His Ultimate Masterpiece?
Prince’s Purple Rain at Thirty-Five
THERE are some big albums…
IN THIS PHOTO: Prince on stage at the Joe Louis Arena in Chicago on 11th November, 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
that are celebrating anniversaries this year but, sneaking into view now is the remarkable Purple Rain by Prince. To be fair, the album didn’t so much as sneak but I sort of forgot it was turning thirty-five today (until two days ago)! That is okay because, as other websites and stations mark the album’s anniversary, it gives people a chance to realise just how important and mesmeric the album is. Released on 25th June, 1984 by Warner Bros. Records, Prince penned all of the tracks on the album – except for a few suggestions and contributions from his band members. This was the first album from Prince’s band, The Revolution, and it was a much denser affair. Less lean than previous outings, Purple Rain felt much more like a band performance; utilising synths, guitars and electronics to electrifying effect. 1982’s 1999 was received with huge praise by critics and, not wanting to change too much, Prince kept the slinky R&B and vibes and added in something more rocking and raw. I love that one-two of 1999 and Purple Rain because, not only are both albums world-class, but you can see a development and evolution. Purple Rain is the soundtrack from the film of the same name (released in July 1984) and is this intoxicating mix of accessible Pop with experimental elements; lyrics that switch between sexual desire and romantic breakup. Because of the varied sonic blends and the wide-ranging lyrics, Purple Rain was an instant hit and remains one of Prince’s most-cherished albums – I consider it to be his very best.
Whether you love the bass-less When Doves Cry or the sweaty, rapturous Darling Nikki, Purple Rain has something for everyone. You do not need to see the film to gain context and understand the album itself. Sure, seeing the film does give you some explanation but, really, Purple Rain stands on its own feet as an album; a collage of different genres that mixes in this extraordinary tapestry. It is the way Prince expands on his Funk and R&B base and throws in Rock, Pop and Metal that makes Purple Rain so daring. One might assume such an eclectic album would take a while to resonate and find a home in the mind but, from the first listen, you are hooked. One of the reasons we are still discussing Purple Rain such fond terms is because it is hugely nuanced and confident. Prince was able – on Purple Rain – to be populist and embrace the mainstream but thrill those who yearned for something more experimental, genre-hopping and original. Not only did Purple Rain inspire change in Prince and nod at where he would head but (the album) other artists started taking note. At a time in popular music where Madonna and Michael Jackson were reigning, Prince was staking his claim to his own thrown – joining the Queen and King of Pop. Purple Rain is quite balanced in terms of where the hits fall. Side one has Let’s Go Crazy leading things and ends with Darling Nikki; When Doves Cry opens sides two and, to end the album, Purple Rain provides a suitable sense of drama and wonder!
Reviews in 1984 were incredibly positive and, in terms of contemporary acclaim, critics still cannot get enough of Purple Rain. Here is AllMusic’s assessment:
“Even its best-known songs don't tread conventional territory: the bass-less "When Doves Cry" is an eerie, spare neo-psychedelic masterpiece; "Let's Go Crazy" is a furious blend of metallic guitars, Stonesy riffs, and a hard funk backbeat; the anthemic title track is a majestic ballad filled with brilliant guitar flourishes. Although Prince's songwriting is at a peak, the presence of the Revolution pulls the music into sharper focus, giving it a tougher, more aggressive edge. And, with the guidance of Wendy and Lisa, Prince pushed heavily into psychedelia, adding swirling strings to the dreamy "Take Me With U" and the hard rock of "Baby I'm a Star." Even with all of his new, but uncompromising, forays into pop, Prince hasn't abandoned funk, and the robotic jam of "Computer Blue" and the menacing grind of "Darling Nikki" are among his finest songs. Taken together, all of the stylistic experiments add up to a stunning statement of purpose that remains one of the most exciting rock & roll albums ever recorded”.
There are new assessments of Purple Rain thirty-five years down the line but, looking through the archives, there are plenty of articles that highlight the album’s impact and unique sound. Pitchfork, writing in 2016, revisited the album and provided this review:
“With Purple Rain, Prince bursts forth from the ghetto created by mainstream radio and launches himself directly onto the Mt. Rushmore of American music. He plays rock better than rock musicians, composes better than jazz guys, and performs better than everyone, all without ever abandoning his roots as a funk man, a party leader, a true MC.
The album and film brought him a fame greater and more frightening than even he imagined and he would eventually retreat into the reclusive and obtuse inscrutability for which he ultimately became known. But for the 24 weeks Purple Rain spent atop the charts in 1984, the black kid from the midwest had managed to become the most accurate expression we had of young America’s overabundance of angst, love, horniness, recklessness, idealism, and hope. For those 24 weeks at least, Prince was one of us”.
How did Prince affect music in 1984 and play his part in modern culture? One can look at Purple Rain from a simple music vantage but, when you consider the political and social scene in America in 1984, one must retune and reconsider the impact of the album. Billboard looked at Purple Rain this time five years ago when celebrating the thirtieth anniversary. They put Purple Rain into context and underlined why Prince was being taken to the collective bosom:
“In 1984, there was only one man in America more popular than Ronald Reagan. His name was Prince, and he was funky.
When “Purple Rain” arrived 30 years ago on June 25, 1984, a few weeks had passed since Bruce Springsteen dropped “Born In the USA.” Five months later, Madonna would release “Like a Virgin.” Of those three monumental ’84 albums, only “Purple Rain” doesn’t suffer from dated production, and with its mix of sexy dance-pop and rugged all-American rock ‘n’ roll—not to mention funk, soul, psychedelia, and gospel balladry—it embodies a lot of what people loved about the other two.
IN THIS PHOTO: Prince in 1984/PHOTO CREDIT: Lynn Goldsmith
The “Purple Rain” movie debuted at No. 1, and the album spawned five hit singles, two of which—“When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”—topped the Billboard Hot 100. To date, it’s sold some 20 million copies—a great many of those replacements for all the records, tapes, and CDs literally played to death by hardcore fans.
“Purple Rain” is that rare critical and commercial success that justifies every scrap of hyperbolic praise. Six albums into his career, Prince had found a terrific band in the Revolution and figured out how to sell his freakiness in malls and movie houses across the country. Read on to get our track-by-track take on an album that briefly had pop fans, punks, metal heads, moms, dads, cheerleaders, accountants, and just about everyone else in the world not named Tipper Gore pledging allegiance to the same purple freak flag”.
Do the songs stand up after thirty-five years?! Certainly, one can argue albums from around that time do not sound as relevant and incredible as they did back then – both Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. were released in 1984 and, perhaps, have not aged as well as Purple Rain. If Madonna was blossoming and throwing off the innocent of her debut; if Bruce Springsteen was creating these huge anthems, Prince was charting his own course and staking his claim as a true original.
Purple Rain as a complete work is astonishing but, as this article explains, if you investigate some of the biggest songs, they offer a lot if you dig deep:
“One of them was a pleading romantic number called When Doves Cry, its guiding bassline stripped away to leave only a vague sense of discomfort behind. Purple Rain – the autobiographical backstage musical film, and the accompanying soundtrack album – was saved.
That album, buoyed by indelible singles like When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and the epochal title track, would go on to sell 13 million copies, rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the album of the decade, and tower like a colossus over the career of one of the great pop singers, guitarists, and iconoclasts of his era. “My albatross,” Prince would later describe it; “it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music.”
Prince had initially asked Stevie Nicks to compose lyrics for Purple Rain, writing them himself only when she respectfully declined. And he was so concerned about potentially ripping off another recent radio hit that he called Journey’s keyboardist and played the song over the telephone, in order to make sure that the band would not take umbrage at the similarities between Purple Rain and their Faithfully. Purple Rain is the great ballad of the 1980s in part because Prince embraced his inner arena-rock god.
Let’s Go Crazy is alert to Prince’s complexities (spiritual and erotic, solo and collective, open and closed), as well as the particular possibilities of 1984, when future African-American superstars like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Eddie Murphy burst into the mainstream, but the book’s latter half is too consumed by irrelevant matters like Apple’s famous Macintosh commercial of that year. Light is a light-fingered and amusing guide, but occasionally loses sight of the main thrust of his narrative”.
Not only did Purple Rain redefine 1984 and music at the time but he was to impact other genres and sections of society. This article explores Prince’s influence on Dance and how some of Purple Rain’s songs were being picked up by other artists and D.J.s:
“Prince’s influence on dance music though goes way beyond ‘Purple Rain’. Introduced to the Detroit masses by pioneering radio host The Electrifying Mojo, he went on to heavily influence techno godfathers Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson: The Belleville Three. In fact, so close was Prince’s relationship with the Motor City, that on his 1986 tour, he gave his only interview in five years to the radio enigma. The interview was later sampled by Moodymann on 2001’s ‘J.A.N.’ Meanwhile in Chicago, ‘When Doves Cry’ became a staple in Ron Hardy’s sets, Frankie Knuckles regularly played ‘Controversy’, while Trax Records founder Vince Lawrence released a song on its sister label Precision titled ‘Funny Love’ by an artist called Dezz 7 — a not-so-subtle reference to former Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson. Slathered in Linndrum and gated reverb effects, it’s a clear attempt to re-create Prince’s unmistakable sonic signature. The Purple One’s DIY attitude was also a huge influence in the early days of house and techno, as he turned his back on major labels, played every instrument, and continually pushed the limits of drum machine and synth technology…
But it was with ‘Purple Rain’ that Prince redefined his trajectory and took unprecedented musical, creative and commercial risks. His intense relationship with The Revolution led to a split in 1986, but their familial bond and creative competitiveness pushed both Prince and his band to new artistic heights. Although the group had no idea how they’d be credited, or if they’d be credited at all, until they saw the album sleeve, their classical, funk, R&B, pop, rock and even psychedelic influence defined ‘Purple Rain's mass appeal, and gave a depth to The Purple One many argue he would never repeat again. Drummer Bobby Z later told Billboard: “I think The Revolution was the last band Prince was really in — he was the band leader after that”.
Prince would write other classic albums after 1984 but I do not think he soared as high, free and loudly as he did on Purple Rain! Maybe it is the fact there are so few tracks on the record but you get so much: there is no waste and, in fact, you are left wanting more by the time Purple Rain trickles from view. Whether you prefer the raunchy and seductive Prince or the pastor of the Church of Fun; the epic shredder or the man who can bring you to your knees…everyone is left satisfied by Purple Rain. It is as iconic an album as any created and, after thirty-five years, new ears will discover it. I mentioned earlier how some albums released in 1984 sound dated but, if anything, Purple Rain sounds more alive, special and striking than it did as recently as a few years ago. It is such a tragedy that Prince is no longer with us but, when listening to his ultimate masterpiece, you feel like he is still with us; an essence and spirit that comes from the speakers that time and memory can never take away. It is worth watching the Purple Rain film – because it is pretty bitching – but, if not, spend some time and play the album in one go. It is a stunning testament to a man who, several years after his death, is still putting music out into the world! Everyone has their personal favourite Prince album but, when you think about the sheer quality, effect and timelessness of Purple Rain…
IS there anything that can equal it?!