I once wrote that subtlety was only in the technicalities of Prince’s craft, and that we could enjoy content released for the sake of new content, provided they maintain quality. That’s all being flung out the window of the purple tinted party bus now, because once Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, suggested an overarching song and theme near the end of the eight-month recording process for this album, he unknowingly, or perhaps intuitively, helped propel Prince to superstardom. Continuing his yearly pattern, Prince released 1999 on October 27th, 1982, where it peaked at #9, staying on the charts for 153 weeks, achieving platinum status in five months before eventually managing a quadruple platinum status, coincidentally, in the actual year of 1999. “Little Red Corvette” was his first top-10 hit, also breaking the color barrier in music videos on early MTV programming. He went on a nationwide tour from November of 1982 until early April ’83, where he let his friends/supporting groups The Time and Vanity 6 open for him, allowing them to promote their own albums and the work he had done for them. Critical darlings aren’t guaranteed a spot in the mainstream, but in 1982, Prince had arrived, and he was bringing Minneapolis with him.
That very attitude seeps through into the recording sessions, as the bulk of this album was recorded at Sunset Sounds Studio 3, but not under his usual workmanlike conditions. When the possibility of relaxation presented itself in the form of a break in tour dates from early-late January of ‘82, Prince planted himself in L.A., recording “International Lover” and “All the Critics Love U in New York,” and then went on to finish The Controversy Tour. Once that wrapped up in mid-March, he returned to L.A., producing and playing for other artists, but didn’t actually record something for his upcoming album he had just signed a new deal on until March 30th, when he created “Let’s Pretend We’re Married.” This is notable as the first track where Prince received engineering assistance from Peggy McCreary, who was also one of the many background vocalists on the next track recorded, “D.M.S.R.,” which as you’re repeatedly reminded, stands for dance, music, sex, romance.
Sometime during this period, Prince returned home to track a rough version of “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute),” but still managed to return back to L.A. to re-record that same song later in the month, as well as create “Free,” “Automatic,” and “Delirious” throughout the Spring of ‘82, all the while contributing to other artists’ songs and albums in a multitude of ways. A month passed, and this is when the rumored first configuration of the album began, however, Bob fed Prince’s ambition with his aforementioned suggestion, pushing the album to a double LP, something that didn’t necessarily lead itself to increased sales at that point in time. Courageous under pressure, Prince took the suggestion as a challenge, using the last two months of the recording process to craft what’s arguably the strongest three songs on the record in “Lady Cab Driver,” “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette,” the latter two being the biggest singles, as well as the only two songs tracked in full at Prince’s Kiowa Trail Home Studio, or “Purple House,” if you will, where seven of the eight songs on Controversy were recorded. Once all the music was finally tracked, Prince spent that entire month of September redubbing and mixing this assortment of songs before allowing longtime collaborator and music mastering extraordinaire Bernie Grundman to apply the finishing touches. There’s a lot of mileage on this record, and it pays off in the most gallivant way.
One of the ultimate party starters opens the record, the title track. A slowed, pitched down vocal starts the proceedings, proclaiming “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you, I only want you to have some fun,” and it really only gets better from there as the rhythm quickly etches its irresistible groove into your eardrums, and ultimately, your subconscious. In a later interview with Larry King on CNN in 1999, Prince said about the song,
So I just wanted to write something that gave hope, and what I find is people listen to it, and no matter where we are in the world, I always get the same type of response from them.
I’m aware Prince never advocated for drug use, but I vividly recall suffering from the dreaded spins sometime within the past decade, and my subconscious sought this song out in particular amongst my mountainous iPod library. Resisting was futile, the groove was too strong. The synths are so perfectly layered, the backbeat so ahead of its time, and it’s all complimented by the lyrics, delivered by each individual star of the original version of The Revolution in ascending order; enjoying yourself while you still have the time, creating this funky sci-fi landscape that can only be described as “vintage Minneapolis sound.” Jill Jones, another vocalist Prince was producing for at the time, provides a fourth voice to inject the song with, who, along with the children at the tail end of the track asking, “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb,” help push the lyrics from group think to iconic status.
A short fade at the end of the title track on the LP version of this album somehow segues perfectly into “Little Red Corvette” that you just miss on other formats of this same album. What can I say about this song that hasn’t already been said? It’s the one that broke him through the mainstream, the one that helped break the color barrier on MTV’s music videos, and the one that many people would still point too as the song that perfectly encapsulates the Minneapolis sound, so Prince by extension. What can I possibly say to separate myself from the pack?
Once the two big singles are out-of-the-way, “Delirious,” a rockabilly synth track, closes out side one of the first record. It later became the third (of four) singles (released in the U.S.), leading to some DJ’s just playing this entire side of the record for convenience. Unable to escape the reality of extensive touring and constant travel, “Delirious” finds Prince comparing himself to a vehicle, a recurring theme on the album I cannot fail to reiterate. On the previous track, Prince used a Corvette to show how beautiful and out-of-his-league the woman in question is, but on “Delirious,”
I get delirious, whenever you’re near/ Lose all self-control baby, just can’t steer.
Wheels get locked in place, stupid look on my face/ When it comes to making a pass, pretty mama, I just can’t win a race.
Perhaps he’s still chasing after the “Little Red Corvette?” It only makes sense, since he does say “Girl, you gotta take me for a little ride up, in, and around your lake,” which simultaneously paints a quaint Minneapolis date by simply making a passing reference to his state’s most famous features. It’s quirky, distinctively midwestern, and still manages to fit in the distinct dance/club theme running through the heartbeat of each track’s composition, as from 2:30 until the last 20 seconds of the song, Prince allows the backbeat to ride out, manipulating the synth at certain parts, but mostly just giving the audience something to groove to, proving he’s nothing if not a generous host.
An electronic drum kit kicks off “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” the start of side two of the LP. A steady, pulsating synth keeps pace with the snares, allowing another layer of synths to float, churn, and buzz around the center of the mix, where his vocals reside. The synths further up the frequency spectrum stand out in all the best ways, shooting out from the mix like an electrical current, going a long way in coloring the exotic scenarios.
I’m not saying this just to be nasty, I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth. Can you relate?
Prince’s airy vocals float around in the center of this brightly-lit vortex of a homely dance track, hovering just above the percussion that naturally lingers in the dead spaces of the track like dust on the top of your favorite bookshelf. Only when he speaks forcefully, such as when he asks “so what,” during the middle of the second verse, or when he goes on the filthy tirade partially transcribed above, does he drop down to his normal tone. I’m convinced this is done to best symbolize how sweet but dominating his love can be for any potential lover, as the entire point of the song’s lyrics is to stress how pure and powerful sex is when with someone you care for, so he’s doing his best to get this random woman to fuck him since his girlfriend left. The track has an extended jam section, like many songs on the album, and the following song, “D.M.S.R.,” is no exception, as it’s more of an excuse to create a track based solely on a groove than to create a song.
It’s a fucking hell of a groove however; don’t allow my above sentence to proselytize you into believing it suffers because of that fact. Acting more as a traditional M.C. than as a singer, Prince chants and shouts the entire track behind a fluctuating pulse synth rhythm that catches your attention like a bright blue neon Vegas show light, and that’s before the synth bass that would earn an enthusiastic salute from Bootsy Collins1 syncopates itself perfectly to the electronic drum beat Prince put together, which gave his drummer, Bobby Z., trouble when playing these songs live; even though Prince never thought that highly of Bobby’s drumming anyway2. The rhythm is the highlight of the song, and if you find yourself tripping over your feet, it’s time to get off the dance floor and exit the premises, because this is where the party begins to peak.
Largely unassisted for record two, some fans may complain that the second half of the album is where the quality begins to decline, but I would argue this is where the album’s concept begins to solidify itself. Underrated in its pacing, 1999 organically hits the 70-minute mark like only a well-tendered, inspired album can. There’s one sub-four minute track, “Delirious,” and it’s four seconds away from being four minutes exactly; six songs are six minutes or longer. The front half of the album is where the famous backwards credit to The Revolution earns its debut in the eye of the I in Prince’s name on the front cover, as no Revolution member, save for Lisa on “Automatic,” appears on the back half of this exceptional LP. Wendy Melvoin debuts on a Prince project as backup vocals on “Free,” and Jill Jones assists with background vocals on “Lady Cab Driver,” also pairing with Lisa on “Automatic,” but neither woman was a member of The Revolution at that point. Dez Dickerson still was a member however, and his contributions to the album are felt on “Little Red Corvette,” cutting two classy guitar solos that spring forth imagery of sleek, cherry red muscle cars racing down an open highway, fogging the scenery with their smoking tires like the smoggiest day in Los Angeles. A deluge of associates, such as Peggy McCreary, are credited with background vocals and hand claps on “D.M.S.R.,” along with a mysterious duo dubbed The Count and Poochie.
Practically alone, Prince regally struts throughout record two, inverting the build-up from “1999” to “D.M.S.R.,” keeping the peak of the party afloat with the longest track on the album, “Automatic,” the spiritual successor to “Delirious,” with its quirky synth strings and unrequited lover narrative, but this time the woman is much more involved and manipulative in this tale. Machinery continues to be used as imagery, as well as a recurring theme throughout the record, so it shouldn’t astound anyone when Prince paints himself as a machine serving this woman’s every whim on impulse; automatically. A sly reference to buckling your seat belt at the end of the song connects the car motif used on the earlier tracks to the idea of said machinery, further merging Prince’s influences into one quantifiable style. After the funky breakdown of “Automatic,” where Prince lets his guitar loose and then bends the synths into something more extraterrestrial, the track ends, setting up “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” exceptionally well. Paranoia has never sounded as relaxed, gloom has never sounded so magical, as the dreary, dreamy synth work on the track creates a hazy environment for Prince to contemplate his lack of success in sustaining a long-term relationship, claiming there must be something in the water, because what the hell could be wrong with me, right?
“Free” was once this writer’s least favorite track on the album, as I once believed it completely stopped all momentum the album had, and to a certain extent, I still stand behind that sentiment. Unlike before, I understand the importance of the song’s placement in the track listing, as this track and the previous one begin the descent from the extended dance tracks “D.M.S.R.,” and “Automatic,” which both represent the peak of the metaphorical party. If “Free” was a person, it would own a pair of dark aviators, wear a different camo shirt daily, and have a jaw as squared as a marble floor, that’s how patriotic the music is. Released at the height of Cold War tensions for the decade, the incredibly American spirit of the song creates a foil to the Soviet Union, and shows no matter how much criticism he may throw at the shark tank that is conservative group think, Prince did have pride in the freedoms his country granted him. Anthemic at its core, it’s the most unlike any song on the album, showing a glimpse of the stadium-stuffer songs that was to follow, though it would be impossible to tell at the time based on this track’s composition, being much more along the lines of a nationalist hymn than arena rock.
In an alternate universe, my bias towards “Lady Cab Driver” wouldn’t be so strong to the point where I have to create a pseudo-disclaimer sentence about my love for the song, but in an alternate universe, Prince looked through the yellow pages and found something else he liked doing3. The addicting kick drum and ensuing snares are programmed so tightly that the syncopated synth and funky bass line give Prince ample stereo space to deliver his breezy vocals of travel, but for once, he’s asking for the woman’s help. Split into two parts, “Lady Cab Driver’s” first half is really two sections, as the soft, cutesy delivery that politely asks for a ride suddenly gives way to harsher tone, condemning “tourists at Disneyland,” “whoever taught you how to kiss in designer jeans,” and “politicians, who were born to believe in war,” for a few examples. The second half of “Lady Cab Driver” features a breakdown and synth solo, giving you an excess of groove on an album already full of delectable rhythms. Trouble is in the air, and Prince needs to vent his frustrations with the world to a gorgeous and intelligent woman. Plot points converge on side four, because even as he’s uneasy about traveling, Prince understands he must pursue his audience, which is why I believe his mocking dig at pretentious snobs even made it onto the album.
“All the Critics Love U in New York” is by far the weakest track on the album, and yet it gives me a certain enjoyment every time I hear it. Perhaps it’s the Atari-sounding synth that buzzes in the middle of the spectrum, the laid back approach to the track, or maybe it’s just the message, which is a tongue-in-cheek examination of how well-received his music can be, and yet, he only went platinum once thus far in his career. Casual observations, such as when he mockingly states, “he’s definitely masturbating,” are right on the nose, making his feelings about the bandwagon transparent, but by including it on the album, especially amidst the three-track stretch where the traveling theme is most prominent, he essentially rededicates his mission statement for the real fans, it’s all “for you.”
Though he eventually lands the plane in the album closer, “International Lover,” Prince had never ended an album on such a high point before. Side three was the start of the decline, and the first two tracks on side four continue that feeling, allowing “International Lover” to have all of the emotion and sweeping scope a closing track that’s worth a shit should have. Smooth and spacey, Prince croons for four minutes, peppering in a few piercing, primal screeches that drive the point home. The final two minutes are dedicated to the best plane jokes and double entendres Prince could cook up on a song with such a title.
You’re flying aboard the seduction 747/And this plane is equipped with anything your body desires.
If for any reason there is a loss in cabin pressure/I will automatically drop down to apply more
In the event there is overexcitement/Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.
We ask that you please observe the “No letting go” sign/I anticipate a few turbulence along the way.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The efficient drumming is loosened up considerably, and Prince lets it all hang out. It’s a fantastic closing track, still standing as one of his better slow burners; an appropriate amount of royal lewdness that more than suffices as a thematic ending.
Goodwill can swell and grow into amity if given patience, and in 1982, our collective friendship deepened with the release of this album. The influence of 1999 is felt in everything in pop music that followed it for the rest of the decade. Prince was the new rock star; “His Royal Badness,” it all manifested here with the release of this double LP.
A whole new can of worms is opened up by fame, as any diminishing artist in the mainstream will attest to, but for the moment, Prince was accepting the warm, open embrace from the general pop audience with his eccentric synths, cold demeanor, and restless work ethic. Sometimes, the hard-working, off-putting Midwesterner is deserving of that promotion, and Prince earned his pay raise in 1982, so much so that he was already seeing 17 years into the future. If anything, it was here when he proved he was always willing to take the next step, and it was up to us if we wanted to follow those directions. The plane’s parked outside, won’t you go for a ride?
- Or something that Bruno Mars would sample wholesale.
- Rolling Stone, 1985: Prince Talks: The Silence Is Broken