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Memories Of Genius: 30 Years On Prince's Dirty Mind Revisited
The Quietus , October 18th, 2010 05:16

John Freeman is not a fan of post-Witness rebirth Prince. Here he recalls happier days with Dirty Mind

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Thirty years ago this month, Prince Rogers Nelson released his third album Dirty Mind. It was his first truly great album, and marked him out as a genre-striding, game changer. In a shade under 31 minutes, it fused rock, funk, soul and even punk. This was the sound of an artist deciding he could be everything he wanted to be – a short, sharp rocket up the arse of pre-MTV America.

Prince may be tiny, but he had huge balls back in 1980. Dirty Mind was the point at which he embraced rock music, and combined the power of image and controversy to make a huge artistic and political statement. Even in 2010, with withering cynicism as our guide, the idea of a black man playing punk songs about incest, dressed in nothing but stockings and his underpants would warrant a smidgeon of attention.

That Prince’s music has been beyond poor for so long makes the three decades since Dirty Mind feels like a different geological stratum. And therein lies the problem when contextualizing Prince’s back catalogue. Do you cherry-pick his 80s output as a period undoubted genius? Or write him off as someone whose best work has long since fallen into the rose-tinted analysis of Anniversary articles.

To understand how magical the 1980 version of Prince was, it’s perhaps pertinent to map out his later implosion.

In April 1987, Prince released his magnum opus, the double album Sign ‘O The Times to hyper-salivating fans and critics. All was good in Paisley Park. There were even rumours of another album release within months. But, at some point during the autumn of 1987, Prince had an ‘awakening’. He re-affirmed his commitment to God and renounced the evil that was the funktastic, and mysterious, Black Album. After an incredible period of creative output - including the albums 1999, Purple Rain and Parade - Prince would rebirth himself on 1988’s (good but not great) Lovesexy, before plummeting into (artistic) oblivion. Two years later he released the execrable Graffiti Bridge; two decades later he’s giving away his tat free with the Mail on Sunday. Never has someone with such a visionary talent fallen so far. Bob Dylan managed to extricate himself from his religious vacuum of the 70s. Even Madonna has knocked out a couple half-decent tunes in the last 20-years.

Being a huge Prince fan during my teenage years, his demise seemed like a painful act of treachery. The anniversary of Dirty Mind perhaps permits some brief relief. Like many UK-based Prince fans, I found his music in 1984 when Purple Rain ruled the planet. And like any self-respecting obsessive adolescent, the back catalogue was quickly acquired, through some expensive US imports. Dirty Mind stood out immediately. The cover in itself was a work of wonder: black and white, with Prince eyeballing the camera, dressed in tiny black briefs and a dirty mac.

Prince’s previous two albums were interesting more than anything else. His debut, For You is musically unmemorable, but gives first sight of the prodigious tag line of ‘Written, performed, arranged and produced by Prince’. A second, eponymous album would feature his first hit – ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ – and his original version of Chaka Khan’s global smash, ‘I Feel For You’. The album’s production was slick, and its success ensured Prince was up and running.

Dirty Mind felt different though. By now Prince had built a rudimentary recording studio in his house, and many of the final tracks are essentially demos and early recordings. The production was raw and the starkness at odds to the previous polish. The opening title track features Prince’s falsetto scream over a new wave beat; Minneapolis funk had met with post- punk.

And all notions of Prince being merely a precocious disco diva had been shattered by track two. ‘When You Were Mine’ is his first great rock song. In fact – and please pardon a moment of bombast – it is one the great, underrated, American rock songs. Over frantic guitars and Dr Fink’s squidgy keyboards, Prince flails at an unfaithful lover who “didn’t have the decency to change the sheets,” before admitting “I love you more than I did/ when you were mine.” It’s a breathtaking song; the veneer of libido is suddenly obliterated and Prince’s heart is on the line. It’s also one of his most covered songs, with everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Casiotone For The Painfully Alone bashing out versions with varying degrees of success.

However, lyrically ‘When You Were Mine’ is an outlier – it is Prince’s obsession with sex that is in the spotlight on Dirty Mind. The sleazy cover art suggests that Prince fully understood the power of shock value and the album contains two of his most infamous songs. ‘Head’ outlines the shameless seduction of a bride-to-be with the promise of oral delights, over a sweating, squelching synth hook. It’s a cracker of a track, and would become the sort of song that would almost single-handedly provoke Tipper Gore into a PMRC fury.

But ‘Head’ is a W.I. tea party compared to the quite astonishing ‘Sister’. Clocking in at 90 seconds, Prince’s most furious punk song leaves nothing to interpretation – “My sister never made love to anyone else but me/ She showed me where it’s supposed to go/ And that a blow job doesn’t mean blow/ Incest is everything it’s said to be.” Of course, it’s a huge piss-take – back then Prince was adept at not taking himself too seriously – and gained the album instant notoriety as rock critics pounced on the sheer gall of the man.

By 1984, Dirty Mind had amassed sales of 500,000 in the US; small-fry compared to the global success of Purple Rain. But Dirty Mind remains a pivotal moment in Prince’s career, which saw him pushing his music into endless territories. The seeds for the magnificent 1987 track ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ were sewn with the gender-bending couplet of “Oh girl, when you were mine/ I used to let you wear all my clothes” from ‘When You Were Mine’; the song’s dynamic would form the blueprint for tracks like ‘Little Red Corvette’ and ‘Paisley Park’. The feel of the minimalistic ballad ‘Gotta Broken Heart Again’ would appear throughout 1986’s Parade album, while the impact of ‘Head’ and ‘Sister’ would become standard practice as Prince’s libido went into superstar overdrive. He would follow Dirty Mind with 1981’s solid consolidation Controversy, before achieving worldwide lift-off with 1999 the year after.

I often think about a world in which Prince didn’t lose his musical mojo in 1988, and the last twenty years does contain moments of his magical foresight. Maybe he would have heard Kid A and entered a musical arms race with Radiohead, like Lennon and McCartney did with Wilson. [What a distressing vision of horror, Ed] There could have been an Appalachian folk album, or a twinkling Americana period. He could have teamed up with Jack White to rip out some raw blues or dragged hip-hop into new territories. But he didn’t and he won’t.

Dirty Mind is a reminder that once upon a time, Prince saw music as a boundless, constraint-free orgy of creativity. Its final track ‘Partyup’ is a good-time freak out jam, with Prince extolling the merits of “revolutionary rock & roll”. Hold tight to the memory.


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Frankie Poullain
Oct 18, 2010 12:09pm

I never ever get sick of this album, the stark production is perfect for the bruised vulnerability. I don't care if people scoff, this is possibly my all time favourite album - whatever the fuck that means. Thanks for the piece.

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city hobgoblin
Oct 18, 2010 1:36pm

Like you, I worked my way back through his back catalogue in the mid 80s (although I started the morning after I first heard 'Sign O the Times'), and like you I've always loved this album and particularly 'When You Were Mine'. I always found it worked brilliantly on mixtapes for muso friends - everyone loved it but no-one who didn't already know would pick it as being by Prince

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Oct 18, 2010 11:21pm

2006's 'Parade'?

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Oct 19, 2010 12:53am

Sorry, feel like a dick for pointing it out now.

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Oct 19, 2010 12:54am

In reply to bear:

That was meant to be pointing, now I'm the dick, revenge is yours.

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Oct 21, 2010 2:55pm

Nice piece. DIRTY MIND is truly relevatory, especially for those who've only chosen to listen from Purple Rain onwards (or God help ye, Diamonds and Pearls). Yes, we've done little but suffer over the last 20+ years (like you, I put the so-so Lovesexy as the last album worth having) and yet Prince remains my favourite musician/composer. Why is this? Basically it comes down to the output from 1978 to 1988 being so amazingly creative, unpredictable (Mr Nelson's constant chameleon changes are well on par with Mr Bowie's), soulful, fearless, etc.

And that's just the material he chose to release! The enormous catalogue of demos, live recordings and fully produced but still-unreleased (officially, anyway) tracks contain some of his most brilliant and experimental work. Not to mention the countless B-sides that became classic singles in their own right. Treasures like "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore", "She's Always in my Hair, or (for crying out loud) "Erotic City" were freakin'B-sides!

It's also being aware of the vast musical actity Prince chose to spend his extra time with, producing artists like The Time, Sheila E, Vanity, Madhouse, The Human League, etc, and pretty-much single- handedly launching the Minneapololis funk genre (without Prince there'd be no Jam and Lewis). Put simply, in this era, no one even came close to matching the rate of production, the high quality he maintained, and the influence he had on popular music as a whole.

Imagining a post-1988 world in Prince kept this up is one of the great what-ifs, but most-likely it simply wasn't possible. Blame the religion if you like, but what musician has had that level of quality for over 10 years straight? Bowie didn't. Stevie Wonder didn't. The Beatles surely didn't. Sooner or later, everyone crashes and burns.

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Oct 22, 2010 12:55am


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Oct 27, 2010 5:21pm

In reply to jet77:

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Artie Qewpie
Oct 28, 2010 6:38pm

good article, but the bad grammar is putting me into a hypertensive crisis. some examples + suggestions: "the last twenty years does contain" (they->do, it->does) / "Bob Dylan managed to extricate himself from his religious vacuum of the 70s." (not so much wrong as awkward. perhaps "...from his 70's religious vacuum?"). there are plenty more....

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Oct 29, 2010 1:34pm

In reply to Artie Qewpie:

Much like the reviewer, I happened upon Prince during the Purple Rain era, and then went on to pick up all his earlier stuff. I remained a Prince fan until the early 90's, then just stopped buying his albums. I've recently got back into Prince and started buying all the albums from the 90's and 00's that I'd missed out on, and there's a hell of a lot of great stuff out there. Take a listen to Fury for example and tell me its not a return to form.

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Oct 29, 2010 9:06pm

in my honest opinion I feel that Prince music has just gotten better. The fact that he has softened his hard core filth and trash orgy lusting music may be a dissappointment to all you sick minded people who wallow in this, ( sorry if you are offended! too bad!!) But personally I think the worlds music as a whole has gone down the tube lyrically....Hardly any of the worlds true artist refrain my unimaginative sexually explicit lyrics and music videos. As the music goes/so does the society (family) of mankind. (America in particular) Anyway I find his current music not only creative but also refreshingly distinct from most everything else out there. Musicology,Planet Earth, 3121, all great soul moving music ( that is if you have rythym and a bit soul). I actually grew up with prince from the time he started and while I was lost in previously mentioned "dirty mind" music like everyone else, as I've grown older I have come to appreciate music is truly beautiful gift from God and as always we can use it lift others spirit or use it in a less than beneficial way. Im actually glad he as turned a new chapter in his life and that it is coming thru even in his music. God bless you prince and dont stop what youre doing!!!!!

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Oct 30, 2010 6:06pm

In reply to Artie Qewpie:

Ok Artie're obviously not a musician..."His religious vacuum of the '70's" sounds infinitely better than your suggestion. Signed: Nothing Better To Do :)

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Oct 31, 2010 10:46pm

In reply to nick:

"extricate himself from his religious vacuum of the 70s" trying to say what, exactly ? That when engaged with religion in a more pronounced way than usual, Dylan's music was not up to the usual levels ? It is a difficult argument, and could go on all night. Plus you would need an awful lot of Bob's albums in order to make a fair, over time, comparison - I only have 15 or so of them myself. But, like the article's praise for one of Prince's lesser well-known works, I would invite the author to pick up a copy of "Shot of Love" and then re-consider how much extricating had to be done from how much vacuum.

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Johnny Nothing
Nov 8, 2010 6:58pm

I had one of those religious vacuums of the 70s once. Took it back and got a Dyson.

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Feb 6, 2014 2:01pm

Your idea of what prince "could have achieved" is truely truely miserable

"There could have been an Appalachian folk album, or a twinkling Americana period. He could have teamed up with Jack White to rip out some raw blues or dragged hip-hop into new territories. "

Please tell me you are joking.

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Dec 16, 2014 5:05pm

In reply to :

And nothing was stopping him from any of that. I'm sure Jack White would have taken his call, or he could have put out "O Symbol Brother, Where Art Thou?" He plays what he wants to play.

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