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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Rough

Prince, as we’ve discussed, had been harboring ambitions to write and produce for other artists since virtually the moment he signed to a record label himself. But after his partnership with Sue Ann Carwell and his “ghost band” the Rebels both fell through, his focus turned by necessity to his own music. It wasn’t until after the release of Dirty Mind that Prince shifted gears back to his budding Svengali ambitions, and plans for a new protégé act began to take shape.

At first glance, it seems strange that Prince would be so intent on fostering other artists at this early stage in his career. There was, of course, the issue of his prolificacy; as the non-LP single release of “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” demonstrated, he was already beginning to write and record more quality music than could be contained by his own albums. It’s also a matter of record that Prince was a fan of Taylor Hackford’s 1980 film The Idolmaker: a dramatization of the life of rock and roll promoter and manager Bob Marcucci, who had discovered, groomed, and promoted teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In retrospect, however, the most compelling rationale for Prince’s Svengali streak comes from one of his earliest collaborators, David “Z” Rivkin. The way Rivkin tells it, Prince wanted to be at the center of a “scene” in Minneapolis, so he made one in his own image: “he said, ‘It’s better if there’s a lot of people doing the same style, because that way it looks like a movement,’” Rivkin recalled to author and researcher Duane Tudahl. “He said, ‘I want to have an army going forward[,] that way no one can deny it’” (Tudahl 2017 344). Just as he’d done with the “Uptown” mythology, Prince was inventing the conditions for his own success.

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Dirty Mind, 1980

Gotta Broken Heart Again

Last time, we touched upon how the spartan conditions and technical limitations of Prince’s North Arm Drive home studio helped lay the groundwork for what became his signature sound. This time, we actually have a concrete example to discuss: the sole ballad to appear on his 1980 album Dirty Mind, Gotta Broken Heart Again.”

On paper, “Broken Heart” is familiar territory for Prince; its borrowings from the early 1960s soul music of artists like Sam Cooke recall the similar homages of songs like “So Blue” and “Still Waiting.” But those tracks had felt labored: as if Prince, not fully comfortable singing in a hand-me-down style, had overcompensated by loading up the mix with fussy and (in the case of “Still Waiting”’s pseudo-pedal steel) even self-mocking touches. Here, though, circumstances forced him to sit with the material and approach it on its own terms–and the result was his finest experiment with the style to date.

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

I Don’t Wanna Stop

So far, we’ve been looking at Prince’s Dirty Mind as a singular, cohesive work–and it was; easily his strongest and most consistent artistic statement to date. But part of what made it so impressive is that according to Prince, it was never intended as such. When he began recording in mid-1980, his goal was not an “album,” but effectively demos: the same kind of home recordings he’d been making since 1976. The resulting tapes were “just personal songs that I wanted to have,” he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner after the album’s release, a fact to which he attributed their immediate, “up-front quality” (Wilen 1981).

Like many of the stories Prince told to reporters circa 1981, there’s an air of myth to his claim that the songs on Dirty Mind were originally deemed too raw for public consumption; I’m inclined to believe him, however, if only because his home studio on 680 North Arm Drive in Orono, Minnesota sounds like the last place one would choose to record a major label album. “The house had a lot of problems,” recalled Don Batts, who worked as Prince’s ad-hoc engineer and studio tech at the time. The mixing console, Batts told biographer Per Nilsen, was “rammed up against a table.” The tape machine, an Ampex MM-1100, was “held together with baling wire and patches, and on a regular basis had numerous tracks that weren’t functional simply because it was that raggedy.” Most dramatically, the drum booth was partially flooded from a nearby cesspool, resulting in a “constant drain of water” on the tracks  (Nilsen 1999 67).

Despite these conditions, Prince spent the bulk of May and June 1980 holed up in the studio, recording not only the entirety of Dirty Mind and affiliated outtakes, but a raft of songs that still haven’t been heard by the public: “American Jam,” the intriguingly-titled “Big Brass Bed,” the bewilderingly-titled “Bulgaria,” “Eros,” “Plastic Love Affair,” and “Rough.” He also recorded at least one song that has been heard by the public, but only by another artist, and seemingly against Prince’s wishes: a bouncy, rather anachronistic little number called “I Don’t Wanna Stop.”

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Dirty Mind, 1980

Dirty Mind

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.

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Dirty Mind, 1980

When You Were Mine

In early March, 1980–around the same time Rick James was absconding with their Oberheim–Prince’s band took a break from the tour to spent a day at Disney World in Orlando. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun,’” keyboardist Dr. Fink told journalist Mobeen Azhar. I remember leaving him sitting outside the hotel room on the balcony, with his guitar. By the time we came back, he’d written ‘When You Were Mine’” (Azhar 23).

If “Head,” as suggested last week, was “the foundation upon which Prince’s racial, sexual, and personal preoccupations of the next decade were built,” then “When You Were Mine” laid the groundwork for his musical expansion. It was his first real foray into crossover territory: a masterful capital-“P” pop song with all the literary value of contemporary New Wave troubadours Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. It wasn’t Prince’s first classic song–that, again, would be “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–but it was his first standard: timeless, durable, and rewarding of endless reinterpretations by other artists.