We’re into year three of my potentially lifelong commitment to annually live with and reevaluate each one of Prince’s officially released albums. Why? Because shut up, that’s why. We’re due to finish with ‘HITnRUN Phase 2’ in 2046 if we ignore those weird years where he didn’t release an official record (1983, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2005, 2008, 2011-13. What are known as the ‘dark ages’). Currently, we’re still on a somewhat appropriate 40th anniversary flex, so in 2020 we come to 1980’s seminal* ‘Dirty Mind’.
(*or should that be semenal?? No. No, ‘seminal’ is the correct spelling. I just checked)
After his first two albums, all things considered, Prince was really nothing special aside from an admittedly talented performer with the nice little gimmick of being able to play a lot of instruments. Aside from taking a little detour into filthiness with Soft and Wet and proving his rock chops, if only briefly, with I’m Yours, his first album was deserving of little more than a polite applause for the ability on show. His second album, although technically superior in almost every sense, containing his first hit in the heavily disco influenced I Wanna Be Your Lover and, to me, his first stone cold classic in When We’re Dancing Close and Slow* , it was actually frustrating to listen to 40 years later with the benefit of hindsight and knowing exactly what this talent would one day become. There was close to nothing to these albums, they were more often than not box ticking genre albums. Where was the invention? Where was the subversion? Where was the star quality? There was next to no clue where Prince was about to take his sound, his image or his provocativeness.
(*which at least featured the line “I want to come inside you”, which in retrospect seems like almost a link between his previous slow jams and candlelit dinners persona to that of a right filthy little tearaway. I’ll let you all debate how romantic the phrase is)
However, this may have just been down to the restrictions of the time. I’m sorry to bring race into it, and I would dearly love to be one of those white people that denies that race is ever a factor, and that society is colourblind now, and that wasn’t slavery, like, ages ago?, and that I actually talked to a black person last week as he asked me if I was in the queue for the ATM and he seemed fine to me… But let’s be fucking real here. It was significant that so many of Prince’s songs were heavily disco influenced, and his first hit and most popular record was a catchy disco stomper- throughout the 1970s, disco was really the only genre that the mainstream would accept a black singer in. It was a truly integrated movement, the only movement that regularly see black artists performing to white crowds and vice versa, or a mix of the two, whatever. As it turns out I Wanna Be Your Lover would be among the last disco hits (relatively at least, it didn’t make the US top 10) as the backlash was heightening by this point. In July of 1979, a month before I Wanna Be… was released the Chicago White Socks held a ‘Disco Demolition Night‘ during their match with the Detroit Tigers, where fans were offered discounted tickets if they brought a disco record to be exploded in a mass detonation on the field at halftime (the explosion damaged the pitch so much that The White Socks had to forfeit the match, the stupid fucking idiots). Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh described disco as “like a beautiful woman with a great body and no brain“, which, yeah, lot of things going on in that statement. The Dead Kennedys song Saturday Night Holocaust would later liken disco to, yes, the Weimar Republic, because like the Nazi party, disco embraced all ethnicities and was encouraged true integration. It’s fair to say that, when you’re a musical genre being compared to the Nazis, there is truly a backlash. Whether it was as a result of this or through general wider apathy, the Western world had truly moved on from disco. And it moved on fast– in July 21, 1979, the top six records on the U.S. music charts were disco songs. Just over two months later, in September 22, there were no disco songs in the US Top 10.
We can debate how much of this effectively meaningless hostility towards disco- guys, your Peter Frampton records are still there!!- was based on racism (let’s be as even handed as possible here and say at least some of it), but regardless if it was intended or not, the whole movement essentially lead to a lot of black artists being screwed over. It was always Prince’s ambition to be able to breakthrough to all audiences, and the death of disco unfortunately meant that his dreams of an integrated fanbase were dealt a massive blow and that all of his future music was likely to be- and apologies for the term- severely ghettoised. It’s debatable how much of Prince’s response to all of this was down to pure genius, necessity or pure luck, but respond he definitely did.
The most important change that happened between 1979 and 1980 was that Lisa Coleman joined his band. Coleman is arguably Prince’s most important musical collaborator- at least the most important positive influence on his music. Don’t you dare say it’s God, Prince!!- as she not only introduced him to more classical and jazz music (“To impress him I’d play some Mozart on the piano when he ‘wasn’t listening’. I turned him onto lots of different composers- Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Hindemith, Bill Evans and Claus Ogerman… He was blown away“). It’s clear that the addition of 19 year old Lisa Coleman to the 21 year old Prince’s backing band was the moment that bridged Prince the talented session musician to Prince the most important artist of his generation, and her influence in igniting- and being an important part of- his success goes a lot deeper than simply playing the synthesizers that would soon be a hallmark of his sound. Besides Coleman, ‘Dirty Mind’ was the first Prince album to fully acknowledge his backing band. While he was sill largely a one man show- doing his usual producing, arranging, composing effort apart from a co-writing credit for Matt Fink coming up with the keyboard part to Head– the band are featured on the album sleeve and despite them not quite being ‘The Revolution’ yet, Prince clearly wanted people to consider them part of the package.
Another outside circumstance that had a massive effect on his third album was, well, Prince had no money left. He had spent all of his record advance ensuring that his first to records had the lushest and most expensive sound possible. Now with next to nothing left, he had no other option but to use the tiny studio he’d installed in his dark basement with the royalties from his first album and record some demos that might convince Warner Brothers to shell out for a proper production. Prince’s piano playing, which had been such a central pillar of his first two albums, was not present on the demos that he produced. Because the studio was too small to fit a piano in. If he wanted to include the sound of him swinging a cat around, he was shit out of luck. Of course, for whatever reason, Prince was eventually convinced that these grimy, raw, stripped back and utterly elemental ‘demos’ should just be the album itself.
Maybe it was a decision made because Prince was conscious of how well these dirty, naughty, illicit little demos- that sounded so coarse and vulgar that they should be passed to fans in a dark alley under cover of darkness in a brown paper bag- suited his new onstage persona so perfectly. By 1980, Prince was obviously sick of all the assumptions and examinations regarding his sexuality, but instead of making an effort to turn away from the polemic, or even explicitly answering a question he never believed was worth considering- he chose to ramp up his sexuality, rub it in people’s faces and become more raunchier and lewd than any mainstream artist had ever been up until that point. He began famously appearing onstage in just a trenchcoat and a g-string, and embracing a style that Lisa Coleman (who, along with future Revolution bandmate Wendy Melvoin, later came out as gay herself) would memorably describe as “Fancy Lesbian“. We’re all probably used to Prince’s high pitched singing voice on this album by now, but it’s hard to overstate quite how aggressively and threateningly gay this all sounded in 1980. To counteract questions about his sexuality, many of which probably came from the assumption in the late 70s that anything associated with disco was gay as hell- Prince didn’t pander to the bigots by bagging to be let on their side, he released one of the gayest albums ever and dared them to do anything about it.
And all this lead to ‘Dirty Mind’. Underneath Prince contributing his highest and, well, most girly vocals ever, the raw and unembellished pummelling of the music is probably the most masculine that it had ever sounding, beautifully counterbalancing Prince’s performative androgyny. That throbbing thump that underpins the opening title track… is this… a disco record?? But disco has never sounded like this before. It’s like if Kraftwerk decided to collaborate with Donna Summer. But dirtier. Like if Kraftwerk and Ms Summer just decided to fuck halfway through the recording process. “But honey, you got me on my knees, won’t you please let me lay ya down?”. But then, hold up, track two is a new wave punk song?? I’ve heard When You Were Mine described as one of the great American rock songs and, shit, I’m not going to argue with that. I would challenge you to find a better new wave song, and even if you started throwing all of your Talking Heads, Echo and the Bunnymen and Devo (man, have they gone down in your estimation recently or what??) at me, it’s a challenge you’d more than likely fail. It’s notable that the person the song is directed to remains ungendered, as Prince plays further with the rumours regarding the sort of person he’d be likely to be singing it to, and even throws a match onto the gasoline with the sly line “I never was the kind to make a fuss/When he was there/Sleeping in between the two of us”. The line “Oh when you were mine/I use to let you wear all my clothes” possibly points to the gender play he would return to most successfully on If I Was Your Girlfriend. At least, if you think the person Prince is singing to is a woman.
So cool, it’s a rock album then, and… no, wait a second, track number three is a synthesiser led sort of disco soul track… Then track four is a soul come rock and roll ballad that might have fit on his first two albums that I could have sworn had pianos on it before listening again just now to check, and track number five is Uptown, which… what even is that?? It’s a crazed and enthrallingly propulsive R&B stomper that doesn’t just face up to the assumptions made of Prince by some of the world’s less enlightened people, but analyses the causes of such lazy beliefs- “She said, ‘Are you gay?’/Kinda took me by surprise/I didn’t know what to do…She’s just a crazy, crazy, crazy/Little mixed up dame/She’s just a victim of society/And all it’s games”. Prince helps solve this poor woman’s small mindedness by taking her to a bohemian part of town and, of course, banging her.
Then there’s Head– and then there’s Head. The first song recorded for the album after Prince heard Matt Fink banging out a simple riff on his keyboard- which may mean that perhaps Dr Fink pissing about in soundcheck may have indirectly lead to the entire sound of the record and by extent Prince’s whole musical identity- and perhaps the earliest fully realised example of the style that would later become Prince’s mainstay, both musically and lyrically. While we may now grin and performatively roll our eyes at Head‘s lyrical tale these days as typical Prince fare- guy meets virgin on the way to her wedding, who is a good enough girl to not lose her virginity before marriage, but still says (voiced by Jenny Coleman in the song) that “I’m just a virgin and I’m/On my way to be wed/But you’re such a hunk/So full of spunk/I’ll give you…” before giving him… well… what’s the song called? Have a freaking guess. This experience, including Prince apparently finishing on her wedding dress, actually blows her mind so much that she marries Prince instead- that it’s easy to disregard quite what a shocking radio hit this would have been in 1980. The whole of ‘Dirty Mind’ is famously filled with lewd and filthy lyrical allusions, as if Prince was getting in early ahead of the PMRC formation that he would later inspire. And just wait until we get to the next song.
Sister is, bloody hell, Sister is the most provocative and most controversial song Prince would ever write. A complete troll, 100% designed to shock and offend, but still cased in a fantastic, rapid fire punk track that The Ramones would struggle the rest of their career to match. If you’re still wondering what’s so controversial about it, think what that song is called then think what Prince does to everyone in the lyrics to this album. Yeah. “I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse/My sister was thirty-two, lovely, and loose/She don’t wear no underwear/She says it only gets in her hair/And it’s got a funny way of stoppin’ the juice (that line even to this day widens my eyes)/My sister never made love to anyone else but me/She’s the reason for my, uh, sexuality/She showed me where it’s supposed to go/A blowjob doesn’t mean blow/Incest is everything it’s said to be”. Yeah, your jaws are dropping now, imagine the reaction 40 years ago.
This isn’t a track by track breakdown though, there’s just so much going on with a record that’s an unbelievable leap forward from his decent but perfunctory first two albums- I was really struggling to think of things to say that might justify the 12 months I spent with his last album. His previous work saw him obediently following genre tropes, but ‘Dirty Mind’ is the first instance of him becoming the genre- in the future, it would be Prince that people would be doggedly attempting to duplicate. While the musical leaps were revolutionary (‘revolution’, you say…?), the whole image and provocative fearlessness of the record would make the biggest immediate impact, marking Prince out as at least someone to keep your eye on just to witness what he’d do next. It was also the most unabashed and unashamed presentation of sexuality yet seen in a mainstream rock album (if you decided to call it ‘rock’- you had about three dozen genres to choose from), leading to Village Voice critic Robert Christgau to memorably state that “Mick Jagger should just fold up his penis and go home“.
Jagger obviously read this and took it as a challenge, and invited Prince and his band to support the Rolling Stones on tour. This lead to Prince witnessing a rejection of his music, his persona, his identity on the scale of which he’d never experienced, and would never again. Lisa Coleman surveys the horror:
It was horrible, we were booed off stage. We were so excited, we’d rehearsed our Booties off, our funky black asses*. This is it, we’re gonna make the big time. Yay, it’s the Stones. We were booked for a few gigs, two here at the LA Coliseum.The firt gig, we had high hopes. There was an incredible atmosphere, there wrre big stars backstage. And we lasted five minutes before being pummelled with chicken, bottles, a sea of corn, and there were all these fingers. “Fuck you, faggot”, the N word, everything horrible. Prince took off, and the rest of us thought “What do we do now?”. So we finished the song and walked offstage. This was on Friday. We were supposed to play again on Sunday and we went back to our dressing room and Prince bolted. He went to the airport, he flew to Minneapolis… Dez Dickerson (the band’s guitarist and future Revolution member) talked to him for forty five minutes. He told him “We can’t let them run us out of town. We’ve fought this stuff already- the racism, the sexism. Let’s hit it and quit it. [after Prince returns to finish the shows] The second day they’d actually planned it- “Let’s boo these people”. They’d brought things. Shoes, apples, oranges… We played more rock and roll songs- didn’t matter, it was a game for them. We did it our way and ranLisa Coleman quoted in Matt Thorne’s book Prince
(*yeah, I know, Lisa Coleman is white. I assume she’s referring to how Prince and his backing were nonetheless seen as a ‘black band’ by the audience and how that may have played a part in the reception they got)
The rejection stung Prince, but it was just proof that he still had a way to got o win over the wider public. Once again, instead of kowtowing to these people, he would win them over to his side.
Next year, ‘Controversy, an album I’ve actually never heard before in full, I’ll see if it deserves to be one of Prince’s most forgotten 80s albums
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