Drive Me Wild

Drive Me Wild

(Featured Image: Susan and friend in the music video for “Drive Me Wild,” 1983; © Warner Bros.)

Much as he had with his first backing group, Prince wanted each member of Vanity 6 to have a well-defined persona; but where the band dynamic held at least a veneer of egalitarianism, his vision for the girl group was unfettered by matters of subjectivity or nuance. He thus drew their characters straight out of porno archetypes: Vanity, the sensitive harlot whose tough exterior masks a heart of gold; Brenda, the chain-smoking, no-nonsense madam figure; and Susan, the jailbait. Only 18 at the time of their debut, the group’s youngest member shaved off two more years in early interviews–another trick borrowed from Prince’s early career–while projecting an aura of fetishized, all-too-corruptible innocence.

At the core of this dirty-schoolgirl persona was “Drive Me Wild,” another of the handful of songs originally recorded for the proto-Vanity 6 Hookers project in 1981. The story goes that Susan had written the song herself, and recited the lyrics to Prince in a chance meeting at a Minneapolis nightclub (one, apparently, that served teenagers). “He was just standing there drinking orange juice and we started talking,” she told Jet magazine. “I told him that I wrote songs, then gave him a sample of my lyrics: ‘Ooh, look at me. I’m a Cadillac. I’m a brand new convertible child, I’ve never been driven. You’re the first. Come on baby; drive me wild’” (Jet 1983 60).

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Broken

Broken

(Featured Image: Dirty Mind-era promo photo, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost momentum in the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.

Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; for the third time in his brief career, Prince’s attempt to get out on the road had been vexed, and he was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.

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Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

Hi, everyone! In an effort to break up the flow of this blog a bit, I’d like to insert the occasional “Roundup” post whenever we come to the close of a particular phase of Prince’s musical career. So, now that we’re officially finished with 1976 ephemera and moving into For You territory, here are the songs so far. And hey, since everyone loves a totally subjective ranking–this is the Internet, is it not?–I’ll give them to you in ascending order of my personal preference:

9. Home Recordings, 1976 These probably shouldn’t even be on the list, as it’s a little unfair to consider them “songs.” What can I say, though, I dig some of ’em.

8. “If You See Me” Sorry, Pepé; Prince’s and Jesse’s versions both blow yours out of the water.

7. Moonsound Instrumentals The first time I posted this, I thought the version I’d heard of the legitimately funky “Jelly Jam” was recorded at Moonsound; it wasn’t, and as a result these recordings have dropped a bit in my esteem. Still, they show promise.

6. “Nightingale” Historically interesting and poignant, but so twee.

5. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” More sexist than sexy, but also sort of endearingly dorky. It’s nice to know that at least 17-year-old Prince wasn’t smoother than 31-year-old me.

4. “I Spend My Time Loving You” Like “Nightingale,” this one’s a little on the twee side, but the vocal and guitar performances are moving beyond Prince’s years.

3. “Leaving for New York Like I said in the post, probably Prince’s most musically accomplished song to date. I slept on this one for ages, then I listened to it in the car and it just came alive. A sublime indication of a blossoming talent.

2. “Rock Me, Lover” It’s slight, sure, but like I said in the article, it offers a valuable glimpse of Prince’s future as a more feminist (or at least submissive) brand of lover. As teenage masturbatory fantasies go, I’ll take this over “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” any day. Also, great discussion with Jane Clare Jones in the comments.

1. “Sweet Thing” To be perfectly honest, this is the only song we’ve discussed so far that I really go out of my way to listen to. A beautiful, delicate cover version that I may even prefer to the original by Chaka Khan and Rufus. On a more personal note, this was the post that made Chaka retweet me and blow my blog the fuck up (at least for a couple of days). For that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Also, let’s not forget the two introductory posts that fill in a few early gaps in Prince’s recorded oeuvre. I obviously can’t rank these because I haven’t heard any of the songs (though I’m sure the one of five-year-old Skipper banging rocks together was dope):

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1965-1968
Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

Finally, because I’m weirdly fascinated by tag clouds, here’s a snapshot of the tags I’ve used so far and their relative frequency. The data isn’t perfect because of a few crossposts that have fucked with the chronology, but it should still be interesting to see how the people, places, and songs we discuss change over time. To me, I mean. It will be interesting to me.

tagcloud1

Tomorrow, we continue with the next chapter of our journey: the series of studio recordings that ultimately resulted in Prince’s first album. If you’ve been rocking with me so far, I mean this sincerely: thank you so much. The response to this blog–especially these early, obscure entries–has honestly been beyond anything I dared to hope for. It’s so gratifying to get the feedback from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

Leaving for New York

Leaving for New York

(Featured Image: “Home of the Brave,” Ted Croner, 1948.)

Though it was a major boon for his own development as a songwriter and producer, for the rest of his band, Prince’s agreement to collaborate privately with Chris Moon went over about as well as you might expect. Curiously, Moon remembers Morris Day taking the snub hardest: “he was a pretty flamboyant, outrageous, strong personality even back then,” he said to biographer Matt Thorne, “so I think it struck him as difficult that the quietest person in the band had been picked over him, the front man” (Thorne 2016). Morris, of course, was the group’s drummer, not the “front man”; it’s unclear whether Moon was speaking figuratively, or confusing him for someone else.

In any case, the other members of Shampayne served Prince with an ultimatum: Moonsound, or the band. Prince chose Moonsound–but his version of the story, at least, suggests that the decision was more complicated than simply ditching his friends at the earliest opportunity. In Prince’s telling, it was actually his trip to New York in the autumn of 1976 that caused the rift, and it was symptomatic of a larger gap in ambition between himself and the rest of the group. “I asked them all what they wanted to do, ‘Do you want to stay here, or do you want to go to New York?’” he explained to Musician magazine’s Barbara Graustark in 1981. “No one wanted to do it. They liked their lifestyle, I guess. I don’t think they really liked the idea of me trying to manipulate the band so much. I was always trying to get us to do something different, and I was always teamed up on for that. Like, in an argument or something like that, or a fight, or whatever…it was always me against them” (Graustark 116-117). 

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Soft and Wet

Soft and Wet

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

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 Minneapolis 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.

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