“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: Mayte and O(+> in their wedding program, 1996; © Noelle-Elaine Media Consultants.)
Way back in mid-April, I spoke with writer, philosopher, and fellow Prince obsessive Jane Clare Jones for so long that our conversation ended up being split into four parts; but by the end of that conversation, we were also talking around things more often than we were talking about them. So, last week, we got together for a redo. The resulting podcast is a Frankenstein’s monster–but a fun, interesting Frankenstein’s monster!–of our original discussion on Mayte’s The Most Beautiful (placed, for maximum confusion, at the end) and some setup for the things we were talking around–which we’ll finally address in our episode next week. We also take advantage of the passage of time by discussing some of the major developments in the Princeverse last month: the Celebration, “Deliverance,” and that godawful TV movie. I promise it’s all a lot more coherent than it sounds.
You can listen to the podcast here or on any of the major aggregators: iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play; feel free also to subscribe and leave a review on the service of your choice. We should have it up on Mixcloud soon, too. If you’re just coming in now, you can–and should!–check out the first and second episodes here. As always, thanks for listening!
(Featured Image: Prince by Michael Ochs, 1985.)
It’s been a long five months since the release of 4Ever, the first posthumous compilation of Prince’s work, and “Moonbeam Levels,” the first “new” track to be officially released since his death last April. Many of us, I think, were expecting Paisley Park’s “Celebration,” a four-day event marking the first anniversary of his passing, to be the end of this drought. Certainly, with the long-promised Purple Rain reissue looming in the near future, the time felt ripe for some more concrete information, if not an actual release.
And, as it turned out, we did get new music that week–but not from Paisley Park, and not from the Purple Rain era. Instead, a former engineer named Ian Boxill surprise-released an EP of six previously unheard 2006 recordings–including the gorgeous, gospel-flavored “Deliverance”–implying that he had the blessing of Prince’s estate to do so. This turned out not to be true: within hours of the announcement, the estate had filed suit, and a United States District Court Judge had granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. Meanwhile, the Celebration came and went with no official mention of the Purple Rain set. Even after a fan group leaked what turned out to be an accurate track list, both Warner Bros. and NPG Records remained mum–until the following Friday, that is, when the announcement we’d been expecting finally came through, along with the second “official” posthumous track, “Electric Intercourse.”
I recount all of this, in part, to note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Prince may no longer be with us physically, but his spirit clearly lives on in the capricious, contested, and scattershot handling of his music. In a weird way, this is also the most relevant Prince has been to the contemporary recording industry in decades: a drama-filled album launch, botched in part by the vagaries of online music services, puts him in the rarefied (if, in this case, dubious) company of 21st century pop titans like Rihanna and Kanye West.
But all facetiousness aside, I also want to explain why I’m writing about “Electric Intercourse” right now, and not about “Deliverance.” It isn’t necessarily that I disapprove of the EP’s release: I’m glad Boxill leaked it, just as I’m glad that more anonymous sources have leaked the hundreds of other non-sanctioned songs I continue to enjoy. But I broke my chronology with “Moonbeam Levels” last fall because it was an official and easily accessible release; and, while “Deliverance” as of this writing is still available for purchase on the iTunes store, the legal grappling around its parent EP doesn’t give me much confidence for the future. Besides that, I remain skeptical of Boxill’s claims that the majority of the proceeds for the song/EP will go to Prince’s estate: I’m no lawyer, but I can’t think of many cases where an individual successfully paid royalties to a group in the process of pursuing legal action against him. So, basically, I’m treating “Deliverance” like a bootleg: I’ll write about it, of course, but not until I reach the proper point in the chronology–so, at my current pace, our grandchildren should be able to enjoy it, provided we all survive the impending Third World War.
(Featured Image: The “Spandex kids” backstage at the Roxy Theatre, November 26, 1979. Back row, L to R: Tim Devine, Warner Bros. product manager; Lou Wills, West Coast promotion/Black music marketing; Cortez Thompson, national promotion director/Black music marketing; J.J. Johnson, KDAY Los Angeles radio; Bobby Z. Middle row, L to R: singer Randy Crawford, Prince, Mo Ostin, Matt Fink, Gayle Chapman. Bottom row, L to R: André Cymone and the disembodied head of Dez Dickerson.)
By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).
Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was further reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.
The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. “I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their Capri Theatre debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979).