As we’ve noted before, when Prince began recording in the spring of 1980, he had no specific project in mind. “The previous albums were done in California, where they have better studios,” he told Andy Schwartz of New York Rocker. “I’d never wanted to do an album in Minneapolis” (Schwartz 1981). But after less than a month of work, he’d decided that his new “demos” were good enough to release as his next proper album. “I was so adamant about it, once I got to the label, that there was no way they could even say ‘we won’t put this out,’” he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I believed in it too much by that time” (Wilen 1981).
Prince’s resolute belief in the album that would become Dirty Mind played like a repeat of the bold position he took during the making of For You. But without an Owen Husney in his corner, this time even his management needed to be convinced. Prince brought his home recordings to Los Angeles to play for Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli. As he recalled to Schwartz, “They said, ‘The sound of it is fine. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio. It’s not like your last album at all.’ And I’m going, ‘But it’s like me. More so than the last album, much more so than the first one’” (Schwartz 1981). The managers “thought that I’d gone off the deep end and had lost my mind,” Prince told Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. It was only after some “long talks” with the artist that they finally relented (Salewicz 1981)–with the caveat that he have the tapes remixed at a professional studio.
To put the finishing touches on Dirty Mind, Prince chose Hollywood Sound Recorders: the same studio where he’d completed his previous album, with the same engineer, Bob Mockler, providing oversight. As Mockler recalled it, however, the tracks didn’t need much work: “I told him, ‘Why waste your time?’” he said to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “You did a great job on those songs. I’ll be glad to take your money and re-mix them but I think it is [already] really good’” (Nilsen 1999 69-70).
Warner Bros., however, proved harder to convince. Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in Warner’s “Black Music” division, recalled Prince creating a stir when he showed up to the label’s headquarters that summer, allegedly wearing the same open-trenchcoat-and-bikini-briefs combo that would later adorn the album’s cover. “He turned the record company into disarray,” she told Uptown. “I remember someone saying to him in the hallway, when he was prancing through with [manager Steve] Fargnoli, ‘Does your momma know what you’re doing?!’ Prince just gave him a disdainful look” (Nilsen 1999 70).
There were, to be fair, legitimate reasons for W.B. to be nervous. The success of Prince’s second album had only just begun to dig him out of the hole created by his massively expensive debut; now, they reasoned, he wanted to throw it all away with a followup record that would be virtually impossible to play on the radio. At one point, according to Prince’s then-guitarist Dez Dickerson, the label “offered him his contract back… They didn’t know what to do with him. They didn’t understand the record and they didn’t understand him” (Hill 87). But Prince stood his ground, and Cavallo and Fargnoli took a different tack, selling Dirty Mind as part of the little-understood but potentially lucrative “New Wave” market.
As with Prince’s signing three years earlier, the first executive to be won over was the label’s Vice President and Director of Promotion, Russ Thyret. According to biographer Dave Hill, the artist simply showed up one night to play the album for Thyret and his girlfriend. “We sat and listened to it, and it just knocked [us] out,” Thyret recalled. “I mean there were a couple things on there, you know, like ‘Sister’ that took you aback a little bit. But I’m fortunate in that I work for a company that has a real basic attitude. If they believe in the artists and the producers that make the music, they don’t sit back and try to make value judgments. Obviously we’d got an investment and we were concerned about him, but the guy’s talent was there and you just had to believe that he knew what he was doing” (Hill 87).
Once Thyret was convinced, the other higher-ups began to fall in line: A&R head Lenny Waronker, chief executive Mo Ostin, and Bob Regher, Vice President of Creative Services. The album went forward, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, essentially as a “leap of faith” (Hahn 2017); and, at first, the label’s faith was not rewarded. Dirty Mind reached Number 7 on the Billboard Top Black Albums chart, but peaked at Number 45 on Top LPs & Tapes, falling well short of its predecessor. The singles fared worse: “Uptown,” released a month ahead of the album in September, did well on the Soul and Dance charts but failed to crack the Hot 100; the title track, out in late November, reached only Number 65 in R&B, the same moribund performance as “Still Waiting” from back in March. Just as predicted, the album was hurt by skittish radio programmers: according to Thyret, “radio play wasn’t as hard on the black [stations], but it was difficult.” On the white stations, “it would be fair to say that, ah, the airplay was…not meaningful’” (Hill 87).
Clearly, if Prince was going to cross over to the New Wave audience, it wouldn’t be on the radio. So W.B. bankrolled a series of dates in December, with Prince as headliner–a strategy, according to Dickerson, they’d borrowed from Columbia’s similar approach to breaking Bruce Springsteen (Dickerson 114). The stage show, created by production and lighting designer Roy Bennett, was raw but theatrical: “For an artist on their first tour, it was quite a big production for the time,” Bennett told Hahn and Tiebert (Hahn 2017). Each performance began with Prince and the band backlit, emerging from an otherworldly haze of dry ice (see video above). In this setting, opening number “Do It All Night” would take on a whole new life.
On record, “Do It All Night” is notable as one of Dirty Mind’s tamest metaphors: “do it” having been in the pop music vernacular since at least Cole Porter, more recently yielding a major disco hit with the S.O.S. Band’s “Take Your Time (Do It Right).” Musically, too, the song resembles a less studio-polished outtake from Prince, with its funky bassline, sprightly synthesizer hook, and ecstatic falsetto vocals; its characteristic blend of innocence and frank, joyous carnality is strongly reminiscent of “I Feel for You,” to name just one example. Indeed, it’s surprising that Warner didn’t release it as a single outside of the U.K., where it was issued as the album’s sole single in March 1981: it seems a much safer choice, in both sound and content, than even “Uptown.” But for better or worse, “Do It All Night” was not a single in the States; instead, it languished on Side A of Dirty Mind, between “When You Were Mine” and “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” and was quickly overshadowed by the peerless Side B sequence of “Uptown,” “Head,” “Sister,” and “Partyup.”
In its new context as set-opener, though, the song found new purpose in the immediacy between performer and audience. Prince had been structuring his shows as a kind of mass seduction since his first “official” live dates in 1979: turning titles like “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” into direct pleas, and teasingly inquiring “is everyone wet?” between songs. Now, he had a custom-built vessel for these audience flirtations: “Come over here,” were his first words each night. “I wanna talk to you / I may be kinda shy, but I just gotta tell you what I’m gonna do.” The nightclub pick-up lines from the album version took on a new scale and meaning: “Now that you’re near me / I want you to hear me / I’ll tell you what I wanna do.” The fact that he then proceeded to play guitar and sing for an hour didn’t remove any of the song’s sexual undercurrent; on the contrary, it made sex and the experience of a Prince concert hopelessly intertwined, and virtually synonymous.
The seduction worked. Prince kicked off the first leg of the Dirty Mind tour in Buffalo, New York, followed by dates in Washington, DC and Raleigh, North Carolina. But it was on December 9, at the Ritz in New York City, when the true appeal of his Dirty Mind persona became evident. In a rapturous review later published in Rolling Stone, rock critic Bill Adler described Prince, “Snaking out from the wings toward center stage at the Ritz, prancing like a pony with his hands on his hips and then flinging a clorine kick with a coquettish toss of his head… With his racially and sexually mixed five-piece band churning out the terse rhythms of ‘Sexy Dancer’ behind him, the effect is at once truly sexy and more than a little disorienting” (Adler 1981). In the audience, presumably both aroused and disoriented, were notables including Andy Warhol, Nile Rodgers of Chic, Labelle’s Nona Hendryx, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS. “Everyone was there and the whole vibe of the room was incredible,” Bennett recalled to Uptown. “That was the point when we thought[,] [‘T]his is happening![’]” (Nilsen 1999 74).
There were, of course, more bumps along the road to Prince’s crossover success–in fact, as we’ll see next time, it was only a matter of weeks before the tour was put on hold due to low ticket sales. But the December 9 show at the Ritz served as early proof that with Dirty Mind, Prince was finally finding “his” audience. Once again, his iron will had paid off. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Tomorrow, we’ll finally round up all of the posts on Dirty Mind; then, I’m going to do my damndest to get the next episode of the podcast up by Friday. Wish me luck!