Prince Gets the Jackson Family’s Attention With ‘Private Joy': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
“Private Joy” was never released as a single in the U.S., but is one of the most commercial-sounding songs of Prince’s early career. It was so catch it caught the eye of the Jackson family, providing the first officially recorded link between the First Family of Pop and the multi-talented Minneapolis musician.
As usual, “Private Joy” was composed and completely performed by Prince. Musically, the song straddles several genres. Synthesizers are the primary instrument used, giving “Private Joy” a similar new wave slant to the songs on his previous effort, 1980’s Dirty Mind.
“Private Joy” also marked one of the first times Prince experimented with the Linn M-1 drum machine, an instrument that would later become a trademark of his sound. In 1997, he told Musician magazine, “My original drum machine, the Linn, had only one type of kick. I think I had the first Linn. I did "Private Joy" with a prototype of that Linn.” A bouncy bassline manages to simultaneously suggest new wave and funk, while a guitar freakout at the song’s conclusion provides an experimental texture.
Lyrically, "Private Joy” finds Prince rhapsodizing over a partner he’s so infatuated about (or threatened by, if you want to look at it in more sinister fashion) that he doesn’t want anyone else to know about her. He’s clearly experiencing a sexual chemistry with this partner, as he calls her “his Orgasmatron.”
Prince utilizes his trademark falsetto primarily, although his natural voice is used more prominently than it had been on any song up to that point. When asked to revisit Controversy for a series published on Pitchfork, writer Daphne Brooks called “Private Joy,” “a song that marries soul-meets-rockabilly vocals with a Sunday morning, get happy, arrangement that spins us into the center of the church sanctuary and right out the door into the pagan after-hours club.”
“Private Joy” found its way onto Controversy’s final track listing at virtually the last minute. It was recorded in August 1981, during Prince’s last week of recording for the project. Notably, “Private Joy” was the first song recorded at L.A.’s Sunset Sound Studios, which would become his go-to studio (when not in Minneapolis) for a solid chunk of the ‘80s.
An unlikely cover version turned up just three years after “Private Joy” was originally recorded. La Toya Jackson included a version on her 1984 album Heart Don’t Lie. Her version stayed true to the original (with the term “Orgasmatron” swapped out for the nonsensical but less offensive “Cosmotron”). While La Toya performed the song on Solid Gold in late 1984, her version of “Private Joy” was never released as a single.
In a 1985 Los Angeles Times article about the spate of Prince covers that turned up in the wake of his initial blush with mainstream superstardom, Jackson admitted, “I loved the song and my record company loved it, but my father manages me and it was his decision to not release that cut," adding, “I'm not always crazy about his lyrics. I'm not as daring as Prince.”
Prince and La Toya’s brother Michael may have been rivals, but that didn’t stop all three Jackson sisters from adding a Prince-ly element to the albums they released that year. Oldest sister Rebbie’s debut album Centipede included a version of 1979’s “I Feel For You”. It had the misfortune of arriving on record store shelves at virtually the same time as Chaka Khan’s smash version. And while baby sister Janet didn’t record any Prince material on her 1984 sophomore effort Dream Street, two songs on that album were written and produced by Jesse Johnson, who’d just left Prince’s employ as a member of the Time. Of course, Janet would go on to enjoy major success just a short time later, with assistance from two more former Prince employees: Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis.
Three years after Dream Street, Michael actually took a shot at working with Prince, offering to duet with him on the smash 1987 single "Bad." It's quite a story.
While almost never performed live, Prince must have retained a soft spot for “Private Joy.” He wound up recycling the song himself, a decade after recording and releasing it. The lengthy wave of guitar feedback that ends the song (which also provided a cool segue into the frenetic “Ronnie Talk to Russia” on the Controversy album) was sampled amid the sound of crashing waves and Vanity’s (also sampled) erotic moaning on “Orgasm”, the song that closes the Come album.
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