You

You

(Featured Image: Prince and Gayle Chapman, circa 1980; photo stolen from Lipstick Alley.)

As we discussed last week, one of the key functions of the Rebels project was that it allowed Prince to test out new and divergent musical approaches before incorporating them into his own “official” work. In particular, keyboardist Matt Fink later told biographer Per Nilsen, Prince “wanted to try this punk rock/new wave thing with The Rebels because he was too afraid to do that within the ‘Prince’ realm. It was an experiment” (Nilsen 1999 58). The experiment turned out to be a successful one: Prince’s next album, 1980’s Dirty Mind, would be heavily influenced by both the sounds of New Wave and the confrontational attitude of punk. But before there was “Dirty Mind,” “Sister,” or “When You Were Mine,” there was “You”: the laboratory where he constructed his edgy new style, and a minor classic in its own right.

Like “The Loser” and “If I Love You Tonight,” “You” was conceived as a vehicle for keyboardist and backing singer Gayle Chapman. Unlike those songs, however–or, indeed, any of Prince’s earlier attempts at writing from a woman’s perspective–here he casts Chapman in a much more sexually aggressive role. She shrieks the lyrics like a banshee in heat, licking her lips over a prospective lover’s hard-on and even threatening him with rape: the first known appearance of one of Prince’s darkest early lyrical tropes. Within a few months, Chapman would leave the band: a decision that has often been attributed to her objection to Prince’s increasingly outré lyrics. But, as she noted to the Beautiful Nights fan blog, “I sang ‘You.’ So, what? (Singing lyrics) ‘You get so hard I don’t know what to do.’ How stupid was I? ‘Take your pants off!’” (Dyes August 2013).

Continue reading “You”

Advertisements

The Loser

The Loser

(Featured Image: Back cover of The Glow by Bonnie Raitt, 1979; © Warner Bros.)

In addition to providing a creative outlet for his backing band, the Rebels project also offered Prince an opportunity to experiment with different styles outside the context of his official albums. For the most part, that meant hard rock and New Wave: as we discussed last week, “Hard to Get” was as straightforward a Rolling Stones rip as Prince ever recorded; songs like his “You” and Dez Dickerson’s “Disco Away,” meanwhile, bore the influence of Boston FM rock/New Wave act the Cars, whose sophomore album Candy-O was reportedly in heavy rotation at the group’s mid-1979 tour rehearsals (Thorne 2016). But in two of his compositions for keyboardist Gayle Chapman, Prince explored less familiar territory–with admittedly mixed results.

The more substantial of the pair was “If I Love You Tonight,” a soft rock ballad distinguished mainly by its oddly theatrical conceit: Chapman playing the role of a woman on the brink of suicide and desperate for connection, apparently inspired by Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Thorne 2016). The track would be revised thoroughly in the years to come–so much that I’m waiting until one of the later versions to discuss it in depth. The other song, “The Loser”–long mislabeled by bootleggers as “Turn Me On”–seems to have been recorded only once, making it unique among Prince’s Rebels songs; and the version that does exist is little more than a stylistic pastiche of his late-1970s labelmate, roots rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt.

Continue reading “The Loser”

Hard to Get

Hard to Get

(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). 

Continue reading “Hard to Get”