Although I have a great love for many of the peaks and troughs of Prince’s career, the Controversy tour will always have a special place in my still teenage heart. Not only was my first bootleg drawn from this time period, but as a young punk more attracted to unbridled energy and raw power these concerts spoke to me in a far stronger voice than the funk and jazz influenced sounds that I would later be ensnared by. While my ears often guides my hand to pulling a 1995 or 2002 concert from the shelf, my heart always sides with the electro rock performances that are colored by time and place as much as musical influence of the era.
There are a variety of excellent soundboard recordings of this tour circulating thanks to the well known City Lights series, and for today’s concert I have decided to listen to the superb 4DF remaster of the December 12th concert from 1981. The 4DF recording expertly patches the five second gap that had previously blighted other releases, and makes for a crisp clean listen of this already well known performance. The concert itself is one of the longest of the tour, clocking in at 78 minutes, and falls neatly between the equally well known bootlegs of 21 November (Washington) and 20 December (Houston).
12th December 1981, Carolina Coliseum, Columbia
The bootleg is missing the opening “Second Coming,” but that matter little to me as “Uptown” bursts out of the speakers with a freshness that belies the age of this now almost 40 year old recording. The energy of the music is equaled with the vibrancy of the recording, and to my great delight I can hear every yelp and breath of Prince with great clarity, along with the pop of the bass. The guitar is written in smaller scrawl, it’s in the mix but sits just behind the rest of the music, adding texture and color rather than being a driving force. All in all, this opening number sets a high standard in both performance and recording quality, a standard that will be met consistently through the rest of the bootleg.
“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” is more than a match for this opening salvo, and everything I enjoyed in that first song is here again, and better in every way possible. Prince’s vocals are stronger, his yelps becoming shouts, his guitar turned up and becoming the the steel that sits at the centre of the song. The keyboards are playing with bolder strokes, and the song itself is bullet proof in its intent to both rock and funk the watching audience. It has been quite sometime since I listened to one of these shows and I had forgotten the fire and brimstone that Prince brings to his guitar solo’s here, and by the time his guitar ends in a a final squall I am practically frothing at the mouth. Take that as a recommendation.
Next we have somewhat of rarity for this tour, a live performance of “Sexy Dancer,” a performance that see’s it freed of it’s dancefloor roots and upended with a jagged guitar line from Dez turning it into raw and bloody battle for the soul of the song. Dez plays with a harder sound than Prince, his guitar work a blunt axe in comparison to Prince’s scalpel. It moves me, as all good music should, and it falls to Dr. Fink to pull the song from this unruliness and back to the dance floor with his own electro fused solo.
The first lines of “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” are given to the crowd, who are captured surprisingly well by the recording, before Prince and the band return for the chorus. I expect Prince to take control at this stage, but he leaves it as it is, the crowd taking the vocals for the rest of the verse, and most of the chorus. It is in the final minutes of the song that it’s true intent is revealed as the dark clouds gather within the music and we tumble into the centre piece of these shows – “Head.”
A deep wave of funk carries us for the first minute, the slip and groove of the bass only highlighted by the bright stabs of synth that appear like shafts of light through the clouds. At times “Head” can sound like a single dark entity, but listening closely it is a many layered beast, and I wallow in each and every sound as it continues to sprawl out over the next twelve minutes. As the singing subsides and we drop into the heart of the song it is Prince’s guitar that commands all the attention, sometimes scratching, sometimes whining, sometimes coming as a rhythmic chop, it always remains at the centre of what is happening and always remains the musical essence of the song. I only wish I could see it as well as hear it.
After the slow descent of “Head,” we are suddenly thrust upwards on the the back of the tireless “Dirty Mind.” The lyrics may live up to the title,but the music has a innocent exuberance that injects an energy into the recording that will carry it for the next few songs. This performance of “Dirty Mind,” isn’t as long as others I have heard on tour (Saenger Theatre, New Orleans springs to mind) but it delivers all it has to it it’s allotted time.
It is during “Do Me, Baby,” that 4DF’s work on the recording becomes apparent, the previous five second gap repaired (I’m not sure if the same work has been done on the recent PGA release, I don’t have a copy on hand to check). The song itself is soaked in Prince’s sultry tone, although this version is more restrained than heard elsewhere, Prince’s vocals not as pleading and desperate as I expect. Some of this emotion is lacking from the opening introduction, that although long, isn’t quite as drawn out and invested with feeling as is sometimes heard. Prince does deliver a smooth professional vocal performance though, and the song sounds pleasing on the ear.
We return to some funk with the title track to the album and subsequent tour, “Controversy.” It is as dry as it’s heard on record, and although Prince and the band threaten to stretch it out, we don’t get much more than what it expected. I had hoped for a lot more of Prince’s trademark scratch guitar work but it fails to materialize. I am consoled by the fact that the quality of the bootleg remains of an impressively high standard.
“Let’s Work” is the long funk jam that I had hoped “Controversy” would be. With it’s rollicking bassline and waves of synths, it keeps the dance floor moving under Prince’s steady command of “Let’s Work.” There is no drama to the song, Prince just keeps it moving under it’s own energy, letting the music and good times flow on their own accord. It is not the greatest song on this recording, but more than another song it captures the spirit of the times and the vibe that Prince was playing to.
From the remains of “Let’s Work,” Prince once again sweeps the crowd into a party, this time with a message attached, as he drives the band into a infectious rendition of “Party Up,” so infectious in fact that I spend the first couple of minutes playing air bass rather than writing about it. The keyboards sprinkle their color all over this, while the bass and drums keep us locked on the groove, but for me the real buzz comes with the blitzkrieg guitar break that Prince lavishes on the song as it reaches it’s climax. All the previous energy and power suddenly bubbling over with Prince’s hands ablaze the guitar. The final minutes are a steady comedown with Bobby Z stripping us back to just his sound, the bedrock of the song all along finally revealed.
As with the other concerts of the Controversy tour, it is a blazing “Jack U Off,” that closes the show, an uncontrolled ball of music and dirty lyrics crashing across the end of the bootleg. Sometimes it comes across as silly, but I can’t help but like it for it’s youthfulness and the feeling that anything works if you believe in it (and play it fast enough.) It is it’s standard three and half minutes, but I am still in shock as it suddenly disappears just as quickly as it came, those three and a half minutes seemingly compressed into two.
The Controversy tour is not he greatest tour of Prince’s career, nor is a sign post of what’s to come (who could have predicted Parade based on what is heard here?), however it is a great snapshot of his career up to this point, and an excellent marker before he steps up to the the next and bigger stage. An energetic performance, and a crystal clear recording make this yet another outstanding bootleg of this tour, and for those who like their Prince unfiltered (and quite frankly, who doesn’t?) this is a recording that should always be near to hand. The funk is funkier, the rock is rockier, and this is one last untemped look at Prince before he trades away some of his wilder aspects in search of a wilder audience. I followed him to this wider vision, but for me this is where it all started, and as such will always have a special place in my heart.