Ronnie, Talk to Russia

Ronnie, Talk to Russia

(Featured Image: President Ronald Reagan, circa 1981.)

During an early 1981 interview with Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express, Prince “rather startlingly” changed the subject from his Dirty Mind anti-war song “Partyup” to the recent inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “Thank God we got a better President now,” he said, with “bigger balls” than his predecessor Jimmy Carter. “I think Reagan’s a lot better. Just for the power he represents, if nothing else. Because that also means as far as other countries are concerned.” Salewicz, good leftist rock journalist that he was, didn’t know how to take this sudden detour into conservative politics. “Perhaps this is Prince’s Minneapolis background coming out,” he wrote (Salewicz 1981).

Indeed, as a Midwesterner who grew up in the shadow of the 1980s, I can attest to hearing more than a few anti-Carter rants like the one Prince engaged in–even, in my case, many years after the comparative merits of the Gipper and the Peanut Farmer had relinquished any claim to relevance. Yet it’s also hard not to read a subversive undertone into his abrupt political endorsement. As Salewicz pointed out, there was unmistakable homoeroticism in Prince’s singling out of the president’s “balls” for praise; you can almost hear him smirk when he goes on to say, “He also has a big mouth, which is probably a good thing. His mouth is his one big asset” (Salewicz 1981). But whatever Prince’s actual thoughts on Reagan’s mouth and/or balls, the Salewicz interview was an early indication that even this sexually and racially ambiguous libertine had a soft spot for the Ur-Republican president–at least when it came to the Cold War.

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Get It Up

Get It Up

(Featured Image: 1981 publicity photo for the Time. L to R: Terry Lewis, Jimmy Jam, Morris Day, Jellybean Johnson, Monte Moir, Jesse Johnson. © Warner Bros.)

As of this writing, there is no public record of the order in which the songs on the Time’s first album were recorded (fingers crossed that Duane Tudahl can scare up some details when he gets around to writing his book on the 1981-82 studio sessions). It’s generally agreed, however, that the song Prince used to get Warner Bros. interested in the project was the one that became its lead single and opening track: “Get It Up.”

As a proof of concept for the Time project, “Get It Up” makes a lot of sense. It is, first of all, familiar territory. According to Bobby Z, the song came out of Prince’s jams with his touring band, and it shows: more than any other song on The Time, “Get It Up” sounds like the missing link between Dirty Mind and Controversy (Nilsen 1999 86). The brittle New Wave funk arrangement and wheedling Oberheim synthesizer, played once again by guest soloist Matt Fink, bear Prince’s immediately identifiable fingerprints–that, and the fact that his backing vocals are clearly audible throughout the track.

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Dirty Mind

Dirty Mind

(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.

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When You Were Mine

When You Were Mine

(Featured Image: Cover art for “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” by Joe Jackson, 1979; © A&M Records.)

In early March, 1980–right around the same time Rick James was absconding with their Oberheim–Prince’s band took a break from the tour and spent a day at Disney World. “In Orlando, we decided to have some fun being tourists,” keyboardist Dr. Fink told journalist Mobeen Azhar. “We asked Prince to come along, too, but he said, ‘Go ahead. Have fun.’ 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.

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Head

Head

(Featured Image: Prince and Gayle Chapman on Rick JamesFire It Up Tour, 1980; photo stolen from Reddit.)

“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazine in 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it was hardly the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”

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