PRINCE'S FUNK MASTERPIECE
By September 1986, just as Prince the musician and artist (but not the moviestar) had climbed to the top of the peak creatively, his only real rival, Michael Jackson, had already begun sliding down the precipice.
Quincy Jones (Jackson's producer and consigliere) Fed Ex’d over a demo of Bad - the rather limp follow up to Thriller - which landed on Prince’s paisley doormat that autumn. Jones had hoped, somewhat ambitiously, that Prince could be persuaded to duet in a superstar showdown, the two squaring up to each other B-Boy style (*one imagines Mike grabbing his crotch, and Prince with his bare ass showing) on a proposed megabucks video. However, after hearing Jackson’s opening line (“Your butt is mine!”) Prince promptly refused. He might have still been smarting from his James Brown embarrassment, but it’s also possible, hearing the best of what Jackson could muster, that he realized (ability to entertain aside) how far he had left the king of pop behind, and besides, sitting on a large portion of the music that would form the basis of his crowning achievement Sign ‘O’ The Times, there would be no need to record anybody else's songs.
Prince’s vault was already stocked with a wealth of new and exciting material. Indeed, his output was so prolific albums were generally recorded and finished almost a year prior to gaining eventual release - his last album Parade (out March ’86) was compiled before the paint had even dried to the artwork sleeve for Around The World In A Day (released April ’85). Having spent most of the year at Sunset Sound and his basement studio, in a small room with low light, and becoming increasingly pleased with the results, Prince even stumped up the courage to offer a track each to both Miles Davis (Can I Play With U?) & Joni Mitchell (Emotional Pump). That was where Prince was at, aspiring to the level of Davis’s In A Silent Way or Mitchell’s Blue, not Jacko’s Speed Demon.
His new look band, most of whom had complimented The Revolution on their brief Hit & Run tour that summer (line up: Paisley Park artist Sheila E on drums & percussion, rhythm guitarist Miko Weaver, bassist Levi Seacer Jr and the brass section of Eric Leeds on sax & Atlanta Bliss on trumpet) we’re also ready to kick yo' arse. So much so, that under the fading glow of the cherry moon, Prince disbanded The Revolution. Wendy & Lisa across his dining table (who had already threatened to split that summer) and Bobby Z & Brown Mark by dog and bone, retaining only synth player Dr. Fink. It was no surprise really. Prince’s truncated squiggle writing had been on the wall, not just because he plucked the fuck out of his guitar strings on Purple Rain, during his last show with The Revolution in Yokohama, Japan, but also because his music began reverting away from the avant garde and classical to his natural leaning: Funk. A sound he’d always resisted, though regularly succumbed to post ’79.
In the early eighties, if Prince woke up tapping his silk slippers on the one, it’s the members of The Time who would end up doing the dance. Determined to cross over to a white skinned MTV populace, Prince would assign the out and out blackness of his funk creations straight over to Morris Day & co. But anything with a chance of new wave/pop potential, would be left on the reels, rerecorded and deconstructed, until its overt nastiness would be covered up. Extra Lovable and the funkier alternative to DMSR titled Purple Music would be banished from the 1999 album to the vault. Irresistible Bitch & Something In The Water (Does Not Compute), perfect as they were, would both be given a forced make over, switched from personal black pop to detached electro new wave. Mercifully, despite Prince’s tweaking, the funk prevailed. Title track 1999 in its full Family Stone glory was just too good to de-funk. And though it was castrated from being a 12 minute slop masterpiece to a 4 minute edit, Computer Blue at least still made it onto Purple Rain. Kiss too, despite the removal of Brown Mark’s bass, originally produced on Cameo wannabees Mazarati, also retained its funk genius. Mazarati signed, as replacements for Prince’s funk stalwarts The Time and The Family. Opening the gates with the unreleased on-the-one side project The Flesh at the turn of '86, Prince had funk flowing out of every pore, unable to stop the flood. The brilliance of D’Angelo favourite Movie Star or runaway funk jam Databank we’re created in his best Morris Day impression (aka his Jamie Starr alter-ego) during this era and by the summer, Prince had fully assimilated the persona and vibe of The Time into his own Hit & Run stage act. Right in the midst of the Uncle Tom-Cherry Moon backlash, he began to cosy up in zoot suits and bandanas. Without the false flag of a phantom rival such as the Time, or the creative stimulus of Wendy & Lisa, and with Jackson coming up short(er), Prince was now playing his tambourine in the dark. He needed someone/something to light the competitive spark, an opponent of equal standing to challenge him creatively. Even if that meant, once again, it had to come from within...
On September the 16th, just days after Prince had listened to the Bad demo; he was in the cellar of his purple and yellow painted crib located on Galpin Boulevard, Chanhassen, recording a new composition, using a title he had swiped from a forthcoming album by ex-Time guitarist Jesse Johnson.
“Best explained as Prince’s way of suggesting to a dear friend that every album with a great title should contain a song by the same name,” noted former tour manager Alan Leeds when the track was included on Prince’s The Hits/The B-Sides collection. It seems Prince initially recorded it to place on Jesse’s album, but when it was knocked back, swiftly leaked it to Detroit DJ The Electrifyin’ Mojo, specifically to wind up his former employee. According to the session’s engineer Susan Rogers, Prince believed gazumping Jesse’s project was “schoolboy evil.” That darker side of Prince, unveiling itself on Shockadelica, would officially introduce his new alter-ego, Camille. “The girl must be a witch,” he sings in an odd high pitched voice, like this Camille minx has got him by the nuts. A vocal effect achieved by slowing down the track, singing a lead vocal take in real time, and then speeding it up to its natural tempo (a technique he had toyed with ever since Let’s Go Crazy B-side Erotic City). Regardless of the motives, or mechanics of its creation, Shockadelica is a moment of unfettered slop purity. The guitars, heavy in parts, never overwhelm the Linn Drum sound – a groove so goddamn funky, he had to write a song about it.
The record scratches abruptly, “Shut up already, damn!” It’s Camille, and he/she is back already dammit, this time chastising the audience, before singing a single note. Demanding your full attention, Prince has now adopted the Camille persona full time, bringing Shockadelica’s Linn Drum program with it. Once again using the sped up vocal, as he will on all subsequent Camille recordings cut at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles between October 18th & November 4th. It was only the day before he began Housequake that MTV headlines announced the fall of The Revolution. So he knew, on his tod, that he had to come back strong, particularly with his r&b audience, who couldn’t give a shit about Parade’s Venus De Milo. With this in mind Prince began recording Housequake, as soon as inspiration struck, with the named delightfully named Coke Johnson (so LA roadies it hurts) filling in for long suffering engineer Susan Rogers, who was on a 4-day vacation (in less than a year, she had helped Prince record over a 150 finished productions – or 16 albums worth!)
Prince eventually took longer than normal to complete Housequake; not with the 48-track excess of a track like Eye Know on the Lovesexy album, but rather the laser precision of perfection. The reason for the additional focus? Housequake would be Prince’s first, proper attempt at a hip hop record. The later Black Album rap-parody Dead On It, collaborations with mic blowhard Tony M of The Game Boyz have done much to damage Prince’s hip hop credentials, but one mustn’t forget, that with his early forays into rap - Irresistible Bitch, Holly Rock (Sheila E), Annie Christian, Rebirth Of The Flesh (more about that later), Cat Glover’s verse on Alphabet Street & Housequake - Prince’s take on the genre, in the eighties, was credible. Housequake was also Prince’s best all the way funk record (for the first 20 years Hip Hop & Funk would be symbiotically linked); stealing sweat-drenched pants from James Brown (Additional note: the Housequake 7 Minutes Mo’quake mix, later released on the U Got The Look 12” even features an aural wink to P-Funk, in the form of even higher pitched nemesis Sir Nose D’voidoffunk) adding witty lyrical earthquake puns [“and the saxophone is the Fault!”] with the odd curse thrown in, just to fuck with Tipper Gore’s Tupperware party. It’s a monstrous groove, that Prince was rightly proud of (the only people who did seem disappointed, were the ones who saw the Sign O The Times movie before listening to the studio album first, hearing how the song worked fine in a live rendition with his voice in its standard register.) As the cool funk cat that got the cream, Prince dug it so much, that he commented to Rolling Stone after The Record Of The Year Grammy went to Joshua Tree in 1988, “U2 will beat you, and you say to yourself, ‘wait a minute I can play that kind of music, too … but you will not do Housequake!’ The irony being, after the year was out (with The Cross & Sign O The Times already in the can) Prince rarely recorded any “rock” songs as good as U2’s.
Feel U Up
Prince’s POV on shagging seemed to go through spurts. Angst ridden and pervy on Dirty Mind, cold & vengeful on 1999, to the downright decadent & sanctified on Purple Rain - whether it was eight minutes plus on wax (Do Me Baby/International Lover) or a patient stroke above Apollonia’s apple catchers on celluloid (in a scene from Purple Rain) the Kid always took his time. That is until Camille turned him out. Camille’s vocal trademark (aside from the pitch gimmick) which Prince had already used on Housequake, being the way he/she sung ‘Come-owwrrn’ in wearied frustration, as in “c’mon baby come-owwrrn … let me feel u up.”
For Camille, instant gratification is what it was all about, without the Hail Mary’s or self-loathing (actually where the hell was God at during the Camille sessions?). And oddly for Prince, he changed very little from the original nasty groove of the Feel U Up 1981 demo, essentially the same lead riff played on bass that he used for the keyboard motif on Erotic City, this time though he had horn players like Eric Leeds & Atlanta Bliss at his disposal to sharpen up the funk. His vocal too is much edgier, flipped from the demo’s post-Controversy dispassionately hollered shtick, to the needier plea to just get on with it.
Feel U Up’s lyrical imagery, in Camille’s hands, is also divergent to the original concept. Especially when you consider the theory that the Camille character is inter-sexual with both girls and boys bits. Prince cryptically answering, many years after the fact, “Your brother’s very wise” when a Yahoo! Blogger mentioned his smart arsed siblings opinion that Camille was based on the nickname of the 19th century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin. If true, loading the lyrical passages with specific sexual acts, contrary to the desires of a large demographic of his fanbase, would purposely go against Prince’s acutely developed image of androgyny, taking away music that a variety of people, with different sexual orientations, could relate to and get off on.
Instead it’s more likely that Camille was simply a vixen, battling with the inner conflicts of intimacy, yet aiming to please and be pleased. Or it's possible, Prince had a more personal perspective altogether in mind.
Rebirth Of The Flesh
Tuesday October 28th has gone down in Prince-lore, as the sloppiest day of his career. Prince fully loaded with all the weapons in his slop cannon, arriving at his favourite room within Sunset Sound to record the perfect amalgamation of Slop, i.e. rock n' roll funked up with soul. Did he have his Linn drum machine with him? Check. Guitar amp turned up to eleven? Check. Messrs Leeds & Blistan? Yessir … check! In one marathon sesh Prince would lay the Camille album opener Rebirth Of The Flesh and closer Rockhard In A Funky Place – both built on the foundations of nasty and malevolent grooves. But whereas Rockhard would go on to achieve greater notoriety as part of The Black Album; the Rebirth Of The Flesh is the only track from the Camille project to remain tucked away in the darkest nook of the vault (a tantalizing ’88 rehearsal of the song was however released via the NPG Music Club in the naughties).
Beginning with a wah wah beat, Rebirth Of The Flesh, brings to mind urban sunshine slop - hopscotch, nursery rhymes, dominoes, crack cocaine, smog and fire hydrants, with errybody dancing to the “New Boogie Cool”, a hip hop influenced, early utopian fantasy that would later evolve into “New Power Soul” on Lovesexy, or to the (Michael) blandness of the “New Power Generation” on Graffiti Bridge.
From the off Flesh sets up Camille’s credentials as a formidable competitor , with Prince – it was Susan Roger’s who spilled the beans, when she said to Per Nilsen: “he was thinking of battling himself, he had this whole idea that Camille would be his competition” - taking the peculiar step of introducing Camille himself. Rapping the first four lines (think Run DMC meets Adam Ant) with the pitch on his voice only slightly altered, before passing the mic to the out there sharpness of Camille, who is “the rebirth of the flesh” personified. A possible reference to the fact that Camille, a fictitious character created in Prince’s imagination, would not actually have skin, whether peach or black. It’s also a nod to the R&B combo The Flesh that Prince formed with Sheila E, Levi Seacer Jr. & Eric Leeds at the turn of ’85 – ’86, who recorded an albums worth of material including Junk Music (used as a score segment in the film Under The Cherry Moon) and the James Brown retro style jam of U Gotta Shake Something, songs that had Prince rediscovering the musical heritage of his ethnic roots (the irony of the US “Uncle Tom” backlash being it was largely his Caucasian European fan base who went wild over his post Parade, late eighties organic funk efforts – his original, Blackamerican fan base, judged by sales or chart placing’s, preferring the “crossover” & new synth funk innovation of the earlier 1999/Time era).
Rockhard In A Funky Place
When the Camille album was later sequenced for release, two days after Prince finished its final session, he ended side two with this jookfunk tale about getting a leg over in a whorehouse. A year after Camille was shelved, he would also intend to finish Sheila E’s birthday party knock-off The Black Album with the same song, indicating that Prince dug the final line so much [“what kind of fuck ending was that?”] that he wanted to leave the audience, by vent of his pent up daring and sleaziness, with jaw’s wide open. Not that the sentiments appeared new or controversial, as the blues has always had a long history of being raunchy and baadass, particularly serial offenders Clarence Carter or The Johnny Otis Show’s Snatch & The Poontangs. However in between Rockhard’s salacious lines such as “I hate to see an erection go to waste” or “you couldn’t concentrate when your dick saw her” you begin to get a hint of where Prince’s head was really at. Because it’s the first time he suggests, under the cloak of Camille, any kind of conflict with spirituality when he sings about Rockhard’s lead character “all you’re looking for is love/or a reason to believe there’s a god above/ pretty soon you’ll get enough/ and head back to a life so tough.” Prince might have been feeling - with unconditional female attention on tap and following the departure of his best friends and bandmates Wendy & Lisa – even more susceptible to loneliness. Sure Susannah Melvoin, Wendy’s twin sister, was still knocking around in Prince’s hair, but it’s this darker side, that Prince would later publicly renounce, in cancelling both the Camille & Black Album projects, in favour of a new found religious awakening with Lovesexy. One where God accommodates the promiscuous as a loving endeavour, under the spiritual. Prince rewriting his bible, rather conveniently, just like a modern day Henry VIII.
But before Lovesexy was an unashamedly phallic album cover, Camille’s Banana Cologne & guilt soaked anti-hero knows exactly what he’s doing is loveless and sleazy, with a heavier emotional attachment to the subject matter than Two Time Slim would have been caught admitting. Rockhard also just so happens to feature the filthiest jazz riff of all time, courtesy of Eric Leeds that is. A hook so great, it out blows Madhouse and any jazz pretension Prince ever felt in the eighties. Ending sloppily, with a sublime heavy guitar solo.
(Parts One & Two)
“Prince was happy during this time and very optimistic about his musical possibilities” said erm Prince, talking in the third person, via the sleeve notes to the independently self-released outtakes collection Crystal Ball. It was the 2nd time that Good Love had been deemed worthy of exposure to the outside world, after its initial low-key inclusion on the soundtrack of the Michael J. Fox plays-a-coke-addict drama Bright Lights Big City, a film which vanished quicker than you could say Doc Hollywood.
In tandem with his chirpy recollection, Prince probably strolled into the Sunset Sound whistling a Gustav Mahler (*name checked in the lyrics) symphony the morning he recorded Good Love, as it appears to reassure the listener that the best antidote to catching the aids virus or spiralling into drug addiction - the world described in the song Sign ‘O’ The Times, which he recorded just a couple of months prior - is the power of a good, satisfying, old fashioned, safety first hump on a one night stand. Executed with an upbeat tempo carrying the message along, maybe even too upbeat, as if Prince had taken the LP version of Stevie Wonder’s Do I Do, pressed 45rpm and dropped the needle.
Whereas the deployment of the accelerated vocal pitch is tasteful and considered throughout the rest of the Camille sessions, here it sounds like he just thought ‘fuck it’ and sped up the entire track. Whizzing along bass, beat, steel drum, synths and backing singers Susannah Melvoin & Sheila E with him. Still catchy as hell, with a stomping ‘good love part two’ vamp and some feel-good chord change genius on the bridge, one can only wonder how much damage a naturally pitched, slightly slowed down version could have inflicted if let loose on the Billboard charts.
If I Was Your Girlfriend
Wouldn’t it be great to just drag Prince down the Walnut Tree, ply him with Oranjeboom’s and Quavers, and ask him, man to man, what the song If I Was Your Girlfriend was really all about? Was he that strung out on Wendy’s sister Susannah Melvoin? Engineer Susan Roger’s certainly thought so, telling Per Nilsen:
“He envied the closeness they had. They spent hours on the phone. It was a way of asking, ‘Why can’t I have the closeness you have with your sister? Why can’t we be friends too?’”
Susannah herself believes the same thing, telling biographer Matt Thorne that Prince did, in fact, write it specifically for her. Suggesting Prince, rather atypically for him, gave both ladies an indication of the songs inspiration. Smoke and mirrors perhaps, because the words taken in this context - of a man wanting the close, intimate and emotional bond of a family member or best friend with his partner - seem to echo the simplistic notion he offered a decade earlier, and was able to articulate in just one line, via the song I Wanna Be Your Lover (the line: “I wanna be your mother and your sister too”).
No, with something new to say, and particularly in the way Prince fought for it as the second single off of Sign O The Times, If I Was Your Girlfriend appeared to lie much closer to the heart of its author. When Prince Biographer Liz Jones told him that they study the song in school, he even burst into tears.
The track too, ostensibly a slow funk ballad, with its popping bassline, Linn Drum thwacks and dark, hymn like synth chords, is unlike anything else in the Prince catalogue … or indeed anything else released that year (imagine say BBC Radio 1’s Bruno Brookes or Simon Bates having to play it after Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody). The Camille “lead vocal”, possibly the most soulful Prince has ever laid to tape, is sped up naturally, but has an additional, flat and dry effect, caused by Susan Rogers balls up when recording the take in distortion. A happy accident Prince liked so much, he didn’t try and rectify. Lo-fi synth lines instead of horns, and without the opulence of a Clare Fischer string arrangement, the song is kept intentionally solitary. Never before or since has Prince sounded so masterful and attuned to his own instinct and abundant musical gifts. A contender for the most soulful funk record ever made, had Prince brought Girlfriend out under the guise of Camille, and up against the rest of the music on Sign O The Times, she may have even won.
Which brings us back to the original orientation of this Camille bird - did Susannah inspire all of that feeling? They were certainly smitten, but do not discount the influence of the love Prince had for both Wendy & Lisa, probably the two people he had been closest to over the last 3 years. So deeply felt that ten years later, Prince, whilst married to Mayte Garcia and expecting his firstborn, dedicated the song In This Bed I Scream (with the telling lyric: “lonely nights I lay awake thinking of you”) to his former companions. Lisa, in an interview with Out Magazine, would describe, tongue in cheek, that the three of them had a “three way love affair”. It’s possible, when Camille was recorded less than a month after Prince fired Wendy & Lisa, who we’re married at the time, that the heartbreak of one or both leaving, affected his music even more deeply than some realized. Taken in this context Camille could be Prince’s take on a lesbian lover, confused that he didn’t share the same intimacy with his two best friends who were closer than he could ever wish to be. With all three displaying such an androgynous image (Wendy & Lisa never went public with their marriage), why would a little thing like gender get in the way?
Despite this theory (yet another), the reason so many people relate to If I Was Your Girlfriend, however they take it, is precisely because the words aligned with the music work no matter which way your symbol points.
With If I Was Your Girlfriend in the bag, Prince had one last assignment to take care of before sequencing the album on November 5th and officially putting the Camille project to bed. Strange Relationship (the demo originally dating back to 1982) had been given the Ravi Shankar treatment in April, Lisa and Wendy painstakingly revamping the track with conga, sitar and wood flutes, to the point where it would be ready to serve as the centrepiece of the Dream Factory project, the aborted final Revolution album. If released in its finished Dream Factory condition, with a vulnerable and forlorn sounding double-tracked vocal by Prince, it could have been a single in a similar stripped down vein to When Doves Cry or Kiss; the Indian influence subtle enough to be more effective than any of the cumbersome sixties psychedelia evident on Prince’s Purple Rain follow up Around The World In A Day. However, Camille had other ideas. Increasing the funk, chopping out the fade-in intro, adding swirling synths and snarling into the mic like a belligerent Sly Stone in If You Want Me To Stay, Camille turns the point of view from emotional victim to perpetrator. Lines like “I guess you know me well, I don’t like winter/but I seem to get a kick out of doing you cold” flipped from defeatist to the sadomasochistic, and another “Honey if you let me I just might do something rash” no longer a confession of weakness but rather, a warning. Prince even rewrote one lyric from “I’ll take all the blame, but I’m only human,” giving it no-get out, no excuse with “I’ll take all the blame - yo’ baby I’m sorryyehhh”. Reasserting his musical vision and letting it be known - by adlibbing “MY Strange Relationship!” - that this is his song and the behaviour his problem.
One can only imagine, how Wendy & Lisa must have felt, listening to this version, the one eventually included on Sign O The Times. Prince had taken their interpretation, a recording they had invested a considerable amount of love, labour & time into, and twisted it into his own idiosyncratic rendition. Even the ending chant “Yeah! Yeah!” is cranked up in the mix on the final master – almost as if he we’re saying, ‘up yours.’
Save for a digital live version in 2005, Prince & Warner Bros never released Strange Relationship as a single, an oversight, especially considering that, with only the slightest tweak, the guitar/bass riff would later prove commercial enough to give D’Angelo his breakthrough on the gold selling/Grammy nominated hit Lady.
[What Kind Of Fuck Ending Was That?]
After a month of furious writing & recording, Prince officially finished the Camille album on November 5th, sequenced into the following order – Side one: Rebirth Of The Flesh; Housequake; Strange Relationship & Feel U Up. Side two: Shockadelica; Good Love; If I Was Your Girlfriend & Rockhard In A Funky Place. A test pressing was made of both the album and a single [Shockadelica b/w Housequake] and an official release scheduled, with a Warner Bros catalogue number, for January 1987. It’s not known whether he intended to put out another Prince record at the same time (to do battle) but what we do know is that shortly after the album was completed, he took the decision to shelve the project. Instead concentrating on assimilating all but one of the Camille tracks (Feel U Up) on the sprawling yet dazzlingly bountiful 3-LP set Crystal Ball, itself cancelled, at the insistence of Warner Bros for the more “trimmed down” two LP set Sign O The Times (which would only feature three of the Camille tracks Housequake, If I Was Your Girlfriend & Strange Relationship – with the exception of Rebirth the rest came out as either B-Sides or on Soundtracks) the album that we know and love today. Camille would make a welcome cameo appearance on the pop/slop Sheena Easton duet U Got The Look, and the Black Album's menacing, pitch in reverse, deep voiced highlight Bob George. But subsequent efforts like Scarlet Pussy in '88 would only confirm that Camille was yesterday's girl.
We’ll never know how the Camille album would have been received had it officially been released as a concise suite of funk in 1987. It’s just possible, without having made any concessions to his strict approach to musicology, that at a time when the rap of Public Enemy and Teddy Riley’s early Keith Sweat forays into New Jack Swing we’re finding favour with the youth of black America, and the British rare groove scene was on the rise with groups like Diana & The Brothers and the burgeoning Acid Jazz movement, that Prince might have achieved the respect he craved from his original black American, authentic funk fan base, in a way that he was never able to do convincingly after breaking through the pop barrier, despite attempting to embrace popular R&B trends just 4 years later with Diamonds & Pearls. An uncompromisingly brilliant funk album, Camille with its alternative approach, displays the hallmarks of the drugged out maverick genius of seventies albums by Sly Stone and George Clinton, without losing the heart and introspectiveness of the very best pop art.
Hopefully Prince and the new regime at Warners will stop flirting with each other and work out a way to revisit all of his glorious back catalogue & unreleased material. That way Prince could finally compete with Camille.
THE CAMILLE ALBUM REMAINS UNRELEASED
Andrew Bird deserves special mention for the brilliant Camille cover mock up.
Where possible I’ve given credit to Per Nilsen, Liz Jones & Matt Thorne for their outstanding work on recent Prince biographies.
Requests for bootlegged material will not be responded to and please note the opinions expressed in this article are that of the author Dan Dodds, and are in no way meant to be presented as fact. It’s a blog ... written with nothing but love & respect.
Thanks to Camille.
**Originally published February 2012**