(Featured Image: “Please Audition Prior to Airing”–Dirty Mind, 1980; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)
Dirty Mind is an album with a reputation. Rolling Stone’s Ken Tucker deemed it “positively filthy” (Tucker 1981). Self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau branded it with arguably his greatest one-liner: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home” (Christgau). And then, of course, there was the marketing: that provocative cover photo by Allen Beaulieu; those proto-PMRC stickers warning radio programmers to “audition prior to airing” (see above); the wave of interviews with the 22-year-old artist defiantly espousing his core values of unfettered sexuality and free expression. Almost invariably, from 1980 to 2017, critics have seen Dirty Mind as a turning point: the moment when Prince, swooning teen R&B lothario, became Prince, brash punk-funk libertine. “Nothing,” Tucker wrote, could have prepared us for the record’s “liberating lewdness” (Tucker 1981).
Yet, for those of us who have been following along at home, perhaps the most surprising thing about Dirty Mind is how unsurprising it feels. The album’s smutty disrepute rests, more or less, on two songs: the already-discussed “Head” and the even-more-notorious “Sister” (more on that later). On the other three-quarters of the record, however, Prince isn’t much more sex-obsessed than he was last time around. In fact, rather than a radical about-face for Prince, Dirty Mind is more accurately described as a refinement of what came before: stripping the music to its bare essentials, turning the innuendos unmistakably transparent. It’s different, but hardly unprecedented; if you didn’t see Dirty Mind coming after Prince, then you simply weren’t paying attention.
It makes sense, though, that the album was so widely hailed as a turning point–because, quite frankly, most rock critics before 1980 hadn’t been paying attention. Dirty Mind was a crossover record: not in the commercial sense–it sold less than half of what Prince had sold the previous year–but in the way it deliberately appealed to the rock literati’s punk-era sensibilities and values. Thus, where the first two albums were slick and manicured, Dirty Mind was raw and spontaneous: recorded, often in just a handful of takes, at the artist’s crude home studio in Wayzata, Minnesota. Where the first two albums were written primarily on piano, Prince proudly composed the majority of Dirty Mind on guitar–a Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster, to be precise, his primary instrument for the next several years. And where the first two albums had taken pains to present Prince as a sui generis virtuoso in the Stevie Wonder vein, Dirty Mind presented him–accurately or not–as the frontman of a band, showing him on the inner sleeve alongside backing musicians Dr. Fink, Dez Dickerson, Bobby Z, André Cymone, and Lisa Coleman (see above).
Indeed, the opening title track of Dirty Mind is a rare acknowledged collaboration for early Prince: his first since “Soft and Wet” on his debut album. Dr. Fink received a co-writing credit after coming up with the keyboard line during a rehearsal jam session in late 1979 or early 1980. “We would always warm up before working on songs for a new record,” Fink recently told music blog Diffuser. “Just off the top of my head during one of those jams, I started that chord progression. It wasn’t something I had been working on, it was one of those spontaneous things, which happened a lot. You know… the creative juices got flowing and suddenly something pops out of you” (Wilkening 2017).
After rehearsal, Prince invited Fink back to his studio to work on the track some more. “I’d always wanted to write something with him,” Fink recalled. “I’d been in the band a couple of years at that point. So I went over there, and we laid down the song, the music side of it, the arrangement, which he kind of already had in his head when I got there. Then he said ‘OK that’s it, you can leave’… and that was at about maybe 10 at night, something like that. He hadn’t really done any vocals on it, or given it a title.” Less than 12 hours later, according to Fink, Prince showed up at rehearsal again, “with a finished demo version with full vocals and lyrics and guitars on it and everything all done. He says, ‘Have a listen to this guys, I think this is gonna be the title track to the third album’” (Wilkening 2017). Prince himself told a similar story in his draft liner notes for The Hits compilation: “The band flipped when they heard it,” he wrote. “The centerpiece was in place” (Dash 2016).
The choice of “Dirty Mind” as the “centerpiece” for Prince’s third album was strategic on several levels. Not only was it the product of a more rock-oriented “band” sensibility than his earlier work, but it was also another sterling example of his stripped-down, New Wave-influenced sound: a marked departure from either the baroque soul of For You’s titular intro or the glossy lite-funk of Prince’s opener. The song begins with a low, electronic synthesizer and kick drum pulse–or throb–before lurching abruptly into Fink’s keyboard hook. The beat is relentlessly steady, robotic four-on-the-floor; the structure simple and repetitive, lacking a traditional chorus, but gaining intensity as the song progresses. “Dirty Mind” is funky, but in the same way Devo is funky; if Prince’s goal was to distance himself from the “ghetto” of 1980 R&B, then he had certainly succeeded.
But while “Dirty Mind” undeniably sounds different enough to catch a wayward rock writer’s ear, it remains important to note that its thematic preoccupations are less dramatic a change as has been claimed. In his recent book on Prince, author Ben Greenman argues that even the filthiest of the artist’s early songs were still “innocently filthy, all tugged-at zippers and hastily rearranged sweaters” (Greenman 70). Yet the counterexample he cites is “Dirty Mind”–and what could be more “innocently filthy” than a song about wanting to fuck in your “daddy’s car?” Most of the lyrics in “Dirty Mind” are downright quaint, even by 1980 standards: as sex talk goes, “I just want to lay you down” is a far cry from “I want to come inside of you” in “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow.” The difference is in the presentation: regardless of actual content, it’s hard not to hear Prince as “dirtier” when he’s hollering his erotomania over a post-punk electro-garage groove, rather than crooning sweet nothings in your ear.
As an album, too, Dirty Mind is a masterpiece of presentation. The aforementioned cover photo depicts Prince as a punk-rock pervert, wearing a thin moustache, an open trenchcoat, and little else. He’s also notably light-skinned: an intentional move, according to Beaulieu, who told music magazine The Fader that he was approached by Prince after shooting a fashion show for the Minneapolis YWCA, ironically called “Save the Blackness.” “I shot black clothes on black people on a black backdrop,” he recalled. “Once the images were in black and white, the people actually appeared lighter. And I know that’s weird, but that’s kind of what he liked” (Raiss 2016). Especially in retrospect, the strategy is clear: after two years of butting his head against the music industry’s racial divide, Prince was smuggling himself across the border, with Dirty Mind as his Trojan horse. It worked–and the repercussions would set a winding, occasionally rocky, often blindingly brilliant course for the next two decades.
I’ll be back, hopefully sometime next week, with another song from Dirty Mind, and before that, with my impressions of the new Purple Rain reissue. Thanks!
(This post originally identified the keyboard Dr. Fink plays as an Oberheim OB-X; I have updated it after learning that it is in fact an ARP Omni-2.)