“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: Found photo from Atlanta high school prom, circa 1970s; stolen from Found Photo Atlanta.)
Along with “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “One Man Jam,” and “I Feel for You,” Prince, André Cymone, and Pepé Willie demoed a handful of other tracks at New York’s Music Farm Studios on February 17, 1979. André recorded an early version of his song “Thrill You or Kill You,” as well as a slow jam that would later emerge credited to Prince alone: “Do Me, Baby” (more on that later, obviously). And Prince took the opportunity to lay down an early take of another song that would end up on his second album, the downbeat ballad “With You.”
I’m gonna level with you guys: I don’t like this song. I’ve written about some songs for this blog that I like less than others, but this is the first one I’ve genuinely disliked; the one I either skip or zone out for when I’m listening to the album, then promptly forget about after it’s finished. Obviously, “With You” won’t be the last song we cover that I don’t like–again, Carmen Electra–but it will be the last for a while. And I suppose that, in itself, is remarkable.
The other remarkable thing about “With You” is its placement on the Prince album. Not only is it the second consecutive ballad on the record (after the far superior “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”), but it’s also the Side B opener–a truly baffling choice. It takes the following track, “Bambi,” to finally kick the record back into gear. “With You” is the slow dance at homecoming no one asked for–particularly since it’s following a song that is literally about slow dancing (and, um, ejaculating, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
As we discussed last week, Prince responded to his scuppered 1979 tour plans in characteristic fashion: by throwing himself even further into his work. Pepé Willie, his cousin by marriage–and, at the time, his informal manager–recently recounted a story from around this period to Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow. “One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “So I went over to his house, because he wasn’t far from where I lived, and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn’t get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. So I had to tap the window in-between the drum beats so he could hear me, and then he came to the door and we talked. But after that experience, I had said to myself, ‘Gee, no wonder why he’s so good. This guy practices all the time’” (Grow 2016).
In addition to the non-stop rehearsals, Prince also wasn’t above picking up a session gig or two. In February of 1979, Tony Silvester from soul trio the Main Ingredient (of “Everybody Plays the Fool” fame) contacted Willie with an opportunity: he was producing an album by Pepé’s old employers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and needed musicians. “I told him, ‘Look, I got two musicians who can play everything,’” Willie recalled to biographer Matt Thorne (Thorne 2016). So Willie, Prince, and André Cymone left for Music Farm Studios in New York, where they cut a handful of backing tracks in a one-day session. Silvester and the Imperials didn’t end up using them–though two of the songs they recorded, “If You Feel Like Dancin’” and “One Man Jam,” would later show up on the 94 East compilation Minneapolis Genius. Of more historical significance, however, were the personal demos Prince and André squeezed in at the end of the session: including one song, “I Feel for You,” that would become one of Prince’s enduring classics.
(Featured Image: Prince 4Ever, 2016; photo by Justine Walpole, © NPG Records/Warner Bros.)
This Monday, November 21, marked the seven-month “anniversary” of Prince’s untimely passing. A day later, we got the first officially-sanctioned posthumous release of his music: Prince 4Ever, a two-disc (or, for those like me living firmly in the digital era, 40-track) compilation spanning the 15 years from the release of his 1978 debut album to his acrimonious 1993 falling-out with Warner Bros. Records. Most of 4Ever is, quite frankly, not for People Like Us: the majority of its track listing overlaps with previous compilations Ultimate, The Very Best of Prince, and The Hits/The B-Sides–still the O.G., as far as I’m concerned–and more often than not the versions included are the vastly inferior single edits. There are a few previously uncompiled mixes (most notably a blessedly rap-free “Alphabet St.”), as well as some deeper cuts: “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy makes its first appearance on CD as an individually-sequenced track, and the 1989 movie tie-in “Batdance” is collected for the first time since its initial release. I also appreciate the sprinkling of fan-favorite songs, like the (amazing) 1981 U.K.-only release “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and the (even more amazing) 1986 single “Mountains.” In general, though, if you’re reading this blog, there is nothing here you haven’t heard before–with one possible exception. I’m talking, of course, about “Moonbeam Levels.”
Recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions in July of 1982, “Moonbeam Levels” has been circulating since the mid-to-late 1980s, when it was initially mislabeled as “A Better Place 2 Die.” It’s acquired a reputation in the ensuing decades as one of the best, and best-known, outtakes in Prince’s voluminous catalogue. In 2013, the song even received a few noteworthy public performances: first by Elvis Costello with Princess (a.k.a. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Prince, and later by the man himself, as part of a piano medley supporting protégée Shelby J at the City Winery in New York. Now, you know I have all kinds of opinions about Prince outtakes, but I’m not even gonna front: “Moonbeam Levels” was a great choice for the first officially-released “bootleg” to see the light of day after Prince’s death. So, now that it’s finally seen a legitimate release, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to put our usual chronological content on hold and take a closer look at the song.