During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mind in 1980 and 1981, Prince talked to the press more than ever before–more, indeed, than he would again until the 1990s. His reasons were purely strategic. Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, had hired publicist Howard Bloom with the express goal of breaking their artist into the rock market; to accomplish this, Bloom helped Prince shape his back story into a compelling and marketable persona, which he then dutifully presented to every reporter who would listen. This was the birth of what we’ve been calling Prince’s “origin myth”: the Oedipal struggles with his mother and father; the sexual and creative utopia he found in André Anderson’s basement; the precocious sexuality and artistry that would find its full expression, conveniently enough, in the album he was currently promoting. The press ate it all up like the confection it was. Bloom “would tell people, ‘Prince sees sex as salvation,’ and then you’d see that in the Washington Post, the New York Times,” Cavallo told biographer Matt Thorne. “He comes up with that phrase and then ten writers use that phrase” (Thorne 2016).
Read enough of Prince’s interviews from the Dirty Mind era and Bloom’s talking points come into sharp relief: titillating racial and sexual ambiguity, a fierce desire for aesthetic authenticity, and an appetite for rebellion–all like proverbial catnip to rock’s punk-era tastemakers. But in one interview with Chris Salewicz of England’s New Musical Express, published in June of 1981, Prince made a specific claim that stands out amidst his more generalized myth-building. “I was in a lot of different situations when I was coming up to make that record,” he recalled. “A lot of anger came up through the songs, it was kind of a rough time. There were a few anti-draft demonstrations going on that I was involved in that spurred me to write ‘Partyup’” (Salewicz 1981).
It is unknown whether Prince actually participated in any anti-draft demonstrations–though he was surely aware of them. In January of 1980, as the United States prepared to intervene in the Soviet-Afghan War, President Carter proposed to reinstate conscription in the Armed Forces, setting off a wave of protests in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and yes, Minneapolis. The Minneapolis Tribune reported one such protest on January 30, at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union; it’s possible that Prince was there, though the demonstrators were mostly students. On March 22, the date of nationwide demonstrations led by National Mobilization Against the Draft, Prince was in Louisville, Kentucky, on tour with Rick James. He could have been present for a later protest on July 21 at the Marquette Avenue post office in Minneapolis; regrettably, however, I have been unable to find reports of a diminutive demonstrator wearing a thin moustache, trenchcoat, and bikini briefs.
But whether he was “involved” in the literal sense or just “involved” in the sense of reading about it in the newspaper, Prince did write “Partyup” as a show of solidarity for the renewed anti-draft movement. The result is a milestone in the development of his songwriting. “Partyup” is the first of Prince’s explicitly political songs: a flawed, chronically underappreciated subset of his canon, to which he would nevertheless return for the rest of his career.
As political songs go, “Partyup” plays to Prince’s strengths better than most. The issue is plainspoken, clearly-defined, and in step with Prince’s hedonistic early persona: “Fightin’ war is such a fuckin’ bore,” he announces, later adding, “I don’t wanna die, I just wanna have a bloody good time.” A child of the ’60s, he adopts that era’s popular counterculture strategy of viewing war through the eyes of an innocent: “How you gonna make me kill somebody I don’t even know?” he asks, his deliberate naïvete more rhetorically effective than any number of nuanced policy arguments.
Even more explicit is Prince’s adoption of ’60s-era slang: “That army bag, such a double drag,” a phrase that would turn up again on his next couple of albums. Howard Bloom, no stranger to the counterculture, has claimed that such appropriations were no mistake. “Prince was into some of the basic principles from the hippie movement, especially that free love [and] sexuality, in whatever form you wanted, was good; you can have sex instead of violence,” Bloom told K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “[I]f you have every kind [of] sex you can possibly imagine, you won’t make war. That was the sort of underlying proposition to what Prince was doing, what he was writing. That was what drove him for the next seven years” (Dyes 2014).
If there is an autobiographical core to “Partyup,” the ’60s connection seems the likeliest. Prince’s direct involvement in the early-1980s anti-draft movement was dubious at best, but the Vietnam-era protests of the previous decades–particularly the 1967 uprising that left the Northside of Minneapolis in flames–clearly left an impression on him, showing up as they do in later songs like “The Sacrifice of Victor.” With “Partyup,” he seized the opportunity to recreate a historical moment he had been too young to experience the first time. With its emphasis on the absurdity of war and the moral superiority of youth, his explanation of the song from the NME interview could have come from 1968 as easily as 1981: “I just seem to read about a lot of politicians who’re all going to die soon and I guess they want to go out heavy, because they’re prepared to make a few mistakes and end up starting a war that they don’t have to go out and fight” (Salewicz 1981). The multi-tracked protest chant with which he ends the song feels equally familiar: “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war / ‘Cause we don’t wanna fight no more.”
What makes “Partyup” more than just ’60s fan fiction is the music: a lithe, infectious punk-funk groove, branded with the prophetic genre designation of “revolutionary rock and roll.” It was appropriated from an entirely different source: André Cymone’s old high school buddy and former Grand Central drummer, Morris Day. Since losing the position of Prince’s tour drummer to Bobby Z, Day had stayed busy, gigging with other local bands–including Enterprize with Sue Ann Carwell–and helping Prince behind the scenes. At some point in 1980, he recalled, he was in the studio with Prince, and played something that caught the other musician’s ear: “it was real funky and laid-back… he liked it, and it ended up bein’ ‘Partyup.’” According to Morris, Prince offered him a deal: he could either pay Morris for the rights to the song, or help his friend put together a band of his own. Morris took the band (Baracio 2011). His decision paid off in the form of the Time: Prince’s first successful “protégé” group, and one of the few bands in history that could give him a run for his money onstage.
In the meantime, Prince retained full songwriting credit for “Partyup”–though he did put in the effort to make Day’s song his own. The version that emerged as the closing track of Dirty Mind was indeed “real funky,” but about as far from “laid-back” as possible, exuding a nervous energy that fit right in with the rest of the album’s New Wave stylings. Months after the release of the album, Prince shrewdly chose “Partyup” over the current single, “Dirty Mind,” for his first performance on Saturday Night Live: the same stage where, three years earlier, Elvis Costello had made punk history by interrupting his pre-approved performance of “Less Than Zero” and launching into “Radio Radio,” getting himself banned from the show in the process. Prince wasn’t banned, but he certainly made an impression: taking the song at an even faster tempo than the album version, pogoing and spinning and possibly dropping the dreaded “F-bomb”–though in a more ambiguous way than soon-to-be-ex-cast member Charles Rocket did later that night. At the end of the performance, Prince knocked over his microphone and stormed off the stage, the rest of the band following close behind and, in Matt Thorne’s words, “looking more like a street gang than they ever had before” (Thorne 2016).
Just like his earlier album closer, “I’m Yours,” “Partyup” offered a clue to where Prince was going in the immediate future. His next album, 1981’s Controversy, would double down on the political sloganeering, addressing everything from Cold War tensions to the December 1980 assassination of John Lennon. But few of the songs on that record would come close to “Partyup,” its irresistible groove, or its indelible message: “We don’t give a damn / We just wanna jam.” Words to live by.
I know it’s been a minute since I’ve written a proper post here, but I’m going to really try to get at least one more out the door next week. Also, please look out for another podcast with musician Paul Bonomo, a.k.a. Snax. We’re talking Prince’s queer legacy and the latent gay male influence in his music and persona. Hopefully gonna ruffle some feathers, I can’t wait!
(Thanks to the current and former Minneapolitans who helped me dig up some of the information on anti-draft protests in the Twin Cities area: Rebecca March and, especially, Carmen Hoover, who found the specific dates of the demonstrations in January and July 1980. Also special thanks to Suzy Suzanne, another local who found some rare photographic evidence of Prince participating in an earlier protest against the Vietnam War!)