Another Starr Production: The Time at 40
A deeper look into the Prince associates’ eponymous debut four decades later
Released on 29 July 1981, The Time’s eponymous debut turns forty, today. I won’t rehash how The Time came to be, as that’s been covered in many articles and podcasts, ad nauseam. Instead, I want to deconstruct how incredibly crucial this album is to Prince’s legacy!
In August 1981’s “‘Time’ helps set hometown sound” for The Minneapolis Star, Jon Bream (who covered Prince in the press more than anyone) wrote, “This isn’t especially great music, but this is an important album.” While I vehemently disagree with the beginning of this sentence, the second half would be prophetic.
The Time is an important album within Prince’s canon. I would go so far as to say that it may be even more essential than Prince’s critical darling, 1980’s Dirty Mind. Why? This is where Prince spearheaded his world-building, modeling George Clinton with all of his band off-shoots, and, more importantly, cementing his mystique by introducing the mysterious producer, Jamie Starr, on this release.
In the same article, Jon Bream would go on to declare, “It’s too bad Prince didn’t stick around, because The Time could have benefited from his experience.” However, Bream wasn’t the only one. Other music journalists did not know that Prince was Jamie Starr in real-time, either. Noted author, music journalist, and filmmaker Nelson George would confirm that while Jamie Starr seemed odd in retrospect in “My Strange Relationship with Prince” from The Nelson George Mixtape on Substack. No one “ventured to the Twin Cities to confirm this tale.” Everyone went along with it, at first. However, what’s odder is that no one figured this out after a close listen to the album. It’s clearly Prince singing in the background.
While world-class, guitarist Jesse Johnson would reveal in 2012’s Wax Poetics Issue 50 that one of the original machinations of The Time was the Nerve, “a Black version of Hall & Oates,” comprised of him and Morris Day. The Time would, indeed, become a Black Hall & Oates, of sorts. While members of “the band” (bassist Terry Lewis, keyboardist, Jimmy Jam, lead vocalist Morris Day, keyboardist Monte Moir, drummer Jellybean Johnson, and a pre-signature pink Jesse Johnson minus percussionist and “mirror man” Jerome Benton) were featured on the black and white album cover, photographed impeccably by Allen Beaulieu, they would not perform on the album with the sole exception of Morris Day.
The Time was, essentially, Prince and Morris Day. Prince’s vocals are high in the mix; He wanted them to be heard. He was leaving us, mere mortals, clues to what would become a thousand-piece puzzle.
The Time’s records were ridiculous showcases for Prince’s musicianship and particularly his bass playing. Prince does NOT get enough praise for his bass “attacking”—so simple but powerful that it’s rare to hear someone, other than BrownMark, have the same feel, utilizing silence for impact & punctuation and not filling every measure with unnecessary licks. We take this for granted, now, but listen! Prince and Morris Day on drums were the band. Prince, predominantly, played all the instruments on the album and composed the majority of the music. Morris Day, a massively underrated musician, played drums on the entire album with the exception of “Get It Up” and “After High School,” where Prince took over those duties, instead.
Before I started trading tapes during the eighties in my teens and marveled at the joy of Prince jamming in rehearsal, I felt that same joy radiate, specifically, on The Time’s records, as opposed to his own. You could palpably hear that at his core Prince was a musician.
While it took my very young ears two to three years to distinguish Prince’s vocals and voice in skits from Morris’, I would have thought that seasoned music journalists would have been able to hear this, instantaneously. However, “his very elaborate depiction,” as Nelson George would put it, clearly worked.
However, Jon Bream would quickly figure out this deception within a couple of months. In “Prince Singing for Time is Dreamy,” in October 1981, also for The Minneapolis Star, “My dream depicted something different: Prince was the Time and the Time was Prince… I dreamed Starr was really Prince just having some fun.”
In the same article, Jon Bream, also, imagined that Prince would become “the next George Clinton.” Prince would quickly realize this promise by creating his own version of a female spinoff group like Parliament-Funkadelic’s Parlet with Vanity 6, less than one year later. So, Jon Bream solved the Starr mystery, pretty quickly, but not as instantaneously as one would have thought.
The Starr Company would live on with The Time’s follow-up, 1982’s What Time Is It? and the eponymous Vanity 6, as well as several other later projects. This was the beginning of many other Prince aliases, Alexander Nevermind, Joey Coco, Christopher, etc.
In real-time, The Time’s debut would prove more successful with black audiences in key markets, such as Detroit and Chicago, than Prince’s own Controversy, released three months later in October 1981. In 1984’s Prince, the then editor of Black Beat magazine Steven Ivory noted that, “After the success of The Time’s debut album, the world wondered how its producer could possibly compete with it, since The Time, with its more R&B sound, found its audience so quickly.”
In the March 1982 Minneapolis Tribune article, “Local bands put on a ‘Prince’ of a show,” The Time was the featured photo, not Prince, whose photo came after in a smaller frame. The staff writer, Michael Anthony, would also highlight that Minneapolis wasn’t the racial utopia that Prince often projected:
These records [The Time and Controversy] have generated interest on their own merits… the fact that music so untypical demographically of the Twin Cities – this is, so [the author’s emphasis] black – is emanating from so white a town, to say nothing of the particularly erotic bent of much of The Time’s and Prince’s songs. The nation, which cares about such things, anyway, seems puzzled… But they can’t figure out why such interesting and inviting contemporary funk music is emerging from these parts.
The Time’s debut would set the standard of the six-song suite, three songs per album side, which wouldn’t be broken until 1990’s Pandemonium. While Bream would complain about the length of these songs in his review, I truly loved this structure, reminding me of the funk masters’ Ohio Players 1972’s Pain and 1974’s Skin Tight. Prince admired this band, originating in arguably the funk capital of the world, Dayton, Ohio, as he covered them often and lovingly cited them in his unfinished, but official autobiography, The Beautiful Ones. The longer duration gave time for the songs to breathe and ultimately groove.
The album would birth The Time’s anthem and calling card, “Cool,” the second single, weirdly, and the only video filmed for the album. The song clocked in at a little over ten minutes.
VIDEO: The Time “Cool”
In The Los Angeles Times in February 1982, Morris Day would be hilariously quoted by Connie Johnson, “Prince is not cool, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. It’s obvious in the way he dresses–or doesn’t dress.” Prince would later reclaim the song beginning in the early 2000s and would make it a staple in his own sets during the Welcome 2 America tours, either in his sampler set or live performance. As Harold Pride also noted in the Dance / Music / Sex / Romance podcast hosted by Zachary Hoskins, listening to the full song on the album allows you to experience the depths of the song in all of its glory without having to search for a 12-inch, extended version.
The first single, “Get It Up” would prove to be just as influential as “Cool,” covered by not only TLC in 1993, but as late as 2015 by Fingazz. Last month, Morris Day revealed on Questlove Supreme that Prince had originally offered the tune to 70s, Atlanta-based, funk band, Brick. A revered classic by fans, I’m sure many of us are ecstatic that that transaction didn’t go through, as it’s a key cornerstone of the record.
While Jon Bream highly praised it upon its release (“The most successful track is ‘After High School,’ which is new wave in both its sound and message.”), “After High School,” written by former Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson, is the one song that most Prince fans agree does not fit on the album.
This was the conclusion not only during The Time’s debut roundtable featuring Michael Dean, as moderator, Richard Cole, Eloy Lasanta, Marc Wiggins, and Ricky Wyatt, for 2021’s virtual #1plus1plus1is3, the latest, Prince symposium that I curate annually, but also on another roundtable about The Time’s debut for the Dance / Music / Sex / Romance podcast, hosted by Zachary Hoskins and featuring Harold Pride and KaNisa Williams. I would go one step farther and say it’s not cool (pun intended) enough to be a song crafted for The Time. As discussed on the D / M / S / R podcast, why is Morris Day singing about high school? Also, on the next Time album, Morris Day would jokingly proclaim, “We don’t like new wave!” If only this stance had already been taken on this debut, focusing squarely on funk and soul instead.
VIDEO: The Time roundtable discussion
Also, during both roundtables, Morris’ early vocal chops are questioned, particularly on the two slow jams, “Girl” and “Oh, Baby.” In 1982, Michael Anthony would agree verbatim: “Day doesn’t really have a big enough or wide-ranging enough voice for the traditional soul ballad, which he attempted mid-set, but in the dance tunes, bolstered by back-up vocals from the band, he shines.”
Jon Bream would write that Morris Day “comes across as a capable singer,” and I agree. While I don’t pull out this record to specifically listen to “Girl,” despite being the album’s third single, I must hear “Oh, Baby,” occasionally. Hopefully, Prince’s vocal version will be released, eventually. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would prefer Morris Day’s version, as I do with “Gigolos Get Lonely, Too.” Hearing Prince’s vocals for the very first time on the posthumous Originals from 2019 was an INCREDIBLE experience. Ultimately, though, Morris Day would own these tracks through his sheer commitment of singing his heart out!
The album’s sleeper masterpiece is “The Stick.” Prince thought so too or it wouldn’t have been one of the three longest songs on the album, after “Cool” and “Get It Up” respectively. At a little over eight minutes, the song features Lisa Coleman, keyboardist/pianist in The Revolution, on background vocals and Dr. Fink, the other keyboardist in The Revolution, on the synth solo. Lisa’s background vocals happen to be one of my favorites backing Prince-penned tunes. Listen to Andre Cymone’s “Dance Electric” or Prince’s “Irresistible Bitch,” both written by Prince, for further evidence of the perfect marriage of Lisa’s vocal tone with Prince’s. However, we can’t leave out the additional, powerful backing vocals of Sue Ann Carwell on both “Get It Up” and “Cool.” Prince would also be principal in getting Sue Ann a record deal with Warner Bros. Records. Sue Ann was released in 1981, as well.
While I was delighted to see Rhino recognize the 40th anniversary of this seminal release with a red and white-colored, vinyl reissue, this album deserves a deluxe treatment. For this special release, the single-disc turned into two LPs via single edits for every song except for “Oh, Baby.” Why do edits continue to receive such prominence on Prince reissues? (This is a rhetorical question.)
What’s sorely missing from this reissue is The Time as a live unit. Prince had been quoted as saying that The Time was the only band that scared him. In addition to recognizing the members of The Time, all stellar musicians and super producers in their own right with a live concert, a deluxe treatment could have also included all of the songs with Prince’s original vocals a la Originals.
While What Time Is It? would, rightfully, overshadow the debut, The Time is pivotal to Prince’s star ascending. Unlike 1987’s, Prince-produced, Jill Jones which was also important but mistimed, this album’s timing was perfect, giving Prince the rocket ship he needed to take us to an alternate, musical universe, entirely of his own creation. The first stop on this mind-blowing journey was The Time.
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