Roundup: Controversy, 1981

Roundup: Controversy, 1981

(Featured Image: 1981 promotional poster for Controversy; © Warner Bros.)

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 the Controversy album; catch me at a moment 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 Controversy 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” from 1999, as frequent commenter Arno sagely pointed out–but it’s peak New Wave Prince, which means I’ll always have a soft spot for it.

6. “Jack U OffLet 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 WorkBased on the album version 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, & 3I 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.

As always, I’ve captured the tag cloud for posterity:

timeroundupcontroversy-cloud

Not much change from The Time roundup back in May, though I did notice that Gayle Chapman snuck back in! Meanwhile Owen Husney (whose book I still need to read) and Pepé Willie (who should probably write a book) are still hanging on for dear life. We haven’t heard the last of either of them, incidentally. Also, 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.

Also, whoops, almost forgot the Spotify playlist!

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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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Podcast: Vous êtes très belle – Joni Todd and Karen Turman on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: Vous êtes très belle – Joni Todd and Karen Turman on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: Prince in French Dandy Mode, Under the Cherry Moon, 1986; © Warner Bros.)

Just under two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with two more presenters from the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference: Joni Todd and Karen Turman, who you may know by reputation as the “esoteric French panel.” But if all that sounds a little too highbrow, don’t worry; we mostly talked about Prince’s impeccable fashion sense and uncompromising artistic vision, just with a lot of references to Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Duchamp. It’s probably the only Prince podcast you’ll hear that mentions both “Pussy Control” and Walter Benjamin, and that’s the best endorsement I can possibly give.

As usual, if you like what you hear, you can subscribe to d / m / s / r on your podcast app of choice: iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play. If you want to help, you can also leave a review, which will make it easier for new listeners to find us. See you (hopefully) next week!

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Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

Review: Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods

(Featured Image: Cover art for Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods: Prince Essays by Scott Woods, from Amazon.)

Every Prince fan, poet Scott Woods writes in one of the essays in Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, “thinks they are the biggest Prince fan in the world. It is why encounters with fans are sometimes challenging: You can’t tell us anything about Prince, let alone anything that would make us change how we feel about him.” This is both a bitingly funny observation–one of many to be found here–and an accurate assessment of how his book will be received in certain corners of the Princeverse. It’s something of which Woods himself is well aware; as he writes in the book’s introduction, some readers will think his book sucks, “and mostly for the same reasons as most Prince books suck: it won’t tell you anything about Prince that you didn’t know.”

Woods is right; if fresh knowledge is what you’re looking for in a Prince book, then you should probably look elsewhere. But I have to question the philosophy–out of professional self-preservation, if nothing else–that the only reason to read a book about Prince is to learn something “new.” So much of the fandom in the wake of Prince’s passing last April has been about making connections, through shared experiences and shared grief: swapping stories, knowledge, and opinions, not because it’s something we’ve never heard before, but because the act itself brings us closer to one another. A theme that runs through several of Woods’ essays, borrowed from a speech by Wendy Melvoin at Prince’s memorial service, is that making art is a form of communion: “Being creative is how you can talk to [Prince]. If you’re being creative, he will talk to you.” This book, then, is both the long conversation with Prince Woods was never able to have, and one of the most engaging conversations about Prince you’ll ever have with another fan.

And Woods really is a huge fan (perhaps even the biggest in the world). His knowledge of Prince’s oeuvre is deep, and his opinions are as much fun to disagree with as they are the opposite (Seriously, ART OFFICIAL AGE was a “loss?” Controversy was better than Dirty Mind?!). His book, a collection of his online writing about Prince, is clearly meant for other hardcore fans, and it’s at its best when its appeal is narrowest: devoting a whole essay, for example, to the heavily processed Linn LM-1 “sidestick” that is an ineffable signature of Prince’s greatest music (you know it when you hear it). Of course, this means it’s also wildly self-indulgent; probably the longest single essay is a gratuitous (but witty!) beatdown of Kanye West in the wake of L.A. Reid’s ill-fated 2015 comparison of the two artists, which feels even more anachronistic now that Reid’s career is effectively over. But hey–people actually paid money on Kickstarter for Woods to write that one, so clearly there’s something here for everyone.

Whether Little Weird Black Boy Gods is worth its own modest asking price, then, depends on what one expects out of a Prince book. There is no real thesis here–though there are certainly recurring themes–and, again, no new information on the artist (though Woods’ detailed report on his tour of Paisley Park is a different kind of “insider info”). Personally, I’m okay with this, in large part because Woods is honest about his intentions. He’s not trying to make an overarching summation of Prince’s career, as authors like Brian Morton and Ben Greenman have tried (and, arguably, failed) to do; he’s just reflecting on his own experiences as a fan, both before and after Prince’s death. At its best–as in the title essay, one of the most moving tributes to Prince in the wake of his passing that I’ve read–it’s exactly the kind of creative, communal experience Melvoin was talking about in her memorial speech. We’re never going to know everything there is to know about Prince; but books like Woods’ let us know a little more about each other, and by extension about ourselves. In some ways, that’s an even more appealing proposition.

You can support dance / music / sex / romance by purchasing Little Weird Black Boy Gods (or anything else!) using my Amazon affiliate link. See you again soon.

Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden

Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden

(Featured Image: Prince at his 26th birthday concert, First Avenue, June 7, 1984. Photo stolen from Prince Off the Record; check it out for a very nice review of the show!)

Well, folks, the podcast episode I promised yesterday isn’t going to happen until early next week; I simply didn’t have enough time to finish editing. Luckily, though, Warner Bros. has my back, because last night they surprise-released another advance track from the new Purple Rain reissue: the studio-recorded medley of “Our Destiny” and “Roadhouse Garden.” So, rather than completely skip a post today, let’s take a short look at these songs and how they fit into the grander scheme of Prince’s work.

Like the previously-discussed “Electric Intercourse,” “Our Destiny”/”Roadhouse Garden” has advance notoriety among hardcore fans and collectors–though, in this case, its connection to the Purple Rain project is much less clear. Prince and the Revolution performed the song only once, at his 26th birthday celebration at Minneapolis’ First Avenue on June 7, 1984: the same concert that yielded the basic track for Jill Jones’ “All Day, All Night.” And as all of us Prince obsessives know, that might as well have been a decade after the previous year’s August 3 First Avenue date, which similarly provided the majority of Purple Rain’s second side. By summer of 1984, Prince was already hard at work on his next project(s), including tracks that would end up on 1985’s Around the World in a Day.

Adding to the confusion, Roadhouse Garden would later become the title of an aborted late-’90s compilation of refurbished Revolution tracks by the artist then-formerly known as Prince–most of which seemed to date from what Princeologists would consider to be the “Dream Factory era” of 1985-1986. This, in turn, appears to have transformed in many fans’ reckonings into a whole other album between Purple Rain and Around the World in a Day, possibly also called Roadhouse Garden. Basically, the song’s provenance is a mess, and I’ve seen more than a few people cry foul over its and its sister song’s inclusion in what “should” be a compilation of outtakes specifically related to Purple Rain.

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