Prince Experiments With Jazz Fusion on ‘In a Large Room With No Light': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
Having a band as talented and versatile as the Revolution -- in addition to his own virtuosity -- meant that Prince could mix together genres. A song he recorded in 1986, "In a Large Room With No Light," even bordered on jazz fusion. But, as was so often the case, Prince kept the song hidden in his vault for decades, although a new, smoothed-out version resurfaced 23 years later.
In early May 1986, construction of Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minn. was underway but still more than a year from its Sept. 11, 1987 opening. From that day onward, Paisley Park would be the dream factory where Prince brought most of his musical and cinematic ideas to life until his tragic death in 2016. But at this moment, The Dream Factory was taking shape to be Prince’s most ambitious and dramatic album to date.
Susannah Melvoin -- Prince’s girlfriend, twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy and co-lead singer of the Family -- revealed artwork that Prince was considering for the album. "In 1986, Prince and the Revolution completed the still-unreleased album, The Dream Factory,” she wrote on Facebook in April 2017. “At our home on Galpin Avenue, the installation of the recording studio had been completed. So, now Prince could record at anytime, day or night. No lost opportunities to get his ideas down on tape. Prince wanted me to come up with some ideas for The Dream Factory album art work. He'd only asked that the title be written somewhere on the piece. It was originally 'The Flesh/Dream Factory.' He chose my third attempt. It was the fantasy and thrill he agreed and chose. This version, has me opening the door to his dream world.. or as it will be forever known ‘The Dream Factory.’"
One item of note is Susannah’s use of "The Flesh" in the artwork. That was the name given to a jazz-funk project Prince created that, more or less, became Madhouse. The group included many members of the horn-expanded Revolution along with Sheila E. and Jonathan Melvoin (Wendy's and Susannah's brother who worked on Parade; he died from a drug overdose a decade later while on tour with Smashing Pumpkins). It's possible that Prince was already looking to break up the Revolution -- they would be officially gone by October -- and release Dream Factory under the new band's name.
Regardless of how it was credited, Prince’s dream world was likely going to be a running theme of the album and, according to Princevault, potentially a Broadway musical. After an 11-track configuration of the album was completed, Prince got back to work. He recorded “In a Large Room With No Light” on May 4 at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles with Susannah (vocals), Wendy (guitar), Lisa Coleman (keyboards), Sheila E. (drums), Levi Seacer, Jr. (bass), Eric Leeds (sax), Atlanta Bliss (trumpet) and Norbert Satchell (sax). The song originally carried an even longer, Fiona Apple-esque title, “Life is Like Looking for a Penny in a Large Room With No Light” and has appeared on many bootlegs as "Welcome 2 the Rat Race."
Lyrically, the song starts off deep into a dream, perhaps a nightmare. “Lana drew a picture in school 2day / One that made her mother cry / A picture of a woman with a drink in her hand / Standing by a child with no eyes.” Two years later, the thriller Paperhouse would bring a nightmare very similar to this to life on the silver screen.
Prince turns his attention from wine to drugs in the next verse. “Danny dropped the dime on his girlfriend / He said he didn't wanna go 2 jail alone.” This criticism of drugs and alcohol and an overall critique of a declining civilization, later witnessed in "Sign O’ the Times" and "Chaos and Disorder," made the details of Prince’s fatal hidden prescription painkiller addiction all the more shocking to fans.
The heart of the song is about feeling trapped and helpless. After singing the full title of the song, Prince sings, “A sophisticated man reduced 2 company in no-win situations / That aren't right.” Perhaps some of this pain is about pushback from Warner Brothers about his prolific recording. Dream Factory would take on several incarnations, with “Light” dropped from the track list as the album morphed into Crystal Ball before being eventually released as the two-disc masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times.
It’s worth noting the significance of spending so much time and energy looking for a penny in the first place, since Prince was a millionaire at this point. Money was always an issue with Prince (“Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite”, “When Will We B Paid?”), perhaps it was another ominous sign of things to come with his ongoing legal and financial disputes with the label. It could also note wounds from childhood when he was broke and finding a lucky penny meant everything. If he actually was locked in a room for years on end – where legend has it is where he taught himself to play so many instruments – the pain of the lyric is compounded.
The original would make the rounds in the bootleg circuit, likely generated from cassette copies that Prince handed out to band members and others in his inner circle. Modern digital advances have made this version sound close to studio quality for those lucky enough to track down a copy.
In 2009, Prince surprised fans with a new version, released online to promote Prince’s appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. It's less beloved by fans, but it still has its merits.
Gone is the word “damn”, replaced by “crazy” in the line “Damn the logic / Cartoon characters look better when they're on the run.” Also deleted, the more caustic verse: “Everytime U wake up there's a little motherf---er / Talkin' big stuff in your face ('Are U happy') / U only get the kind of people that open their mouth just 2 swap feet.” This lyrical switch aligns to Prince’s conversion to the Jehovah's Witnesses that prohibited the use of profanity.
Instead, keyboard and guitar solos are added (it's unknown if it was performed by his then-band or if he played all the instruments), expanding the track to 5:29. But like much of Prince’s output in 2009, the studio version is shiny and over-produced with all of the grit and edges of the original -- largely courtesy of Sheila E.'s explosive Latin jazz rhythms -- polished off. He rushes through the lyrics in order to spend more time on jamming. During the festival itself, the song blossomed into an 8:24 jam session with a second, much fiercer guitar solo.
At Montreaux, Prince played for two nights, with a jam heavy set list that included the live rarity “She Spoke to Me” (from The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale), Jimi Hendrix's “Spanish Castle Magic”, and an updated “All The Critics Love U in Montreux.”
Listen to the 2009 Version of "In a Large Room With No Light"