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Ephemera, 1981-1982 Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive Bonus Track: Vagina

Before last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999, “Vagina” was known only by its title and its reputation–both of which were among the most tantalizing, and titillating, of any songs in Prince’s Vault. Few outside of Prince’s inner circle at the time of recording had heard it–and those who had, most notably former engineer David Z, simply described it as “obscene.”

It would have been impossible for any song to live up to such a reputation; “Vagina” certainly doesn’t, though it does stand as one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe’s previously-unreleased Vault tracks. Recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio in November 1981, the song finds Prince in stripped-down punk-rock mode–just him and his Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster; even the “percussion,” such as it is, is simulated with his mouth. As biographer Alex Hahn observed in a Facebook post soon after the passing of musician Andy Gill, Prince’s guitar work here “very much evokes” Gill’s playing with the English post-punk group Gang of Four–particularly when he “bangs the strings of his guitar in a percussive manner at the very outset of the song.” It’s a strikingly different sound from the rest of the music Prince was making ahead of his fifth album, which even in late 1981 was tending more toward synthesizers and drum machines than guitars–see, for example, the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch” recorded in the same month.

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Moonbeam Levels (The New Master)

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.”

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 finish the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the fittingly 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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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Moonbeam Levels

Note: This post was written “out of sequence” to commemorate the first official release of “Moonbeam Levels” on 2016’s Prince 4Ever compilation; it has since been superseded by an “official” blog post written once I had reached the song in my chronology. I’m leaving the original post here for historical interest.

This Monday, November 21, marked the seven-month “anniversary” of Prince’s untimely passing. A day later, we got the first officially-sanctioned posthumous release of his music: Prince 4Ever, a two-disc (or, for those like me living firmly in the digital era, 40-track) compilation spanning the 15 years from the release of his 1978 debut album to his acrimonious 1993 falling-out with Warner Bros. Records. Most of 4Ever is, quite frankly, not for People Like Us: the majority of its track listing overlaps with previous compilations UltimateThe Very Best of Prince, and The Hits/The B-Sides–still the O.G., as far as I’m concerned–and more often than not the versions included are the vastly inferior single edits. There are a few previously uncompiled mixes (most notably a blessedly rap-free “Alphabet St.”), as well as some deeper cuts: “Glam Slam” from 1988’s Lovesexy makes its first appearance on CD as an individually-sequenced track, and the 1989 movie tie-in “Batdance” is collected for the first time since its initial release. I also appreciate the sprinkling of fan-favorite songs, like the (amazing) 1981 U.K.-only release “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” and the (even more amazing) 1986 single “Mountains.” In general, though, if you’re reading this blog, there is nothing here you haven’t heard before–with one possible exception. I’m talking, of course, about “Moonbeam Levels.”

Recorded toward the end of the 1999 sessions in July of 1982, “Moonbeam Levels” has been circulating since the mid-to-late 1980s, when it was initially mislabeled as “A Better Place 2 Die.” It’s acquired a reputation in the ensuing decades as one of the best, and best-known, outtakes in Prince’s voluminous catalogue. In 2013, the song even received a few noteworthy public performances: first by Elvis Costello with Princess (a.k.a. Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum) at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Prince, and later by the man himself, as part of a piano medley supporting protégée Shelby J at the City Winery in New York. Now, you know I have all kinds of opinions about Prince outtakes, but I’m not even gonna front: “Moonbeam Levels” was a great choice for the first officially-released “bootleg” to see the light of day after Prince’s death. So, now that it’s finally seen a legitimate release, I think it’s more than appropriate for us to put our usual chronological content on hold and take a closer look at the song.