(Featured Image: Outtake from the 1999 photo sessions, by Allen Beaulieu; © the Prince Estate.)
Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.” As usual, it’s on Patreon first, with the public blog to follow next week. Whether you read it now or then, I hope you enjoy it!
In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to put the finishing touches on the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the appropriately extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”
In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.
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(Featured Image: Courtship rituals of early ’80s French rocker gang the Del Vikings; photo by Gilles Elie Cohen, stolen from VICE.)
After a string of songs exploring, to various degrees, the darker side of his emotional spectrum, Prince capped off his late April and early May 1982 sessions at Sunset Sound with something light and frothy. Sonically, “Delirious” is cut from the same cloth as most of its predecessors on the album that would become 1999: from the driving Linn LM-1 beat to the sparse, but infectious synth line. Yet where songs like “Automatic” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” assemble these building blocks into complex, ever-shifting structures, “Delirious” offers more straightforward pleasures: it’s a simple eight-bar blues, as pure and elemental as Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” or Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
With its solidly retro foundation, “Delirious” is arguably the pinnacle of Prince’s brief, but intense infatuation with 1950s rock ‘n’ roll: an “obsession,” according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, that began when the band caught a show by rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats while in London on the Dirty Mind tour. “We were all blown away with them,” Dickerson told Nashville Scene magazine in 2014, “the look, [singer] Brian Setzer’s amazing sound, just the sheer authenticity of it.” The experience inspired a handful of songs–most famously “Jack U Off” from 1981’s Controversy, but also tracks like the unreleased “You’re All I Want.” Perhaps even more notably, according to Dickerson, it also inspired both him and Prince to style their choppy punk hairdos into Little Richard-style pompadours (Shawhan 2014).
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(Featured Image: Jill Jones and Lisa Coleman act out Prince’s sapphic S&M fantasies in the too-hot-for-TV “Automatic” video; © Warner Bros.)
By the beginning of May 1982, Prince had recorded more than enough quality new material to fill a single LP; but he was still only a little more than halfway finished with the album that would become 1999. “I didn’t want to do a double album, but I just kept writing and I’m not one for editing,” he later explained to Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. “I like a natural flow. I always compare songwriting to a girl walking in the door. You don’t know what she’s going to look like, but all of a sudden she’s there” (Hilburn 1982).
The “girl” that walked in the door of Sunset Sound on May 2 was “Automatic”: the third–and, at nine and a half minutes, longest–of 1999’s extended electro-funk jams. Like its siblings “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “D.M.S.R.,” “Automatic” unfolds over a rigid, knocking Linn LM-1 beat and a deceptively simple synthesizer hook–in this case, a sing-song four-note pattern perfectly honed to penetrate the cerebral cortex. But with its lyrical themes of emotion as technology, the song is ultimately closer in spirit to its more introspective neighbor on the album, “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute).” The key difference is that, while “Something in the Water” is all about (perceived) malfunction, “Automatic” finds both pleasure and unease in the machine working exactly as designed.
Continue reading “Automatic”