Now on Patreon: Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

Now on Patreon: Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

(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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I Don’t Wanna Leave You

I Don’t Wanna Leave You

(Featured Image: The Time’s Morris Day and his sparring partner, the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr, circa 1982; photo by Allen Beaulieu.)

The Time’s second album, What Time is It?, was released on August 25, 1982–just two weeks after the self-titled debut by Vanity 6. It easily outperformed both Vanity 6 and the Time’s own debut, and effectively tied with Prince’s previous album Controversy: peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard 200 and Number 2 on the Black Albums (recently renamed from “Soul”) chart.

Despite their success–or, more likely, because of it–Prince was determined to keep the spinoff group in their place. Studio tech Don Batts recalled him showing up to one of the band’s rehearsals with a rough mix of the finished record: “He threw the cassette at [guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey man, you play really good on your album,’” Batts told biographer Per Nilsen. “That kind of comment, it was like saying, ‘Hey puppets!’” (Nilsen 1999 108).

More than anything, though, Prince kept his grip on the Time’s strings by saving their best material for himself. It’s hard to hear What Time is It?’s underwhelming closing track, “I Don’t Wanna Leave You,” without imagining a stronger alternative in its place: something that would end the album with a bang, rather than a whimper. Something, that is, like “International Lover,” which Prince had originally conceived for his side project back in January before poaching it for the finale of his own forthcoming album

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777-9311

777-9311

(Featured Image: Dez Dickerson shoots Prince a bemused look, not for the last time, at the 1982 Minnesota Black Music Awards while Brown Mark looks on; photo stolen from Housequake.)

When he wasn’t busy upgrading his home studio and recording his first Top 10 hit, Prince spent the better part of May 1982 soaking up some long-awaited hometown acclaim. On May 12, he attended the inaugural Minnesota Black Music Awards at the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, where he was honored in the “Rhythm & Blues” category alongside protégés the Time and fellow-travelers including Enterprize, Pierre Lewis and the Lewis Connection, and Sue Ann Carwell. According to biographer Per Nilsen, his acceptance speech was delivered “in such low tones that no one could hear him” (Nilsen 1999 100).

Two weeks later, on May 24, he was back at the Prom–which, the Twin Cities Music Highlights website ominously notes, “refused to turn on the air conditioning”–for the second annual Minnesota Music Awards, sponsored by the alternative weekly City Pages. Prince was nominated, either himself or by proxy, in eight categories: Best 45 or EP (“Controversy,” the Time’s “Get It Up”), Best LP (Controversy, The Time), Best New Act (the Time), Best Electric Guitar (Dez Dickerson), Best Male Vocalist (himself), Best R&B/Funk/Soul/Band (the Time), Best Producer (himself, for Controversy), and Musician of the Year (himself). The night’s big award went to him; this time–maybe because he’d just recorded “Little Red Corvette” four days earlier–he accepted it with a little more swagger, asking, “When do they give the award for best ass?”

Memorable quips aside, Prince didn’t actually perform at the Minnesota Music Awards ceremony; but the Time did, making their first public appearance since the end of the Controversy tour two months earlier. Seeing his side project in action again–and watching them take home the R&B/Funk/Soul award–may have been what prompted Prince to get back to work recording their second album, which he’d left in a state of suspended animation since his sessions at Sunset Sound in January. Those sessions had produced “The Walk,” “Gigolos Get Lonely Too,” and “Wild and Loose,” all of which made it onto the final track list; as well as “Bold Generation” and “Colleen,” which did not. An early version of “Jerk Out,” which the group would ultimately re-record for their 1990 album Pandemonium, was also mooted and discarded around the same time. But it was “777-9311,” recorded in late May or early June at Kiowa Trail, that gave the nascent album its linchpin.

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Little Red Corvette

Little Red Corvette

(Featured Image: Sales brochure for the 1982 Chevrolet Corvette; stolen from the GM Heritage Center.)

Upon his return to Chanhassen from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail: replacing the original 16-track console with a new 24-track Ampex MM1200 machine. According to biographer Per Nilsen, this project took about two weeks, overseen by Prince’s go-to home studio tech and engineer, Don Batts. Astonishingly, within hours of the new studio’s setup, Prince had recorded the basic track for one of his most enduring songs, “Little Red Corvette.” “It was incredible to build the studio in that short time and then come up with that tune so quickly,” Batts recalled. But, as he also acknowledged, “That’s how fast it generally went” (Nilsen 1999 100).

Indeed, much about “Corvette” seemed to emerge with almost supernatural ease, as if Prince had merely plucked it from the ether fully-formed. According to legend–and like other 20th-century pop standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”–the song first came to him in a dream, while he was dozing off in the front seat of keyboardist Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction,” Coleman told The Guardian in 2008. “It was so bitching-looking that Prince used to borrow it and dent it, which I’d make him feel bad about. He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette’… even though it was a pink Mercury” (Elan 2008). Prince wrote in his unpublished liner notes for the 1993 compilation The Hits that he “always considered the song a dream because it was written between 3 or 4 catnaps and he was never fully awake” (Dash 2016).

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