Exploring Prince’s signature sound through 5 marvelous demo recordings.

 

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[From Excellent Reception : Episode 8]
By lil’dave

There are only a handful musical artists that reach the zenith of fame and success in popular culture, of course the most notable being Michael Jackson, Madonna, and our featured artist, Prince. While the other two may have had huge hits and were great entertainers, neither had the level of raw musical ability as Prince.

Influenced by his musician father, Prince developed an interest in music early on. He wrote his first song “Funk Machine” at age 7. Throughout his school age years, he learned to play a wide range of instruments and developed his intense work ethic. During his teenage years he would play at hotels and YMCA’s all over Minneapolis with his band Grand Central, which included a young Morris Day on drums and Andre Cymone on bass. In 1976, he recorded his first demo tape, which lead to his ground breaking record deal with Warner Brothers, which gave him full creative control and ownership of his publishing.

From his debut album “For You” all the way up to his final album “Hit n Run Phase Two”, Prince made the music he wanted to make without worrying about producing a hit song, compromising to the will of record labels, and pleasing all the critics.

When it comes to the studio, Prince mainly created without the help of other musicians. To capture his emotion, as well as have full control of what is being played, he would play each instrument layer by layer until he had a complete backing track. This is why Prince’s music has an undeniably distinctive sonic energy and organic emotional context that you can only get from him.

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His entire studio workflow was designed to help him capture his ideas while they are fresh in mind. As soon inspiration hit, he would immediately record the melodies he was hearing in his head and spend the entire day developing the raw concept into a finished song. It was said that he would often overwork his studio engineers, keeping them locked down for hours until his vision was realized.

As you can imagine, Prince quickly amassed a huge catalog of music. Only a small percentage of these tunes actually made it to a finished album. Some of these songs were used on projects for Vanity 6, The Time, New Power Generation, Sheila E, and other artists in his camp. Other songs were turned into huge hits for other artist like Chaka Khan, Sinead O’Connor, The Bangles, and Stevie Nicks. The leftovers were stored away in his vault at Paisley Park.

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A sizable amount of rare recordings, demo tapes, alternate versions and unreleased Prince productions have leaked out into the world throughout the decades he’s been a star. Thanks to the legions of die hard Prince fans and the power of the internet, these songs, along with the stories behind them, have taken on a life of their own.

Lets take a look at a few of these lesser known tracks to see what they reveal about the man behind the music.

 

Purple Music

One of the signature elements of Prince’s sound is his use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine which he used predominately on most of his early work. He took technology that was completely new at the time and turned its sound into his own. One of my all time favorite Prince songs, “Purple Music”, is driven by one of those infamous drum tracks . This is a pretty minimalist composition, but it’s full of so many interesting little moments. The syncopated drum track is constantly evolving as Prince sprinkles in a rubbery bass line and seemingly random hits of distorted keys and guitar licks

In the lyrics, Prince waxes poetic about rejecting drugs and other intoxicants in favor of getting his high from the power of music. “Don’t need no reefer, don’t need cocaine / Purple music does the same 2 my brain”, Prince sings with dry seriousness as “Purple Music” slowly gets us lifted.

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Wonderful Ass

Another unreleased jewel from Prince’s back catalog is “Wonderful Ass”. It’s a poppy and carefree funk tune that talks about a woman who gives Prince a hard time because she can’t understand his wild lifestyle. The lyrics are said to actually be inspired his relationship with his protege Vanity.

Musically, the song is built around an extremely catchy polysynth melody over a midtempo drum track. The background is colored in with a smorgasbord of guitar riffs, each drenched in their own unique concoction of guitar pedal effects.

This bubbly feel good tune was originally recorded back in 1983 at Prince’s home studio in Chanhassen, MN (a few years before the legendary Paisley Park studio was built). Sometime in 1986, the song was updated by The Revolution’s Wendy & Lisa who polished off the song with additional instrumentation and vocals. If you listen to the full recording you’ll hear them chant “The Revolution will be heard”.

There have been a few attempts throughout the years to release this song, but unfortunately every project it has been added to ended up getting shelved.

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Do Yourself A Favor

Digging deeper into Prince’s demos, we find another heavy track called “Do Yourself A Favor”. Here you find him singing about the end of a relationship and the dialog he has with the woman as she walks away.

“Do Yourself A Favor” didn’t start or end with Prince. This is actually a cover of a song called “If You See Me” by the band 94 East, who he worked with in his early years. “If You See Me” was written and sung by Pepe Willie, who actually wrote the song about the bitter break up he had with Prince’s cousin Shauntel.

The original 94 East version has a slightly cheesy late 70’s funk jazz vibe. Once Prince got his hands on it, he broke it down to its barest elements and reconstructed it into an 80’s style soul rock masterpiece. The song kicks off with “Hey Mickey”-style drums. Then it fills in with various keys and synthesizers playing melodies against the shuffle of the drums and each other. All layered together it creates a sort of “Merry Go Round” effect, which can be best heard during the chorus.

Years after Prince recorded his version, Jesse Johnson released a version of the song on his self-produced 1986 album, Shockadelica. When you hear Jesse’s version, it’s obvious that he was influenced by Prince’s demo, but his version lacks the intensity and emotional connection that Prince was capable of bringing to the recording.

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Cloreen Baconskin

One of the easier to find Prince demos is “Cloreen Baconskin”, which was officially released on Prince’s 1989 box set called “Crystal Ball”. Even though it was properly mixed and mastered, it’s one of the rawest songs from the purple one’s catalog. It’s almost hard to even call it a song. It’s literally just a 15 minute recording of Prince and Morris Day bugging out on in the studio. All the magic happens in one straight take with just a bass, a drum kit, and a very raspy incarnation of Prince’s voice.

“Cloreen Baconskin” was recorded on March 27, 1983, in the sessions that occurred during a break in the middle of the 1999 tour. These session produced much of the material used for The Time’s third album “Ice Cream Castle”, which contained huge hits like “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” (which was just recorded the day before “Cloreen Baconskin”). We can only assume that “Cloreen Baconskin” was later transformed into The Time’s song “Tricky”, the b-side to the “Ice Cream Castles” single (which was recorded in 1984). “Tricky” contains the same drum pattern and bass line, as well as, a similar vocal performance from Prince.

The unpolished bare bones funk and long running track time of “Cloreen Baconskin” has been met with mixed feelings by even some of the most dedicated Prince fans. While it lacks the glossiness of some of the more popular productions from Prince’s camp, the song’s beauty lies in the fact that it gives you an uncut view of Morris Day and Prince’s creative process. But even more importantly, it’s just great to hear these two musicians having fun.

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Databank

One song that really blows my mind is the huge party starting jam, “Data Bank”. It’s a massive boogie funk tune that, much like his b-side recordings “Scarlet Pussy” and “Irresistible Bitch”, contain a heavy George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic influence.

The recording session for the unreleased version was done in 1986 and includes additional instrumentation by the members of The Revolution. As you listen, you’ll hear Prince conversating with the band and arranging the music on the spot. You hear him complaining to horn section for coming in too early, giving the bass player a hard time for being out key, and asking Wendy & Lisa to play some ideas they were fooling around with in an earlier session. Even though these are things that would normally get cut out of the final version, it’s great to get such an engaging glimpse behind the curtain.

As you go through Prince’s demo’s you end up finding plenty of songs that would have been monster hits if he had released himself, instead of passing them to other artists or never releasing them at all. Unfortunately, this version of “Data Bank” was never released. Instead, Prince re-recorded and repackaged it for The Time’s 1990 album “Pandemonium”. Since Prince’s sound and the sound of popular music as a whole had moved into a whole new realm by the 90’s, The Time’s version sounds completely different from the original version.

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This is an excerpt from the Excellent Reception podcast.  Each episode our host, lil’dave, talks about the stories and influences around a group of carefully selected songs.  Subscribe to the podcast now via iTunes.

 

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