Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
When Prince’s debut album For You came out in 1978, he was hyped as a Stevie Wonder-like wunderkind—a genre-splicing prodigy who played all the instruments on his records. Also, the word was out that he liked sex. Prince’s first single, “Soft And Wet,” is a short, sparse disco track that begins, “Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane that I want to lose in you,” just in case anyone wondered whether the song’s title was meant to be as suggestive as it seemed. Prince then had his first real hit in 1979 with “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” the lead track off his self-titled second album, which includes the line, “I wanna be the only one you come for.”
Then in 1980, Prince doubled down on his big gimmick. Dirty Mind delivers what its name promises: songs about orgies, oral sex, ejaculation, bisexuality, and incest, all as frank and fantastical as a letter to Penthouse. Prince’s leap into outright smut was a little like the arc of the Saturday Night Live sketch “Tales Of Ribaldry,” where the coy double entendres of a historical romance give way to undisguised carnality. The rock critics of 1980 weren’t as affronted as Jon Lovitz on SNL, though. Reviewing Dirty Mind for Rolling Stone, Ken Tucker wrote, “This is lewdness cleansed by art, with joy its socially redeeming feature.” Famed music critic Robert Christgau was blunter, declaring, “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”
As ballsy (literally) as Dirty Mind is lyrically, it’s even bolder musically. Prince’s first two albums feel like dressed-up demos, as though he’d arrived in a big studio with piles of Warner Bros. money to spend, but couldn’t figure out how to do anything more than just layer some extra instruments onto his original tracks. Dirty Mind was recorded in Prince’s home studio, and is simultaneously more stripped-down and more inventive. The sound is thinner and rougher, limited on each song to just a few instruments—usually some drums, some guitar, and some keyboards—and a few multi-tracked vocals. The opening song, “Dirty Mind,” sets the tone with its tightly packed percussion and synthesizer, sounding like it was recorded not just in Prince’s bedroom, but under his bed.
None of this was entirely on-trend for 1980, though the album does work in elements of the New Wave and electric funk styles that were emerging from the pop-rock underground at the time. Prince also copies 1960s girl groups on “When You Were Mine” (later covered, appropriately, by Cyndi Lauper), knocks out a slight but catchy soft-rock ballad in “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” and spends the 90 seconds of “Sister” inventing a new genre that could best be described as “supersonic barrelhouse.” The songs on Dirty Mind are singular and unpredictable, justifying the early claims of Prince’s genius.
The man born Prince Rogers Nelson didn’t come from nowhere. Last year, Numero Group released Purple Snow: Forecasting The Minneapolis Sound, a useful compilation/annotation of the eclectic Minnesota R&B scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Songs by acts like the Lewis Connection, 94 East, and Flyte Tyme—some of which actually feature Prince is some capacity—reveal a community of musicians equally steeped in pop, rock, and soul, aiming to make dance music hot enough to stave off the winter chill. The local funk bands back then liked loud electric guitars and synthesizers, playing compact melodies wedded to a propulsive beat. Dirty Mind pays some homage to that party-friendly vibe in the songs that open and close side two, “Uptown” and “Partyup,” both of which imagine musical/sexual wonderlands where all are welcome.
But that utopian vision—along with the more actively experimental approaches to songwriting and recording—is where Prince set himself apart from the scene that nurtured him. Around the time of Dirty Mind, he started recruiting and remaking his peers, masterminding the bands Vanity 6 and The Time while using the pseudonym “Jamie Starr.” Within a few years, he’d burn the mythological version of his and Minneapolis’ origins into pop lore, via the movie Purple Rain. In the interim, Prince became a legitimate superstar with the 1982 double-album 1999, which channeled his more outré impulses into viable chart hits. The effect was to normalize the music, fashion, and preoccupations of this strange little man from Minnesota. Rolling Stone’s Debby Miller summed up the revelatory boldness of Prince in a 1983 cover story, saying, “Prince is wailing, ‘Guess I should have closed my eyes when you drove me to the place where your horses run free / Cuz I felt a little ill when I saw all the pictures of the jockeys that were there before me’ (in ‘Little Red Corvette’), while Lionel Richie is everywhere on the radio with ‘Truly, I love you truly.’”
There would’ve been no 1999 or Purple Rain without Dirty Mind, the album that established the baseline for Prince’s marvelously perverse imagination. Even the album’s cover is like a dare. There’s Prince, standing in front of what looks like a wall of exposed bedsprings, pulling his studded trench-coat aside to reveal a sporty little bandana around his neck and a pair of bikini briefs. Sexy album covers had become fairly common in the previous decade—see the collected work of the Ohio Players, a funk act that got the jump on Prince in turning kinky sex into groovy songs—but the naked skin on those records tended to be smoother, shinier, and idealized. On the front of Dirty Mind, Prince’s body hair makes him look more human and more tactile.
And then the music starts: Eight songs in 30 brisk minutes—practically an EP—performed almost entirely by Prince, aside from synths by his bandmate Matthew Robert “Doctor” Fink on two songs and Lisa Coleman softly cooing, “I’m just a virgin and I’m on my way to be wed” in “Head.” In 1980, Prince was still mostly singing in a fragile falsetto, but his instrumentation and arrangements weren’t so boyish anymore. Dirty Mind’s lineage runs through the sophistication of Stevie Wonder and the freaky world-building of Parliament-Funkadelic, but it’s also meant to challenge fans of the cutting-edge rock and pop of the day. In The Village Voice’s 1980 “Pazz N Jop” poll, Dirty Mind finished ninth, just behind Wonder’s Hotter Than July and just ahead of Gang Of Four’s Entertainment!, and playing those three albums consecutively wouldn’t have been all that jarring. (Other albums on the Voice’s critics poll that year included The Clash’s London Calling, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Pretenders’ Pretenders, Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition, Captain Beefheart’s Doc At The Radar Station, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!, Steely Dan’s Gaucho, X’s Los Angeles, and The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms. It was a great time to be a music lover, in other words.)
Dirty Mind’s subject matter was all Prince, though. In Tucker’s Rolling Stone review, he wrote, “Dirty Mind jolts with the unsettling tension that arises from rubbing complex erotic wordplay against clean, simple melodies. Across this electric surface glides Prince’s graceful quaver, tossing off lyrics with an exhilarating breathlessness. He takes the sweet romanticism of Smokey Robinson and combines it with the powerful vulgate poetry of Richard Pryor. The result is cool music dealing with hot emotions.”
But let’s not kid ourselves: Those filthy words are also really, really weird. Prince doesn’t just sing explicit songs about sex, he slips in grotesque imagery and genuinely transgressive scenarios—like the “drown, baby, in your own cum” line in the bluntly titled “Do It All Night,” or the back-to-back freak shows of “Head” and “Sister.” (The former’s a little story about Prince steering a bride away from the altar by turning her onto cunnilingus; the latter’s a twisted tale of sibling-diddling.) It’s as though Prince had read the FBI report on the garage-rock classic “Louie Louie” and had decided to sing intelligible versions of that song’s mumbled obscenities.
Prince toned down his schtick a smidgen for 1981’s Controversy, which is more tamely erotic, aside from its closing song “Jack U Off,” and the he ramped the lust back up for 1999, which features a couple of near-pornographic moments. For 1984’s Purple Rain, Prince mostly stayed in the mainstream, aside for the controversial “Darling Nikki,” which was partially responsible for Senator Al Gore’s wife Tipper founding the Parents Music Resource Center. But by then, Prince had already established a reputation as the guy who signs songs about sex. Hustler even ran a photo spread back in 1985 with a model dressed up in familiar ruffled purple.
In a way, Prince was only taking what was secretly very popular and dragging it out of the shadows. The 1960s and 1970s had their “party records” of X-rated comedy, and the 1980s had its raunchy underground albums by country singer-songwriter David Allan Coe, as well as its mom and pop video stores with backrooms full of porn. Prince was working within those under-the-table traditions, but with the marketing muscle of Warner Bros. behind him.
Tucker’s Rolling Stone review sees Dirty Mind as a political statement. “The LP might just as accurately have been called Prince Confronts The Moral Majority,” he wrote. “In a time when Brooke Shields’ blue-jeaned backside provokes howls of shock and calls for censorship from mature adults, Prince’s sly wit—intentionally coarse—amounts to nothing less than an early, prescient call to arms against the elitist puritanism of the Reagan era.”
Maybe, maybe not. Prince was always committed to his Christianity too, and thanks God first in Dirty Mind’s liner notes. (Meanwhile, somewhere up in heaven, God listens to “Sister” and says, “Um… You’re welcome?”) Ultimately what made Prince great was that he didn’t have some thought-through message to deliver—not even the “I don’t want to die, I just want to have a bloody good time” slogan he sings in the pro-fun/anti-war “Partyup.” What makes Dirty Mind the first Prince masterpiece is that it’s the first record where it was clear he’d removed all his filters. No idea was ill advised—and no impulse un-championed.