It’s the summer of 1979. Prince was about to release his second album, a follow-up to his solid, if unremarkable, debut album, For You. After playing a couple of live shows at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis in January of ’79, one thing was clear to his record label, Warner Bros. Prince and his band needed more live polish. Maybe a bit more time together to really gel, a chance to vibe, and earn some of that trust from Prince that was required for him to relinquish control of every aspect when performing live. What better way than to gather the troops to create a side project of sorts with no expectations, no pressure, and no overbearing band leader in charge of writing and recording all of the music himself?
The Rebels is what this side-project would be dubbed, by whom, I’m not sure. The Rebels consisted of Prince, Andre Cymone, Dez Dickerson, Gayle Chapman, Matt Fink, and Bobby Rivkin, also known as Prince’s first touring band. This band would embark on the Prince tour in late ’79 through early ’80, also opening for Rick James on his Fire It Up tour. Before they could become the kick-ass band we heard on bootlegs from ’79 to ’80, they had to embark on a trip to Boulder, Colorado, in July of 1979, to bring together all of their individual influences to the collective of The Rebels.
While the end result, nine tracks with various co-writers and lead singers, was not a project that ever saw the official light of day, the songs that the band recorded together would be cherished by Prince bootleggers for years. Not only that, a couple of the songs that Prince had written for the project were given to other artists years later (“U” by Paula Abdul, “If I Love U 2 night” by both Mica Paris and Mayte Garcia.) Let’s listen to the tracks from what could have been Prince’s very first side project.
Too Long – Dez Dickerson is allowed to channel his inner ’70s rock-god through this Rebels track. This song would have fit right in next to Blue Oyster Cult, Foreigner, or Thin Lizzy on late ’70s rock radio playlists.
Disco Away – Dez Dickerson also wrote this heavily The Cars and new-wave influenced rock track that wants you to know that disco culture sucks! Audacious in its use of disco synth styles to disparage the genre. Bonus points for the play on words. Disco-Away! Just-Go-Away!
Thrill You or Kill You – This Andre Cymone lead vocal composition has a nice groove but straddles the fine line of domestic violence—still a good song. No suprise that the bass guitar is the star of the song.
You – This Prince composition was sung by Gayle Chapman and is heavily rock-based with new-wave synths and a driving beat. This is the sound that I remember from the late ’70s and early ’80s rock radio stations.
If I Love You Tonight – Another Prince penned, Gayle Chapman sang ballad with a nice overall band performance and is notable for being covered two (!!!) times over the years. There’s something about this song that really resonates with me. It shouldn’t surprise me that Prince wrote arguably my favorite The Rebels track.
The Loser – The third Prince penned, Gayle Chapman sang Rebels track proves Prince’s preference for writing songs for women (unless he’s in Jamie Starr song-writing mode). Like “If I Love You Tonight,” this is a slower, bluesier number than some of the more straight-up rock and funk tracks found on this project. The songwriting with Gayle’s vocals gives me a Dusty Springfield vibe when I listen to it, which is definitely a good thing.
Hard to Get – Prince (wrote) and Andre (vocals) rock this track out, ’70s style. Who needs Bachman Turner Overdrive when you can have The Rebels instead? It’s just a fun song that shows off the collaborative nature of the entire project. This could have been on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, next to Foghat, and no one would have batted an eye.
Instrumental #1 – This is a memorable and sinister-sounding instrumental from Dez Dickerson that has some serious Led Zeppelin vibes to it.
Instrumental #2 – While Dez brought a rock and roll and punk element to The Rebels, Andre brought the funk, blues, and soul. This instrumental is all bass groove.
With a bit more polish, The Rebels project had the potential to be something truly unique and eclectic. Whether Prince ever truly considered this project as a viable side effort or if it was simply a team-building exercise, we’ll never know for sure. I hope the men and women of The Rebels are proud of what they created in only a couple of summer weeks at Mountain Ears Sound Studio in Boulder.