What the Hell Is Wrong

‘Computer Blue’ is a cerebral punk-funk workout song by Prince and The Revolution, which was released on Prince’s sixth album, Purple Rain in 1984.  In the Purple Rain film, Prince makes his acting debut as The Kid, a talented but troubled frontman of his Minneapolis-based band The Revolution.  This song represents Prince’s character’s angst at the budding relationship between the characters played by Morris Day (lead singer of The Time) and Apollonia (Kid’s girlfriend), who he desires, and he performs it in front of the two during The Revolution’s set at a nightclub with the aim of upsetting them.  The song was composed by Prince with credit to his father, John L. Nelson, for the guitar solo based on a piano instrumental written by Nelson and Prince.

Keyboardist Dr. Fink said they were jamming at rehearsal one day and he started to play a synthesizer bass part along with the groove.  Prince liked what he heard, so he had their sound man record the jam.  This jamming turned into ‘Computer Blue’, which became a full-blown collaboration between Prince, keyboardist Dr. Fink, piano and keyboard player Lisa Coleman, guitarist and singer-songwriter Wendy Melvoin, and Prince’s father John L. Nelson, who wrote the main melody in the bridge section of this song.  The band continued to work on the song and, according to drummer Bobby Z, had it “just about fully rehearsed” when Prince threw another element into the works, a lyrical guitar solo based on a melody by his father, John L. Nelson, later to be dubbed ‘Father’s Song’ (Revolution 20), however the composition ‘Father’s Song’ was not yet recorded as a separate song when ‘Computer Blue’ was conceived.

In ‘Computer Blue’ Prince plays the role of a rogue artificial intelligence who is questioning his internal database for a “love life”, and finds it lacking, and dispassionately observers that “there must be something wrong with the machinery.”  The chorus is an error message set to music, “until I find that righteous 1 / computer blue”, where Prince is holding out hope.  It’s also a double meaning, with the word “blue” referring both figuratively to a melancholy mood, and literally to the bluish-tinged light of a color CRT monitor.  The song became a bundle of strangely inviting contradictions, an outburst of creative impulses ranging from mechanical funk to breezy jazz to an eruptive conclusion that recalls the distorted energy of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, which was also on this album.

The song begins with a dialog between Wendy Melvoin and her keyboardist bandmate/girlfriend, Lisa Coleman, where Lisa asks Wendy if the “water is warm enough” for them to do something that remains mysterious and is usually seen as being kinky.  Some exchanges that didn’t make it onto the final album like the spoken word section that included topics about lust, hate, insecurity and fear that was inserted, was later taken out.  On the extended studio recording, Robo-Lisa and Wendy-tron return to taunt him, “poor lonely computer / it’s time someone programmed u / it’s time u learned love and lust / they both have 4 letters / but they’re entirely different words.”  Later, their chiding takes on a more pointedly feminist dimension, as they warn the “chauvinistic computer” that “women are not butterflies”, but “computers too / just like you.”

Prince’s portrayal of a sentient, lovelorn CPU tapped into contemporary anxieties around the emergent technology, namely, that society’s increasing dependence on computers would have a dehumanizing effect, with cold logic taking the place of feelings and empathy.  ‘Computer Blue’ plays up this tension in the contrast between the robotic lyrics and the decidedly human expressiveness of Prince’s vocals, which run the course from a plaintive whimper to an impassioned scream–not to mention his guitar solos, which have a nuance and sensitivity that no computer, then or now, could hope to ever match.

In 1984, Apple aired their Super Bowl XVIII commercial for their Macintosh computer, which was already the most anticipated personal computer release ever.  The commercial, which cost at least three hundred thousand dollars, was based partly on George Orwell’s novel 1984, with the role of Big Brother being filled by a man dictating to the masses from a giant screen, only to have a hammer-wielding woman run up and destroy the screen, freeing the people.  The “Big Brother” motif was a veiled reference to IBM, Apple’s main competitor.  The commercial, shown only once, is considered a major turning point in the marketing of computers, especially since IBM computers were running on DOS at this time and the first version of Windows wasn’t released till 1985.  For music, the CD (Compact Disk) had come out in 1981, but for data, the big date is 1984 when Phillips introduces the CD-ROM (the last part stands for Read Only Memory).  Fujio Masuoka invented flash memory which was capable of being erased and re-programmed multiple times in 1984 while working for Toshiba.  Also in 1984, William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his novel Neuromancer, so a lot of things were happening with computers back in 1984.

Prince was born Prince Rogers Nelson, 1958 and he was very productive between 1982 and 1992, as he placed nine albums in the Top 10.  During the same decade he placed 26 singles in the Top 40 and over the course of his career, he has sold almost 40 million recordings.  More importantly, he is one of the most talented musicians ever to achieve mass commercial success.  Prince’s recorded output reflects a wide range of inspirations, from funk and guitar-based rock ’n’ roll to urban folk music, new wave, and psychedelic rock.  As a celebrity, Prince occupies a middle ground between the hermitlike reclusiveness of Michael Jackson and the exuberant exhibitionism of Madonna.  Throughout his career, Prince has granted few press interviews, yet he managed to keep himself in the limelight.

The best example of his skill at manipulating the boundary between the public and the private is the film and soundtrack album Purple Rain, which established him as a pop superstar.  The album sold more than 13 million copies.  The plot and characters of Purple Rain draw heavily on Prince’s life, and it is not easy to draw boundaries between the fictional character, the celebrity persona, and the private individual.  A major source of the film’s attraction for Prince’s fans lay in the idea that this was a tantalizing opportunity to catch a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.

Wendy? Yes Lisa
Is the water warm enough? Yes Lisa
Shall we begin? Yes Lisa

Ohhh!

Where is my love life? Where can it be?
There must be something wrong with the machinery
Where is my love life? Tell me, where has it gone?
Somebody please, please tell me what the hell is wrong

Until I find the righteous one, computer blue
Until I find the righteous one, computer blue

Oh

Yeah

Yowww, yowww, yowww, yowww!

Written for Song Lyric Sunday where the theme is songs that feature lyrics associated with electronic communication devices (pagers, iPhone, Android, fax machine, computer, TV) suggested by Amy Braun, ai love music aisasami.

14 thoughts on “What the Hell Is Wrong

  1. Purple Rain is a great album and not a bad movie. This isn’t my favorite song on the album, but I remember hearing the Wendy/Lisa dialog the first time I heard the album…
    Prince was so talented! Great choice Jim! Lots of cool info too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Christine. I don’t know all that much about Prince and I think this is the first post that I wrote about his music. I like some of his stuff, but overall, he is a bit over the top for my taste.

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