Regalty: The Prince & Michael Jackson Album That Almost Was

Regalty_wall

(In December of 2018 I curated an art exhibit for Streetlight Guild called Wrecka Playa: Album Art in 20 Years. Artists were invited to submit album covers and posters, while writers were asked to submit accompanying liner notes, lyrics and other text-based pieces. One of the submissions was by Columbus-based art legend David Michael: a 24 x 36 inch poster for a “lost” album featuring Prince and Michael Jackson together. Naturally, I had to get in on that action myself. What follows are the liner notes for this “newly discovered” album, with a couple of new notes for this posting. Now, after the second anniversary of Prince’s passing, I felt compelled to get this out into the world. – Scott)

 

The Making of Prince & Michael Jackson’s REGALTY *

Recorded Saturday, March 20, 1982 – Wednesday 24, 1982 at Sunset Sounds, Los Angeles. **
All songs composed and produced by Michael Jackson and Prince except “Sunset Driver” written by Michael Jackson.

Volume 1
1. Regalty
2. Work The Floor
3. Do U Love Me Or The Money?
4. Perfection
5. Fathers Who Aren’t In Heaven
6. Wondering

Volume 2
1. If That’s How U Feel

2. Knickers In Paris
3. Pretend You Care, Mary
4. Sunset Driver
5. Church
6. Critic Says What?
7. Freedom

How Regalty Came To Be
The month before Michael Jackson went into a studio to start recording what would become the biggest selling record of all time, he spent five days holed up with Prince recording songs that no one ever heard.

That was the longstanding myth in a nutshell. Rumors had been swirling for decades since their deaths that there might be a recording that featured two of the most famous musicians of all time on the same track. It seemed impossible that during the course of two multi-decade careers so closely aligned in style, scope and background that they would never spend time in a studio together. The good news is that unlike most myths, this one happens to be true. Also unlike most myths, the reality is measurably larger than the myth.

Jackson admired Prince’s artistic independence, an area in which Jackson was experiencing some growing pains, and Prince was forthcoming in praise of Jackson’s output, particularly Off The Wall, which he felt shot perfectly down the middle of the agendas of all concerned parties: it was a record that satisfied multiple audiences, its “masters” (as Prince constantly referred to record companies) and, most importantly, the artists involved. Both were genius-level talents, each a one of a kind performer with an instantly recognizable sound and who died, if not in their primes, still too young. Between the two of them was the perfect professional musician.

But in 1982, despite the fact that both artists had music pouring out of them, only one of them seemed able to bottle the lightning in a form that sold at the level of their talent. By the time someone got it in their head to put the two in the same room with a tape recorder, Jackson had already circled the globe as a member of The Jacksons, while Prince had yet to play a proper gig out of the United States. Jackson had been groomed for success in the music industry. Prince had to build everything from scratch with his bare hands. Jackson respected that about Prince, and Prince respected that about Jackson.

Prince may have worked harder, but Michael worked smarter. Jackson was able to get the best studios, the best engineers, the best musicians, and the best composers and producers. Stacking his natural gifts on top of a mountain of resources all but guaranteed success each time at bat once Jackson set out on his own. By contrast, Prince was recording his albums in his house (albeit a nice house), still walking across a room to punch in his takes. Prior to 1982 Prince had done a couple of one-off shows in Europe the year before, and wouldn’t do a major tour out of the States until 1984. By contrast, Jackson had performed for Queen Elizabeth when he was fourteen, already breaking audience records held by the Beatles years before Prince had a record deal. And yet, each yearned – ever so slightly at times, like a consuming hunger at others – for the other’s success.

If there was a sense that Jackson was doing Prince a favor by setting up the Regalty sessions it was not apparent. Jackson largely viewed Prince as a beautiful oddity, and Prince didn’t do much to disavow him of the notion. While Jackson was ten times more successful than Prince in terms of sales, Prince outstripped Jackson in independence.

It is hard to discern the moment when someone stated publicly that Jackson and Prince should work together and meant it. Quincy Jones had tried to just get them to talk to one another a couple of times, but there was no chemistry.*** Perhaps if he had set the meetings in a recording studio things would have played out differently. In any event someone from Jackson’s camp made the first call to Prince’s legal team. Prince’s team responded enthusiastically since Jackson was willing to foot studio costs out of pocket to make it happen, so the hardest part of their job was relegated to convincing Prince it would be a good idea. We don’t know what Prince’s initial reaction to the offer to record was – everyone involved with that session has since passed away – but we know that the final decision was affirmative.

The two musical titans would bump into one another over the years, never for too long, never to either’s seeming personal or professional benefit. Their statures and career concerns would not allow them to fit into a studio (or so we thought). In any case, neither of them ever spoke of the sessions publicly. It was literally a secret each took to his respective grave: Regalty is being released in the fall of 2037, which makes these recordings 55 years old. Michael Jackson died at age 50, and prince at age 57. Regalty is the greatest secret between the two of them, and happens to be one of the greatest jam sessions of all time.

In The Throne Room: The Logistics of Regalty

Regalty couldn’t have happened any time before or after it was recorded.

The meetings prior to the Regalty sessions were not unlike the arrangements made before a professional boxing match. The legal teams on each side had to be corralled, as Jackson wanted to make sure there were as few barriers as possible to what might come of the sessions. He was genuinely excited at the prospect of working with Prince, and was already used to working with world class talents and egos (Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury). Prince was something of a studio rat and not known for playing well with others to get what he wanted. He had begun recording music for other acts whose careers he would mold and control, but there would be no such leeway with Jackson. Even if Jackson were inclined to let Prince run roughshod in the studio, contracts from the time lay out very clear standards of ownership and credit sharing. There wouldn’t be any Andre Cymoné/”Do Me Baby” lifts from these sessions, should they ever see the light of day.

Wrecka_SunsetSound

The sessions were recorded at Sunset Sound, the storied complex on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. Prince started recording in Studio 3 the year before while working on Controversy and found it to be a fine place to lay down some of the best work of his career. While the Sunset Sounds had multiple studios, Prince only ever recorded in Studio 3. Jackson had recorded at Sunset Sounds as well, but in Studio 2, opting for the legacy of its space, but conceded that whichever room Prince liked would be the room they would use. #

Fitting the sessions into the calendars of what was then the world’s largest Black act and another artist well on his way up the same ladder was the biggest challenge. Prince was touring the Controversy album (his fourth in as many years) until March 14, 1982. He was already itching to start working on his next album – 1999 – to keep his rhythm of annual releases on track. With little downtime post-tour before he hit the studio proper there were a couple of weeks that could be considered.

Jackson was in a similar boat. While he was not touring at the time, he had been listening and composing songs for his next album, which he was taking very seriously. He felt Off The Wall had been snubbed by the industry in the year following its 1979 release, despite having sold 20 million copies. He was meticulously constructing a pool of songs alongside Quincy Jones that would turn the entire field on its head, but was already behind on recording them because he had signed on to narrate and sing a song for an audiobook release of E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, pushing the start date for the Thriller sessions back to April. Once each artist got into the studio to make their next albums, there would be no cross-contamination of ideas or time, certainly none with what would be perceived as tough competition.

Once both of their next albums dropped nothing would be able to get the two of them back in the studio together. It was all or nothing during either March 20–24 or April 7-12. Because Paul McCartney had already been booked to record with Jackson on April 14 (“The Girl Is Mine”), the second window was struck from consideration, deemed too close to Jackson’s “real” recording schedule and too soon after wrapping up the E.T. project.

Day One
Songs recorded:
Work The Floor
Do U Love Me or the Money?
If That’s How U Feel

The weather on Saturday March 20, 1982 in Los Angeles was a balmy but not atypical 62 degrees. Recording was set to begin around 10 AM and no one was allowed in the studio before one of the artists arrived except an engineer to set up. There was a concern by some that either Prince, Jackson or both would try to play the “grand entrance” game – who could come later – but it was agreed that they would both set aside any such behaviors. In fact, both arrived early to work, and the excitement about the project was palpable, if somewhat muted.

Joe Jackson showed up with Michael and a few representatives in the studio that morning, huffing his way through introductions and sizing Prince up. For his part Prince kept the elder Jackson at a distance, knowing an alpha dog pile-up would derail efforts before they even got out the gate. Halfway through the first day Joe left, supposedly to get some lunch, and never returned. The prevailing rumor suggests that Prince noted that Michael was not as comfortable or free as he imagined Jackson could get in the studio, and had his management team pay Joe Jackson to stay away. Amounts vary depending on who you ask, but the general agreement is that it was at least $2000.

MJ_1

With the elder Jackson out of the building, Michael immediately became more animated, snapping along with beats that Prince tapped into the house Linn Drum, looking for a rhythmic common ground for them to jam on. The jam approach was mostly abandoned after a couple of hours when both artists determined that they had songs in their respective heads they wanted to get out but were scared to share for fear of having them snatched by the other. Jackson broke the ice by humming out the parts to a song he had been working on called “Work The Floor,” which Prince began playing out on various instruments. Jackson had them start it out on piano, and within thirty minutes they began tracking their first song. There are clear strains of the piano boogie that undergird Jackson’s “Shake Your Body Down To The Ground” here, but with a tougher blues tumble thanks to the gutsy flourishes of Prince. “Work The Floor” is also notable for being the second time Prince officially uses his patented sensational spelling in a song title. It’s a surface marriage of their styles, but it works.

In an attempt to further connect, Prince offered “Do U Love Me or the Money?”, a riff on fame and how people change once one acquires it. The message is a bit on the nose to be a great song, but they had fun with it, as evidenced by the banter on the full reel. At one point Prince asks Jackson how he ignores criticism of his work. Jackson replied, “I don’t. But I’m the biggest critic there is. They have to get through all of the criticism I give myself.”

“If That’s How U Feel” is an interesting track for what it isn’t. It was conceived out of a jam, each artist offering their takes on the kind of ballad that both of them had largely stopped doing on their records. This is largely considered to be another attempt by both of them to feel each other out.

Day Two
Songs recorded:
Knickers In Paris
Sunset Driver
Pretend You Care, Mary

The song that would eventually become “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” a week after these sessions wrapped up started out as the infectious  “Pretend You Care, Mary.” The melody on the titular lines for each are virtually the same. Of course, “Pretend You Care, Mary” is one hundred percent cleaner and more pop-oriented than what ended up on 1999 six months later. Prince changed the song enough that there isn’t any question about ownership here: Jackson’s contributions were almost entirely abandoned and the song we know today is only similar in technical ways (most notably key and rhythmic bounce). At the same time, the playful “Ooh-eee-sha-sha-koo-koo-yeah” line did remained intact, and was a direct contribution by Jackson during this session. Jackson reveled in making rhythmic noises, beatboxing, and nonsense phrases that at times mimicked cultures he had come into contact with while touring in his early years (an outsourcing that would legally come back to bite him). He had used these gifts to great effect on songs like “Get On the Floor” from Off The Wall, and that he would begin recording for Thriller, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” being the most obvious example.

Prince had recorded the first song for what would become the 1999 album two months prior to the Regalty sessions, the steamy and over-the-top “International Lover.” Prince was constantly gunning for maximum effect in his music and that included heaping doses of sex. He had released four albums in attempts to establish his genius and three confounding any expectations of what that genius might yield. By contrast Jackson was already a millionaire and didn’t have the same problems. He opened his mouth and people threw money into it. Jackson suggested Prince didn’t need to go so far aesthetically. “You’re amazing,” he told Prince in a moment of increasing closeness. “You should only say those things if that’s how you feel. You can play everything in here. You don’t need to say those things.” Prince took this advice half to heart. Part of him saw it for the touching moment it was, and part of him felt challenged by Jackson. Thus was born “Knickers in Paris”, a ridiculous romp of a song about a woman who can’t choose between two men. The subject is typical grist for the duet mill – Jackson was about to do the exact same thing with McCartney in a couple of weeks – but Jackson really comes out of himself vocally here, filling the song with catty sighs and attempts to rescue the woman in question from a lascivious Prince by attempting to out-sexy Prince. The results are not unwelcome, if not entirely realistic. It seems Prince pulled a vocal punch here and let his guitar do more of the talking.

Conversation from a studio recording:

Jackson: Like, why make a poster in a shower with a cross? Why have a cross in the shower next yourself?
Prince: Well, the album was called Controversy.
Jackson: I couldn’t do that. I’m Jehovah’s Witness. We don’t get down like that.
Prince: Well, I ain’t, but I promise not to ask you to do any photoshoots in the shower.

“Sunset Driver” is a Jackson song he had in the tank from his Off The Wall period. (Prince wasn’t the only one with a growing vault of unreleased work.) He brought the demo and they took a swipe at, but the track wasn’t their best effort, mostly because there wasn’t much room for Prince to enter creatively. It didn’t end up on a Jackson recording until 2004 (not Prince recorded) and it was still the original demo version he had presented to Prince (albeit cleaned up).

Day Three
Songs recorded:
Fathers Who Aren’t In Heaven
Freedom

For Jackson, the Regalty sessions were a symbolic turning of the soil to begin planting the seeds for controlling his destiny. In 1986 his younger sister Janet would release her album, Control, which boldly established her desire to be seen as her own person, as someone who didn’t need her family name to be seen as talented. Michael had a similar desire – to be free of his father’s overwhelming influence – and stepping out on faith to work with Prince for a spell would confirm if he was on the right track. The itch to be seen as someone with not only singular talent but vision infiltrated Jackson’s success at every turn, and both of the songs recorded on day three reflect this philosophically.

Both men had complicated relationships with their fathers and they pretty much lay their souls bare here. An attempt to write lyrics for the groove they came up with (which only took thirty minutes) turned into a three hour discussion about their backgrounds, a conversation that got so intensely personal that the engineer was asked to leave for the day. What came after were two songs so personal it is unlikely either of them would have been released while either of them lived.

Day Four
Songs recorded:
Regalty
Wondering
Church

The smash hit “Can You Feel It” was the Rosetta Stone of Regalty.

Released the previous year on the Jacksons album Triumph, the song was written by Michael and Jackie Jackson. Prince was a big fan of the song, and his team brought it back to his attention to show a way to incorporate multiple voices in a balanced way with an epic, symphonic feel.

Regalty is a very telling track. Jackson was already music royalty but Prince’s credentials were still largely name only. Prince felt he had something to prove and said as much, so of all these tracks this one got the most collective attention. The effort shows: Prince really went for a stadium feel here on the music, and Jackson was able to stitch the vocal parts together in a way that gave both of them their shine, just as “Can You Feel It” had for the Jacksons. This time Michael was met with someone who could sing his way up and down all scales, and Prince’s guitar solo here is nothing short of amazing. Jackson is reported to have jumped on top of the piano and danced for a full ten minutes to the playback.

It’s no coincidence that the Prince albums prior to the Regalty sessions don’t reflect much of a concerned worldview, but the albums afterwards begin to incorporate notions of world peace and universal love. Controversy was Prince’s first real foray into politics, but was too sexual and paranoid to unite millions under such a banner at that point in his career. Jackson definitely had a philosophical effect on Prince during these sessions, proving to be a worldly and intelligent foil for Prince’s many vacillating cultural touchstones and questioning nature.

“This thunderstorm will put you back to sleep” is pretty much all that needs to be said of the slow burner “Wondering.”

Day Five
Songs recorded:
Critic Says What?
Perfection

By day five Prince just wanted to hang.

Between Prince’s controlling nature and Jackson’s constant manipulation between takes, recording was not going as fast as Prince was accustomed to. He was more of a post-fiddler, and at some point during takes is recorded saying “Let’s get the track down. I can fiddle with it later,” to which Jackson responds “I got to get it right out of my heart, Prince.” Variations of this conversation happened dozens of times over the sessions, and they both needed a break. Jackson proposed seeing a movie, but prince had other ideas. The two jumped into Prince’s Thunderbird without opening the doors and took off after laying down “Critic Says What?” No one knows where they went or what they did or what was said or listened to during that ride. There are several hours not accounted for, but during which random people suggested they had seen the two at various places around Hollywood.

Prince1

We only know what they were like upon their return, and it was as if they had known each other their entire lives. They burst back into the studio without notice, laughing and hanging off of one another, and began recording again with a new fervor. Prince would say things during the session and Michael would be shocked, then roll with laughter. This owed a lot to the fact that Jackson was constantly surrounded by either family or people who were too enamored of him to act normally. Prince was a breath of fresh air. “The only thing I need is music,” Prince said. “Everything else I can get with the music. So I’m not chasing anything or anyone except you up the charts.”

Still despite their newfound camaraderie, “Church” almost didn’t happen.

A veritable clinic in harmonic screaming, “Church” is a gospel-based barnstormer of a song that has more blues in it than anything either of them released before or since. An exploration of truth and keeping it real, there is no mistaking the religious overtones in the lyrics, and the musical bed is one hundred percent juke joint gospel. At some point during the recording of the vocals, Jackson stopped the presses and had a real debate with Prince about feeling like the song was trying to teach a religion he did not share. Prince’s position was that all black music comes from gospel and blues, so it was okay. Jackson demurred, and finally accepted the challenge, running his takes out to twenty minutes, which only made Prince go longer. In the end, the final version here has obviously been edited down to the hardcore revival-esque parts.

Prince Rogers Nelson (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)
Michael Joseph Jackson (August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009)

Sunset_finalchairs

NOTES 4/24/18
* – When David Michael came to the Wrecka Playa exhibit, he looked at the liner notes and said, “What’s Regalty?” I said “That’s what’s you called it.” He informed me that it was actually just Regal, followed by a combination of Prince and Jackson’s logos/initials. We had a great laugh at that.
** – I wanted the album to feel as real as possible – everything short of the music itself – so I had to do a LOT of research about when such a project might have happened. This date is actually as close to a real window of time as could be uncovered. I came up with two windows, but this one was more reasonable.
*** – True.
# – This is all real information. I’m telling you: I did a ton of real-world research for this.
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