“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazine in 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”
(Featured Image: “GG’s Barnum Room, ‘Ava’,” Bill Bernstein, 1979.)
“To me, disco was always very contrived music,” Prince told NME’s Chris Salewicz in 1981. “It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios.” In contrast, he claimed, “what I do is just go in and play” (Salewicz 1981). I don’t know if Prince had his own 1979 song, “Sexy Dancer,” in mind when he gave this interview. Most likely he did not; the two years between the song’s recording and his conversation with Salewicz, after all, represent basically an eternity in Prince time. But his comments are nevertheless instructive for understanding the song’s approach to what is–sorry, Prince–clearly an engagement with disco, if not strictly a disco track.
His stated distaste for the genre aside, Prince was clearly no stranger to disco in 1979. In his interview with Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader early that year, he mentioned that he “used to hang out at the Infinity,” a dance club in suburban St. Louis Park (Keller 1979). What he shared with many other musicians of the era, however, was a healthy skepticism for disco’s emphasis on the role of the producer. Disco, Prince told Salewicz, “was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came.” But Prince was his own producer–and, for that matter, his own studio musicians. “It’s easy for me to work in the studio,” he claimed, “because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me!” So, rather than playing to “fill up the breaks” in a producer’s master plan, Prince would “just play along with the other guy”–himself (Salewicz 1981).
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 You the 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.
(Featured Image: Warner Bros. press photo, 1978; stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)
Note: In the last several weeks of writing about the songs on Prince’s debut album, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.