Note: I first wrote about “Electric Intercourse” in 2017, when the previously-unheard studio version was released in advance of the deluxe expanded edition of Purple Rain. That original post has been preserved for posterity, but this is now the official D / M / S / R entry on the song.
Much as he had the previous year during the Controversy tour, Prince spent part of his “downtime” between the two legs of the 1999 tour at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Over the course of a single week, from January 7-14, 1983, he completed overdubs and mixing for the 12″ versions of his own “Little Red Corvette” and “Drive Me Wild” by Vanity 6, plus edits for the single release of the Time’s “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” Finally, on the last night of the sessions, he recorded a new song: the aching, piano-led ballad “Electric Intercourse.”
The scenario depicted in “Electric Intercourse” is one of Prince’s staples: Our hero locks eyes with an obscure object of desire, and is instantly overcome with lust. Yet unlike the plainspoken language used in earlier songs from this subgenre (cf. “Do It All Night,” “Let’s Work”), his word and syntax choices here are notably florid and poetic: “Electric is my body, baby[,] I will shock u with my lips,” he gasps, fully indulging in the electricity metaphor of the song’s title. “Darling, don’t u know your [T]echnicolor climax is at my fingertips[?]” Picking up from “International Lover”–his most recent ballad, recorded a year earlier to the day–Prince delivers these vividly rendered come-ons in a quavering, rococo falsetto that hovers just outside the realm of pure camp.
Musically, “Electric Intercourse” is assembled from the same basic components as the songs from 1999: a processed Linn LM-1 beat, swaths of layered synthesizers, and Prince’s own multi-tracked vocals. But this new track has a warmer, more organic feel–an apparently purposeful step away from the cold, mechanical textures of the previous album. The most prominent instrument in the mix, as mentioned above, is an acoustic Steinway piano; against its gently cascading arpeggios, the synth lines bloom and spread like a blush across the cheek (or any other part of the anatomy one might care to name). Together, all of these elements–the lush, baroque lyrics and vocals; the touch of classicist instrumentation; the warm, almost womblike synth tones–create a new inflection of Prince’s sound, which he would continue to explore and iterate on for the album that would become Purple Rain.
While it may not have been conceived as such from the beginning, “Electric Intercourse” quickly took its place among the songs planned for Prince’s new album and film project. It–along with “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Computer Blue,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain”–was among the new tracks debuted (and recorded) at the downtown Minneapolis club First Avenue on August 3, 1983. The live version of “Electric Intercourse” is looser and lustier than the slightly stiff original: No longer bound by a programmed drum pattern, Prince leads the band from his piano, letting the song’s natural ebb and flow–its “sexual current,” if you will–guide them. Here, the sustained keyboard throbs that punctuate each line are both appropriately electric and palpably erotic: the sound of caught breaths and skipped heartbeats.
In concert–and to the song’s benefit–Prince also does away with his mannered falsetto from the studio version. To the chorus, he adds a call-and-response with Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin: a taut exchange 0f male and female voices that can’t help but evoke the titular “intercourse.” As the song nears its climax, Prince hits a gospel scream, flows seamlessly into a brief piano solo, then cuts the band off with a glissando. Awash in shimmering cymbals and synth chords, he affects postcoital exhaustion, repeatedly stammering out the words, “Don’t u wanna make love?” before letting out one last ecstatic scream and cuing the band for another big flourish. The crowd, unsurprisingly, eats it up.
“Electric Intercourse” appears in Albert Magnoli’s draft screenplay for Purple Rain, where it marks a milestone in the budding romance between the characters played by Prince and Vanity. Magnoli’s description lingers on both Vanity’s and the crowd’s response to the song: Prince’s “words have a profound effect on her–and the audience,” he writes. “Without being consciously aware of it, they’re moving closer to the stage, searching for their personal fix. Prince surrenders himself to the music totally, releasing from himself all that is hurtful–releasing the sincerity and truthfulness that escapes him in his daily life. We are entering [the] realm where life and music are inextricably bound, and the impact on the performer and listener is profound” (Magnoli 1983).
Given this granular focus on the dynamics of his performance, it seems likely that Prince and Magnoli intended to recreate the live version of “Electric Intercourse” for the screen; and in fact, there is evidence that Prince revisited the track for overdubs at Sunset Sound on September 12, 1983, during the same sessions where he “sweetened” the live recordings of “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain.” Just a week later, however, he wrote “The Beautiful Ones,” another passionate ballad with a prominent piano part. This sealed the earlier song’s fate, according to drummer Bobby Z: “Electric Intercourse” “was a good song,” he told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine in 2000, but “‘The Beautiful Ones’ was written late and it was a better one, without a doubt” (Tudahl 2018 17). The new track took the old one’s place, both in the film and on its accompanying soundtrack; and “Electric Intercourse” was consigned to the proverbial Vault.
Like many great Prince songs, though, this one has a coda. On May 15, 2014, over 30 years after his first (and, to date, only) public performance of “Electric Intercourse,” Prince brought the track out of retirement during a solo piano set at LG Arena in Birmingham, England. Its return was intriguingly timed: A little less than a month earlier, Prince and Warner Bros. Records had announced a licensing partnership to include a newly-recorded studio album and remasters of his Warner back catalogue, beginning with Purple Rain. The experience of revisiting his 1983 and 1984 recordings for a prospective reissue may have been what inspired Prince to resurrect the song. Alternatively, suggests writer Matt Thorne, it may have been a subliminal nod to his article that ran in the U.K. newspaper The Daily Telegraph the previous day, in which he argued “that the Purple Rain deluxe edition would only be worthwhile if it included unreleased tracks such as ‘Electric Intercourse’” (Thorne 2016). It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time Prince’s petty streak resulted in great art.
Whatever might have brought it on, Prince’s belated return to “Electric Intercourse” was a confirmation of his brilliance as an interpreter of his own past work. The performance was masterful and mature: turning down the heat of the 1983 live cut to a simmering slow burn, without abandoning its sense of erotic surrender. It was also–with the exception of a partial performance at the Roundhouse in London the following month–the last time he would ever play the song live. The original studio recording did, in fact, appear on Warner’s 2017 deluxe edition of Purple Rain. But its definitive performance, from that fateful night at First Avenue in August 1983, remains officially unreleased.
(You might notice I am no longer sharing an Amazon link below. This is for two reasons: first, growing income inequality due to the pandemic has finally led me to try and divest myself, as much as I can, from Jeff Bezos and his goofy-ass iguana face; and second, I found out that the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis sells digital music, and I think Prince would have preferred to sell his music through them, rather than a multi-billon-dollar global conglomerate. If Prime Music is your digital music service of choice, I apologize for the inconvenience; but I also hope you’ll consider supporting the Fetus, a great local business with a robust mail order system. Your purchases won’t earn me any affiliate money, but I think it’s well worth the trade-off. Over the next few weeks, I will be gradually switching all links for music purchases from Amazon to the Fetus; meanwhile, you can buy books–including the upcoming Prince-related memoirs by Pepé Willie, Brown Mark, and Neal Karlen–using my affiliate links for Bookshop.org, a very solid Amazon alternative that also benefits local bookstores.)