(Featured Image: London punks, circa 1977. Photo by Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon; stolen from BBC News.)
Prince’s adoption of a punk aesthetic in late 1980 and early 1981 was, as we’ve seen, an act of calculation; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that it was only that. For one thing, Prince’s New Wave songs were simply too good to have been born of strategic considerations alone. For another, as his cousin Charles Smith recalled, the artist was a known fan of “the whole English scene… He’d always been into David Bowie and that kind of stuff” (Nilsen 1999 72).
It thus stands to reason that when Prince finally made his way to punk’s epicenter, London, in June of 1981, his P.R. approach combined thinly-veiled opportunism with genuine homage. He promoted his one-off date at the West End’s Lyceum Ballroom with a pair of high-profile magazine interviews: one with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, and the other with Chris Salewicz, whose tenure at NME alongside writers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had helped frame the discourse around British punk. Warner Bros. even took the opportunity to release a U.K.-exclusive single in advance of his visit: a distinctly New Wave-flavored outtake from the Dirty Mind sessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”
Continue reading “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”
(Featured Image: The mass seduction begins; Prince at Cobo Hall, Detroit, December 1980. Photo by Leni Sinclair.)
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.
Continue reading “Do It All Night”
(Featured Image: Anti-draft demonstration in San Francisco, March 22, 1980; photo by Chris Booth, Resistance News.)
During the promotion cycle for Dirty Mind in late 1980 and early 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 to shape his back story into a compelling and marketable artistic 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).
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(Featured Image: Malcolm McDowell and Teresa Ann Savoy in Caligula, 1979; © Penthouse Films International.)
“I write everything from experience,” Prince claimed during an interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. “Dirty Mind was written totally from experience.” At this point, Salewicz wrote, he asked Prince if he’d experienced incest, as discussed on the album’s penultimate track “Sister.” “How come you ask twice?” Prince reportedly shot back (Salewicz 1981).
“Sister” is a song that defies critical analysis–mostly because Prince wanted it to. At the time of its release, rock critics assumed he was being deliberately provocative; Prince, however, vigorously and repeatedly denied this was the case. “I don’t try to do anything to shock people or to make money,” he told Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland. “That would make me a hooker” (Sutherland 1981). Whether the interview subject was wearing thigh-high nylons at the time was, regrettably, left to the imagination.
By insisting on the veracity of his lyrics in 1981, Prince created an interesting bind for potential scholars of his work. Shrug a song like “Sister” off as a joke, and one risks trivializing a serious trauma; take it at face value, and one can appear credulous–not to mention potentially libelous. The wisest approach, in my estimation, is the one taken by cultural critic Touré in his 2012 book about Prince: “‘Sister,’” he writes, “is key to understanding Prince, whether it’s true or not[;] he wants it to be a central part of his past, or part of the mythology that he’s creating, and thus a seminal part of what he wants you to think about him” (Touré 89). Touré compares “Sister” to “the creation myth for a superhero: My hypersexual older sister seduced me and taught me all about wild sex as she made love to me and dominated me and all of that turned me into what I am today” (90). Its position near the end of Dirty Mind–right after “Head”–is thus significant. Having given us six songs indulging, to various degrees, his erotomania, now Prince takes us back to the Freudian root of his “dirty mind”: the “reason for my, uh, sexuality.” It’s only fitting that at that root is something that reads like the filthiest Penthouse Forum letter ever written.
Continue reading “Sister”