Rough

Rough

(Featured Image: Ray Sharkey and Peter Gallagher in The Idolmaker, 1980; © MGM.)

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 when 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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Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

(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).”

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Broken

Broken

(Featured Image: Dirty Mind-era promo photo, 1980; © Warner Bros..)

Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost momentum in the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.

Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; for the third time in his brief career, Prince’s attempt to get out on the road had been vexed, and he was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.

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Do It All Night

Do It All Night

(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 ExpressIt 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.

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