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Ephemera, 1979-1981 Roundup Posts

Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

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 scope of non-album music Prince produced from 1979 to 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 1979 to the release of Controversy in fall 1981, 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, without 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, there’s nothing new to add to the Spotify playlist; 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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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Kiss Me Quick

As I mentioned last week, one of the things I live for as a Prince fan is the sense that at any moment, some incredible, previously-unheard track could come out of nowhere–even, astonishingly, now that the artist himself is no longer with us. That happened last month with the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” and, more controversially, with “Deliverance”; but it’s happened many times before, often through less legitimate means. In late 2014, for example, bootleggers released “Kiss Me Quick”: a song whose title was familiar thanks to sources like Per Nilsen’s The Vault, but which had never been heard by the general public.

Back when “Kiss Me Quick” was just a title in The Vault, it was widely assumed to have originated from Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio in 1981; now that we can hear it, however, it couldn’t be a more obvious product of 1979. With its galloping beat, rubbery bassline, and rapidly-ascending chord sequence, it’s certainly Prince’s most conventionally “disco” song this side of “Sexy Dancer.” But in this case, rather than self-consciously attempting to elevate the form, he just goes all-in, crafting a sparkling ideal of a disco track that could easily have made the Dance charts if its creator had bothered to, you know, put it out.

Still, it’s hard to begrudge him for leaving “Kiss Me Quick” in the Vault (or the Closet or Shoebox or whatever he was using in 1979): because, as good a song as it is, it’s not necessarily a great Prince song. It’s too conventional-sounding to have fit on the track listing of his second album; the sexual persona he inhabits is too innocent and demure for the libertinish “Spandex kid” he became in the transitional phase before Dirty Mind. Indeed, it’s likely that “Kiss Me Quick” was never meant to be a “Prince song” at all: according to biographer Matt Thorne, Pepé Willie recalled it being intended for his off-and-on protégée, Sue Ann Carwell (Thorne 2016). It thus makes sense that when Carwell left Prince’s orbit, the song would go back on the shelf, replaced by any number of the endless hits and almost-hits he was cranking out with assembly-line consistency.

And in a way, the thing that makes “Kiss Me Quick” interesting, more than anything else, is the possibility of those other songs. If this little gem could go from a title in a book to actual, audible music, then who knows: in a few short years, we could be hearing “Aces,” or “Machine,” or “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” or any other early song that exists now only as an intriguing name and a stub page on Prince Vault. Whatever else we might say about Prince’s handling of his music in life, he certainly left a lot of surprises behind; and the fact that we’re still able to look forward to “new” Prince songs is the one silver lining of his tragic and premature death.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the last full episode of my podcast with Jane Clare Jones. Then, next week, it’s on to 1980 and Dirty Mind! See you soon.