Here we are again, my first podcast in more than a year, and I couldn’t have asked for better guests than Harold Pride and De Angela Duff to discuss Prince’s fourth and quite possibly most underrated album, 1981’s Controversy. If you’ve been listening to these deep-dive album retrospectives, Harold needs no introduction; and, since the Prince scholarly community is a pretty small one, De Angela may not need one either. Suffice to say that she’s the biggest advocate of Controversy I know, and she makes a convincing case that it’s not only a great album in its own right, but also the linchpin of Prince’s entire career.
One quick note: you will likely notice that there was a significant drop in audio quality this episode; this was due to a perfect storm of technical issues that, unfortunately, left the low-quality Skype call recording as the only usable audio source from our conversation. I think you’ll get used to it, but I will assure you anyway that I’m taking steps to make sure we sound better next time. And yes, speaking of “next time,” I do have plans for more episodes in the coming months–probably not in October, but maybe one more before the end of the year, and then more to come in early 2023. If you want to hear the episodes as soon as they drop, remember to subscribe on your podcast service of choice using the links above!
Last October, I had every intention to mark the 40th anniversary of Controversy with another installment of our in-depth album retrospective podcast series, but life (i.e., my increasingly-predictable end-of-year burnout) intervened. Now, having finally gotten my shit together, I’m putting the finishing touches on the episode, and it will be dropping next Friday (tomorrow for patrons)! I’m joined as always by Harold Pride and, for the first time, by longtime friend of the show De Angela Duff, who was actually the one to get my butt in gear because she’s just that passionate about the album! Very excited for you to hear it and (knock on wood) to be back with more in less than a year.
It’s a little hard to believe that I posted my Dirty Mind roundup almost exactly one year ago today. The ensuing year has been hectic for mostly day-job-related reasons, but I feel like I’ve finally hit my stride again. As always, thanks for coming along with me on this journey.
I have a weird relationship with Controversy; catch me when I’m wearing my critic hat and I’ll probably tell you it’s Prince’s second-weakest record of the ’80s (sorry, Batman). But it’s also an essential stepping-stone to his more anointed classics of that decade: it’s hard to imagine 1999 or even Purple Rain without Controversy there to lay the groundwork. And while it clearly has lower lows than its more-loved predecessor, it also has higher highs: no single song on Dirty Mind was as epochal as Controversy’s title track.
Anyway, here’s how I rank the tracks (at least for today):
8. “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” As recently as a couple of months ago, I would have put “Annie Christian” in the bottom spot. But over the summer while listening to Controversy on vinyl, I had an epiphany: “Annie Christian” actually kinda slaps. So I guess that makes “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” the album’s low point by default, and the shoe frankly fits: it’s short, silly, and pretty right-wing to boot. I kinda like the demented pace and delivery, though.
7. “Annie Christian” Look, I only said it “kinda” slaps. Still feels like a rough draft for better songs–namely “Something in the Water,” as frequent commenter Arno pointed out–but it’s peak New Wave Prince, which means I’ll always have a soft spot for it.
6. “Jack U Off” Let me be clear that I have affection for this song because: a) I love all of Prince’s rockabilly moments, and b) it is so goddamn stupid. But as much as I don’t condone throwing garbage at performers, I can kind of understand why the crowd at the Rolling Stones shows reacted the way they did. On the other hand, I can totally imagine Mick Jagger singing this song and killing it. Can Mick Jagger please sing this song?
5. “Sexuality” I suspect this may be my most surprising placement on this list, as I know it’s well-loved; I love it too, for its futuristic synthpop pulse and its introduction of the signature “Prince scream” (“IOWA,” as he memorably spelled it on Twitter). I guess I just feel like the “tourists” sermon, delightfully weird as it is, takes a little bit of the wind out of its sails. Anyway, anything in the top five is splitting hairs–it’s a great track.
4. “Let’s Work” If I were judging based on the album cut alone, this probably would swap places with “Sexuality”; I’m giving it the nod for the 1982 12″ mix, which is 110% My Shit. “Hard dick and bubblegum is all you get!”
3. “Private Joy” Okay, maybe this one is my most surprising placement, and I can’t promise that it isn’t partly reactionary; it’s just that I so often see this song being dismissed as candyfloss filler, and it’s so much more than that. Not only the introduction of Sunset Sound and the Linn LM-1, two cornerstones of Prince’s mid-’80s peak, but also just a weird, densely-arranged pop concoction that only Prince could have made. Listen to all of the voices he uses in the mix! A low-key art-pop masterpiece and a preview of even better, weirder things to come.
2. “Do Me, Baby” The opposite of “Let’s Work,” this one would probably be lower if it weren’t for the completely bonkers denouement of the album version, in which Prince self-pleasures and self-soothes alone in the studio at Sunset Sound. This is a song that really separates the men from the boys, as it were: if you can’t hang with Prince after hearing him whimper, “I’m so cold… hold me,” then you probably can’t hang with Prince. Keep in mind, this is only track three of the album… he’s already come (at least) once, and there’s still a whole vinyl side to go!
1. “Controversy” (Parts 1, 2, & 3) I guess I kinda showed my hand by citing it at the beginning of the post, but then, I’m sure the fact that I wrote a combined total of over 6,500 words on “Controversy” was a clue to my affection. If you want to know who Prince was–at least in the first half of the ’80s–just listen to this song. Preferably loud.
To no one’s surprise, Controversy was my most loquacious series of posts yet: approximately 1,758 words per song (counting “Controversy” as three) vs. 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, 1,379 for For You, and a mere 833 for The Time.
Next week, I’ll be jumping back into Controversy-era ephemera with a quick post on a widely-bootlegged cut from 1981. Also, another review podcast with Harold and KaNisa! See you then.
Note: Please be advised that this post contains uncensored reproductions of racist and homophobic slurs, quoted from contemporary publications and recollections of the events of October 9 and 11, 1981.
In January 1981, after the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s publicist Howard Bloom sent an exuberant memo to his manager, Steve Fargnoli: “The verdict from the press is clear,” Bloom wrote. “Prince is a rock and roll artist! In fact, the press is saying clearly that Prince is the first black artist with the potential to become a major white audience superstar since Jimi Hendrix” (Hill 82). Nine months later, with his fourth album, Controversy, days away from release, Prince faced the biggest test of his crossover potential to date: two shows opening for the Rolling Stones at the massive, 94,000-capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The booking was a major coup for Prince, who had made it his mission to break rock music’s de facto color line and even, according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, described his early vision for his band as a kind of “multiracial Rolling Stones” (Dickerson 95). “The one thing he talked to me about a number of times in the early going was he wanted he and I to be the Black version of the Glimmer Twins,” Dez elaborated to cultural critic Touré. “To have that Keith and Mick thing and have a rock ‘n’ roll vibe fronting this new kind of band. That’s what he wanted” (Touré 15). As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled to biographer Matt Thorne, “We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our little booties off, our funky black asses. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time” (Thorne 2016). But like so many of Prince’s earlier potential big breaks, things did not go according to plan.
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 Princeand 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.