Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

Roundup: Ephemera, 1979-1981

(Featured Image: How have I not used this one already?! 1979 publicity photo; © Warner Bros., stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)

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 sheer scope of non-album music Prince produced between 1979 and 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 ’79 to the release of Controversy in fall ’81, 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, with no 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, I don’t see much point in updating the tag clouds; there’s also nothing new to add to the Spotify playlist, since 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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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). 

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