REVOLUTION FREES LISA AND WENDY
It was evident on Prince’s album “Parade” that the parade was passing him by. The music on the 1986 LP was scattered, helter-skelter and unfocused. With the exception of the steamy “Kiss,” it wasn’t even funky.
Prince is no dummy. He knew it was time for a change, and his next move was inevitable. There had to be an upheaval in his band, the Revolution.
A year ago, he broke the news to the members. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman, who had been called his “musical shadows,” were out. So was his drummer, Bobby Z, who had been with Prince since the late ‘70s.
Music-biz gossips had a field day. Rumors were flying about the real reason Prince was breaking up his band. There was talk that he was dissatisfied with the two most prominent members, Melvoin and Coleman. Some insisted the conflicts were strictly musical. Others whispered that sex and romance were involved.
Of course, no one could get the real story from Prince because he almost never talks to the media. So what really happened? Why has Prince been touring with a mostly new band?
The other good sources are Melvoin and Coleman, who are now talking to the media about “Wendy and Lisa,” their debut album as singer-songwriters on Columbia Records.
In a bustling West Hollywood cocktail lounge the other day, they gave their side of the purge of the Revolution. The chatty, affable Melvoin did most of the talking. Coleman, the shy, quiet type, was smoking nervously and said little at first. But after a while she relaxed and became more talkative.
Both discussed their exit from Prince’s band in very vague and strangely positive terms. If they knew why he dropped them--and they probably do--they weren’t willing to talk about it in great detail.
Apparently Prince called a meeting last September and informed the members he was breaking up the band. The two women insisted they never saw it coming. “If we had been looking, there were probably signs,” said Melvoin. “But maybe the signs were there and we just didn’t want to see them.”
There was one obvious indication that Prince was about to make some kind of change. “He had been working more on his own than usual,” Coleman said about the recording sessions last year for Prince’s latest album, “Sign ‘O’ the Times.” “We weren’t with him in the studio as much.”
That was a major switch. These two had apparently been Prince’s most frequent collaborators. “We worked with him more than anyone else,” Coleman said. “For a while we were just about the only people he worked with. We were Prince’s embellishers. We embellished his musical vision.”
Melvoin and Coleman appear on the “Sign ‘O’ the Times” album, but not to the extent they had expected. “We played on a lot of the material for that album,” Melvoin said. “But he cut a whole lot of it out when he put together the final version of the album.”
Coleman hinted that there was a possibility that they might have remained with him strictly as touring musicians, but added, “After being in the studio with him all the time we didn’t want to be just tour band members. We had done too much with him to sit back and be in his back-up band. That would have been a great thing for most musicians, but not for us.”
Clearly, Melvoin and Coleman didn’t want the Revolution to stop.
“If Prince hadn’t decided to break up the band we’d still be in it,” Melvoin said. “It was our thing. It was our home. It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was constant creativity, constant high. It was adventure. You never knew what was going to happen.”
Added Coleman, “Being in a band with Prince was like holding onto the tail of a comet. It was great until it flamed out.”
Surprisingly, they wouldn’t admit to being upset or angry at being booted out of the band. “We weren’t upset,” Melvoin said. “It just took some getting used to, since working with Prince had been such a big part of our lives for so many years.
Are they still in contact with Prince? “Somewhat,” Melvoin said. “He’s here in L.A. in the studio. We’ve tried to talk to him but we keep missing each other.”
Coleman: “We’ve talked to him. We’d like to talk to him more. We miss him. It’s a shame things turned out this way.”
Melvoin, 23, and Coleman, 27, who grew up together in Los Angeles, decided to form a duo after the split with Prince.
“It seemed natural for us to work together because we’ve known each other so well for so long,” said Melvoin, whose father, like Coleman’s, was a studio musician. “We come from musical families and our families are close to each other. We’ve complemented each other musically for years. We’ve been writing together for a long time. It just made sense to work with Lisa. We never even thought about solo careers.”
Rather than chasing a record contract right away, they financed their first album themselves and then went after a deal. Earlier this year, when the album was nearly finished, they decided to sign with Columbia Records--one of several interested companies.
The “Wendy and Lisa” album doesn’t include any Prince songs or guest spots. “We worked on a lot of songs while we were with him but we couldn’t use any of them,” Melvoin said. “Those are his songs.”
They almost had a Prince composition written just for them. “He told us if we wanted a song he’d write us one,” Coleman said. “But it never happened.”
But they wrote a song about him for the album--simply titled “Song About.” Explaining its origin, Coleman said, “Wendy and I were sitting around talking about our memories of him in certain situations. We just translated them into song form.”
Melvoin added, “It’s a sad song because it’s sad thinking about what happened and realizing all that is gone for good. We wrote that song to let him know we’re never going to let go of the memories.”
The “Wendy and Lisa” album has transition written all over it. You can almost feel them trying hard not to emulate Prince. That’s why they often drift into this fuzzy, non-linear, musical twilight zone.
“People probably expect a Prince-like album from us,” Coleman said. “But we wanted to stay away from that. We had to trust our own creativity.”
The album does feature some crackling pop. They clearly have a flair for simple, hook-filled pop-rock--and also for haunting pop, like “Honeymoon Express,” the album’s best song.
They could have just recorded a good, conventional pop album. They obviously have the talent for it. But working with Prince has undoubtedly lifted their sights. An ordinary pop-rock album--big-seller or not--wouldn’t do. Artists making their first albums usually play it safe, but these two took some chances, straying beyond the boundaries of pop-rock.
“We wanted to do a pop album with all kinds of shades and angles,” Melvoin said. “We wanted to do something people didn’t expect. We wanted to stay within the pop structure and incorporate jazz, R&B;, folk, rock--all of it.”
But the experiments on the album don’t always work, resulting in some droning, misdirected tunes. They said co-producer Bobby Z, Prince’s former drummer, had been hired to keep them from going off the musical deep end. He doesn’t always succeed.
Still, you have to give them credit for being a bit daring. Their vision isn’t as finely tuned as Prince’s, but at least they’re exercising it.
Coleman and Melvoin joined Prince when they were 19. Coleman, who is four years older than Melvoin, started working with him in 1979, after a friend of hers who was employed by Prince’s management company alerted her that Prince was in the market for a keyboardist. At the time, Coleman was working as a shipping clerk and teaching piano. Her professional experience was just about nil.
“He liked the tape I sent him,” she said. “He called me and I went for a jam session with him and it worked out fine. So I packed my bags and moved to Minneapolis. He was working on (his album) ‘Dirty Mind.’ I got in on that.”
Coleman speculated that her temperament helped her get the job with him. “I’m very quiet, just like him,” she said. “If I was in this restaurant right now by myself talking to you, I wouldn’t be saying that much. I’m not a good conversationalist. I’m not good at small talk. I’ve been on dates where I’ve driven guys crazy because I wasn’t talking. I don’t mind sitting in silence. Prince doesn’t either. You should see us together.
“I remember when I was just getting in the band, I flew to Minneapolis and Prince picked me up at the airport. We hardly said a word to each other while we were driving to his place. When we got to his house, he pointed to the piano and asked me to play. He picked up a guitar and started to play along with me. That was our first conversation together--a musical conversation.”
Coleman was in the band a few years before Prince hired Melvoin, whom he met through Coleman in 1982. “I had been around Prince for a while before he even knew I played guitar,” Melvoin said. “I was practicing guitar in a hotel room in New York when he heard me play. He was impressed. I was shocked. I was this kid, just out of high school. I had no real performing experience. My first live shows were really with him. They were the preliminary shows for the ‘Purple Rain’ movie. I was scared to death.”
Now, years later, Melvoin is “scared to death” about some other crucial shows--the dates on the first Wendy and Lisa tour, which begins in January.
“In a way, doing our first shows will be like going through my first shows with Prince all over again,” Melvoin said. “But we’re in charge this time. And, of course, Prince won’t be there. I wish he was. . . . Well, I won’t say that.”