Controversy. Prince will always be Controversy to me.
Autumn 1981, senior year of high school, my friend Bob came over clutching an album hidden in a shopping bag like he had discovered the most clandestine secrets to life. My parents had just installed a new stereo system in our suburban home with speakers that were close to 5 ft high — big bass speakers. When I was home alone, I pushed the speakers to their limits — sure to remove valuables from shelves, and let the house rock. Literally. It was awesome.
Bob walked in, headed straight to the stereo and handed me the secret album. I pulled out a picture of a purple being with piercing eyes and a stunning smooth face. What the hell? Who and what is Prince? “Play this. You gotta hear this…just play this. Now.” He was insistent, commanding and jovial all at the same time. Bob was expanding my music horizons because I was Judas Priest, Scorpions, Riot, and Def Leppard (first album). He was Midnight Star, Cameo, Slave and Carl Carlton. I was open to soul and funk music, I just didn’t know where to start.
I dropped the needle on the album and turned it up. BAM. BASS. BASS. BASS. SYNTH. BASS. BASS BASS. Followed by a great keyboard riff then finally a little guitar that danced lightly over the heavy bass — that guitar was the only instrument I recognized. The house shook. I mean the floors really, really vibrated with this powerful groove. Prince — who ever he was — had my attention.
“I just can’t believe all the things people say.” It was a great opening line. Male and females speaking words — not singing. Followed by females only singing the word “Controversy”. They sounded like pure angels. Voices again — “Am I black or white? Am I straight? Or gay? Controversy.” Holy hell. I had never heard such raw lyrics about topics never spoken. My suburban bubble was bursting quickly. And I loved it. “Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me?” I remember shaking my head and looking at Bob — he was smiling and laughing. I was still trying to figure out what imaginary line of culture was being crossed. Was this a band? What instrument did he play? Was that him on the cover?
After more lyrics that made me wonder if I was in trouble…came the kicker, to Bob’s credit he didn’t tell me it was coming.
Give us this day our daily bread…”
Ok. I was in trouble. For what I didn’t know. But some line was crossed. Right? Could you take that prayer and put it into a song? Was that even legal? Heavy metal had primed me for lyrics about sex, death, vengeance and more sex. But this was different, way different. Sexuality, God, race, sex all rolled into a seductive bass driven groove that was one helluva hook. I was so glad my parents weren’t hearing this… whatever this was. It was stunning. And I loved it.
Bob took the album home that night. I went out and bought my own copy the next day.
That was my introduction to Prince. Album number four, before Purple Rain, and all the other follow up albums. After that, music and lyrics were never the same — boundaries were broken, no topic was safe, everything was fair game. I remember buying his second album titled “Prince” and finding out that he did, indeed, play every instrument on the record that he produced himself. Impressive. Damn impressive artist. I’ve heard thousands of songs since then and have yet to hear another song that surprised me like Controversy.