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Old 08-12-2021, 07:01 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Chapter III: You Say it Best When You Say Nothing at All: Theft on the Road

If Prince - and/or his label - had been harbouring hopes that his second album was to be his commercial breakthrough, both were to be disappointed. For someone who was really not all that well known outside of mostly the soul and “black music” sphere, personally it seems to me that to title your second album with your name confuses people. Anyone who didn’t know Prince - and that would not have been a small number - might very easily have taken this second effort as his debut, unaware there was another record of material behind that. The second album syndrome, too, can be deadly: if your first is great, then your second had better be at least as good, or you were going to be in danger of being written off as a one-shot deal. If it was not so great, then your follow-up needed to really up your game, because while the old adage says you only get one chance to make a first impression, you seldom if ever get three.

So Prince, released in 1979, had to blow the covers off, show the world - or at least, America - that here was an artist to be watched, to be taken seriously. A man who would take the charts by storm and (more importantly for Warner) sell millions of albums. A man who would become a household name, an icon, a model for future generations of musicians.

It did none of these things.

While all of the above predictions would come true, you wouldn’t have known it from the lacklustre album Prince chose to follow For You with. In terms of sales, it did better than expected, but only in America. Even today, sales for Prince hover around the 60,000 mark, making it one of the least-bought albums in his catalogue, even after both his rise to fame and in the wake of his death. That’s pretty poor, about the same as Bon Jovi’s second album, 7800 Fahrenheit, managed in the UK. Nevertheless, he got a hit single out of it and in the USA the album made it almost into the top twenty.

Album titlePrince
Released as: Prince
Label: Warner Bros
Recorded: April - June 1979
Release Date: October 19 1979
Producer: Prince
Studio(s): Alpha Studios (Burbank, California) amd Hollywood Sound Recorders (Hollywood, California)
Chart Position* 22/52
Singles Released: “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”, “Still Waiting”, “Sexy Dancer” (UK/Japan only), “Bambi” (Belgium only)
Singles Chart Performance: (Note: Rather than keep writing out single titles (some of which are quite long) I’m from now on going to abbreviate them).
IWBYL: 11 @ BH100, 1 @ BHSSC, 2 @ BDCS (Billboard Dance Club Songs), 41 (UK); WYWTMSB: 13 @ BHSSC; SW: 65 @BHSSC; SD: (unknown) B (unknown)
Sales: 60,000/ 1,000,000

It’s funky soul all the way as we kick off on “I Wanna Be Your Lover”, Prince in that falsetto tone that tricks you for a few seconds into thinking there’s a female vocal, and again for the time it’s pretty amazing how he makes himself sound like a full backing chorus too. The guitar is quite tasty, front and centre, and it’s certainly a song to get you dancing I’m sure, with a few Smokey Robinson-style croons thrown in there too. It’s catchy, but let’s be honest here, it’s nothing terribly special, nothing that any other soul singer wasn’t turning out at this time. The only difference of course being that every other soul singer sang, alone, and had his backing singers, not to mention he may - possibly - have played one instrument in addition to singing, but nobody, really, even outside of soul, played them all.

There’s a good instrumental ending on guitar and synth, then we’re into “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad”, and you can see where Prince is trying to crossover to the world of rock, with some almost AOR-style keyboard arpeggios and a catchy chorus, though the vocal on the verses is more subdued and even a little muddy here. The theme, of course, has changed from happy upbeat to bitter and angry, even if the music is still peppy and boppy. In essence though, I don’t see too much to choose between the two songs, and find them somewhat similar. Prince unleashes his guitar for the first time and we get a very almost Lizzyesque solo which reminds me of the end of “Waiting On an Alibi”, taking us into the far funkier “Sexy Dancer”, where it’s back to disco, with handclap beats, bubbly but not snarly guitar and some fine vocal harmonies from the off.

A sort of a shot of brass then (made on the synth of course) then a nice guitar wail and what would become Prince’s trademark, um, sexy, breathy sounds. Yeah. This song doesn’t have much in the way of lyrics and survives on the infectious melody built up by Prince, which is driving, insistent and demands you dance, fool. Because of the dearth of lyrics, whether intentionally done or whether he just takes advantage of the lack, Prince can moan and breathe and huff all over the track, and he shows his expertise on the piano too, ripping off a very jazzy little solo backed up by brass. The ending is annoyingly abrupt though.

The ballad comes with “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” (and with a title like that, well, you’d be surprised if it wasn’t a slow number, wouldn’t you?) as Prince shows he is also the master of toning it down just when needed. After two rocky, dancy, bouncy tracks displaying his almost rampant sexual energy, he takes a deep breath and kicks back, the vocal very low and restrained here, the melody simple, relaxed, nice and easy. Some synthy whirls zip from speaker to speaker, the guitar is mostly set to one side as percussion and piano lead the tune. My problem with this is that his voice is so low-key that it’s pretty hard to hear what he’s singing, which perhaps robs the song slightly of its impact as a ballad. Again it ends in an instrumental, slow, laid-back, almost ethereal.

“With You”, then, keeps things slow and brings in a slice of country style piano, merging this with the slow sentiments of classic seventies soul, but again it seems to me that Prince has yet to really get to grips with singing soft and making himself understood. There’s a certain sense of early Michael Jackson about this, and I would have to question the wisdom of having two ballads coming one after the other, but a croaking, screeching guitar blows away the cobwebs that may have been entangling any listener as “Bambi” sees him punching things up to ten in almost hard rock style, some screams and growls counterpointing the snarl of the guitar and pushing him a little further away from what was seen as standard rhythm and blues, soul or disco tropes.

Guitar solos weren’t unheard of in soul songs, of course, or even in disco ones, but in general they were relatively restrained and usually weren’t the kind of thing you might find a Deep Purple or Free fan nodding appreciatively to. Prince’s skill with the guitar, and his ability to cross from one genre to another, already makes itself apparent here, and while this is only one track out of nine, and would not ensure a rock audience would even think of buying this album, it did hint at the direction he would end up going. “Still Waiting”, on the other hand, has a sort of blues ballad feel about it, recalling the best of maybe the Temptations merged with Greg Allman or even early Rod Stewart. The falsetto vocal again suits his voice, though the almost Casio-keyboard synth sounds cheap and nasty for some reason. Good vocal harmonies again (all him of course) but damn that fucking keyboard is annoying the hell out of me. Go away.

The original of the song made a massive hit by Chaka Khan a few years later is next, and “I Feel for You” works really well (without of course the rap talking about the lady), so I’m not going to spend too much time talking about this; you should know it and if you don’t then why not? I would have to remark though that it’s basically still a kind of ballad, if a faster one, and marks the second side of the album as being the slower side, and considering it then closes with “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” I guess that must have been his intention. Prince wouldn’t tend to do all that much in terms of ballads in his later work, though he would write some of the most beautiful love songs for other artists, including Sinead O’Connor’s smash “Nothing Compares 2 U”. So what can I say about the closer? It’s all right; it’s yet another ballad and again it’s a little hard to make out Prince’s voice when he’s not screeching or grunting, but he does better on this final track. It’s pretty generic though and a poor closer I feel.


I Wanna Be Your Lover
Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad
Sexy Dancer
When We’re Dancing Close and Slow
With You
Still Waiting
I Feel For You
It’s Gonna Be Lonely

You might notice every track here is black (ratings-wise I mean, not the singer); nothing I hated or really disliked but by the same token nothing that I really loved. No real standouts. My opinion of course counts for nothing, but it seems to me this album is a poor shadow of the debut, and while that one did terribly in the charts this one, undeservedly in my view, rocketed all the way up to number 22, basically improving on the performance of the previous outing by about 150 places. I feel it’s pretty ordinary, nothing much to recommend it, and, had it not been for the fact that it’s a one-man-show, I’d have discounted it as another soul album with slight pretensions in a rock direction. As it is, though, it does show Prince maturing in terms of his playing if not (in my opinion) his songwriting, the latter of which I feel here is banal and predictable. I mean, look at the titles: we’ve hardly got to guess too hard to imagine the lyrical content, do we?

To me, this is a step back, but due to its far better chart performance, and the success of one of the tracks as a single, it began to establish Prince as a proper artist, and as we will see as we now again pick up the story, this led to further exposure for him.

With the success of both album and singles, Warner believed it was time to send Prince out on the road. There was enough of an audience there to want to hear his music live, to see him perform it on stage. However, while the studio and the sequencer and the mixing desk may have been Prince’s best friends, he knew that it would be impossible to produce the effect live that he had managed in the studio. In other words, there was no physical way he could play multiple instruments and do vocals, even with backing tracks. Not only could he not do it, but nobody would want to see it. One guy, standing up there with maybe a guitar or behind a piano, singing while other instruments played out of tapes? That wasn’t live!

So a band had to be convened, but first there was a preparatory appearance on the popular music programme, American Bandstand. Prince, once presented with an opportunity to make a statement, never passed it up, and this time he made a statement by saying nothing. He told the band, when host Dick Clark asked them a question not to answer, and he was as good as his word, when, Clark asking how long he had been playing, Prince held up four fingers (lucky he hadn’t only been playing for two!) which no doubt made the veteran host uncomfortable, and unsure how to respond. He was, after all, a national treasure, a star in his own right and held in the highest esteem, right up there with Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan, so for some upstart kid from Minneapolis to be calling him out on his own show, well, it just wasn’t the done thing.

To be absolutely fair to Prince, though he had conceived the idea of what Ghandi might have called non-verbal resistance before they had even gone on the show, Clark’s first question bothered and angered him, as the host expressed amazement that Prince came from Minneapolis. Why this should be such a source of surprise he both found hard to understand and took as a personal insult, as if the intimation was (and I think it was, though perhaps not intentional) that nothing good had ever come out of his home town. Prince’s surly, silent disposition is not one many artists, particularly those just starting out, would have chosen, or dared, to take, but as Jim Morrison and The Beatles had already shown, if you want to make an impression on TV you need to do something a little radical. It’s said Clark still talks about the interview - as such - that Prince did to this day.

His performance certainly did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for his music, and publicity expert Howard Bloom was called in from New York by Warner to give some thoughts on how to make Prince appeal more to the ever-important white audience. His suggestion was to have Prince open for Cameo or some major black act, and then play the major New Wave clubs in each town. White kids would go to the clubs, black kids would go to see Parliament or Cameo, and Prince would get to play to both, separately. There was no talk, at the time, of how, or even if it was possible that, he could play to a mixed-race audience, but Warner didn’t care. As long as black people and white people bought his records, what did it matter where, or in what venues they saw him? But who to open for was the question?
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