PB Wolf on Prince for Wire's The Inner Sleeve

PB Wolf on Prince for Wire's The Inner Sleeve

  • Peanut Butter Wolf
  • April 28, 2014

Each month, UK magazine The Wire invites someone in the music world to write about artwork from the inside of an album package which made a mark on them. Peanut Butter Wolf writes this month for "The Inner Sleeve" column about the poster included with Prince's Controversy LP.

Prince – Controversy poster
Warner Bros, 1981
Photography by Al Beaulieu

Winter of 1981. Capitol Square Mall. San Jose, California. Any given Saturday. Donkey Kong, baseball cards, Whopper Jr, Jelly Bellies and 45s. Lunch money was saved throughout the week and by the weekend, I'd have around $10 to ration between all the above. I'd usually buy a few 45s every Saturday, but holidays afforded me either a 12" single or album or two. One of the first albums I remember getting was during that Christmas. I was 11. I also remember getting in trouble afterwards. I didn't get in trouble listening to "Do Me Baby", where Prince basically spends the final three minutes orgasming. I knew better than to play that one in front of my parents. Didn't get in trouble listening to "Sexuality". 1 knew the word sex, so listened to that one alone too. And luckily it wasn't "Jack U Off" cuz I didn't know what that meant and probably would've listened to it in front of my parents.

No. I got in trouble for listening to the title track, "Controversy". Not because of the lyrics which acknowledged the people who questioned whether he was black or white (years before MJ broached the subject) or straight or gay (years before MJ avoided the subject), but because he recited the Our Father in its entirety midway through, in a voice which sounded like a group of lifeless robots in church. My mom said, "You're not allowed to listen to that because it's sacrilegious." I didn't even know what that word meant, but I did remember that the Second Commandment was to not take the Lord's name in vain and the Fourth was to honour your mother and father. To listen to this song after she said no would be doubly sinful. My mom let me be with my music for the most part, but as a practising Catholic, there was no escaping that one.

I don't think I got caught while listening to it. It was after the fact: I wrote the lyrics down and my mom found the paper in my room. But regardless, I was banned from that song, like The Cure's "Killing An Arab" was banned from American radio after 9/11. A few years later Tipper Gore punished her daughter for listening to Prince's "Darling Nikki" ("I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine') and introduced the Parental Advisory stickers on records with explicit lyrics, which only led to more sales of albums as kids started to look out for the coveted sticker. But I digress.

So the year was 1981 and although I got in trouble for listening to Controversy, I didn't get in trouble for the poster that came inside the record. I had no idea what I was in for when I unfolded it. But as soon as I did, my first instinct was to fold it back up and hide it in the sleeve. There wasn't even a sticker mentioning it on the shrinkwrap (although some versions had a 'free poster' sticker). It scared me as a boy. I wasn't expecting to see my hero in the shower wearing a thong with Jesus on the cross behind him. But I didn't wanna throw it away cuz I felt like it was some secret artefact that I wasn't supposed to have. Years before Madonna caused controversy with her Playboy shoot (1985), "Like A Prayer" (1989) and Sex (1992), Prince did it all in one shot with this poster. It was like Sinead O'Connor, Nas/Puffy and Janet Jackson all rolled up in one. Sex and religion: the two dominant themes of the album. I wasn't gonna hang the poster on my wall or really ever wanna look at it again, except to show it off to my friends for awkward laughs. It was extremely homoerotic. Yet years later it was the inspiration for my alter ego Folerio.

A picture is worth a thousand words and this one summed up the album more than its outer cover. (I'm guessing it was probably taken with the intention of being the album cover.) Sure, Lou Reed, David Bowie and others before him had already proved that androgyny was cool, but Prince took it somewhere else. And unlike the Parental Advisory situation with Purple Rain, he never got in trouble for the poster either. I still have it today, tucked away in storage along with all my homework assignments, school pictures, unmixed mix tapes and baseball cards from 1981.