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!
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).
Note: This is the second of three projected posts on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
Note:I confess that this piece, a Patreon commission from Darling Nisi, has been a long time coming–so long, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I already owe her a second commission now. Part of the reason why I took so long are the same, much-discussed reasons why I took so long for everything over the past eight months or so; but part of the reason is because her request to imagine a circa-1984 Prince without Purple Rainrequired a lot of thought. No Purple Rain–which I took to mean the movie as well as the album–means no “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” or pivot to Top 40 success; it also means no Paisley Park (the recording complex or the vanity record label), no massive renogotiated contract (and thus no “Slave”-era faceoff) with Warner Bros., and no comeback album and greatest-hits tour conveniently timed to the 20th anniversary. So large does Prince’s first film and sixth album loom over the rest of his career, in fact, that I didn’t even try to do justice to every change its absence would have wrought; this may be the first alternate timeline I will have to revisit in the future, just so I can fully think through what the ’90s or 2000s would have looked like to a Prince detached from both the expectations and the opportunities afforded him by Purple Rain.
In inventing an alternative followup to 1999, I ended up setting a few rules for myself: First, I limited myself to the existing timeline of songs recorded between January 1983 and March 1984, so the imaginary album could feasibly share a release date with the real one. Second, I wouldn’t use any track known to have been composed specifically for the movie–so, again, no “When Doves Cry” or “The Beautiful Ones”; I technically could have used “Purple Rain,” but that seemed to go against the spirit of the exercise, so I didn’t. Third, and finally, I tried to make my fake album as distinct from the real one as possible: if what set Purple Rain apart from 1999 was its concision and pop-friendliness, then my alternate-universe version would be more even more sprawling and idiosyncratic than its predecessor. Obviously, the album I reverse-engineered from existing recordings is no replacement for an actual, cohesive project produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince; but I do think it’s a fun listen (and yes, I did make a version I could actually listen to).
As always, I will end with the disclaimer that everything after this introduction is completely made up and just for fun, all Photoshops are crudely and hastily done, and all resemblances to actual persons living or dead are, if not coincidental, certainly not to be taken seriously.
In case you missed it, yesterday I finally closed the book on the 1999 era for dance / music / sex / romance (well, almost… I still plan to write “bonus tracks” posts on “Vagina,” “Colleen,” “You’re All I Want,” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” for Patreon readers in the near future). This was the blog’s biggest undertaking to date: comprising 33 track posts and three albums, and taking almost 16 months from the first post (“International Lover,” way back in November of 2018!) and the last. As you know, I can be pretty tough on myself; but right now, I’m letting myself take some pride in what I’ve accomplished.
1999, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, is one of my favorite Prince albums; on a good day, it may even be number one, and it’s certainly near the top of my favorites by any artist. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I’ve done this masterpiece justice with 11 blog posts, but I sure as hell tried my best; so here they are now, in ascending order of my favorite tracks:
11. “Free” No surprises here, I’m guessing; I was pretty rough on “Free” in my original post, and it’s still the song I’m likeliest to skip when I’m listening to 1999 on a skip-friendly format. It ain’t so bad, really–any song as weird as this one is hard for me to outright hate–but it’s the weak point on an otherwise near-perfect album.
10. “International Lover” This ranking I feel a bit guiltier about, because “International Lover” really is a lot of fun: a chance for Prince to be sexy and silly in more or less equal measure, all while showing off his increasingly virtuosic vocals. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the live-in-the-studio first take on 1999 Super Deluxe, complete with barely-suppressed giggles by Prince and little-known session drummer Morris Day.
9. “Lady Cab Driver” This isn’t going to get easier, is it? Before you send me hate mail, know that I adore “Lady Cab Driver”–it’s just the textbook definition of an album track, there to add mood and menace (and, yes, funk) to the back half of 1999. If you’re wondering what I thought about “Rearrange,” one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe, this post answers that question, too.
8.“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” Another of those moody disc two tracks: indispensable to 1999’s dystopian atmosphere, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for a single track to play. I gave this the edge over “Lady Cab Driver” for the new life it took on in concert; see the long list of live reinterpretations at the end of the post.
7. “D.M.S.R.” It should tell you just how high in my esteem 1999 is as an album when the song I named my blog after doesn’t even make the top 50%. A great dance track, and an even better repository of weird little details: from “Jamie Starr’s a thief!” to Lisa’s blood-curdling scream for help.
6. “All the Critics Love U in New York” I know I might get some flack for ranking this above “D.M.S.R.” (and “Something in the Water,” and…), but “All the Critics” needs the boost. It’s an underrated snapshot of Prince at the cutting edge; a pitch-perfect homage to Detroit techno while the genre was still in its infancy.
5.“Delirious” As an avowed fan of Rockabilly Prince, who am I to deny the subgenre’s peak? “Delirious” may be 1999 at its most ’80s-dated, but I defy anyone to listen and not walk away with those damn keyboards stuck in your head.
4. “Automatic” My favorite of 1999’s darker, weirder second half, and maybe even the peak of New Wave Prince (another of my personal favorites, as readers are no doubt aware). If I had to pick a single track to explain why 1999 speaks to me personally–not the best or the most important song, but the one that scratches my own particular, deeply subjective itch–“Automatic” might be it.
3.“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” …Or, it might be this one. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is the album’s strongest showing for Dirty Prince, with his late-song monologue containing the most explicit language on the record; but for my money, the dirtiest thing about the track is the chugging, pumping bass-synth line, a retro-futuristic approximation of the world’s creakiest bedsprings.
2. “1999” Honestly, just call it a tie for first place. I’ve already expended a little over 4,700 words on “1999”–my longest single post to date!–so today, I’ll just say that the album version is a totally different beast from the radio edit: freakier, funkier, and still totally vital, even with the year 1999 (never mind the song) over 20 years in the rear-view mirror. Accept no substitutes.
1.“Little Red Corvette” Look, I’ve said before, my tastes as a Prince fan are pretty basic; and why not, since his biggest mainstream hits were as inventive as most artists’ avant-garde? “Little Red Corvette” may be the normie’s choice for best track on 1999, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fucking masterwork: as much a work of literature as it is an exemplar of pop songcraft. To paraphrase my appearance on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewindpodcast, if “Little Red Corvette” doesn’t outlast us all on this planet, then the planet was overrated anyway.
To no one’s surprise, my 1999 posts had the highest average word count of any album to date: 1,964, versus 1,758 forControversy, 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, and 1,379 for For You.
So, what’s next? In terms of the main blog, it’s on to Purple Rain; I’ll be starting that chapter with “Baby I’m a Star.” As noted above, I’m also tying up some loose ends from the 1999 era with Patreon-exclusive posts in the near future; and, speaking of Patreon, it’s past time that I wrote my first patron-requested post: an alternate-timeline scenario requested by Darling Nisi, which will handily help set up the Purple Rain era. Finally, speaking of Nisi, I’ve already recorded a long-belated Dirty Mindpodcast with her and Harold Pride, which I’ll be putting up (first for patrons, and then for everyone) once I’ve finished editing it.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot in the pipeline; I just ask for your continued patience as I work on it. The international COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of instability into my day-to-day routine: I didn’t even have the chance to write on the blog that I would be presenting at the DM40GB30 symposium, originally scheduled for next month, before it was postponed until an undetermined later date. And while you might expect a self-imposed quarantine to be a boon for my productivity, the fact that I’ll also be juggling remote work with entertaining and educating a seven-year-old whose school has been shut down means that I’ll probably be spread thinner than usual. These are strange times, and I don’t know what is going to happen next. All I can promise is that I will keep writing, and I hope that you’ll keep reading, too.
In the meantime, here are those growing playlists.