One of the first albums I heard by Prince was Controversy; his fourth record. It was released in 1981. He was still on his way to being a giant pop star, the year after Controversy he’d release the 1999 album and the really big hits would start to come. But Controversy built on 1980’s excellent Dirty Mind and the self-titled album from 1979. In just a few short years he’d already covered a lot of ground from 1978’s debut, For You.
I’ve own ever official album Prince released, most of the compilations, collected up some of the singles on vinyl – to have the b-sides – and I still go hunting for obscurities. In fact whenever I’m in a new town and I find a record store Prince is one of the names I go looking for. There’s inevitably the same bunch of albums – singles from the 1999 album and Purple Rain (the album and a few of the singles). Sometimes other key singles from the 1980s – often Pop Life but you won’t often find anything to get too excited about; the collectors are hanging on to their collections it seems.
I’ve had a particular fascination with Prince’s early years across the last few years; probably because all that other terrific stuff just felt a bit played-out. Partly too from reading this book, about the best single read on Prince that I’ve experienced. I bought Dirty Mind on vinyl; long a favourite and then Controversy (also a favourite way back in the days of the compact disc).
Round and round the record has been spinning – as records tend to do. And every time there’s excitement when the opening, title track kicks in. A happy seven-minute ride to take you into the heart of the album. A perfect squelch of party-pop funk; Prince playing up and playing with his mythology, all but inventing it, dictating it and arguing both for and against it as the track plays out.
When I first heard Controversy, a youngster – thrilled by Prince, the music was always exciting – I was baffled by it; intrigued. Guitars seemed to arrive out of nowhere, a disco-strum turning into a sneaky rockabilly lick before hiding back in the folds of the funk, a shriek of a mini-solo appeared, simply another voice within the song; so often Prince pierces his songs with guitar parts, providing punctuation, so cleverly – for so long – he seemed to be holding back on his greatest musical skill. When he stepped up to burn you knew he could do it, you knew he could go but there was (always) plenty left in the tank.
He sets up great space for the guitar to finally burst. So much emotion and such care and caress, so sexual while his guitar gently seeps…
Second track, Sexuality, also dances along on some funky rhythm guitar – the song hints at the dance tracks that seemed so effortless across the post-1999 albums (Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and Parade, even providing parentage to Play In The Sunshine from Sign O’ The Times and, much later, the title song to 2001’s The Rainbow Children).
Sexuality is one of the forgotten gems in Prince’s canon – well with a sack stuffed full of hits it’s understandable that some of the great early work gets forgotten.
Do Me Baby is also a prototype – a style of lover-sings-to-lover-while-singing-about-lover ballad that Prince would revisit/rework the following year for/as International Lover. From there he’d recast it again, though in a darker shade as Purple Rain’s The Beautiful Ones, and in just a slight trace as Condition of the Heart (Around The World In A Day), brassy and sassy on Sign O’ The Times (Slow Love) and it continued to be an antecedent across the Batman soundtrack album (Scandalous), Graffiti Bridge (The Question Of U), Diamonds And Pearls (Insatiable), 1992’s “love symbol” album (Damn U) and in his parallel career as a hit-maker for others he gave a version of it to Sinead O’Connor (Nothing Compares 2 U) and (though arguing the point in a different way) also to Martika (Love, Thy Will Be Done).
Do Me Baby is one of the great songs from Prince’s career. It is his sexual balladry in microcosm.
To side two of the record, Private Joy has the feel of montage music from a 1980s workout film; one possibly staring a then still-thin John Travolta. It’s another hint of some of the songs that would come from Prince.
But then we get Ronnie, Talk To Russia a sub two-minute blast of new wave-referencing political pop paranoia, its peppy rhythm and rudimentary keys poking in around strangled guitars and chanted lyrics. It’s an oddball, worth it though – particularly for the wee glimpse of shred from the guitar once the chokehold is loosened.
Let’s Work is far more familiar, but again – it’s familiar now but was clearly then something new, only after could it be heard as an antecedent for work on Parade, The Black Album, Lovesexy and Batman. But what a trip at the time.
Annie Christian might be the strangest song in Prince’s discography, or, to clarify, the least overtly Prince-sounding. That then allows it to still be seen as an influence for his work as/with The Family, and across some of the albums in the mid/late 1990s; the contract-fillers that all but the hardcore fans have either forgotten about/never heard. Worth a snoop though. There’s gold in them there hills, I tells ya.
Annie Christian and Ronnie, Talk To Russia are rare examples of Prince speaking out politically – at least in a very obvious way.
And then to the closing pop folly that is Jack U Off; it clearly informs the following year’s Delirious – in terms of that happy-happy/joy-joy rhythm and the haughty naughtiness of the previous year’s Dirty Mind is still on Prince’s (dirty) mind.
Controversy is playful and proud, silly and strange, fresh and, erm, fruity, dark and delightful – it is full to bursting with ideas. And it offers up – for if not the first time then practically first-equal with Dirty Mind, so many of the Prince ideals.
It’s also his conscious attempt to covet the white audience – so crucial at the time, so crucial of course to Prince’s success. Strange listening to the album now and considering that though; that it was even a thing then – two very separate audiences. Prince knowing how to play (to) both.
Best of all, playing this album over and over, the record a reminder of my earliest experiences listening to Prince, my aunt’s record collection – her love of Purple Rain and 1999 – I was struck, instantly, with the excitement of this music. It felt like the first time. Again. And that’s always a good feeling.
I think the first four Prince albums are fascinating, key to understanding where he came from and where and how he got to the next level in the decade when he became a dominant pop star. (I wrote more about Prince’s great first decade here and considered his second decade here).
You know a guy like Prince – and there really isn’t (wasn’t) ever anyone quite like Prince – just couldn’t have that luxury today right? Four albums to explore and extrapolate, four albums to showcase some chops, fine and refine/re-find a muse, four albums to get things nailed, to create the foundation. And boy from there he sure hung up plenty of hooks, built a fine house of song.
But I still go back to these earliest albums and I always will. They’ve always been little curios, but Dirty Mind and Controversy particularly stand out as complete – uncompromising – ideas. Controversy is the sentimental favourite for me. It was fun to work back through it and amazing that an album I first heard nearly 30 years ago – so much of it I barely understood at the time – sounds so fresh. And always exciting.