The Ritz 1981

After listening to recordings from more modern times recently, I have today decided today to dig back all the way to 1981. I like these early shows- no Purple Rain, no dancers, no sampler sets- just the music. The word that always comes to mind is ‘raw’ and although it’s almost a cliché, it is entirely true. Prince is raw, both musically and visually, and I can connect to the younger him on stage. I will be watching a show from 1981, and there isn’t too many shows circulating on video from this time, it’s certainly not like nowadays when there seems to be a camera at every show. I love this show, but it’s been sometime since I last saw it, so I look forward to reacquainting myself with it.

Ritz 81

22 March, 1981, The Ritz, New York

The first thing I hear is the bass snap of Do It All Night and the simmering synth riff. Prince appears bathed in dry ice, and I already love this show. It’s got such a classic feel to it, it’s hard not to be swept along on a high. Prince’s vocals are nice and pure, and the bass in particular sounds great. The whole recording is very clean, it really is a treat to listen to. The band certainly looks like they are ready to rock, however the song doesn’t require it and they are nicely restrained. There is a cool moment in the show when Prince calls Andre and Dez to walk and the three of them pull a nice little move off together. Prince is a little quiet, that is by no means a criticism as his vocals are so crisp.

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The rock part of the gig starts next as Dez throws himself energetically into Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad. There are a few squeals from the crowd as Prince sings his lines, but it’s at the chorus that the song really takes off. Both Andre and Dez put a lot of energy into it, and I feel it elevates the song considerably. There is also a nice moment as Prince and Dez strike their classic guitar gods pose. I can just about sing Princes guitar break note for note as I have heard it so many times, and it gets my heart pumping now just as much as it did 30 years ago. It has been a good while since I last heard this song, and I had forgotten how much enjoyment I get out of it. Prince’s second guitar break is more interesting, he is backed by the keyboards, and they ably match him. The song isn’t as long as I have sometimes heard, and it leaves me wanting more as Prince brings it to a close.

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“We’re going to do something for the rude people” has me wondering what he is going to play next, and I am pleasantly surprised as Prince croons his way through Gotta Broken Heart Again. Not only is his singing gentle on the ear, but there is also some delicate piano and guitar play which has me paying close attention. The song doesn’t contain anything in the way of surprise, and that is a surprise in itself and Prince keeps it simple. He does indulge in some vocal play at the end of the song before it comes to a close with that piano again. This song is great, and I’m doing it a disservice by not writing more about it.

I wrote about Broken when I covered his 81 show at Sams Minneapolis, and here it once again appears. Its rockabilly style feels a little out of place, but in retrospect it’s nothing like the stylistic jumps later in his career. I like Princes vocals, his singing at this time is a nice falsetto, it’s just the music in this song is so slight it leaves me feeling hollow.

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Bobby Z gets to play a nice long intro to When You Were Mine, before Prince comes in with his guitar. The song isn’t as strong as I like, there is certainly much stronger versions floating around. It’s played well though, and I can’t fault it in any way. Prince looks incredibly young, and it’s hard to believe he’s lived the experiences he is singing about. The break down is normally longer than what we hear on this recording, and after a quick line Prince jumps back into the song. It’s all very fine, but I get the feeling that something needs turning up to 11 to make the song jump.

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Gotta Stop Messing About sounds good, so I am surprised to see how static the audience is. Andre’s bass is the star for me through this song, he has a nice pop going in my left ear. Dez and Andre both contribute backing vocals to Prince and it does add a more manly sound to the song, although the synth squiggle undoes some of that. Prince does bounce and bob, and yet the song never really ignites and comes to an end leaving me wishing it was something more.

I hear a funky guitar play and the rhythmic pattern of Sexy Dancer played on the cymbals and my spirits lift. The main elements of the song are Princes guitar and his vocals, and that’s no bad thing at all. There is a keyboard solo, but I find myself still listening to Princes guitar as it plays. The song becomes a dance after about half way, plenty of bass, guitars and a nice easy chant rolling over and over. There is a brief guitar break from Prince that becomes more and more and we get a good couple of minutes of him playing rhythm guitar centre stage. I was about to dismiss the rest of the band, but Dr Fink plays a really cool solo, complete with bobbing head and jerking motions. I love ya Doc!

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I don’t recall the last time I listened to Sister. Some days I love it, and some days I dismiss it as a throw away piece. I like seeing the performance here, but truthfully I could probably live without it. It’s hard to be critical of something that’s so brief, so it’s with pleasure we move to the next song.

I Want To Be Your Lover is a slab of pure pop, and it’s hard for me to reconcile between the look of Dirty Mind era Prince, and the pop sound of the song. In later years he would joke with the lyric “Ain’t got no money (now that’s a lie)” but I have to say looking at him here, he definitely looks like he’s got no money. As good as his vocals sound, for this song it’s the rhythm guitar of Dez that I focus on. Not just the chorus, but also the verses his guitar sound is fantastic. I don’t think I had noticed it earlier, but now it’s all I can hear. As befitting a pop song it finishes after three minutes and we move onto something much darker, and funkier.

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There is no better sound than that of Prince and the band grooving on the intro of Head. That opening synth stab and the delicious sound of the guitars before Prince intones his opening lines, all of it is great for me. I would love this even if it was a bad performance, but then again how often does that happen? This one is great, and right at the start there is a fantastic shot of a very young Lisa Coleman singing her lines, the show is worth seeing just for that alone. Another highlight is seeing Dr Fink doing what he does best, and I swear one day I am going to learn how to dance like that. Prince looks somewhat like Mick Jagger as he leads the crowd into singing “head”, and there is plenty of strutting and prancing. The band hit their straps at this point, and all of them look like they are feeling the groove as the play. Andre in particular puts on a great show. For many years the highlight of this song has been the second half as Prince engages in his guitar noise and showmanship. Seeing it as well as hearing it is a bonus, and even though I have heard it a lot I still find myself watching transfixed as Prince plays. The last few minutes are epic as Prince plays lead, rhythm and masturbates with his guitar. I can’t help but think of the word ‘raw’ again. And ‘awesome’

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Things take another change as Still Waiting is the next song played. Dr Fink again is a star with his piano playing carrying the song early on. Prince is once again at his crooning best, I may not catch all the words but I catch his meaning. The song has a gentle elegance to it during the chorus and the lights come up slightly as the music rises. Prince steps out from behind the microphone stand and engages with the audience with his looks and vocal performance, and I find myself warming to him much more here. Prince shows more of his star power as later in the song he sings under a single spotlight and we hear some of his great falsetto. Prince directs the band to finish the song and with a final vocal flourish it ends.

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The show does go for longer, but sadly the video footage ends here, and so must my blog entry.

It’s very hard for me to write objectively about any show from this time period. I am a life long fan of Prince, and I listen to all sorts of shows, but some years are better to me than others. Give me anything from 1981, 1986 or 1995 and I am about as happy as I can be. This isn’t the best from this time, but seeing it does give it some extra merit. There are only a few shows documented on video from this time, so I do treat this one with reverence. A good show, and a nice video, it’s got plenty going for it, it’s just a shame it wasn’t the whole show or a more impassioned performance. A worthy addition to the collection and worth watching a couple of times a year.

Have a great week,
See you next week for another great recording ‘off the record’
-Hamish

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3 thoughts on “The Ritz 1981

  1. The best sound quality audio of this early club gig has been released as “City Lights Remastered Vol. 1” on SABOTAGE RECORDS (SAB #400–403).

  2. Thanks, Hamish. I have been enjoying reading and listening to stuff along with you.

    It’s on YouTube now:

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