By June of 1981, Prince had recorded mostly complete versions of “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and, possibly, “Sexuality,” at his home studio. He recorded four more songs that month at Hollywood Sound Recorders in Los Angeles: “Let’s Work,” “Do Me, Baby,” “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” and “Jack U Off.” The HSR sessions were completed with Bob Mockler, the engineer who had helped put the finishing touches on both Prince and Dirty Mind. According to biographer Per Nilsen, Prince booked a full week at the studio, but completed the songs in a handful of days: “We just worked so fast together,” Mockler recalled. “Prince would just go and put the drum part on the tape, and then he’d put everything to the drums, playing a bass part, then a keyboard part, then a guitar part, background vocals, a rough lead vocal. Once he got the backing tracks down, he did a serious lead vocal. Everything was in his head. We’re out of there in a day with a finished track” (Nilsen 1999 80).
In August, Prince returned to L.A. to finish his fourth album; but equipment problems at HSR necessitated that he move operations to nearby Sunset Sound. He booked the largest room, Studio 3, as a “lockout session,” meaning “he had that studio 24 hours a day for as long as [he] wanted,” engineer Ross Pallone recalled. Pallone would have the studio ready each afternoon around four; Prince “would show up sometime between [eight] and 10, and we would work all night… I remember going home to my house between [four] and [six] in the morning, and sleeping till about [two], then going back to the studio every day” (Brown 2010).
One of the perks of the lockout session was that Prince “could have anything equipment-wise he wanted set up in there–be it outboard gear or musical instruments–and no one could touch it,” Pallone told author Jake Brown (Brown 2010). The artist took this opportunity to record a new song, “Private Joy,” with a brand new toy: the Linn LM-1, a state-of-the-art drum machine designed by musician and engineer Roger Linn. Released in 1980, the LM-1 was the first drum machine to use digital samples of live acoustic drums, rather than the synthesized white noise and sine waves utilized by earlier models. Prince wasn’t the first artist to own an LM-1; Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, Leon Russell, Boz Scaggs, Stevie Wonder, and even Daryl Dragon–the “Captain” of Captain & Tennille–all ordered theirs direct from Linn (Vail 292). But more than any of his contemporaries, Prince would leave an indelible mark on the machine’s prominence in pop music and its expressive possibilities.
Prince had used drum machines before: “Annie Christian” and “Sexuality” both used non-Linn models, and he had been using basic rhythm boxes for home recording since 1977. But the richness of the LM-1’s drum samples and, even more importantly, the fact that each “drum” could be individually tuned in pitch, made it an instant staple of his studio and live repertoire. His enthusiasm was enough to make drummer Bobby Z briefly fear that he had been rendered obsolete: “When I heard ‘Private Joy’ for the first time, that was the moment that I knew things were going to change,” he told Nilsen. “But he told me right away that I was gonna play pads hooked up to the drum machine” (Nilsen 1999 82).
As a showpiece for the LM-1, “Private Joy” is understandably tentative; we don’t hear any of the radical effects or pitch-shifting that made later masterpieces like “When Doves Cry” so distinctive. But the new machine plays an essential role in the song’s infectious bounce: opening with two rapid-fire tom triplets and augmenting the bridge with synthesized handclaps on the offbeat. The relatively sophisticated beat, with multiple distinct fills, shows off the LM-1’s programming capabilities in an era when most drum machines used simple prefabricated rhythms.
It’s tempting to read Prince’s lyrics–a rapturous ode to a “pretty toy” he likes to “turn on… every night”–as a sly reference to the machine, personified as a woman. I, at least, prefer this as an alternative to the popular interpretation that the song is about his then-girlfriend Susan Moonsie; lyrics like “I could never let another play with my toy” are better addressed to literal objects than to women being treated as such.
But there is an undeniable dark and possessive streak to “Private Joy”: particularly after the three-minute mark, the point where a hypothetical radio edit would likely have faded out. Following a bass and drum-machine breakdown, Prince sings in his deeper natural range, “I strangled Valentino”–a reference to the Italian silent film actor whose dandyish “Latin lover” image was a not-insignificant influence on Prince–“You been mine ever since / If anybody asks you / You belong to Prince.” The LM-1 begins thumping–mimicking, as Alfred Soto writes for Spin, “a, uh, certain way a man experiences private joy”–and Prince launches into a noisy guitar solo. The song, heretofore pure candyfloss synthpop, ends with a shuddering wave of feedback.
“Private Joy” tends to be overlooked in Prince’s canon, possibly because its synth-heavy arrangement is almost comically sprightly: more unapologetically “pop” than anything Prince had done to date. But the aforementioned undercurrents of darkness give the song a compelling sense of dissonance; and the way Prince saves the weirder flourishes for the last 90 seconds is an early indication of his modus operandi for extended singles. Prince clearly had a soft spot for these 90 seconds in particular: the guitar solo at the end of “Private Joy” was recycled in full for 1993’s “Poem,” later edited for inclusion on the 1994 album Come as “Orgasm.”
If nothing else, “Private Joy” will always be remembered for its historical significance: the first song Prince recorded with the Linn LM-1, and the first recorded in full at Sunset Sound. He spent a little over a week at Sunset, with “Private Joy” completed within the first couple of days on August 16; the remainder of his time was spent adding overdubs and mixing the album. It would be far from his last lockout session there: Sunset’s Studio 3 would be his go-to L.A. recording studio for the rest of the decade, and its layout would serve as the blueprint when he built his own state-of-the-art studio, Paisley Park, in the mid-1980s. In that sense, “Private Joy” telegraphs some of the most significant shifts in Prince’s early career–not bad for a song that’s widely considered album filler.