The inventors of the Accujack?
Controversy is an album seeing Prince in transition from the 70’s to the Prince the world now recognises of the 80’s, a movement from 70’s disco/new wave punk, funk to the 80’s drum machine, rhythm guitar pounding funk. This album showcases Prince’s growth as an artist, with more refined political messages to slow move away from his falsetto range to a more dynamic style of experimentation. This album is bold and more than that, it’s a statement of intent. The fact the album is called “Controversy” is Prince ramming down our throats here I am, and I am controversial! Whereas with Dirty Mind, his message was actually controversial, in this album he no longer shocks because the controversy is blatant and in your face. As a result, the message of this record is unclear, he talks about “the new breed” in a song called “Sexuality”, which ultimately makes little sense. Here you are listening to a song you think is about sex, but in fact you get a mouthful of politics. The songs where the message is clear (ie Private Joy, Do me Baby) are it’s strongest because they have some type of sexual purity. Musically, this album is as good as it get’s with contrasts from song to song, the rhythm and placement of songs seems deliberate, from the measured side 1 to the fun variation of side 2, Prince keeps things interesting, not only from song to song, but within each song there is always something going on in Controversy..
The album starts with Prince’s most catchy song to date, the title track Controversy is a real modern, 80’s funk adventure. With synths and rhythm guitar dominating alongside a pulsating bass line, this is the essence of the 80’s and is a real statement of intent to listeners – here Prince is saying, I am now going in a new direction, I am now the funkmaster – this is the future. In fact this song is the future, Controversy could easily fit in next two albums (1999 and Purple Rain) than on this record. As a song of over 7 minutes in length, there are three distinctive parts. The main verse/chorus and bridge, the song itself is hugely catchy but very repetitive. The second part of the song is Prince’s recital of the Lords Prayer. Really, the Lords Prayers comes out of nowhere and seems to be Prince’s attempt to be Controversial.. As a young man listening to this, I always felt uncomfortable listening to this part, perhaps because of the deep hypnotic way he says the prayer, perhaps it struck a chord in me, but the Prayer kind of works as a shock tactic, if not a way to extend the length of the song! Very rarely in pop music do you hear a prayer, so it could also be considered an innovation. The third part of the song is a chant where Prince repeats “People call me rude, I wish we all were nude, I wish there was no black and white, I wish there were no rules”. In essence this statement is a combination of his will to be controversial as well as a little political statement, in addition to people talking about him. The song itself is a deep insight into Prince’s persona. The man himself trying to tell the world that while yes he is a controversial person, he wants us to think – what’s all the fuss about? In addition, if not to confuse the matter that I want to be nude, I may be horny, but I have the religious confidence to read the Lords Prayer and if you don’t like it here’s my middle finger. It is a show of narcissism, but also a show off, self indulgent type of song. Controversy is a very important song in the transition from Independent artist to huge star.
Sexuality, the follow up song is a fast paced song with a very complex drum arrangement, in contrast to the pulsating rhythm and simplicity of Controversy. The song is preachy, but also funny and showcases Prince’s humor for the first time on record – “we look at life through a pocket camera – what no flash again?”. There is a pulsating rhythm guitar which is the heartbeat of this song. This song is a more in your face political statement – where he talks about being nude (again), the second coming and the fact that he wants to organise a revolution, new age revelation and the fact that sexuality is all we actually need. The song has three distinctive parts again, the start of the song which is the main song and the second part which is a chant where he announces “The new breed of leaders stand up organise” repeatedly. The last part of the song, he also chants “Sexuality is all we ever need, sexuality let your body be free” over a pulsating rhythm guitar and no drum part, and is my opinion the best part of the song, showing that sometimes all we need is Prince and his guitar. Sexuality with it’s twists and turns is in someway similar to Controversy in that it has three distinctive parts to it, it has a controversial message(s), and has a lot of preaching and chanting. But it is also a very different type of song, it cannot be called a repetitive song, and it is also a lot of fun to listen to. T song’s message is confusing and ultimately disappointing, however considering this song came out 1981 (31 years ago), I think we can listen to it without caring about the message too much and just enjoy it as a great song.
The next song, “Do me baby”, continues Prince’s tradition for falsetto love ballads with questionable sub-text. The song is basically about wanting to shag someone and basically doing it now, there is a sweetness in the song though and the piano/string arrangement with the slap bass really means you can lure your woman to the dance-floor but after a few seconds push your thigh into hers… Sneaky.. Sexy.. The song also showcases some of Prince’s best vocals since “For You”. In fact, this song is rather good and like the albums first two songs comes in parts. The first part is a beautiful ballad, with a very sexual overtures. This is nothing new, but it just seems that little bit dirtier with Prince singing it. I’m sure may babies were produced with this song in the background. The second part of the song is Prince talking as if he and his girl were in bed and he is about to penetrate her. He grunts and groans, and finally climaxes in the end. As a young man I found this part of the song difficult to listen to, now I just find it funny – and maybe it was supposed to be. Remember this album is called “Controversy” after all…..
Flip over to side two, and the album suddenly sounds different, the songs are shorter, catchier, less serious.. Private Joy is the epitome of this, the song is about Prince’s penis and it’s personal relationship with his hand. The pulsating beat, hand claps and keyboards very much have a 1981 sound to it, and the song has aged, but in a good way. The song is just fabulous (if you can get beyond the lyrics), and has some amazing vocal work with a distinctive, confident sounding vocal in the lower registers. It’s just so catchy and funny that you cant ever get sick of it (after 31 years I still love listening to it), and the contrast to the “Controversial” songs on side one is such a breath of fresh air, that sometime I just start the album at this point. The ending of the song segues to howling guitars, very nicely onto another fantastic (and another very dated) song called… “Ronnie talk to Russia”. This is yet another humorous (or is it) song where Republican Prince asks Ronnie to talk to Russia about stopping the world from blowing up. This is a much simpler political message than Prince’s other songs (Party Up, Sexuality), but somehow makes more sense. The guitar in this song is used as a very effective sound effect as a gun shooting and through out the song you get a sensation of apocalypse and destruction. It’s a nod to punk but it’s fast paced drum banging is more fun than I’ve ever heard from a Prince song and probably will ever likely hear again.
Let’s Work, Prince’s super dooper dance funk classic, is a real contrast to Ronnie – its not political, it’s just about hitting the dancefloor. Work your booty and just have fun. The bassline on this song is memorable (go to youtube to see how many people attempt to do the Lets work bassline). The drum rhythm is thing of beauty as well, the whole song just showcases what a remarkable entertainer Prince can be if he took the preaching and politics out of his songs. The 12inch version of this song is the first 12 inch that I remember hearing from Prince and the song itself sits well among Prince’s all time greatest hits – this song could be played today and it would still fill the dancefloor. The most interesting thing about Lets Work is that it has lasted the test of time as a dance floor classic and it really overshadows the more illustrious title track over the years as the MAIN reason to buy Controversy. (although there are a lot of other good reasons, like Private Joy for example).
The next song, is a song which has always and still mesmerises me, Annie Christian. Yes you could say Prince is trying to be different and controversial. But what exactly is this song about, serial killers, the devil or are they one in the same? Why is the killer called Annie? Is Annie the devil? Is she the anti-christ, and why should she be crucified, and why would Prince want to live his life in taxi cabs? Annie Christian was a whore, who happened to kill John Lennon and tried to kill Ronald Regan.. Whatever is going in Prince’s head, I love it. From the hallucogenic synths to the el cheapo drum machines, to Prince’s awesome Hendrix guitar solo’s, Prince somehow comes up with a winner. From day one to today, I will always love listening to this song, even if I don’t know why… Songs like Annie Christian set Prince apart from other artists – the guy is either really weird or hugely creative, and the fact is no matter what you think of the guy, you will never be bored!
The last song of the album, Jack U Off is another comic song by Prince, and in some ways a slight disappointment. The good things, awesome vocals, and brilliant instrumentation, is outshone by the fact that this song is just TOO in your face. The superior and much more fun b-side “Horny Toad” would have been a much better replacement – for no other reason in that it’s just a better song all round. Jack U off is so in your face that I remember as a 12 year old not even caring much for the song. But Im sure it would have been a favourite at live events, and the LOUD ending is a pretty good ending for a record as remarkable as Controversy.
Say what you want about Controversy, you may love it, you may hate it, but you cannot ignore it. Without Controversy, 1999 may not have been possible and Prince as we know him might not be the same. Controversy is a very important moment in the early career of Prince as is a must for any self professed Prince fan. Enjoy the journey!
3.5 out of 5 (replace Jack U off with Horny Toad to get 4.5 out of 5)