(Featured Image: Courtship rituals of early ’80s French rocker gang the Del Vikings; photo by Gilles Elie Cohen, stolen from VICE.)
After a string of songs exploring, to various degrees, the darker side of his emotional spectrum, Prince capped off his late April and early May 1982 sessions at Sunset Sound with something light and frothy. Sonically, “Delirious” is cut from the same cloth as most of its predecessors on the album that would become 1999: from the driving Linn LM-1 beat to the sparse, but infectious synth line. Yet where songs like “Automatic” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” assemble these building blocks into complex, ever-shifting structures, “Delirious” offers more straightforward pleasures: it’s a simple eight-bar blues, as pure and elemental as Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” or Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
With its solidly retro foundation, “Delirious” is arguably the pinnacle of Prince’s brief, but intense infatuation with 1950s rock ‘n’ roll: an “obsession,” according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, that began when the band caught a show by rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats while in London on the Dirty Mind tour. “We were all blown away with them,” Dickerson told Nashville Scene magazine in 2014, “the look, [singer] Brian Setzer’s amazing sound, just the sheer authenticity of it.” The experience inspired a handful of songs–most famously “Jack U Off” from 1981’s Controversy, but also tracks like the unreleased “You’re All I Want.” Perhaps even more notably, according to Dickerson, it also inspired both him and Prince to style their choppy punk hairdos into Little Richard-style pompadours (Shawhan 2014).
In Prince’s growing sub-canon of rockabilly pastiche, “Delirious” was the wittiest by far. Where on “Jack U Off” he had used blunt come-ons to elicit shocked giggles, here he piles on the innuendo, painting an evocative self-portrait of a man driven to distraction by debilitating horniness. “I get delirious whenever you’re near,” he croons, before introducing some of his best auto-erotic metaphors this side of “Little Red Corvette”: “Girl U gotta take control cause I just can’t steer / You’re just too much to take / I can’t stop[,] I ain’t got no brakes / Girl U gotta take me for a little ride / Up and down, in and out and around your lake.” As author Ben Greenman writes, “it’s eminently clear what Prince meant, and it wasn’t Lake Minnetonka he had in mind” (Greenman 74). But the dirtiest lyric comes earlier in the song, when Prince begs, “Baby U got to stop / Cuz if U don’t I’m gonna explode and / Girl I got [a lot]”–surely one of, at best, a handful of references to large volumes of semen to receive mainstream radio play in 1982 and 1983.
Another way “Delirious” surpasses its musical antecedents is in the clever, contemporary tweaks it makes to its vintage parts. While the song’s structure and even its double entendre-laden lyrics could have come straight out of the ’50s, its arrangement is pure New Wave kitsch–particularly the almost insidiously catchy keyboard part, which, per Greenman, sounds “like air being let out of the pinched neck of a balloon” (Greenman 74). This, again, stands in stark contrast to “Jack U Off,” which in its studio incarnation resembles a cheap karaoke backing track for a rockabilly song. “Delirious” may be equally chintzy in its own way, but its chintz feels purposeful, adding a sense of postmodern whimsy indebted to groups like Devo–which has, quite frankly, aged a lot better than the earnest revivalism of the aforementioned Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats.
More than anything, though, “Delirious” is just a lot of fun–a valuable commodity on one of the artist’s coldest and most alienated albums. Prince’s vocal performance is sublime, scenery-chewing camp: an uncanny impersonation of peak cocaine-era Bowie impersonating Elvis, with a chorus that stretches the titular four syllables into at least five. And while the song’s arrangement is one of the simplest on the album, it still abounds with arresting details: e.g., the noodly little bass-synth solo–almost an anti-solo–that comes in after the breakdown three-quarters through the song; or the decidedly Ellingtonian turnaround that follows, Prince having seemingly forgotten his own edict that “it’s time for jazz to die” from “All the Critics Love U in New York.”
At a little under four minutes, “Delirious” is the shortest song on 1999, beating out even the relatively svelte “Something in the Water.” An extended mix is circulating among bootleg collectors with about two additional minutes of music, including a longer intro, some extra vocalizations, and a lengthy coda with more prominent guitar and harmony vocals. It’s an interesting curiosity, but a little on the meandering side; the album version trims the fat with judicious edits by Prince and Sunset Sound engineer David Leonard, whose facility for cutting two-inch audio tape earned him the nickname “the Blade.” When “Delirious” was released as the album’s third single in August 1983, it was pruned even more, fading out before the breakdown and missing one of the song’s quirkiest touches: the sound effect of a babbling baby that brings the album cut to an abrupt close. That baby noise–specifically, “Happy Baby” from Elektra Records’ 1964 compilation Authentic Sound Effects Volume 8–would get another chance at the spotlight in 1998, when producer Timbaland used it in his beat for R&B singer Aaliyah’s hit single “Are You That Somebody?”
With or without the baby, “Delirious” did pretty well for itself, peaking at Number 18 on Billboard’s newly-rechristened Hot Black Singles chart and and an impressive Number 8 on the Hot 100–Prince’s second consecutive Top 10 hit after “Little Red Corvette” reached Number 6. The song was frequently played live on the Purple Rain tour, combined with elements from the extended version of “Let’s Go Crazy”; Prince “would run around the stage,” slide down a fireman’s pole, and “do all kinds of crazy stuff,” drummer Bobby Z recalled in a video interview with The Current (Current “Delirious” 2018). Later arrangements on the Parade and Lovesexy tours boiled the song down to its bare essentials: just a single verse and the lead line, now with added live horns. It would later be resurrected from 2010 to 2012 as a medley with, once again, “Let’s Go Crazy.”
“Delirious” wasn’t Prince’s final word on the rockabilly sound. “Horny Toad,” a “Jack U Off” soundalike recorded during the 1999 sessions, would be released as the single’s B-side (more on that later); a number of unreleased songs, such as “Velvet Kitty Cat” and “Girl O’ My Dreams,” also toy with the genre; “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” from 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, exists. But these songs feel in a way like so much epilogue: with “Delirious,” Prince nailed it, transcending pastiche with a song that stands alone as a classic in its own right–and a keyboard line that will be stuck in my head, at least, until the end of my days.
Folks, I haven’t been making a big deal about it, but it’s worth mentioning that this is my 99th dance / music / sex / romance post. Thanks so much for reading and for keeping the blog going over these past three years. Thanks in particular to those of you who have chosen to support d / m / s / r on Patreon–including our newest patron, Anthony Denny. There are now 16 people who care enough about the blog to contribute to it monthly, and that’s something I do not take lightly. But I’m also indebted to the dozens out there who support my work in other ways: by sharing, commenting, or even simply reading it week after week. It really is a pleasure to make something people care about. I think you’ll all be pleased by the 100th post when it comes out next week.
(The extended original version of “Delirious,” while in circulation, does not appear to be readily available for streaming at the time of this post. If anyone out there happens across it, let me know and I’ll add a link.)