After seeing video of LCD Soundsystem butcher the Prince song “Controversy” at Coachella -- and then watching the Saturday Night Live Prince special, seeing him in all his glory, owning stage after stage, performance after performance -- I can’t help but be reminded of one of my favorite Prince moments on record.
Prince's “Controversy” is pipin’ hot manna to me. I really fell in love with it a few years ago, on a dance music kick. (Chrisma’s “Gott Gott Elektron” and the Isley Brothers’ “Live it Up” were also on heavy rotation.) Of all the straight-ahead, synth-and-guitar-driven funk I listened to during that time, “Controversy” stands out above all the rest. The sound, the composition, how the synth and the guitar play off each other, how the bass couldn’t be simpler, how the lyrics couldn’t be more sparse -- it was like you took the best AC/DC song and remixed it for the dance floor. Hell, I’m an atheist and I even love the Lord’s Prayer in it, simply for the fact that such a weird vocal part didn’t stop the song from becoming a hit.
Yet my favorite part of "Controversy" is the part no one notices or recreates when covering it. It’s hard to describe, so readers, bear with me, and listen to it on your best set of headphones:
Alrighty, the song has started. Are you paying attention? Can you hear all the parts -- the throbbing bass, the clicking guitar, the pounding drums? Now listen closely to the right channel, where the guitar and a little bit of the drums sit. At about nine seconds in, you’ll hear a noise under the guitar on the second beat of every measure. When you really listen close, you'll recognize that it’s not just any noise, but a man -- probably Prince, but I can’t confirm -- making a “DOOFT” sound with his mouth, like he’s recording Foley sound for a boxing film.
During the rest of the song, it cuts out when Prince sings, but whenever the band returns to that initial groove, the “DOOFT” comes right back in, and it's even louder near the outro. In essence, it’s a rhythm instrument, boosting the power of a beat that your ass just cannot deny. It’s also one of the weirdest “instruments” to be used in a hit song -- a song that can pack a dance floor anywhere in the world.
Where did the idea for that part come from? It’s similar to something the industrial gods Einstürzende Neubauten would do, and it's evidence of Prince's experimentation in the studio. There's a story, often repeated in the last week, about Prince removing the bass from "When Doves Cry" at the last minute. Is this what happened here? Did he tell his engineer, “Do me a favor and boost the 'DOOFT' just a tad?”
The fact that the "DOOFT" exists is worth some celebration. It’s such an out-there-but-genius idea, and one that only Prince could pull off.