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Controversy, 1981 Podcast

Podcast: 41 Years of Controversy – A Conversation with Harold Pride and De Angela Duff

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!

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Ephemera, 1983

Father’s Song

Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.

John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).

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Ephemera, 1983

Wednesday

From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.

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Ephemera, 1983

Irresistible Bitch

From his debut through 1999, Prince was releasing albums at the steady clip of one per year–with side projects the Time and Vanity 6 doubling, and then tripling, his output in 1981 and 1982, respectively. But as his attention turned to the development and production of his first feature film, the release schedule inevitably slowed. The year 1983 would be the first in half a decade without a new Prince album on shelves.

As it happened, this arrangement served his record label just fine. “Warner Bros.’ pop department worked really hard to launch Prince to pop radio,” recalled Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in Warner’s “Black Music” division. “But there never was time. As soon as something was starting to happen on pop radio, the next album arrived. The fact that we weren’t getting a new album in 1983 ended up being a tremendous blessing because it gave us more time” (Nilsen 1999 119).

For Prince himself, the “blessing” was considerably less tremendous. “Delirious,” the third single from 1999, had released on August 17 paired with “Horny Toad,” an outtake of similar style and vintage. But the fourth single, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” wasn’t due out until November; and Prince, who had recorded enough music that year to fill a whole LP and then some, was itching to put out something new. According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, the hyper-prolific artist spent his time at Sunset Sound on September 16 reviewing two prospective B-sides: “G-Spot,” which he’d tracked in May and would later dust off for protégée Jill Jones; and “Irresistible Bitch,” the latest version of which had been recorded just a day earlier. “Not surprisingly,” Tudahl writes, “he chose his most recent work” (Tudahl 2018 170).

Categories
Purple Rain, 1984

Computer Blue

Of the six new, original songs Prince debuted at First Avenue on August 3, 1983, three–“I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain”–were sourced directly from the concert recording for his upcoming album and film. A fourth, “Let’s Go Crazy,” was re-recorded in short order at the Warehouse rehearsal space; while a fifth, “Electric Intercourse,” never saw official release in Prince’s lifetime. But it was the sixth–a cerebral punk-funk workout called “Computer Blue”–that would occupy Prince for the rest of the month, with weeks of overdubs spanning both Minnesota and Los Angeles.

The genesis of “Computer Blue” was in the intensive rehearsals at the Warehouse in summer of 1983. As keyboardist Dr. Fink recalls in the Purple Rain expanded edition liner notes, “We were jamming at rehearsal one day and I started to play a synthesizer bass part along with the groove. It happened to catch Prince’s ear, so he had our sound man record the jam.” The band continued to work on the song and, according to drummer Bobby Z, had it “just about fully rehearsed” when Prince threw another element into the works: a lyrical guitar solo based on a melody by his father, John L. Nelson, later to be dubbed “Father’s Song” (Revolution 20).