Uptown

Uptown

(Featured Image: Lipps, Inc., circa 1979; © Casablanca Records.)

“MOJO: Growing up in Minne-wood, as it’s been now called, simply because that is the hot point on this planet right now…

“PRINCE: Well, it’s been called a lot of things, but it’s always Uptown to me.

“MOJO: Uptown?

“PRINCE: Yes.

“MOJO: What was it like growin’ up Uptown?

“PRINCE: Pretty different. Uh, kinda sad, to be exact. (laughs) I mean, the radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out… I was gonna have to get somethin’ together. Which is what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown. That consisted of a lot of bike riding nude, but ya know…it worked.”

– Prince Interview with the Electrifying Mojo, Detroit Radio WHYT, 1985

“Uptown” is a real place in Minneapolis: a commercial district in the southwest part of the city, centered around the historic Uptown Theatre at the intersection of Hennepin and Lagoon Avenues. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a bohemian enclave, part of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. The legendary record store Oar Folkjokeopus (“Oar Folk”), home of underground rock label Twin/Tone, was in nearby Lowry Hill East (“the Wedge”)–as was the CC Club, a regular haunt for punk groups like the Replacements. “It was kind of like this exotic mixture between rock ‘n’ roll, comedians, entertainers, and then just hipsters that worked in the neighborhood,” musician and author Paul Metsa told the City Pages in 2013. “A lot of writers and artists hung out there. And what I loved about it, it was very working-class, and still is. Everybody was equal in that place” (LaVecchia 2013).

But “Uptown,” as Prince commemorated it, was also a product of the imagination. Before he recorded the song, Prince was not associated with the neighborhood, nor with its accompanying art and music scene. In fact, he’d played only two solo dates in the Twin Cities: one at the Capri Theatre in north Minneapolis, and one at the downtown Orpheum Theatre; his gigs with Grand Central had been limited to the predominantly Black Northside. And his home in suburban Wayzata–credited, mythically, on the Dirty Mind inner sleeve as “somewhere in Uptown”–could scarcely have been further away, geographically or culturally, from the Uptown that existed in physical space. “Uptown,” then, is a place that Prince turned into an idea: a kind of inverse to Paisley Park, his most famous idea turned into a place.

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Gotta Broken Heart Again

Gotta Broken Heart Again

(Featured Image: Back cover of Dirty Mind, 1980; photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Warner Bros.)

Last time–good lord, was that really two weeks ago?!–we touched upon how the spartan conditions and technical limitations of Prince’s Wayzata, Minnesota 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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I Don’t Wanna Stop

I Don’t Wanna Stop

(Featured Image: Not Prince’s home studio, but it is his reel-to-reel; ad for the Ampex MM-1100, circa 1974. Photo stolen from the Reel to Reel Tape Recorder Museum.)

So far, we’ve been looking at Prince’s Dirty Mind as a singular, cohesive work–which, in fact, 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 really intended as such. When he began recording in mid-1980, his goal was not an “album,” but a batch of 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 in Wayzata, 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

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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