Unsung masterpieces, lost gems, forgotten heroes


Of all the things I might write, and as late as you’re all prone to me being, even I’m surprised at how important it is to me to post this before year end (sorry New Zealand, etc, where I’m already too late).

It’s important to me because I don’t want the year to end without commemorating one of my favorite bands of all time, who, 25 years ago (in 1990, Dear God!) released my favorite album of theirs.

They are also, HANDS DOWN, the greatest live act I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to a LOT of shows in my time.

I’m talking about the Time, or as they are known today, the Original 7ven – but that’s another story for another time.

You most likely know these guys from their appearance as Prince’s rivals in Purple Rain, where Morris Day stole the show from The Man Himself.  And while Morris and Jerome and Jesse and Jellybean were in the band, it wasn’t the real Time – three members had been replaced, and while they may have been mighty, it wasn’t the same.  For one thing, the Time in the movie was not as accomplished and in the pocket – they never gigged, except for the live stuff filmed in First Avenue.

But the real Time, the original seven guys Prince put together as the first band in his “Idolmaker”-inspired, Jamie Starr-produced, side-projects, were a remarkable funk/pop act, with style, attitude, musical chops, chemistry and the greatest live show I’ve ever seen.

Because they were assembled AFTER their first album was recorded (with Morris on vocals and Prince playing everything else) their smoking live act was even more jaw-dropping.   And Morris wasn’t even supposed to be the singer – he was originally going to be the drummer!

I first heard them live backing Vanity 6 – but I didn’t know it was them, because the Time played behind a fishnet and pink curtain, while the trio of lingerie-clad ladies writhed in front of it and sang.  This was in 1983 in Hartford Connecticut on the “1999” / Triple Threat Tour.  I was a huge Prince fan – and very excited to see for the first time.  I was excited to see Vanity 6 too (I had a huge crush on Vanity).  Our seats were in the third row.

MUST I explain?

MUST I explain?

After Vanity’s set the Time were up next.  Although I liked their most recent record, “What Time Is It?” – a big step forward from the very canned sound of the first, and with better songs, I still wasn’t expecting much.  Boy was I wrong.

They played a 40-minute set in front of another backdrop, the steps they’re shown standing on their first album.  It was monumental.  They had everything, and they just killed it.  They were the tightest band I’d ever seen, and still are.  1999 was a crossover record, but the Hartford Civic Center crowd was mostly black, and the whole place basked in that that rare shared happy post-concert vibe.  Then Prince came on, and it was okay.  The show was painfully choreographed with an elaborate stage production.  It had none of the energy of his opening acts and although the songs were familiar hits, by the time he’d dragged us through a painfully extended version of the already tedious and braggadocio-laden “International Lover”, I was flat out bored.  The Time had won the night.

After the Hartford show, the tour hit NYC but the Time did not get to play.  A rumor said Prince was afraid they’d blow him off the stage and steal all his good press.  If the story’s true, he was right.

Since Prince & Morris made the first two records (and 4 of the six songs on “Ice Cream Castles”) alone in the studio, the band were ordered to rehearse for the tours they opened for Prince (first “Controversy” and then “1999”).  And rehearse they did, grinding it out, breathing incredible life into Prince’s lazy studio grooves, making them their own and putting together an incredible live act that their creator could not match.

Jealousies and rivalry had been brewing for a while.  The Time was created to glorify Prince and increase his income.  Prince threw the band together to pay back Morris for giving him the song “Partyup”, from “Dirty Mind”.  Later on, Prince didn’t exchange promises for songs, he just bought the ones members of his stable had written and he wanted to own, taking full writing credit too.  Supposedly, Jesse Johnson was the recipient of large buyouts for both “The Bird” and “Jungle Love”. And yes, a few local friends got to come along for the Time ride, but aside from Morris, those chosen were picked for primarily economical reasons – after all, those guys already lived in Minneapolis.

But the Time members could all write, and they wanted to do their own material – with credits.  They wanted to produce their own records.  When Prince said no, they took other opportunities.  Morris hung around for the movie, cannily recognizing it might launch him to greater heights of fame.  But Vanity 6 lost Vanity before filming and became Apollonia 6, and both they and the Time were defunct as performing units before the film opened – in fact, I doubt either band as seen in the film did any performances except those in the film.  The Purple Rain tour would’ve been a movie-centric repeat of the 1999 tour lineup, but instead Sheila E was the opening act.

By that time, fascinated with Prince and the Minneapolis music scene, and in desperate need to get the hell out of Hartford for a variety of reasons, I’d moved to Minnesota to work for one of the founders of Rykodisc.  Initially, I preferred the old-town feel of St Paul versus newer Minneapolis (this was before I realized nothing was happening in St Paul and moved to Minneapolis), so I rented a recently renovated apartment downtown, at 339 Chestnut Street.  This was right above a bar (convenient) and just a couple of block from the St Paul Civic Center, where I saw (and illegally recorded) most of Prince’s homecoming shows on the Purple Rain tour around Christmas of ’84.

Morris and Jesse went solo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis became the hottest producers in the business and most of the other guys from the original band either segued into the Family (a band that played only ONE show before imploding – I saw it) or became key players in Jimmy & Terry’s stable.  Drummer Jellybean Johnson, also a hot rock guitarist, did both, contributing the scorching “Black Cat” to Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” album.

Good start, anyway.

Good start, anyway.

The solo careers of both Morris and Jesse started on high notes, but burned out fast.  Around 1987/88 The Time reformed (if you can call it that) and recorded a new album called “Corporate World.”  But like the earlier albums, it was not truly a band effort.  A lot of the songs were old Prince demos like “Databank” and “My Summertime Thang”; it felt limp.  Also on “Corporate World”, “Shake” one of the lamest Time songs, ironically featured in Prince’s lamest movie, “Grafitti Bridge.”  About the only good thing about “Corporate World” was the single Time show planned as a re-launch, at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul as a “surprise” encore to that year’s Minnesota Black Music Awards show.   The complete original band appeared onstage for the first time since 1983. They were just as hot as they’d been when they embarrassed Prince on tour.  And then the album was shelved and they were gone - again.

But not for long!  In 1989 Prince wanted to make his third film, “Graffiti Bridge.”  After “Under The Cherry Moon” bombed and “Sign Of the Times” broke even, Prince was not in demand at movie theaters.  One of the conditions of “Bridge’s” low-budget financing was the reformed Time must join the cast and soundtrack – AND deliver a new album.  Hopefully this would recapture the “Purple Rain” chemistry and the album sales would contribute dollars to help recoup the film’s budget.  The Time reformed and appear in the film, shot entirely on a set at Prince’s Paisley Park studio (and looks it).   Three songs from “Corporate World”, “Shake”, “Love Machine” and “Release It”, not classics, were eventually featured on the “Graffiti Bridge” soundtrack.

"I have a bad idea that could be a movie and an album!"  "Cool, let's do that!"

"I have a bad idea that could be a movie and an album!"  "Cool, let's do that!"

But Prince, too busy writing and directing his movie to interfere with the Time’s album, was forced to acquiesce to the band’s desires and let them write and record on their own.  The result is the fantastic album I’m writing about today; 1990’s “Pandemonium.”

There are hangovers from “Corporate World” – “Donald Trump Black Version,” “Databank” and “My Summertime Thang” are essentially the same tracks from those sessions, with varying degrees of dusting off, and are probably included as tribute to Prince.

While those songs fit just fine (although they are hardly highlights) “Pandemonium’s” confidence, style and seemingly effortless organic grooves make a sparkling clear case as to how far off-base the Prince-controlled “Corporate World” failed at capturing what is truly wonderful about the Time.  

Take, for example, “Corporate World’s” first track; the clumsy, stilted, groove-free, sample-heavy “Murph Drag.”  It’s an awful track, but the Time re-worked it into the smoking “Jerk Out” – a huge single from their gold album.

Luckily for the Time, their album was released months before the “Graffiti Bridge” film bombed.  Even though the Time appeared in the movie, they managed to avoid the stink of its failure by getting out in front of it.  A few songs from the album appeared as background music in the film, but they weren’t featured like “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” had been.

The album has fifteen tracks; even though three of them are 30 second-ish skits, that’s still twice the number than any previous Time album, all six-song affairs.

“Pandemonium” opens with a lengthy skit; Morris is dreaming about a Time reunion show in front of a screaming audience.  Popular urban video host Donnie Simpson is giving a self-serving but heartfelt intro before Morris is woken up by a phone call from Jerome who tells him about trouble at “the club” – a great “Purple rain” reference.  The Donnie Simpson intro is a real intro - from the reunion show at Minnesota Black Music Awards ceremony, right around the time “Corporate World” was recorded.

When Morris arrives at the club, tinkly, weak-sauce music is playing and Morris exhorts both band and club-goers into a dance party mood before launching into the slamming “Pandemonium” which sets the stage and theme for the rest of the record; it’s all about having fun and chasing the ladies.

Another skit follows, two young ladies arguing Morris’s sexiness.  This is the kind of self-effacing silliness lost in today’s urban music.  Morris plays the egotist dandy, but at the same time it’s all in fun; he knows it’s a joke and so does the listener.  Even the delivery and cadence of the girls’ dialogue shifts from realistic to knowingly self-conscious.

As the skit ends and the aforementioned “Jerk Out”, Morris quietly signals “band” and his brothers in arms fall in to create an amazing, nearly 7 minute groove that has not worn out it’s welcome 25 years later.  This seemed like a grab for the credibility that had collectively eluded them earlier, and when Morris says he’s “in the mood for a change – crossover” Jesse’s guitar wails in with a knowing wink to the listener that they want to go beyond their status as urban hitmakers and capture the white rock audience Prince gained in the wake of “Purple Rain.”

This is followed by another skit, “Yount”, which is essentially someone in the band saying the nonsense word “yount” over and over, interspersed with insults as the band loses it, falling all over each other laughing.  If this is how much fun a Time recording session is like, we should all be so lucky.

The (I’m guessing) Jesse Johnson track “Blondie” is next, a full-on squealing guitar-rocker with a funky backbeat.  The lyrics are about a gold-digging airhead nicknamed Blondie.  The titular character says during a dialogue break “That’s not my name”, to which Morris replies, “I know.”  There’s reason to suggest Prince wrote or influenced the lyrics; he’d just had a nasty break-up with the alleged actual “Blondie”, Kim Basinger, after a whirlwind romance (I saw them skipping and holding-hands to a waiting limo once – it was, frankly, nauseating).

Vicki Vale.  Vicki Vale.  She likes BATMAN

Vicki Vale.  Vicki Vale.  She likes BATMAN

“Donald Trump Black Version” is a semi-slow-jam and also about a girl hunting a man with money; placing it after the Basinger diss-track may be theme overkill, but it’s still pretty funny, if a bit more forced than most of the other material.  It does feature a backing vocal about “Diamonds and Pearls” which reappears as the title of Prince’s 1991 album, proving he never lets go of a catchy turn of phrase.

“Chocolate” was originally a Prince demo that dates back to the very early 80’s.  Simple and silly, the Time spice it up with their own added lyrics over the bridge.  Oddly, Morris refers to himself here as an older man, even though this is only nine years after his first appearance on record.  If my math is right he was only in his early 30’s at the time “Pandemonium” was recorded.  The track ends with an extended jam over a restaurant skit that leads into another actual skit about cooking, which launches into what I assume is another Jesse Johnson-authored rocker, the inscrutable “Skillet.”

This super-funky, guitar-driven workout equates cooking food in a cast-iron skillet with crafting a funky groove – with a clever break that alludes to Jimmy Jam’s keyboard as “chili sauce” (a call-back to the title of an old b-side).  By the time Morris is riffing on what he’s going to make for dessert, if your ass isn’t shaking, get fitted for a toe-tag.

The rest of the album is sterling solid, if unremarkable by the standards set by the earlier tracks.  The groove & attitude is still there, but the hooks aren’t as deep.  “It’s Your World” sounds like Morris’ work, closely aligned with the aforementioned “Partyup” and “After Hi School” from the first Time album, which he’s also rumored to have written.

“Sometimes I Get Lonely” is the requisite ballad; the band puts some effort into lifting the material up, but it’s a song anyone could’ve performed with similar results.  “Databank” is another hangover from “Corporate World” and had been floating around Minneapolis tape traders since the early 80’s as a Prince track, with different lyrics (the part about basketball was not on the demo).  I assume it’s the same basic track with some spiffing up, as Prince is clearly buried in the vocal stacks.  By the time it came out, it’s almost as if Prince & the Time are using the song to parody Ready For The World’s “Digital Display” – but it’s still a catchy number, just like “Oh Sheila” was. 

The last song on the album is “My Summertime Thang”, another “Corporate World” leftover.  A Prince demo version, perhaps intended for “Ice Cream Castles” was recorded in 1983. The cut makes a lot more sense if you’ve ever had the pleasure of cruising around Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun, unattached, on the first warm day of summer.  It’s a nice little verse & chorus with a sweet hook, but at nearly seven minutes, too damn long.  By the time we get to it, all the tricks employed to extend it have been used to better effect elsewhere.   The “Corporate World” version seems to be a different recording with a recurring and annoying car horn sample, and is over seven minutes long, so the “Pandemonium” take is far better.

The album ends with another self-deprecating skit, as Morris’ car breaks down and he has to walk home to a chorus of bullfrogs and owls, singing to himself.

Although the album was launched with much fanfare and a high-profile performance on the Tonight Show, it wasn’t quite the hit everyone hoped for.  The general public may not have understood the Time was not just a conceit created for “Purple Rain”, but an actual band.  The marketing for “Pandemonium” didn’t explain who all the players had become since the movie.  Prince was already frustrated with Warner Brothers and was about to start bitterly feuding with them in public, which couldn’t have helped, and the disastrous mess that was “Graffiti Bridge” on every conceivable level was probably the final nail in the coffin.  Without a hit movie and the failure of “Chocolate” as a second single, the reunited band pulled the plug on the idea of touring and went their separate ways, so I considered myself extremely lucky to have seen them live twice.

I fell in love with the record immediately, and played the hell out of it, much to the annoyance of my co-workers.  When it was originally released in the summer of 1990, Rykodisc was in the midst of its most successful period, having followed up the Sound + Vision box with the first three Bowie albums, Changesbowie and Ziggy Stardust – with Bowie touring the world promoting them.  We had little overhead and were flush with cash.  Our bosses decided each of the three Ryko offices would throw a party and the Minneapolis office chose to have an idyllic, calm boat cruise on the Mississippi.  This was also in the midst of “Twin Peaks” mania and the soundtrack had just come out.  It was an office fave and perfect background music for a lazy float in a river.  This did not prevent me from commandeering the stereo and blasting the Time album, to the amusement of pretty much no one but me.  I wouldn’t be surprised if co-worker and good friend Brian Paulson (who later went on to produce the first Wilco AND Son Volt albums, amongst others) never forgave me.

I go through phases with my favorite records, especially now that I have a playlist with 6000 of my favorite songs, but I do periodically revisit and become re-obsessed with them.  This past summer I was back in Minnesota catching up with friends and celebrating my wife’s 25th birthday.  “Pandemonium” was my soundtrack for driving around Minneapolis, visiting old haunts.  My wife is from a small town in Ottertail County, about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities, and I daresay I listened to nothing but “Pandemonium” the whole way there.  A few days later, my son and I, desperate for some culture, drove to nearby Detroit Lakes to see the Wal-mart and maybe a book.

Dream big, DL.

Dream big, DL.

After pissing away a day in DL (as the locals call it), we were heading out of town, southeast on Highway 10 towards Perham, when I noticed a Billboard advertising “Morris Day and the Time” at a Casino in Walker Minnesota – that Saturday.  I’m not a religious man but this was surely a sign from God.  I had to go and vastly overestimated my wife and family’s enthusiasm for seeing the world’s greatest live band in a Casino in the middle of nowhere Minnesota.  If nothing else, I reasoned, the people-watching would be hilarious.

The show was a ”Kickin’ It Old Skool” branded “tour” featuring (and I’m not kidding) Tone Loc, Naughty By Nature, Sir-Mix-A-Lot, Young MC (?), Salt & Pepa, and finally Morris Day and the Time.

Walker turned out to be a grueling three-hour drive (by myself) in near pitch black darkness, and there were some fairly gruesome shenanigans that I’d rather forget before I left, so I arrived at the horrific casino late, in a highly agitated and angry state of mind.  Luckily the show was running late too, and I could hear the strains of Salt & Pepa finishing their set with an inspirational spiel about God and Hope, likely wasted on the incredibly inebriated white people staggering from the outdoor tent the show was held in.

Perfectly encapsulates my mindset as I head to Walker through farm country with the setting sun about to abandon me.

Perfectly encapsulates my mindset as I head to Walker through farm country with the setting sun about to abandon me.

Native Casinos like this attract big crowds in the summer when vacationers from the big city go rural for the weekend.  You can still smoke indoors, as Casino-land is governed by Native law – Minnesotans love this; smoking is still a thing there.  Everything reeked of desperation, from the drunken partiers to the chain-smoking Grandmas pulling that lever, hoping to have a lucky day.

I saw Jellybean and a few other band members meeting some of the Casino higher-ups for a pre-show photo op in the hallway – but no Morris.  Not able to stomach the redneck revelry, and fully depressed, I went outside to a bench where I watched Casino Cops haul off drunks, throw fighting couples off the property, and similar.  The whole place was one bad vibe, a hope-sucking vortex.  It was like everyone there had given in to a miserable lot in life and was trying to drink it away in one weekend.  By the time I ambled in, I was in an even worse mood than when I arrived.

Worlds collide.  Or hats.

Worlds collide.  Or hats.

Entering the tent, I saw that about half the crowd had left, too incapacitated by booze to stand, sit or even focus their eyes, I’d bet.  11pm is late for drunk honkies on a Saturday night at the Northern Lights.  Casino Cops were still checking tickets for assigned seats, even though the once orderly placed folding chairs were now scattered, knocked over, or in weird snakey non-lines.

The band came on before Morris, cranking out an extended intro before he preened center stage.  As expected, this iteration of the Time is not the original group, or the re-named Original 7ven, who issued the follow-up to “Pandemonium”, a great album called “Condensate” in 2011.  I recommend you get the version with the DVD – it has a fantastic documentary / group bull session that reveals a lot of the psychology of the group, including a hint of why gloomy guitar slinger Jesse split that reunion after one show and seemingly killed it dead forever.  But I digress.  This is the latest version of the band as seen in “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back” with Morris, Monte and Jellybean, plus some hired hands.  For some reason, while Prince wouldn’t allow the original guys to use the name “The Time”, but he would allow (or can’t stop) a band called “Morris Day and the Time.”  Go figure; he was a frustrating genius.

Anyway, my bad mood vanished within 30 seconds of Morris taking the stage.  Although I would’ve preferred better (or any) company, I was so close to the front of the stage and enjoyed a great set list that leaned heavily on my favorite songs, crammed into a fast-paced hour long set.

While these guys are good, nothing has and I doubt ever will, topped the shows I saw played by the original members back in 1983 and 1987.

Do yourself a favor and check out “Pandemonium” – it’s pretty great.  I’m still kicking myself for not flying in for the sole Original 7ven show in Minneapolis (not even sold out!  Minneapolis, how could you?!).  In my defense, they were promising a New York gig.

But most importantly, if you ever, ever, ever, get the chance to see the original Time play, don’t miss them!

Music is the best

PS:  If anyone has a copy of the rumored late 90’s “Old Dogs, New Tricks” unreleased album, get in touch.