Jack U Off

Jack U Off

(Featured Image: Prince and Dez Dickerson face an unruly crowd opening for the Rolling Stones, October 1981; photo by Allen Beaulieu, from his forthcoming book Prince: Before the Rain.)

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.

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Private Joy

Private Joy

(Featured Image: Prince’s not-so-private joy, the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer; photo stolen from the Analog Synth Museum.)

By June of 1981, Prince had recorded mostly complete versions of “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and, possibly, “Sexuality,” at his home studio in Chanhassen. 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 Prince and 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).

Two months later, Prince returned to Hollywood to finish his fourth album; but equipment problems necessitated that he move operations from HSR to nearby Sunset Sound. He booked Sunset’s largest room, Studio 3, as a “lockout session,” meaning that “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, it was Prince who would leave an indelible mark on the machine’s prominence in popular music and its expressive possibilities.

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Ronnie, Talk to Russia

Ronnie, Talk to Russia

(Featured Image: President Ronald Reagan, circa 1981.)

During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mind anti-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.

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Sexuality

Sexuality

(Featured Image: Prince in the music video for “Sexuality,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me three full-length posts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversy was about more than just self-analysis and myth-building. It was also, more than any other Prince album to date, engaged with the outside world: using the artist’s increasingly well-defined persona as the basis for a distinctive–if not always coherent–worldview.

The centerpiece of this new worldview was the album’s second track, “Sexuality.” Picking up immediately after “Controversy” leaves off–scarcely a beat goes by between the former song’s final synth glissando and the ecstatic yelp with which Prince opens the latter–“Sexuality” addresses the listener with a direct call to arms. “Stand up everybody / This is your life,” the singer announces. “Let me take you to another world, let me take you tonight.” His language draws deliberately on the gospel tradition: like the allegorical train in the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” “you don’t need no money”–or, indeed, clothes; you just get on board. It becomes clear that this is no conventional hymn, however, once the chorus hits: “Sexuality is all you’ll ever need / Sexuality, let your body be free.”

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Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

Controversy, Part 3: Do I Believe in God? Do I Believe in Me?

(Featured Image: Prince’s electric church in the music video for “Controversy,” 1981; © Warner Bros.)

Note: This is the third and last post on “Controversy”: a song that presents so much to unpack, I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. Please read the first and second parts before proceeding.

Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?

Of the famous questions Prince asks in the lyrics to “Controversy,” he only answers one–or two, depending on how you count them. The questions are, “Do I believe in God?” and, “Do I believe in me?” The answer–to both, presumably–is “yes.”

More even than the nuances of race and sexuality, this distinction between “God” and “me”–the sacred and the secular, the spirit and the flesh, etc.–was the prevailing theme of Prince’s career. This in itself hardly makes him unique: the “comingling of the profane and the spiritual is an age-old Black music trope,” writes cultural critic Touré. “Quite often in Black music history the erotic and the divine, or the concerns of Saturday night and Sunday morning, are close together in a song or a playing style or an album or a career”–including those of Prince progenitors like Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others (Touré 125). But while the majority of these artists vacillated between “God’s music” and “the Devil’s,” Prince’s innovation was in combining the two: making gospel-informed music that erased the fine line between matters of the body and the soul.

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