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!
But it isn’t just its throwaway nature that makes this track feel like a callback to the early days of the Time. It’s also the sound: retro rock’n’roll with a dash of New Wave kitsch, not dissimilar from one of Prince’s formative influences for the group, the BusBoys–and, of course, more than a little reminiscent of his own contemporary material. In particular, “Oneday”’s squiggly main synth line recalls “Horny Toad”–another song recorded around the same time and later released as the B-side for “Delirious”–with all of the rough edges and, frankly, most of the appeal buffed away.
The singer on the original Hookers version of “Wet Dream” isn’t documented. Prince Vault assumes Jamie Shoop, which is as good a guess as any; it’s also possible that Prince simply laid down his own guide vocals, or cut the basic track as an instrumental. But whatever the specifics, he returned to the song in the spring of 1982 to add vocal overdubs by Vanity and Brenda Bennett. The results, like most Vanity vocal tracks, were mixed.
During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mindanti-war song “Partyup” to the recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “Thank God we got a better President now,” he said, with “bigger balls” than his predecessor Jimmy Carter. “I think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.” Salewicz, good leftist rock journalist that he was, didn’t know how to take this sudden detour into conservative politics. “Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out,” he wrote (Salewicz 1981).
Indeed, as a Midwesterner who grew up in the shadow of the 1980s, I can attest to hearing more than a few anti-Carter rants like the one Prince engaged in–even, in my case, many years after the comparative merits of the Gipper and the Peanut Farmer had relinquished any claim to relevance. Yet it’s also hard not to read a subversive undertone into his abrupt political endorsement. As Salewicz pointed out, there was unmistakable homoeroticism in Prince’s singling out of the president’s “balls” for praise; you can almost hear him smirk when he goes on to say, “He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth is his one big asset” (Salewicz 1981). But whatever Prince’s actual thoughts on Reagan’s mouth and/or balls, the Salewicz interview was an early indication that even this sexually and racially ambiguous libertine had a soft spot for the Ur-Republican president–at least when it came to the Cold War.
Folks, it’s been a whole-ass seven months since the last roundup post on Dirty Mind–where has the time gone? Dunno, but here at least is where the Time has gone (sorry): five posts on the first album by Prince’s first and arguably most accomplished protégé act. My ranking this time is decidedly anti-climactic, since I basically organized them in ascending order of preference as I wrote. And yes, the fact that I didn’t even devote a full post to “After Hi School” should give you an idea of where it would have ranked if I had. Anyway, here goes:
5. “Girl” Only the second song I’ve written about so far (after “With You”) that I’ve actively disliked–but my dislike is really, really active. Apologies to the track’s defenders, but I don’t know which is more grating to me: Morris’ whiny lead vocal or Prince’s dog-howling-at-the-moon harmonies. I would have gladly taken an extra five and a half minutes of “Get It Up” over this.
4. “Oh, Baby” The best ballad on The Time, purely by default. I actually barely remember this song even after having written 600 words on it. But I guess no memory beats bad memories, so Number 4 it is.
3. “Get It Up” Now we’re talking. The Time’s debut is the definition of an uneven album, with half of its songs among the worst they recorded and the other half among the best; “Get It Up” belongs in the latter. The only reason it isn’t ranked higher is because it’s still missing the spark of unique personality that the remaining two songs achieve; but if there’s a version with just Prince’s vocals locked away in the Vault, I need it yesterday.
2. “The Stick” Maybe the best song about dicks ever to be co-written by a lesbian? Don’t quote me on that, but a great song nevertheless, and a tongue-in-cheek preview of the auto-erotic innuendos Prince would take to the next level with “Little Red Corvette.” Plus, any opportunity for me to reference Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos earns a special place in my heart.
1. “Cool” Maybe the definitive Time song–and certainly, as we explored, the one with the longest history in Prince’s career. Without “Cool,” Jerome would have never brought Morris that mirror–truly, an alternate timeline too terrifying to contemplate.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what the average length for these Time posts was, it was my lowest ever: a paltry 833 words, barely over half of the average post length for Dirty Mind. I make no promises that I’ll be as brief in the future.
Next week is the third anniversary of d / m / s / r (where has that time gone?), so I’ll hold off on the state-of-the-blog stuff until then. In the meantime, rest assured that I’ll keep plugging away, probably until we’re all dead. Onward to (the rest of) Controversy!