“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: Prince, 1979; photo by Jurgen Reisch, © Warner Bros.)
The recording sessions for Prince began in earnest in late April of 1979, with overdubs and mixes completed by June 13: about seven weeks, all told, barely half the time Prince had taken to complete his debut album. Indeed, while For You and Prince are often grouped together by critics, in practice the two albums are a study in contrasts. Rather than the state-of-the-art Record Plant, Prince used Alpha Studios in Burbank, California: a relatively modest facility located in the home of owner and engineer Gary Brandt. And where on For You Prince had seemed determined to use every inch of the studio console, his approach to its successor was markedly scaled back; according to Brandt, Prince deliberately limited himself to only 16 of Alpha’s 24 available tracks (Brown 2010).
Prince’s stripped-down aesthetic was born partly of preference and partly of necessity. In later interviews, Prince would suggest a growing dissatisfaction with For You’s fussy production: he had tried to make “a perfect record,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland in 1981, but “it was too scientific” (Sutherland 1981). Working with 16 tracks at Alpha Studios would likely have felt more comfortable to an artist used to the humbler accommodations of Sound 80 and his own home studio in Minneapolis; crucially, it was also much cheaper. For You’s recording budget, you might remember, had ballooned to some $170,000–almost the entire amount Warner Bros. had allotted for Prince’s first three albums. So this time around, Prince told Lynn Norment of Ebony magazine, “I realized that I had to make some money to prove to them that I was a businessman” (Norment 34). By recording quickly and economically, Prince would ensure that the new record came in on time and under budget. “He was really in a hurry,” drummer Bobby Z recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “There was quite a bit of debt to the label, and he needed a hit. His back was against the wall” (Nilsen 1999 54).
(Featured Image: “Prince Pandemonium” at the Soul Shack in Charlotte, N.C., 1978; from Right On! magazine, photo stolen from prince.org.)
Even as Prince was plotting his next move as a recording artist in mid-1978, relations were souring with the management team that had helped get him signed in the first place. Owen Husney had organized a small promotional tour after the release of For You, to some success: particularly in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a crowd of 3,000 showed up and threatened to overwhelm security. It was a significant enough event to warrant a short news story from teen magazine Right On!, which ran with the headline “Prince Pandemonium in Charlotte.” “That’s when he said he felt like a piece of meat being carried around,” Prince’s cousin and early mentor Pepé Willie recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “But he was high, really high up there, you know? To bring him back down to earth was a real chore” (Hill 45).
Indeed, the 20-year-old’s small taste of celebrity had only left him less satisfied with the progress of his career–and, in what would become another of his determining patterns, he began to vent his frustrations on his management. “Prince didn’t have enough experience to know that this is a really slow process,” Husney later told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He had been told that he was fantastic so much that he believed that he was really going to be successful straightaway. And when he wasn’t, he was really disappointed. He started to blame Warner Bros. and then he started to blame me… We became very disappointed and started to wear on each other” (Nilsen 1999 49)
(Featured Image: Warner Bros. press photo, 1978; stolen from Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia.)
Note: In the last several weeks of writing about the songs on Prince’s debut album, I’ve been struck by the many contingencies that exist around For You, and Prince’s early career in general. If things had gone even slightly differently; if his label–or, for that matter, Prince himself–had shown even a little less confidence in his artistic development; then we would be looking at a very different musical landscape in 2016. There’s also the fact that, as I’ve noted several times in my track-by-track posts, it’s difficult to look at For You in retrospect without seeing it as just the first, not-entirely-successful glimpse at a talent and vision that would find its full expression in years to come. But what if that perspective wasn’t the default? What if For You wasn’t the first step in a long career by Prince, but in fact his first and last album? This post is my attempt to think my way through this situation: think of it as a look back at For You from a possible alternate timeline. I don’t know if I will do this for other albums in the future–or, like, ever again–but I thought it was an interesting exercise to examine Prince’s earliest days as a recording artist through a completely different lens. I hope you find it interesting, too.