Before strutting around on a purple motorcycle, flamboyantly wearing frilly shirts and challenging Charlie Murphy to hilarious games of basketball, Prince Rogers Nelson once was, believe it or not, a fairly normal and modest guy, if a little eccentric. Nearing the end of his three-record contract with Warner Bros. in 1980, the ambitious young musician from Minneapolis released his first significant effort, Dirty Mind.
After dropping two commercially successful albums that confirmed his talent but not quite his ability, Prince assembled the core of what would eventually become his backup band The Revolution, with fellow Minneapolitans Dr. Fink (keyboards, synthesiser) and Lisa Coleman (keyboards, vocals, sitar) having their first feature credits on Dirty Mind. Combining spritely, overhead synth riffs with bass-heavy, underground funk rhythms, Dirty Mindis arguably one of the first, if not the first truly consistent ‘synth funk’ release, despite previous artists such as Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang and Parliament initiating the stylistic fusion earlier in the 1970s.
A fairly budgeted album in terms of production, the sounds in Dirty Mind may not be terribly complex or as lavish as in Purple Rain, yet it was undoubtedly the correct approach, accommodating Prince’s developing capabilities as a songwriter at this point in his career. However Dirty Mind’s simplicity is more than matched by its substance, with near-perfect displays of the burgeoning synth-funk style as in “Do It All Night”, which immediately kicks off with an energetic glissando by Dr. Fink that transitions into unrelentingly incessant keyboard chords, and only continues to build with Prince continually feeding thick, heavy funky bass lines throughout, culminating with a superb synth solo. Yet the album breaks from that particular mold on the very next track “Gotta Broken Heart Again”, a soulful ballad that strips away Dr. Fink’s synthesisers in order for Prince to brandish his undeniably impressive guitar skills, even managing to slot in a solo despite its brief 2 minute duration.
Having just turned 22 during the recording of Dirty Mind, Prince flaunts a kind of sexually frustrated exuberance typical of a guy that was yet to “make it” in the music industry, most notably on the title track where he begs a woman to sleep with him, and that just being around her gives him a “dirty mind”. There’s also the sorrowful “Gotta Broken Heart Again” where Prince laments being broke, having spent all of his money on a long-distance call to his ex, as well as the way he kicks off the infectious track “Do It All Night” by politely singing “Pardon me, I wanna talk to you”, not yet having the confidence or brashness he would later be famous for. The track’s refrain, “I wanna do it / Do it all night” again reflects Prince’s desire for sex, as opposed to actually getting it. In a way, these moments help to preserve a humbler time in Prince’s career, when he didn’t have it all.
Dirty Mindwould prove to be Prince’s breakthrough release, kicking off a decade where future artists would try to imitate its style. It also saw Prince’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live, and determined to make an impact, rather than promoting one of the album’s singles he played the anti-war, provocative number “Partyup”, which in many ways has the same party-in-the-face-of-adversity message as his later hit “1999”. Wearing a combination of his trademark purple jacket adorned with silver buttons, black stockings and eyeliner (similar to his getup on the album cover), Prince certainly looked like a man set to solidify his identity, however ambiguous. As the song finished with the obstinate line “We don’t wanna fight no more”, Prince threw the microphone stand down and rushed off stage, the tremors already rolling through American audiences. Prince had arrived.
Funky, danceable and timeless, Dirty Mind is ideal for those unfamiliar with Prince, a suitable starting point among his formidably large discography. Just running in at a mere 30 minutes, it’s a quick yet remarkably substantial listen that is essential for anyone interested as to what helped shape the sound of the 80s.