As an avowed fan of His Royal Badness and the tradition of silky, wet 1980s R&B he inspired, I was thrilled and honored to be asked to guest blog during the holiday season that is Prince Summer. Since Andre is covering the mainline Prince projects, however, I thought it would be best for me to fill in with some material on Prince’s extensive stable of side projects, from the 1980s to his untimely death in 2016. And where better to start on the Prince spinoff tip than with the greatest band in the world: the muthafuckin’ Time.
The Time were formed in early 1981 as an outlet for Prince’s more conventionally R&B-oriented material, after 1980’s Dirty Mind took his own music further in the direction of New Wave. His connection with several of the individual band members, however, goes back much further. Frontman Morris Day actually got his start as the drummer for Prince’s first band, Grand Central, while the pair were still in high school; they used to play in battles of the bands around Minneapolis in the mid-1970s with a rival act called Flyte Tyme, whose lineup included drummer Jellybean Johnson, keyboardist Monte Moir, and of course, future Minneapolis Sound architects Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on keys and bass, respectively. The Time, then, started life as a combination of the two older groups, with Flyte Tyme singer Alexander O’Neal on lead vocals–that is, until clashes with Prince led to O’Neal’s removal and Day’s promotion from behind the drums to the front of the band. Finally, Prince rounded out the group with the addition of lead guitarist Jesse Johnson, a recent transplant from Rock Island, Illinois.
It’s this lineup that would appear on the Time’s self-titled debut album–or at least, that’s what Prince wanted you to think. Production on the first Time album was credited to Morris Day and “Jamie Starr”: a mysterious figure who was, of course, none other than Prince himself. And he didn’t just produce the record, either: he largely wrote and performed it, using the same “one-man band” approach (with uncredited assists from his band members) as on his own solo records. His guide vocals are even clearly audible on songs like the opening track and lead single, “Get It Up.”
The Time was a commercial success for Prince (who, as the artist directly under contract with Warner Bros., pocketed the vast majority of the profits), and it helped to solidify Minneapolis’ standing as a new musical hotspot, even if it was still almost entirely through the efforts of one guy. For today’s listeners, though, it’s of interest mostly as a historical document. The aforementioned “Get It Up” is good: its lascivious lyrics, Oberheim OB-X synthesizer squeal, and borderline heavy metal guitar solos make it sound like the Controversy outtake it is. And other standout tracks, like followup single “Cool” and the Lisa Coleman-penned workout “The Stick,” laid the groundwork for Morris Day’s larger-than-life persona: a more cartoonish version of the gravel-voiced “pimp” character Prince would adopt while cutting up behind the scenes. But Morris’ singing voice was thin, especially on the slow numbers–“Girl,” inexplicably released as the third single, is just painful to listen to–and Prince still hadn’t hit on quite the right tone for his ghostwriting.
On stage, though, the Time were monsters–which of course resulted in tension when Prince took them on as the opening act for his Controversy tour in late 1981 and early 1982. By hiring some of the best musicians in the Twin Cities as a ghost band, then feeding them deliberately crowd-pleasing material, Prince effectively created his own competition; and by paying the band a pittance of a salary and severely limiting their creative control, he bred resentment and a desire for the puppets to upstage their puppetmaster. These tensions ultimately came to a head on the last date of the tour in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Prince and his band threw eggs at the Time during their opening set, then handcuffed Jesse to a coat rack and pelted him with Doritos. Later, after Prince left the stage, the Time retaliated, and a food fight raged all the way back to the hotel. All in good fun, I suppose–until Prince billed the damage to Morris, claiming that he’d started the whole thing.
Shenanigans aside, Prince recorded another Time album, What Time Is It?, in early 1982, Morris once again replicating his guide vocals with exacting precision. Andre already posted about this one back in 2014, so I won’t dwell too much on it, but suffice to say that if you only listen to one Time record, this is the one to hear. The grooves are skin-tight, the comedy is on point–hell, Morris even figured out how to sing a ballad (see: “Gigolos Get Lonely Too“). But on the ensuing “Triple Threat” tour with Prince and Vanity 6, the rivalry from the previous jaunt continued unabated. This time, tensions flared after Jam and Lewis, who had been producing a few tracks for SOLAR Records on the side, missed a date in San Antonio after being grounded by a blizzard during sessions with the Atlanta-based S.O.S. Band. Prince scrambled to cover for their absence, drafting Lisa to fill in for Jam on keyboards and having auxiliary Time member Jerome Benton mime on stage while he played Terry’s bass parts from behind the curtain. When the duo finally caught up with the rest of the tour, Prince docked their pay, then fired them entirely; Monte Moir also departed in their wake.
The result of all this turmoil was a strange irony: the Time were in shambles, at the very same moment that they were poised for their greatest success. 1984’s Ice Cream Castle, recorded to dovetail with the group’s appearance in Prince’s breakout feature film Purple Rain, was another middling record, but its breakout hits “Jungle Love” (see above) and “The Bird” introduced them to a massive crossover audience. Ultimately, however, it was too late: Morris took off for a solo career soon after the release of the film, leaving Prince to tour for Purple Rain accompanied only by the Revolution, his costar Apollonia, and his newest protegée, Sheila E.
Each of the former members of the Time stayed active in the ensuing years. Jerome, Jellybean, and St. Paul Peterson (Jimmy Jam’s replacement) formed the core of yet another short-lived Prince project, the Family (more on them later). Morris pursued music and acting, both to mixed results. Jesse released a few well-regarded solo albums, to modest commercial success. Jam and Lewis, who frequently retained Moir as a collaborator, had the best run of them all–their former mentor arguably included, as their production of Janet Jackson‘s Control managed to keep Prince and the Revolution‘s Parade off the top spot of the charts in 1986.
By the end of the decade, however, a reunion was brewing. Prince recorded a full “Time” album with just Morris and Jerome in 1989, to be released under the title Corporate World. Warner, however, wanted the full lineup involved; so the album was cancelled, and Morris, Jerome, Jam, Lewis, Jesse, Jellybean, and Moir all reunited to costar in Prince’s ill-fated 1990 sequel to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge (see above). In other words, W.B., be careful what you wish for.
Thankfully, 1990 also saw the release of the band’s much-better album Pandemonium, which combined re-recorded leftovers from Corporate World with resurrected ’80s outtakes like “Chocolate” and “Jerk Out” (see above). The record is a little overstuffed–at 11 tracks not including skits, it’s almost twice the length of any previous Time album–but it’s probably their most satisfying since What Time Is It? Unfortunately, the bonhomie didn’t last, and the group disbanded again shortly after.
And with that, we’ve reached the end of the Time’s official recorded tenure; the group has had an impressive afterlife, however, with Morris, Jerome, Moir, and Jellybean still touring as “Morris Day and the Time” to this day. The original lineup also reunited again in 2011–albeit billed as “the Original 7ven,” due to Prince’s strict control over the “Time” name–for a fun, well-received album called Condensate. Some of the material is unquestionably hokey (was anyone really clamoring for a Time song with a hashtag in the title?), but it’s nevertheless a strong argument that after 30-plus years in the game, the Time’s irrepressible charm remains intact.
There’s a deeper reason, too, why the Time remain arguably the most highly-regarded of Prince’s various side projects. Their rivalry with Prince, both in real life and as dramatized in Purple Rain (we won’t speak any more of Graffiti Bridge), stands as a potent symbol of one of the defining tensions of the Purple One’s career, between humble generosity and iron-fisted tyranny. Prince was more than happy to help his brothers out with a slice of his success–just as long as it was on his terms and they didn’t step on his toes. But the group Prince once described as “the only band that I was afraid of” stepped on his toes with aplomb, all while looking sharp in their Stacy Adams. So let’s hear it for the Time: the original seven lunatics who ended up running the asylum. Like a great man once said: “The Wright Brothers can’t fuck with that.”
I’ll be back next Saturday with a post on the second big project from “Jamie Starr”: the delightfully campy Vanity 6. In the meantime, for more of me blathering about Prince protegés, check out the podcast I recorded for my blog Dystopian Dance Party last month. And of course, come back during the week as Andre resumes his regularly-scheduled programming.