The warning signs were there all along. Prince’s first single, released in 1978, was called “Soft and Wet,” and he chose for the back cover of his 1979 self-titled second album a photo of himself riding buck-naked on a white unicorn. He was a freaky little genius, this punky, funky, new-age R&B lover-man from Minneapolis, and with Dirty Mind, he made sure everyone knew it.
Released 35 years ago today, on October 8, 1980, Dirty Mind is Prince’s first great album. It also was the start of an incredible eight-LP run — nine if you count his 1989 Batman soundtrack. Like his first two full-lengths, Dirty Mind is self-produced and self-contained, with nearly every song written and performed entirely by the Purple One himself. (He shares writing credits on “Partyup” and “Head,” one of only two tracks featuring outside musicians.)
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In his brilliant early days, Prince didn’t need and editor or a filter. Whereas the opposite would become true in later years, this album benefits from its complete lack of outside perspective.
Recorded in Prince’s Lake Minnetonka home studio in May and June of 1980, Dirty Mind is often described as “raw” — a word that suits both the production and the subject matter. Throughout the record, Prince plays a brittle Telecaster seemingly free of effects. There’s little or no distortion or reverb, just a “clean” sound that’s closer to power-pop or punk than the R&B or funk he filters in via his drumming and bass playing.
The sound is only part of the story. Dirty Mind is notorious for two songs: “Head,” about exactly what you think, and “Sister,” about what you’re afraid to think. These were dare tracks — Prince testing the waters before diving into the deep end of prude-baiting salaciousness with the likes of 1982’s “Lady Cab Driver” and 1984’s “Darling Nikki.” Those songs appeared on 1999 and Purple Rain, respectively, a pair of top 10 albums (No. 1 in the latter case) that marked Prince’s ascent to stardom. In 1980, he was still a critics’ darling, and Dirty Mind peaked at No. 45, producing no major pop singles.
The disc’s biggest hit was “Uptown,” (No. 5 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles and Hot Dance Club Songs charts), one of the two songs that — more than “Head” and “Sister” — signal the arrival of an artist with something unique to say. “Uptown” is about racial and sexual tolerance; “Partyup” is the most danceable anti-war anthem since Edwin Starr’s “War.” The Prince of Dirty Mind was a lover not a fighter, and dude could barely keep the amorousness under wraps.
Read on for a track-by-track take on this absolute essential — an eight-song, 30-minute glimpse into the mind of a thong-rocking pacifist with some interesting ideas about marriage and sibling relations.
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“Dirty Mind”: A thumping kick and cool synth line get the album started on a randy note. Prince wasn’t the first R&B artist to sing in falsetto, but the daring femininity he brings to this performance paints him as a different sort of lover-man.
“When You Were Mine”: A unique take on the classic want-you-back song, this bare-bones New Wave pure-pop gem is all about wanting to reconnect with a freakazoid ex who shares your clothing sizes but not your desire for a monogamous relationship. If Prince’s guitar were a little janglier, this would be power-pop; instead, it’s a soulful and minimalistic approximation of the day’s alternative rock — Elvis Costello without all the aggression.
“Do It All Night”: Fuller and more conventionally funky than the first two tracks, this straightforward come-on features some nifty bass popping and, at the chorus, urgent sixteenth-note keyboards underscoring Prince’s eagerness to, you know, do it all night. If it’s a throwaway, it’s only because it lacks the adventurousness and jarring sparseness found of the disc’s highlights.
“Gotta Broken Heart”: Hardly groundbreaking in subject matter, the album’s lone ballad gets by on Prince’s tidy arrangement, breezy piano playing, and effortless falsetto. There’s also the country-blues guitar solo he plays around 1:00, the halfway point of song that’s too well crafted to count as a trifle.
“Uptown”: Prince finally looks beyond the bedroom, sort of, with this utopian funk-rock anthem. With its infectious verse bass line and pre-chorus power chords, it bridges the musical gap between Kool and the Gang and The Clash. The message falls within that same intercultural chasm. The song opens with Prince hitting on a girl who questions — as many fans must have — whether he’s gay. Genuinely shocked by her small-mindedness (“I just looked her in the eyes / and I said, ‘No, are you?’”), he goes on to describe a Minneapolis ‘hood where bigotry ain’t a thing and “everybody just a freakin’.”
“Head”: Amateurs crash weddings; Prince intercepts the bride on her way to the church and gets to freakin’. Once again subverting a typical pop story — guy seduces girl — Prince sings of a virgin who offers a certain alternative to going all the way, then decides she’s ready for more, then decides she’s rather marry Prince than the guy she’s due to wed. It reads like a letter to Penthouse Forum. Dr. Fink’s squiggly sci-fi keyboards, meanwhile, are straight out of Popular Mechanics.
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“Sister”: In just 90 seconds, Prince draws a line in the sand and offers some clues about where’ll he take his music in the coming years. Whether he’s really turned on by incest or simply excited by the idea of writing a song about such a taboo subject, “Sister” is a filthy punk romp as audacious and fun as anything the Sex Pistols ever did.
“Partyup”: A political track disguised as a funky banger, “Partyup” reveals Prince to be a pacifist with a deep distrust of politicians. “You’re gonna have to fight your own damn war,” he chants at the end, like he’s courting the Black Flag fan base. “’Cause we don’t wanna fight no more.” According to pop lore, the central groove of this tune came from Minneapolis buddy Morris Day, whom Prince compensated by creating The Time, a band to showcase his talents. It’s precisely that kind of creative problem-solving we could use in Washington.