The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

The Rebels: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

(Featured Image: Cover of The Rebels, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

Note: Just in case there is any confusion, the below is entirely made up, albeit with perhaps an excess of dedication to historical plausibility. See my previous “Alternate Timeline” post on For You for a better explanation of the concept. And have fun!

The late 1970s and early 1980s punk scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul played host to a number of noteworthy groups: Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Suburbs. But none were as eclectic, or as underrated, as the multi-racial, gender- and genre-bending act known as the Rebels. A far cry from a conventional “punk” band, the Rebels were a motley crew of disaffected Northside funksters, suburban bar-band escapees, and even a few seasoned pros, whose wild live performances made them the first group from the Twin Cities underground to be signed by a major label. Their self-titled 1980 debut for Warner Bros. was both critically acclaimed and hugely influential for a generation of genre-agnostic musical provocateurs, but internal tensions kept them from fulfilling their full potential. Still, almost four decades later, the mark of the Rebels remains evident across the contemporary pop landscape, from alternative rock to electronic music and hip-hop.

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Sexy Dancer

Sexy Dancer

(Featured Image: “GG’s Barnum Room, ‘Ava’,” Bill Bernstein, 1979.)

“To me, disco was always very contrived music,” Prince told NME’s Chris Salewicz in 1981. “It was all completely planned out for when the musicians were recording it in the studios.” In contrast, he claimed, “what I do is just go in and play” (Salewicz 1981). I don’t know if Prince had his own 1979 song, “Sexy Dancer,” in mind when he gave this interview. Most likely he did not; the two years between the song’s recording and his conversation with Salewicz, after all, represent basically an eternity in Prince time. But his comments are nevertheless instructive for understanding the song’s approach to what is–sorry, Prince–clearly an engagement with disco, if not strictly a disco track.

His stated distaste for the genre aside, Prince was clearly no stranger to disco in 1979. In his interview with Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader early that year, he mentioned that he “used to hang out at the Infinity,” a dance club in suburban St. Louis Park (Keller 1979). What he shared with many other musicians of the era, however, was a healthy skepticism for disco’s emphasis on the role of the producer. Disco, Prince told Salewicz, “was filled with breaks that a studio musician would just play and fill up when his moment came.” But Prince was his own producer–and, for that matter, his own studio musicians. “It’s easy for me to work in the studio,” he claimed, “because I have no worries or doubts about what the other musician’s going to play because that other musician is almost always me!” So, rather than playing to “fill up the breaks” in a producer’s master plan, Prince would “just play along with the other guy”–himself (Salewicz 1981).

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I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

(Featured Image: Prince and his new band–L to R: André Cymone, Matt Fink, Dez Dickerson–on stage at the Capri Theatre, Minneapolis; photo by Greg Helgeson, stolen from Mpls St Paul magazine.)

Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For You the following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.

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