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Trollheart 03-24-2021 10:49 AM

Baby I'm A Star - The Once and Future Prince
How many people in this world, never mind in the field of music, can write their own epitaph, essentially kill themselves off after the kind of successful career others only dream of, reinvent - nay, resurrect themselves in a new image, go on to be just as successful in their new life, and finally decide to disinter their old corpse, clothe themselves in the flesh they used to wear, and continue not only to be successful, but to remake their own legend?

Not many, right? Probably nobody. Other than one kid from Minneapolis who took the world by storm in the 1980s and whom the world came to know by his first and given name, Prince.

Always an outsider, the story of the life of Prince Rogers Nelson can read like the uncompromising struggle of one man to get what he wanted, where he wanted, and most importantly, how he wanted, regardless of who he had to knock down to get there. It can also be read as a battle royale in which one musician took on the might of first one record label, then the industry itself - and won. The story of a man with a guitar who changed the way music is sold, packaged, marketed and created, and who would, after embracing the internet and the idea of free music, become one of its most entrenched opponents, an advocate of the most draconian enforcement of copyright, and in so doing deny millions his music and hurt his own legend.

Or it can be read as the simple story of a local kid done good. Really good. So good that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his first nomination - a feat rarely equalled - crossed the divide between what was then seen as “black” music and contemporary white audiences, reigned supreme over radio for years and became one of the biggest earners for his concerts.

You can read the story as that of a man who used people, especially women, when it suited his purposes and dropped or disowned them when they had served that purpose, who selfishly claimed all musician credits even when others played on his music, who went from romance to romance like a bee pollinating flowers, who found God and demanded everyone else should too, and who alienated his friends due to his insatiable demand for perfection, his habit of working twenty or more hours a day, his refusal to eat and his authoritarian exercise of control over every aspect of his music, including those who played it.

How you read the life of Prince is, I suppose, to some extent governed by how you feel about him. If you love his music, you’re probably likely to be a little more forgiving of his eccentric foibles, gloss over his idiosyncrasies and shrug at his personal behaviour on his meteoric rise to the top. If you don’t like him, you’ll focus on all the bad things he did, and ask was fame worth it, though you could probably say that about any star, for which of them has not stepped on hands on their way up the ladder? If you’re not particularly bothered about his music, you probaby don’t care too much about how he got to where he is, in which case, why are you reading this?

Where do I stand? I don’t know. I do like Prince’s music, but I’m not what you’d call a real fan. I’ve heard a few albums - the first two and then the obvious choices, all eighties material when he was at his height - but have only scratched the bare surface of what he recorded and released. It was while reading one of his biographies that the idea came to me to open this journal, so that I could basically chart the man’s life and explore his music. From what I read, it was a fascinating life, full of surprises, twists and turns, tragedies and triumphs, and like I said in the introductory sentence, I’ve never experienced anyone actually killing themselves off before, and coming back stronger than ever.

So I think this will be a good project. Whether you love him, hate him or have no interest in him at all, I think few people could deny that the world lost a true musical genius when Prince died on April 21, 2016, more than three years ago now, and I’d like the opportunity to trace the career path that led him from basic obscurity into the lives and homes of millions of fans around the planet.

From standing outside burger joints sniffing the smell of cheeseburgers as a kid, hoping someone would take pity on him and buy him one, to ordering a helicopter to hoist a piano up into his room in a posh hotel, Prince, though hardly an overnight sensation, was, by the time he was in only his mid-twenties, one of the most successful and famous musicians in the world. How did he get there, and what did he sacrifice to become a star? How did his music begin, and how did it morph and change over the decades, transforming the music of the time in the process, and leading to major changes in how people bought, sold and created their product? How did he deal with emerging black music such as rap and later hip-hop, and how did he, unlike so many of his contemporaries of the time, avoid accusations of selling out and playing for white audiences, forgetting his roots? How did he break into film-making, actually winning an Oscar, and become a role model for future giants in the music world?

I think you’d better come and let me guide you through the purple rain…

So what will I be trying to achieve in this journal? Well, most of it is going to be a biography of Prince, almost all of that taken from Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks by Ronin Ro, which I’ve just finished reading. But apart from that aspect of it, I’ll be trying to track down all the rare and early music from Prince that I can. With his passing, it seems his ban on posting his music on the internet has been rescinded, so you can find a lot more on it now, and I’ll be combing the web for anything I can find. I’ll also be reviewing every single album - even those I’ve already reviewed - going in-depth into every single track on each one, to get and give you the best feel for the man’s music that I can manage.

I’m not necessarily a fan, as I said: I do like his music, but in reading his biography I’ve learned that a lot of the time he wasn’t that nice a guy. He treated a lot of women poorly, was very offhand and dismissive of his band, stepped on toes old and new, and seems to have suffered from the kind of arrogance only true genius can, a feeling that nobody else “got it”, and that he was the only one who knew what he wanted, how it should sound, how it should look. For a young artist, Prince very quickly took total control of his output, not only music but marketing, packaging, and eventually distribution too. He became one of the first to offer his music for free, and to build a successful subscription model, eventually managing to cut out the major labels in a move that would be copied and reflected through the music industry as the twenty-first century unfolded.

So I won’t be glossing over the bad, but neither will I be focussing on it. Everyone has good and bad in them, and few if any people are spotless. When it comes to famous people, you can shrink that small number by several factors. You don’t get on in the world by being nice, and you don’t survive, thrive even without being a little cold-hearted, single-minded and having an unshakeable faith in your own abilities. In short, to make it you have to often be something of a bastard, and this is not something Prince shrunk from.

I’ll be posting any photos or pictures I can find to back up the text, and researching further the issues discussed in Ronin Ro’s book, to see if others agree or not. Never a good idea to take one author as your sole source of information. I’ll be talking about the effect Prince had on music, marketing, the charts, film, art and the world in general. And as usual, any comments are welcomed.

So come with me now, and let’s walk through that heavy purple curtain together, and see what’s on the other side.

ando here 03-24-2021 12:10 PM

I’m a big fan. Not hardcore, but fairly knowledgeable about most of his output. Don’t think I’d want to hang out with him, necessarily, but I would love to have had a jam session with him. As far as all the unreleased material goes I concur with his longtime friend and collaborator, Sheila E. who said, “Whatever’s in the vault should stay in the vault”. He generally released whatever he wanted the public to hear. And he was notoriously possessive of his work. No one could sample or copy his songs without expressed permission. There’s a lot of his formative music out here for people to enjoy but the profusion of his early output can’t compare to the great musicianship he displayed in his later years, imo. He matured and evolved. You see it mostly in the playing during live performances. Those late live gigs are often more interesting than the last few studio albums he released. Had he lived who knows where his creativity might have taken him? Many say his most profound period came during the late 80s but I think he stayed creative all his life. Every phase has something interesting to consider as I’m sure you’ll discover. Good luck!

Plankton 03-24-2021 12:24 PM

I have every album he made up until his death if you need some 'reference' material. I just have to dig through some things to find all this again:

Trollheart 03-24-2021 08:11 PM

Thanks guys. I'll be sure to shout if I need your help. Like I say, I'm a fan but not a superfan and I certainly learned a ton about both him and his music by reading that book, on which most of this journal will be based.

Trollheart 03-24-2021 08:20 PM

Chapter I: Something in the Air

Timeline: 1958 - 1977

Born into a musical family, Prince Rogers Nelson arrived in this world June 7 1958 to a mother who could sing like Billie Holiday and a father who played piano and wanted to be a music star. The arrival of their new son - and later, a daughter - would however ensure the plans of both for fame and fortune would never materialise, though in a very real way they would be bettered by the efforts of the tiny little infant now squealing and crying at his mother’s breast.

At age five, Prince attended a concert by his father, a local jazz musician. John Nelson wasn’t doing so well, being described as a “jazz musician in the whitest metropolitan district” but Prince was enthralled by the experience, and says he made his mind up then and there to be a musician. He and his younger sister Tyka would play around with their father’s piano, Prince banging out notes on it while Tyka sang, like her mother. But eventually John’s dream of being a musician outweighed his love for Mattie, and he and his wife separated, a huge blow to Prince, especially when his mother remarried. Neither she nor her new husband, Heyward, supported Prince’s desire to play music, as Mattie feared he would end up like his father. This, of course, only made the young Prince more determined to pursue his dream.
In 1970 Mattie gave birth to Heyward’s child, Prince’s half-brother Omarr, and Prince decided he had had enough. He left home, moving in with his father. The relationship was not always good. John was a moody man, and no doubt would have preferred his ex-wife to have been the one to take on the burden of bringing up an opinionated, starry-eyed young kid. Plus he had his career, which he had not yet given up on, to think about. After some time, inevitably, tensions flared and Prince was kicked out of his father’s house. With nowhere else to go, he stood on the street outside the local McDonald’s, smelling the cheeseburgers and wishing he could afford one. Eventually his Aunt Olivia took him in.

During that time he had taken up guitar, and was asked by his friends Andre Simon Anderson and cousin Charles to help form a band, and so they did, calling themselves Phoenix, but later changing this to Soul Explosion. Prince began to be influenced by the vocal stylings of Sly Stone and the musical versatility of Stevie Wonder, and already was plotting his world takeover. He didn’t just want to be a musician like his father, but a rock star. He listened to acts perhaps other black kids might not - Fleetwood Mac, Grand Funk Railroad, Bob Dylan, as well as Santana and of course Jimi Hendrix, who he had always said was one of his heroes - and honed his playing style. By now he was proficient on piano, saxophone and guitar, could drum and was looking into music production.

He was now sixteen years old.

Morris Day joined the band as a drummer, displacing his cousin Charles in a move that would be repeated throughout Prince’s long and successful career, as people were fired, shifted around and left due to pressures put on them by the man who would end up being one of the world’s greatest rock stars. Prince was writing his own songs, too, and they weren’t short pop or funk ditties. He went in for longer, more involved compositions, usually over the seven-minute mark, another thing that would remain constant throughout his career.

Still broke, Prince would return to standing outside the McDonald’s and sniffing the air, longing for a cheeseburger but unable to afford one. It made him bitter and angry, and he fought with everyone. In addition, having to play the top forty hits of the day irked him, and he longed to stretch his musical muscles with his band, but was restricted as club owners only wanted stuff people knew and could dance to. He continued to write music, and in 1976 he met Chris Moon, who had booked his latest band, Shampagne, to record some songs, but it was Prince himself with whom Moon was most impressed. When creating a track, Prince asked Moon if he wanted bass on it. Moon did, but couldn’t afford to engage a bass player. No problem: Prince laid down the bass line, then added guitar, drums and backing vocals. Dumbstruck at the kid’s talents, Moon offered him the keys of his studio, Moon-Sound, and showed him how to work the equipment. Prince would work there in the day and sleep on the floor.
But when Prince realised his talent and his ambitions could not be contained in the small Minneapolis town, and wanted to go to New York, none of his bandmates agreed, and so they parted company.

Now on his own, Prince worked with Moon but the two had different ideas about certain things. Moon wanted to bring in a drummer, but Prince insisted on taking on the job himself. His expertise began to breed arrogance, and he once reportedly told Moon he couldn’t tell him what to do, as he, Moon, didn’t even play anything. Kind of can’t argue with logic like that, even if it is a little rude. Oddly enough, for a man who became so almost pathologically narcissistic in his career, Prince admitted that he had never wanted to be a front man, and that originally it felt “spooky” to be at the mike alone. His confidence, however, grew, along with the evidence of his already-burgeoning talent, and in perhaps preparation for stardom he began to experiment with a signature, putting a small heart over the “i” in his name, and dropping his last name.

One lesson that did sink in from Moon was that he should actively try to crossover, get the white people listening to him. Black music was great, but it was very limited by its nature, and you could only get so far by playing to an exclusively black audience. If he wanted real fame, real stardom, sooner or later Prince was going to have to court white audiences, and he may as well make it sooner, and get used to it. Looking at the lyric for a song which would become “Soft and Wet”, Chris Moon laughed and declared Prince had his hook, and that hook would reel in thirteen and fourteen-year old girls and bring him fame.
But that would never happen in the backwaters of Minneapolis. So, at an invitation from his half-sister Sharon, Prince and Moon headed off to New York, where Moon finally got his artist a meeting with Atlantic Records. They, however, rejected his music as being not commercial enough, and too “midwestern”. Moon returned home, but Prince remained in New York. An associate of Moon’s, Owen Husney, was so taken by the tape his friend played for him, and more by the fact that it was one guy playing everything, that he arranged a meeting with Prince, who immediately signed him. Prince was finally on a label, if a small one, and a short time later was in the studio cutting a proper demo for his first album.

Cuthbert 03-25-2021 08:11 AM

Very good artist.


Trollheart 04-03-2021 09:43 AM

Chapter II: It’s For You (If You Want It)
Timeline: 1977 - 1978

Having recorded three songs, “Make it Through the Storm, “Baby” and “Soft and Wet”, Husney secured the assistance of Russ Thyret of Warner Bros, and they auditioned the tape. But some labels were sceptical that this was just one guy doing everything, and a kid at that. Prince soon demonstrated that it was indeed all his own work. Others shied from his demand for a three-album deal, while still others balked at his insistence on producing his own albums. In the end, it was Warner with whom he signed, on June 25 1977. His deal, thrashed out between him, Thyret, Warner Chairman Mo Ostin and A&R man Lenny Waronker, called for three albums in twenty-seven months, the first due six months from the signing date of his contract. For a cost of USD 180,000 over the three albums, it was hailed by Owen Husney as one of the most lucrative deals ever offered to an unknown, and one of the biggest record contracts of that year.

Now all the young unknown kid who had landed the big deal had to do was produce the goods.

Still wary, Warner insisted Prince have a producer, and suggested Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, but Prince refused, determined to produce himself. Eventually they both compromised - one of the few times Prince ever would again - and executive producer Tommy Vicari, who had worked with Santana and Billy Preston, oversaw things. He moved them into The Record Plant Studios across from the Golden Gate, and Warners rented a home for them in Corte Madeira, with great views of the bridge and the bay. Prince had, however, one request, which he made seriously of Lenny Waronker: don’t make me black. Prince knew that he would be restricted, musically and commercially, if he was marketed as a black act. Certain avenues would not be open to him, or would be discouraged. He wanted to appeal to everyone, not only his own people.
October 1 1977 he began recording his first album with the same intensity, single-mindedness and, some would say, arrogance and martinet attitude that would characterise every album he recorded. As he added overdubs, extra backing tracks, effects and vocals, the budget spiralled out of control. Way out of control. He had been expected to make the album for USD 60,000 (three albums for a total of 180,000) but by the time [i]For You[/i ] was finally finished, it had almost used up the entire budget, costing just short of USD 170,000. For one album! And it sold poorly. Very poorly. Despite a media saturation campaign, it was, after all, the debut from an unknown black kid (try as he might, Prince would for some time be seen as black and only black) with no big chart hits on it. Three months of recording and two more mixing resulted in the album being released on April 7 1978 and reaching no. 21 in the Billboard Soul chart, and a terrible 163 on the main chart. Nobody had anything particularly encouraging to say in the few reviews, and it sold barely 150,000 copies.

Still, you work with what you’ve got, and Warners released “Soft and Wet” as a single, gaining him a number 12 position on the soul charts, which resulted in his being mobbed by black fans at a record store, taking him completely by surprise. The reaction of fans seems to have simultaneously pumped him up and frightened him, as well as leaving him baffled as he asked “How can they love me? They don’t even know me.”

Let’s take the opportunity then to hold the story there, and review that first album, the one that started it all, not with a bang, but with a sigh.
Album titleFor You
Released as: Prince
Label: Warner Bros
Recorded: September 1977 - February 1978
Release Date: April 7 1978
Producer: Prince
Studio(s): Sound 80 (Minneapolis, MN) The Record Plant (Sausalito, CA) Sound Labs (Hollywood, CA)
Chart Position* 163/138**
Singles Released: “Soft and Wet”, “Just as Long as We’re Together”
Singles Chart Performance: “Soft and Wet”: 92 @ Billboard Hot 100 (BH100) 12 @ Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart(BHSSC) “Just as Long as We’re Together: 91 @ BHSSC
Sales:* 150,000/ 2,000,000

(First figure refers to before Prince’s death, second after)
* * If no other chart position (other than prior to and after death) is shown, this is taken to be the chart position in the USA only.

I originally reviewed this, and several other Prince albums in my main journal, but while those reviews are in-depth and I hope well written, they were composed at a time before I had read Prince’s biography, and though I knew he played everything on this album, it wasn’t until I read about him that I realised exactly how MUCH he plays, composes, sings, arranges, produces, mixes, overdubs - it’s actually nothing short of phenomenal.

So rather than just transpose my original review here, I’m going to be going into this in a lot more depth, armed with what I know about the man now, and with a greater appreciation for what makes this not just the debut album from a new talent, but something of a game-changer in the world of pop music. An album that marked Prince out already as a genius, and though it landed with more a damp plop than a resounding bang at the time, it has gone on to be acknowledged as one amazing album.

Right out of the gate we’re hearing what can’t possibly be one guy, but is: multi-tracked vocals in a beautifully arranged harmony, the title track is just over a minute long but immediately it grabs your attention, and would do even if this were a full band. The production on just this one minute and eight seconds of vocal music is amazing, and when you add into the mix the fact that the kid is only nineteen (though he deliberately took two years off his age so as to appear even more of a prodigy than he was) it’s literally breath-taking. It’s like you’re listening to one of those old soul records from the sixties or seventies, something that has four or five backup singers and is produced by someone who has been doing this all his life.


And then the album starts properly.

“In Love” has that funky vibe to it, with upbeat keyboards, a thumping bass line and then Prince’s rapid vocal, and of course backing vocals coming in too, which are also him, making it seem like there’s a full band here. There isn’t. There’s not a trace of self-consciousness or nervousness about this, his first ever introduction to the world, and it’s like he was born to do this. He makes it seem effortless, though by all reports by the time the three months were done - three to record the album, two to mix, so five in all - he was shattered. Who wouldn’t be?

A very upbeat but kind of low-key in its own way kind of song, it’s a joyous celebration of love, but with already what will become Prince’s trademark graphic lyrics: “Ever since I met you,” he sings in the opening line, “I’ve been wanting to lay you down.” He then goes on to use his flowery metaphors, singing “I wanna play in your river.” Yeah. Let’s be brutally honest: they’re not the greatest lyrics ever written, are they, though that would of course change over time, when Prince would put into words emotions and feelings in a way few of us could ever hope to.

The single is up next, and “Soft and Wet” opens with another suggestive line, as he grins “Hey baby I got a sugarcane I want to lose in you.” Uh-huh. It’s squelchy synth and bouncy bass, another funky danceable number, and on the vocal he drops from falsetto to baritone (maybe; I’m not sure, but a deeper voice anyway) giving the further impression that there’s more than him here. An almost computer game music-style keyboard solo then we’re back into it. To be fair, I can see how the single did well on the soul chart and I can equally see why it caused barely a ripple in the mainstream one. It’s okay, but honestly it’s nothing terribly great, and in terms of mainstream appeal, perhaps something like the acoustic ballad “Crazy You”, with its soft Latin beat, might have been a better choice. Mind you, I guess neither he nor Warners would have wanted to have marketed him as a Latin artist, so maybe not. Much better song though.

The other single they went with, which bombed totally, is “Just as Long as We’re Together”, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s okay, but it’s nothing a dozen soul/disco bands hadn’t already released by now. It’s got a nice, fast, infectious beat, and again you really have to give Prince credit for making it sound like there’s a whole band there, but other than that, meh. Great guitar solo for sure, but other than that it’s kind of wholly unremarkable I feel. It does have an extended instrumental outro, being the longest track on the album at just over six minutes, and this gives Prince a chance to really show what he can do.

“Baby”, despite its title, isn’t just another love or come-on song, but actually a remarkably mature attitude to “a mistake” that ends up getting a girl pregnant. Prince laments “I never would've thought that this would happen to a very careful man like me” yet he intends to stand by the girl, a kind of a rarity, one would feel, in the late seventies, even rarer for a new, hip singer to be preaching. Good for him. Kind of a doo-wop feel to the song, a sugary ballad very much in Rose Royce territory. Really nice strings accompaniment (that’s him on one of his many synths, no doubt) and again I could have seen this as being a far more successful single.

“My Love is Forever” is another basic soul bopper, again concerned with romance, some nice sort of fluting synth added into the melody and what sounds like brass too, with those by-now-familiar multi-tracked vocals. This track is notable for being the only one of which he shares any kind of writing (if uncredited) as Chris Moon helps him out here. Good soaring guitar solo, though it kind of really doesn’t get a chance to get going. Hey, this is soul and R&B after all! “Purple Rain” is a long way away yet. Okay, now he’s breaking out the guitar there at the end. Nice. Very nice. Almost rocks the track up. That leaves us with “So Blue”, which has a really nice acoustic guitar and what sounds like trumpet or something, then Prince’s high voice is soft and sweet as honey in another gentle little ballad that brings things down to earth after the somewhat rambunctious previous song.

I feel at times he really sounds like a young Michael Jackson on this, something which I’m sure, were he still with us, he would not thank me for. Actually, probably holds true for both of them, as they did have a kind of rivalry going on through their careers with each other. But it is quite evident, to me anyway. Definitely a certain sense of slow jazz in this, and of course plenty of soul, while “I’m Yours” finishes the album on almost a rock anthem, as Prince confesses “Never have I ever made love before” - whether you’re supposed to believe him or not is another thing!

A definite precursor of the way Prince’s music would morph into rock via Purple Rain and bring him world-wide acclaim, this closer must have come as something of a shock to those who had bought the album as a soul record, and probably enjoyed it up to that point as one. Hey, they probably loved it, but I’m willing to bet there were more than one set of raised eyebrows as Prince racked off the kind of solos you normally get on hard rock or at least melodic rock albums, perhaps taking advice from his future self and going crazy.

As such, then, “I’m Yours” stands almost as an anachronism on this album, like Jackson later roping in Eddie Van Halen to scream out a scorching solo on “Beat It”, or Debbie Harry throwing in a (perhaps ill-advised) rap into “Rapture”. Takes you by surprise, turns the album upside-down, defies expectations, knocks you upside the head, and announces in no uncertain terms that Prince has arrived.


(Favourite tracks are marked in green, ones I hated or really did not like in red, all others remain in black)

For You
In Love
Soft and Wet
Crazy You
Just as Long as We’re Together
My Love is Forever
So Blue
I’m Yours

I can’t remember what I wrote about this when I heard it originally: I seem to remember being very impressed, and I still am. However, take away the one-man-band idea here, and this is, to be fair, a very ordinary soul album, albeit with a hell of a sucker punch at the end. It’s no surprise it hardly set the charts alight, and even the R&B ones weren’t interested. Not only that, but after Prince’s untimely passing, the album still only struggled to way outside the top 100. That’s poor, considering the circumstances, and it perhaps underlines how, viewed even through the prism of the past, this album, while a good, decent debut, doesn’t quite stand the test of time.

If this had been released by a band, I doubt anyone would have been that enthused about it. As it was, being all the work on one man, and a kid at that, it’s highly impressive but still, that fact doesn’t necessarily sell albums, otherwise every multi-instrumentalist who released material would have gold or platinum records. Some, like Mike Oldfield or Deadmau5 do, or have done, but even so, a lot of their work gets passed over. Basically, the novelty factor quickly wears off, and unless you have the product to shine through despite your gimmick - if gimmick it is - you’re likely to keep languishing at the bottom end of the charts, if you get in there at all.

Which is, I assume, why Prince’s later albums did much better. He wrote better songs. He extended himself, crossing genre boundaries as well as racial ones, pulling in the “white folks” as well as the rock community, neither of whom would, I feel, touch this album, or his next two or three, with a barge pole, had they access to such an instrument. It would take another four years before Prince would break big, and the world at large would learn that something else had come out of Minneapolis other than, well, whatever else Minneapolis was famous for before then. If anything.

And now, back to the story…

Trollheart 04-03-2021 09:50 AM
5215 France Avenue, Edina, MN. That was Prince’s new address, his first ever home of his own, after being bounced from his estranged father to his aunt and various record studios. Prince finally had a place to lay his head. It wasn’t big or fancy, had virtually no furniture, but it was his. As he prepared to tour to support the album, he realised he could not after all do everything himself on stage, and would need a band to play his music on the road. So he set about auditioning musicians. In addition to Andre Anderson on bass, he soon had Gayle Chapman on keys and Bobby Rivkin (who for some reason would become known as Bobby Z) on drums. Bobby’s mate Matt Fink would join on additional keyboards and Desmond “Dez” D’andrea Dickerson would take guitar duties.
Capri. Sounds nice and exotic, doesn’t it? Sunwashed Mediterranean island, where holidaymakers flocked in their thousands. Would you be impressed if I told you that Prince’s debut gig took place in Capri? You would? Well, tough: it wasn’t in Capri, but at Capri. The Capri, that is: an old Minneapolis film theatre on West Broadway. Still, as journalist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Jon Bream put it, Prince could have debuted at Madison Square Gardens. Except, of course, that he didn’t. Bream had been one of the first reporters to notice Prince, and to interview him. As a result, and as he believed in the young artist, Bream was invited along to most gigs, including of course this one.

The first night went over well, despite many technical problems which Prince and his fledgling band had to soldier through, but on the second night Warner flew executives in, the idea being to determine whether or not Prince was ready for a tour - or, more to the point, whether it was worth financing one at this early stage of his career. They decided that on balance, the answer was no. Prince needed to record a second album before they could let loose the purse-strings and send him out into the world. Prince was crushed, and his relationship with Owen Husney began to deteriorate. One possibility put forward for the breakdown, rather trivial in anyone else but something that would become part of Prince’s psychological makeup, was when Husney could not drop everything to bring a space heater over to Prince’s place. This demand that he be served, first and always, no matter what, that he was to be seen as the most important thing in the lives of anyone he knew, would be repeated throughout his career, and lead to more than one uneasy departure for friends and employees alike.

Aware now that he needed management, Prince was introduced to childhood friends Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo (whom I don’t believe knew the Gruffalo!) who represented Earth, Wind and Fire, Ray Parker Jr and one of Prince’s all-time idols, Sly Stone. The three of them hit it off and would remain friends throughout most of Prince’s career. They suggested Gary Brandt as a producer, and this time Prince, who knew he had put himself in a hole by overspending hugely on For You (and failing to get any real sort of return for his label) did not argue. He knew this time he needed a hit album; having got all the experimental and artistic stuff out of his system with his debut, he set about creating a dance record that would appeal to the record-buying public.
In contrast to the debut, which had taken three months to record, Cavallo and Ruffalo booked a single month at Alpha Studio in LA. Again, Prince did not try to change anything. This time, he had nine home demos he intended to work on to put on the new album, rather than try to create new stuff in the studio. He knew what everything was, where it was going, how it should and would sound. One advantage of having managers, he found, was that they booked a limo to take him to and from the studio. By June he was finished the album, but unable to rebook Brandt for the mixing - Prince needed to take the tapes home, study them, get new ideas and come back to record them properly - he ended up in Hollywood Sound Recorders in LA, where he finished the album. As with For You, he took charge of creating the cover, the liner notes, the photographs, all to his own specifications.

You wouldn’t call him a hummingbird, because that denotes somehow flitting from here to there, project to project, never settling on one or the other. But he certainly was a busy bee, rarely drawing breath at the end of one album before plunging into the next, sometimes even working on or more projects at once. Remind you of anyone? ;) So with the wrap of his second album, and waiting for its release before he could hopefully tour for the first time, Prince decided to create a new vehicle for his talents. This would be a rock venture, and allow him to step outside the somewhat constricting world of funk and soul, and he would call it The Rebels. It would involve all his bandmates from the cancelled tour, and unlike his own albums, on this one he would accept input from everyone.

They had great fun creating songs, trying out melodies - Prince himself wrote four, and preparing to record the album. Then, out of nowhere, Prince just decided he was against the idea. With no explanation (and none was advanced later in his life, so we’ll never know now) he changed his mind, shelved the project and instead looked towards the release of his second album, only a short time away now.

Trollheart 08-12-2021 07:01 PM
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?

Trollheart 08-12-2021 07:20 PM
Super Freak, Super Ego: On the Road with the James Gang

Enter sex god Rick James, whose albums had experienced something of a slowdown in recent times. James was known as a sort of James Brown clone, lewd and promiscuous on stage, a bundle of energy and not really caring too much what folks said about him. But he cared when, in order to boost sales, he packed his fourth album, Garden of Love, with soft rock ballads, and was in danger of being seen as a sell-out to whitey. He needed a strong opening act that showcased the kind of values he was about himself; a protege, perhaps, maybe even a clone of a clone. Someone who could show he was still black and proud, and had not sold out, and had plenty of juice left in his love trunch… you get the idea.

James had of course heard Prince’s single, and liked the album, too. What he heard gave him to think that maybe his search was over, and when he got a video of Prince and saw how he performed this idea was reinforced, and so Prince joined him on his Fire it Up tour. It was to rank as perhaps one of the biggest missteps in the career of Rick James. Arrogant to a fault Prince may have been, but he knew talent when he saw it and while he could play and record like almost nobody else, he was a virtual beginner when it came to playing live. So he watched as James went through his repertoire every evening, watched all the moves he made, the signs he gave, the way he worked the audience, and essentially stole them all. When James found out, he was furious. It got to the point where James could no longer perform his signature moves, as they had become Prince’s signature moves, and it looked to the audience as if James were copying Prince.
Life on the road is traditionally hard, but Prince used it as an opportunity to come up with songs that would surface on his next album. One of these, “Head”, would cost him his keyboard player, Gayle Chapman. The song refers to a bride on her wedding day being met by Prince who wants her to give him a blow job (or maybe she wants to give him one, not sure; check the album review later) and was perhaps one of his first truly controversial songs (something he would address with the title of his fourth album), written specifically, he said, to get a response and to make his name. In order to push this idea, he would perform the song live and asked (well, told; Prince never asked anyone to do anything) Gayle to indulge in the mock-fellatio with him onstage. She being a devout Christian seems to have been a little embarrassed and scandalised by this, and among a host of other reasons it led to her quitting the band. Her departure would clear the stage - literally - for the emergence of one of the most important people in Prince’s life.

Looking for a replacement for Chapman, Prince was sent a tape by a young keyboard player and songwriter called Lisa Coleman. From the first they hit it off, and Coleman moved to Minneapolis to join the band. He wrote a song for her (imaginatively titled “Lisa”) but Coleman’s sexual preferences tended in another direction. It’s always possible they got together, as neither ever revealed anything to the contrary, but she certainly became an integral part of his band. Prince continued to write songs, including ones intended to shock, such as “Sister”, in which he contemplated - and, within the song, engaged in - incest, and the never-going-to-be-played-on-the-radio “When the Shit Comes Down.” Life on the road was, however, taking its toll, and he began to suffer from fits of black depression, which he found hard to break out of, and needed the help of friends to resist.
Depression or not though, Rick James had had enough of this pretender to his crown, and decided to sort him out, man to man. The two bands had a meeting, during which it was threatened that if Prince stole James’ moves, then he would be ejected from the tour. Quite who James was going to get to replace him at such short notice is not recorded, but he related with satisfaction in his Memoirs of a Soul Freak, “he acted like a little bitch while his band and mine patched up their differences.” After this meeting - which seemed to intimidate Prince, as surely it was meant to do - Prince no longer copied James. I think his quote above is a little unfair. After all, James was six foot, a big, tough, no-nonsense black guy who would probably deck you as soon as look at you, and all his band the same. Prince was five-foot nothing, quiet and reserved when not on stage, and a beginner in this whole music business deal. James was an icon, and to some extent Prince might have been overawed by him.

He had the last laugh though, as years later Rick James was forced to admit that Prince was “a great player and a very innovative person”, but to me this reads as forced, like someone who had held that Hitler wasn’t so bad or that Bowie wasn’t a musical genius being forced, by the weight of the evidence of history, to admit to their mistake and grudgingly give credit (or blame) where it was due. I feel (though I don’t know this, but given what I’ve read about him I wouldn’t be surprised) that James never quite forgave Prince for stealing his thunder. He had brought the little newcomer on as a way to prop up or revitalise his somewhat shaky career, or at least reinforce his image as a true black musician who had not sold out, and Prince totally upstaged and embarrassed him. In essence, if not intentionally Prince was saying “your day is over, man; this is how it’s going to be.” And I doubt James ever got over that.

And how did his career go? Hmm. Let’s have a look. Oh, I see! Indicted for assaulting - both sexually and physically - a woman, torturing her, holding her prisoner in 1991, and while out on bail again assaulting another woman, this time a record company executive. A cocaine addict, sent to jail for five years (though he only served two), accused of two more rapes on his release, one historical, of a fifteen-year old (though he won the case), it seems his record career plunged as Prince’s was rising. His last clutch of albums, from about 1985 - 1997, were all poorly received by critics and hardly bothered the charts, while Prince at this time was riding high with albums such as Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day. Revenge is sweet. James died in 2004, at the age of 56. Prince outlasted him by twelve years, and by two in terms of age, dying at the age of 58. People in the funk and soul world remember and probably love James; people all over the world and across the music spectrum remember and love Prince. It’s possible the general public remember one or two James songs, but stop anyone in the street, anyone with the slightest musical knowledge or interest in music, and they will more than likely be able to name a dozen songs by Prince.

But enough schadenfreude. Not enough? One more then. Rick James was a hateful, narcissistic, sex-obsessed cocaine addict who spent time behind bars for violently assaulting women. Prince was a narcissistic, sex-obsessed music addict who never, to my knowledge, saw the inside of a jail and never assaulted anyone, certainly no woman. If you’re a Rick James fan, apologies... are not necessary, as these are all matters of record and nothing is rumour or hearsay. It’s all there, easy to find. Apparently, according to his own account, knowing quite well that Prince did not drink, he accosted him at his (James’) birthday party, to which all the band members had been invited, and forced drink down his throat. Which Prince spat out, leading to James again calling him “a little bitch.” And that’s all I’ll say about the man. Now let's go back to the man about whom this journal is written.

Prince may have been destined for stardom, but it would not be an easy road, and while his first single from the self-titled album may have given him the impression he was on his way, the next one bombed. Much heavier, much more in a rock rather than disco vein, and much more acerbic and bitter, “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” completely failed to follow its predecessor into the charts, fizzling out at number 13, and the ballad “Still Waiting” did even worse, not even scratching the top forty - and this was in the Hot Soul Singles Chart; neither of these single made the slightest impression where it mattered, the Billboard Hot 100. On the strength, so to speak, of lacklustre sales of the follow-up singles, and poor sales of the album anyway, Prince began to slide down the charts, and was gone after a mere twenty-eight weeks.
Disheartened, and hurting from his time with Rick James on the road, Prince moved into a rental in the costly suburbs of Lake Minnetonka to begin recording his third album. He doesn’t seem to have been able to stand still; if he wasn’t writing he was recording or performing live. Music was, almost literally, his life, and he seemed to, again almost literally, eat, drink, breathe and sleep the stuff. It was therefore one final insult when, having unpacked all his gear in his new pad he found his synthesisers, so central to his sound, were missing. James had robbed them, taken them on tour and later sent them back with a sarcastic thank-you note, but only after he had finished his album. How he had managed to steal them is a mystery, though personally I think if he held all of them behind his big fat head nobody would have seen them, and he could have smuggled them out.

For Prince, once again it was all-night sessions, and once again he did everything himself. But his mood had changed. Two not-particularly-successful albums and a very uncomfortable tour with Rick James had shown him the world was not the beautiful place he had believed it to be, and that people were not to be trusted. He distilled a lot of his anger into the third album, with tracks such as those he had written on the road - “Head” and “Sister” among them - nestling warily alongside newer material such as “Uptown”, “When You Were Mine” and the song which would later become not only the title of his new album, but something of an anthem for him as a later star.

The guitar took a back seat, and I guess he must have acquired synths from somewhere, because the album would be rife with them, diffusing cold electronic rage across the melodies where earlier warmer, more friendly danceable beats had frolicked. In some ways, the second track on his previous album - and the single that began his slide down the charts - “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” could be seen as a turning point, a signpost indicating the way his new material would go. Out went the sappy love songs, in came hard, cynical, nasty explorations of the human condition, heart, and, well, other organs. Drummer Bobby Z thought it was the best work he had done since he had begun working with him. Critics would agree, praising the album as a “surprise” from the man who had released two basic funk albums with dance songs and ballads, but this would not translate either to chart success or massive sales, nor would it return him to the Billboard Hot 100.

His mode of working changed slightly. He began to accept, even court opinions from his band members, taking a keyboard riff Fink had written and improvising a whole song around it, retooling a Morris Day drum pattern and offering him a choice of ten thousand dollars or a recording contract, of which the drummer wisely chose the latter. Twelve days after he began recording, Dirty Mind was ready for release.

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