The Unstreamables: The Family’s Page in the Prince Songbook
Though Prince's catalog is on Spotify and Apple, much of his music remains unavailable. We take a look at one such side project, the 1985 self-titled debut from The Family.
Back in the dark ages of music on physical media, albums that were "out of print" were inaccessible and hard to find. Now, with wide swathes of popular music history readily available on major streaming services, the albums that aren't a click away can feel increasingly distant. In The Unstreamables, Noisey takes a look back at the blockbusters, intriguing footnotes, and cult classics that you might have to try a little harder to find.
Last week, music fans still mourning the loss of Prince celebrated the return of his catalog to major streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, for the first time since he'd granted exclusive streaming rights to Tidal in 2015. But one thing lost in the headlines is just how much of Prince's music remains unavailable, much of it later albums and minor indie label releases, as well as many of the albums he wrote and produced for other artists.
And one of the most glaring omissions is the self-titled 1985 debut by The Family, a short-lived group that issued the first recording of one of Prince's most famous compositions, "Nothing Compares 2 U." Google Pixel recently ran a TV ad with countless singers covering "Nothing," and Madonna sang the ballad for the Prince tribute at the Billboard Music Awards last May. But the original track, before it was popularized by Sinead O'Connor in 1990, is absent from streaming services, along with the rest of The Family's album.
Prince was riding high on the success of Purple Rain when he officially opened Paisley Park Records for business with the release of Around The World In A Day in April 1985. Four months later, Warner Bros. and the Paisley Park imprint rolled out their first two non-Prince releases a week apart: The Family on August 19, and Sheila E.'s second album Romance 1600 on August 26. Around The World sold millions and Romance 1600 went gold, but The Family was lost in the shuffle, playing only one show at First Avenue and getting minor video and radio play for the single "The Screams of Passion." The album never even got into the Billboard 200.
The Family started out as a reboot of one of Prince's most successful creations, The Time. The Morris Day-fronted group enjoyed a string of R&B radio hits with their first three albums, and were more famous than ever with their prominent role in Purple Rain, but disbanded after 1984's Ice Cream Castle. With Day going solo, Prince tried to install Minneapolis musician Paul Peterson as a replacement for both Day on lead vocals and keyboardist Monte Moir, but the band was quickly splintering, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis embarking on what would soon be a very successful production career.
In the end, a new group called The Family was assembled as kind of a grab bag of people in Prince's orbit at the time: his girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (sister of The Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin), Peterson (with a new stage name, "St. Paul"), saxophonist Eric Leeds (brother of Prince tour manager Alan Leeds), and two members of The Time that hadn't moved onto other projects, Jerome Benton and Jellybean Johnson.
One could hardly expect this motley crew to come together and create a good album, but of course, it didn't matter, because Prince did it for them. Prince wrote and produced 7 of the 8 tracks on The Family ("River Runs Dry" was penned by The Revolution drummer Bobby Z), and St. Paul and Melvoin sang over Prince's scratch vocals.
The concept of The Family may have been ostensibly to recreate The Time with a pair of photogenic white singers out in front, a concept that holds together pretty well for the two funky, sassy tracks that open the album, "High Fashion" and "Mutiny." But "The Screams of Passion" positioned the band as Minneapolis's answer to British synth pop, and the remainder of the album was an eclectic, unpredictable mix of jazz and pop with symphonic flourishes.
The Family wound up being a dry run for some sounds that would dominate Prince's work for the rest of the '80s. Although Purple Rain featured some light strings and Around The World added sax to the mix, guitar and synths remained the dominant textures on those albums. The Family marked Prince's first on record collaborations with Eric Leeds and orchestral arranger Clare Fischer, who helmed the horns and strings, respectively, for Parade and several more Prince albums for the next three decades. The jazz fusion side of The Family eventually spilled out into multiple albums by another Prince side project with Eric Leeds, Madhouse.
One of the many things that Prince was mercurial and eccentric about was liner notes; he'd give songwriting credits to family members and friends who had nothing to do with the tracks in question, and then take full credit for songs that members of The Revolution helped write. The Time disbanded in part because they wanted more creative control in the studio, while Prince wanted to continue to make their tracks and then let the band take credit for them.
The Family's liner notes deliberately downplayed Prince's involvement, giving production credit to the group and most of the writing credits to individual members of the group. In fact, the only thing Prince is directly credited for is the writing of "Nothing Compares 2 U," the dramatic ballad buried in the middle of side 2.
We know "Nothing Compares 2 U" now because of the regal chart-topping pop standard it became thanks to Sinead O'Connor. And while you can hear its potential in the original The Family recording, it feels slight, with a queasy bed of synths resting awkwardly under St. Paul and Melvoin's overwrought vocals.
Would O'Connor have singled out the song to cover if it had not been the sole Prince writing credit on the album? I don't know, but I suspect not. With Chaka Khan and Cyndi Lauper having scored hits by covering tracks from Prince's less famous early albums, there was a clear upside to hunting down and popularizing his obscurities.
The members of The Family reunited in 2009 under the name fDeluxe and have released three studio albums, as well as a live album in which they perform their Prince-penned early material. But their 1985 album remains out of print and unavailable from the major streaming services. In fact, while The Time and Sheila E.'s albums remain readily available, Warner Bros. and Paisley Park have done little to preserve the legacy of the other artists Prince worked with. Even the Paisley Park albums by legends like George Clinton and Mavis Staples are commercially unavailable today, to say nothing of less famous acts like Jill Jones and Mazarati.
Being a Prince protégé was always a mixed blessing. For every long career he helped jumpstart, there were a couple more that floundered once he lost interest and moved on to the next band or starlet. And with little paperwork left behind to indicate his wishes for his estate, his catalog and possessions have been left in disarray as those left behind scramble to set up profitable arrangements like the new streaming deals. Obscure side projects like The Family don't fit into plans like that very obviously, which means the album may never be reissued or digitally re-released. But it remains worth seeking out, however you may find it.
Al Shipley is a writer based in Maryland. You can follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Zoe Priest.