The night of their debut at the Roxy in West Hollywood on Nov. 26, 1979, Prince turned to his band and gave a little speech. “Prince had a talk with us — inspiration would flow on the fly,” remembers guitarist Dez Dickerson, who played in the group from 1978 to 1983. “He said, ‘I want each member of this band to have their own persona. I’m going to personify sex in every possible way.’ ”
This was a bold choice for someone groomed to be a black teen idol. Prince had scored a No. 11 Billboard Hot 100 hit that summer with “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but when he appeared on American Bandstand he mostly just smirked at Dick Clark. That insolence led directly to his boundary-breaking 1980 album Dirty Mind and the frenzied tour that followed. The album, his third, broke open Prince’s artistic ambitions and his outrageously ribald public persona. (The cover alone – Prince pulling back his coat to reveal bikini briefs — was brazenly sexual.) It also would echo through decades of music to come, from hip-hop’s explicit sex talk to the nervous punk-funk pulse that launched LCD Soundsystem to the stark grooves of Detroit techno.
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Still, the album was very much of its time. Disco had been declared dead by the media, affecting black music down the line. But the hysteria wasn’t entirely supported by sales figures: In 1980, record sales plummeted 11 percent from the previous year, but black music had lost only half that amount, The Wall Street Journal reported. The successor to disco’s place at pop’s center seemed to be new wave, especially The Knack, whose “My Sharona” was 1979’s No. 1 overall single.
Prince had put heavy guitar jams on his first two albums and knew how much he might limit his audience if he were solely marketed as R&B. Not long after he finished his second album, 1979’s Prince, he and the band cut a heavy rock album under the name The Rebels that was never released. Dickerson says Prince found inspiration in new wave and “the New Romantic thing” — U.K. bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, who were played at the downtown Minneapolis club Sam’s that would eventually become the site of the club scenes in Purple Rain.
“We needed to be a little edgy to capture the essence of the time,” remembers Prince’s bassist André Cymone, citing Sid Vicious and “even groups like Blondie.”
In the spring of 1980, Prince and his band — Dickerson, Cymone, drummer Bobby Z (Rivkin), and keyboardists Matt “Dr.” Fink and Gayle Chapman — spent nine weeks on the road opening for Rick James, sparking one of R&B’s most storied rivalries. James accused Prince of “copping my licks” throughout the tour and boasted in his memoir Glow, published posthumously, about the birthday party where he grabbed teetotaler Prince “by the back of his hair and poured cognac down his throat.” Clearly the headliner was touchy that the opener was, by many accounts, upstaging him every night.
Prince’s arsenal included a new song the band had been working out at club dates prior to the James tour: “Head,” in which he sings about interrupting a wedding when the bride fellates him right there and ditches her fiance for Prince. Even the band was taken aback by the lyrics: “It was definitely, like, ‘OK, I guess we’re going there!’ ” recalls Dickerson. Of course, for Prince — who would later be famous for cultivating dozens of women as collaborators, muses and lovers — pioneering a hypersexual persona was no mere academic exercise. Whomever he might have been romantically connected with at the time, he made certain to give the song a realistic charge by making out with Chapman every night as they performed it. (She left his employ at the end of the tour and was replaced by Los Angeles native Lisa Coleman. “I think it may have gotten to be a bit too much for Gayle,” says Cymone.)
When the James tour wrapped, Prince returned home to Minnesota, rented a house in suburban Wayzata (near Lake Minnetonka — yes, the real one) and outfitted the basement with a 16-track studio that Warner Bros. paid for. There were problems with the space, like a leak from a cesspool that went right into the drum booth, but Prince was in his zone. “Nobody knew what was going on, and I became totally engulfed in it,” he told Rolling Stone of these home sessions. “It really felt like me for once.”
As in the past, Prince mostly recorded alone, but the band was starting to put its stamp on the new material. A keyboard line that Fink jammed out during a rehearsal provided the seed for “Dirty Mind”; Prince brought him over to cut the track and had a completed song by morning. New pianist Coleman’s classical and jazz colorings eventually would have an outsized impact on Prince’s music, and that summer she murmured a spoken vocal on “Head.”
When manager Steve Fargnoli presented his artist’s new album to the label, as he related to the Los Angeles Times, “Warner Bros., understandably, didn’t know how to react. The last record had sold almost a million, and they expected something with the same sound.” Dickerson recalls that Warner was “scared to death. I remember being in L.A. shooting videos, and the execs pulled up and took Prince on a long ride, on a break, to talk about the record. They thought they were signing the new Stevie Wonder. They didn’t know they were getting a cross between Wonder and Johnny Rotten.” But when top Warner executives Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and Russ Thyret backed Prince, the company fell in line.
The first part of the Dirty Mind Tour was rocky, and the album’s lack of radio play translated into sluggish sales. On Dec. 9, 1980, the night after John Lennon‘s murder, the band played The Ritz in New York. The club was only half-full — with Andy Warhol in the audience. But the album got rave reviews, placing ninth in The Village Voice‘s annual critics’ poll that ran in early February 1981. That was followed less than two weeks later by Rolling Stone‘s four-and-a-half-star rave. “The LP might just as accurately have been called Prince Confronts the Moral Majority,” wrote Ken Tucker.
That excitement fed directly into the second leg of the tour, which kicked off with a packed hometown gig at Sam’s on March 9. Warner Bros. A&R man Ted Cohen had flown into the Twin Cities to join the tour. “Prince was intimidating, even at the beginning,” remembers Cohen. “He was so quiet, so mysterious. Not rude — just not somebody you sat and shot the shit with. Prince was the first artist I was ever sent on the road with [where we had] the understanding that he would never do an interview, an appearance, a meet-and-greet, photos or handshakes.”
The music was more than enough. At the Rainbow in Denver on March 26, a mob of teenage girls surrounded the band’s trailer, and fans chased its car through the city’s streets. Four years later, at the height of Purple Rain fever, Dirty Mind finally broke 500,000 in sales. Prince’s persona — and his sound — had taken on a life of their own.
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.