions for Prince’s second demo at Sound 80 commenced on December 29, 1976 and lasted through the remainder of the winter. This time, a total of six songs were completed: new versions of “Soft and Wet,” “Baby,” “Jelly Jam,” “Make It Through the Storm,” and “Love is Forever”–now renamed “My Love is Forever”–plus a brand new song, “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Just like with the earlier sessions at Moonsound, however, the final demo was limited to only a few tracks. Per Nilsen’s The Vault reported the tape as consisting of “Baby” and “Soft and Wet,” with “Make It Through the Storm” “as a ‘back-up’ if record company executives wanted to hear more” (Nilsen 2004 16-17). According to a recent auction listing, however, at least one configuration seems to have featured “Just as Long as We’re Together,” “Jelly Jam,” and “My Love is Forever.”
In addition to the demo tape, Prince’s management also prepared a luxe press kit to distribute to labels in Los Angeles. “We attacked it all first class, ’cause if we went in as just the average Joes, it wasn’t gonna look like a first-class effort,” Owen Husney recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “We spent 1,500 dollars on fifteen press kits… The usual press kit has clippings, and stories about your mom, and all the other bands you played in. All I did was have a picture of Prince on the cover. It said, ‘American Artists Presents Prince’, and inside there was just five sheets. And on those sheets there was just one picture, and one quote from Prince above each one” (Hill 40). The minimalist presentation had the additional effect of playing up Prince’s enigmatic air, which remained a cornerstone of his public persona for the duration of his career. “[T]here was a mystery about him even then,” Husney told NPR’s Audie Cornish shortly after Prince’s death in April. “And so as a manager I noticed that, and I was able to just make that a part of who he was in all of our publicity and everything going forward. We did a first press kit with him that said very little, because Prince said very little. Because his music does the talking” (Cornish 2016).
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 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.