Happy 35th Anniversary to The Time’s third studio album Ice Cream Castle, originally released July 2, 1984.
Here’s a riddle for you. When is a Prince album not a Prince album? And when is an album by The Time not really an album by The Time? It seems that thanks to the recent offering by Prince’s Estate in the form of Originals, the answer lays somewhere in between, especially when it comes to The Time’s landmark 1984 album, Ice Cream Castle.
As Originals shows, Prince was either a generously prolific writer buoying the careers of proteges with his godly talents or he was a complete control freak with too many great tunes to go to waste. The truth probably lands somewhere in the middle. Like his very own Motown inspired hit factory, Prince had a plethora of purple funk, too much for one mere man to release. And so, as was his want, he would gift these songs fully formed to those around him like Sheila E., Vanity, Apollonia 6, Mazarati, Martika and so on. And among those to benefit from this purple proliferation were the funkiest band in the land, The Time.
Of course, way back in 1984 the level of Prince’s involvement was the equivalent of a musical Easter Egg hidden away in liner notes, pseudonyms, and low mixed backing vocals. This meta musing was perhaps lost on many especially when it came to The Time, a band of equally gifted musicians hailing from Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis.
With the likes of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson, Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir, there were enough musical skills present to at least make you think it was them on their first two outings, and after their musical turn in Purple Rain, you could be forgiven for thinking The Time were the real deal. And live, they were.
But in the studio quite often all the band had to do was listen to a finished track with Prince playing all instruments, as Morris Day followed Prince’s vocal guidance note for note and playa persona to boot. On increasing occasions, guitarist Jesse Johnson would be asked to lay down the guitar lines. But for the most part this was all Prince, under the guise of his alter ego Jamie Starr.
So by the time The Time came to record their third album, the band were growing increasingly dissatisfied with their studio arrangements. As a result, the band exerted a greater influence—particularly by Jesse Johnson and lead vocalist and funky front man, Morris Day—over the creation of the album, at least in the early stages.
Once again the album that would become Ice Cream Castle boasted a tightly wound set of six funk tunes that ranged from club bangers to bed bangers, all featuring extended jams.
Album opener, the trippy melodic funk of “Ice Cream Castles” began its life as a Day and Johnson jam entitled “Old & Ignorant” before Prince reworked it, lifted a lyric from his idol Joni Mitchell and transformed the tune into an ode to interracial relationships.
“My Drawers” is a libidinous funk rocker fueled by squealing synths and a volcanic guitar solo by Johnson. For his part, Morris Day holds down the groove giving the song its funky beat with a spin behind the drums. The rest is all Prince.
With a backing that sounds like an instrumental cast off from the Purple Rain soundtrack, “Chili Sauce” features a spoken word performance with Morris Day delivering a monologue in his best Purple Rain persona. It’s humorous and a nice callback to Morris and Jerome’s “Password” set piece in the film, but ultimately it’s a little throwaway.
Thankfully, it’s rescued by the party jam of the album, the pop-funk slammer that is “Jungle Love.” Written by Johnson, Prince took the drive of the song, added the lyrics and a new melody line and fashioned it into a playful funk workout playing all instruments save for Jesse’s guitar work.
With its drawn-out and hypnotic tracking, “If The Kid Can’t Make You Come” is a slo-jam of funk that builds throughout the track to it climatic crescendo, functioning as the musical copulation of “Chili Sauce” with Morris bedding the (temporary) object of his desire.
The real climax happens a few seconds later, when for the first time on record all members of The Time get to play on an actual The Time track, with a live rendition of “The Bird.” Originally slated as the studio take in which, once again, Prince pretty much played everything, the live recording soon took its place due to the infectious energy of the performance and the fact that when it came to The Time playing live, few could out-funk them, not even Prince on this occasion. It also didn’t hurt that “The Bird” is one of the few live performance pieces by The Time in Purple Rain and so, in a similar vein to the final tracks on that album, the live feel takes the listener back to their association with the movie on an infinite funky feedback loop.
At the time of its release, who played what, who wrote what and how much of the album actually was the band purporting to be on it didn’t really matter. It was a funky part of the Purple Rain tapestry expertly woven by Prince. Whilst in retrospect this was the musical version of pulling a Milli Vanilli, it didn’t matter. Those in the know felt the touch of a purple hand and felt in on the secret. And those that didn’t, just enjoyed the album for what it is: a collection of killer funk-pop that would help shape The Time’s live performances. Sadly, even that would be short-lived with the band disbanding soon after the album’s release. And many of its key players jettisoning prior to recording it.
Thirty-five years on, the question may still remain. When is an album by The Time really a The Time album, and where should we place an outing like Ice Cream Castle in our collections? Is it a Prince, Day, Johnson hybrid? Was writing for others a creative avenue for Prince to stay in the world of funk whilst his personal projects broadened their musical horizons (in a not too dissimilar way that George Clinton created Funkadelic as a counterpoint to what he was doing musically with Parliament and vice versa)?
Ultimately, does it even matter if each time you put it on, the power of the funk compels you to dance or make that funk-face? My take is, it’s a great album filled with strong funk-led songs. Regardless of who wrote them, I would have hoped that with such accomplished musicians in their fold, the members of The Time were actually given the opportunity to strut their stuff in the studio. For that, we had to wait to witness their wild live shows or as time would show, follow their side projects and solo efforts. Still, Ice Cream Castle remains a joy to listen to and will have you shaking your ass in no time.