(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.
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.
With the title track of his fourth album, Prince cogently summarized his many complexities–so many, in fact, that it took me threefull-lengthposts to even attempt to untangle them. But Controversywas 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.”
As we noted last time, the late spring and summer of 1981 was an extraordinarily prolific time for Prince; it was also a notably experimental one. The artist’s home studio on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen allowed him to try out new musical styles and approaches, without having to beg W.B. for expensive L.A. studio time. It’s thus no coincidence that the resulting album, Controversy, would be his oddest and most indulgent to date. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in the “odd and indulgent” category was “Annie Christian”: a tuneless, four-and-a-half-minute slice of apocalyptic post-punk that isn’t quite like anything else in Prince’s catalogue.
“Annie Christian” begins with a manic-sounding drum machine pattern, quickly interrupted by an atonally pulsing synthesizer and a sound effect of a tolling bell. The closest thing the song has to a hook is the cascading synth line that follows, as shrill and piercing as an early cellular ringtone. Prince recites the lyrics–a fever dream of the End Times as mediated by CNN–in a nasally monotone. It’s the kind of thing Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army might have rejected for being too dour.
This episode, I’m taking a little break from the University of Salford Purple Reign conference to talk to musician Paul Bonomo, a.k.a. Snax. We discuss Prince’s professional and personal impact on Paul, of course, but we also speak more broadly to the two-way flow of influence between Prince and gay culture–an area that’s been vastly underexplored in the popular discourse around the artist. I’m excited to see the extended conversation that comes out of this frank and at times provocative discussion.
Next episode, we’re returning to both Manchester and queerness with two presenters from one of the Purple Reign conference’s Gender and Sexuality panels: independent scholars Chris Aguilar-Garcia and Natalie Clifford. In the meantime, remember that you can subscribe to the d / m / s / r podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play; you can also stream individual episodes on Mixcloud. If you like what you’ve heard of Snax, you can also follow him on Facebook and check out his new album, Shady Lights, when it releases on October 27.