Loops | 15/03/10

Image: loops 2

Loops 2 is the second issue of a landmark collaboration between Domino and Faber – a twice-yearly journal dedicated to engaging and diverse writing about music.

The following is an edited extract of Matt Thorne's piece for Loops 2.

‘Gigolos Get Lonely Too’: Prince, His Protégées, Side-Projects and Their Influence (Part One: ’78-‘84)

As with Prince’s own releases, the records that his protégées and friends have put out over the last thirty years have been of variable quality.  This strand of Prince’s music is driven by two major motivations: Prince’s delight in hiding from public view, and the fact that enjoys being in a studio or on stage over anything else.   But it’s more than a straightforward desire to release as much as possible.  In fact, it isn’t stretching things too far to see ‘Vanity’, ‘Apollonia’ and ‘Sister Fate’ as Prince’s characters, part of the novel he sings about trying to write in the unreleased ‘Moonbeam Levels.’ Others have suggested it makes more sense to see them as Prince’s alter egos, the name ‘Vanity’ believed to have been inspired by the physical similarity between Denise Matthews and Prince.

In the summer of ’79 Prince took his band of the era to Boulder, Colorado to work on his first planned side-project, a New Wave band named The Rebels.  Although the nine Rebels songs are cherished by collectors, it’s disappointing the record wasn’t released, as just as his recordings as Madhouse reveal Prince the jazz musician, the rock underpinnings of several of Prince’s Rebels songs reveal Prince the New Waver but also Prince the rockabilly.  It’s also the only album Prince has been involved in where he really is just one of the band rather than merely trying to give this impression; from now on he’d always remain in command.

Instead of The Rebels, Prince’s most significant early side-project was the first album by The Time.  The six-track album features Prince in deep disguise, co-producing under the pseudonym Jamie Starr. The Time would evolve into a band with a very clear identity, but the project initially grew out of, Lisa Coleman told me, jokes and silliness.  She was living with Prince at the time, and her contribution to the album was greater than has previously been acknowledged.  “My room was upstairs, so he would call me down, 'Lisa, would you help me do this string part?  What about these lyrics?  Can you finish this verse?'  He involved me, I punched him in while he was playing the drums, whatever it was.” 

She wasn’t there the night they decided to make Morris Day the front-man, but remembers him as a cute freckle-faced boy with a big ‘fro who would run and get them hamburgers.  Lisa says Prince never doubted that Morris would rise to the challenge, although she felt, “The guy had had a huge responsibility thrust upon him and what seemed like fun and games at first became a big deal.’” 

Vanity 6, Prince’s first female-fronted side-project, was closer to Dirty PrinceThe band started out as the Hookers, and very nearly had a lead singer named ‘Vagina’, but Vanity 6 were always a pop band.  What gives Prince’s earliest work much of its charm is his tireless subservience before unkind, promiscuous or uninterested women, and it seems surprising but sweet that when writing his first songs for women to sing he didn’t take on the persona of the unavailable lover, but imagined instead a sister to his poor sexually frustrated brothers.  The band’s most famous song, ‘Nasty Girl,’ may be less well-known than Prince’s greatest hits, but it’s among the most influential songs Prince has written. 

While working on the Vanity 6 album, Prince had also been preparing The Time’s second album, released a fortnight later.  Morris Day stands alone on What Time Is It?, checking his watch in front of a wall covered with clocks.  The record has more character than its predecessor, and although it is structured similarly, with three long dance tracks and three shorter songs, the lyrics are sharper and less generic, the concept now clearly in focus.  It’d be the hits from the third Time album that’d truly fix the band in the public consciousness, but this is just as good. 

Prince took these two bands on tour as support when promoting 1999, happy to reveal himself as puppet-master.  The friction between the various camps spilt out beyond the shows and Lisa remembers there being no doubt as to who was in charge.  “There were three buses.  Our bus had a video-machine on it, and we stopped at a truck stop and the video machine was gone.  Me and Dez went onto Vanity 6's bus and Prince was on the bus watching something with Vanity.  And we said ‘hey, that's from our bus’ and he said, 'they're all my buses.’”

Almost two years would pass between the second Time album and Prince’s next full-length project with a protégée, Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life (1984).  Prince presented Sheila E with songs that he’d already recorded, allowing her to replace his scratch vocal and then building up most songs around her percussion.  Prince often experiments with techniques and styles in his side-projects that don’t reach full fruition in his own work until several years later and the first Sheila E album has less in common with the very mainstream rock record he’d just completed than their later collaborations on Sign O’The Times and Lovesexy.

The Time’s third album, ‘Ice Cream Castle’ features the two songs for which the band are now best known, ‘Jungle Love’ and ‘The Bird’ (they perform both in Purple Rain (1984)), but the first single was ‘Ice Cream Castles’, in which Morris Day drops his usual ‘bring me a mirror’ schtick to sing about falling in love with a white woman.  Nothing else on side one of ‘Ice Cream Castles’ is as powerful, but it’s the three songs on Side Two that make this The Time’s most commercially and artistically successful album.  Nevertheless, for all his love of party-time, Prince’s musical experimentation would soon get more serious, and the events surrounding his next project, The Family, would ultimately change the direction of his music, and the course of his career, forever.


Image: loops 2