“Only want to see you bathing in the purple rain.”
In 1984, nearly everybody, especially other musicians, had to stand in awe of Prince. It may have been the year of the record-breaking Thriller, but the Genius of Minneapolis achieved more than most. In a decade of superstars, he attained a throne on Olympus, seated next to Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and, of course, Michael Jackson.
If he had always been ambitious, on Purple Rain he was also at his most determined. The album had the support of an almost autobiographical movie (or was it the other way around?). Released on July 27 of that year, the eponymous cinematic version of the album was considered something of a long music video. It was number one in its first week, and during its original two-month run in theatres, made 80 million dollars. Moreover, it won Prince an Oscar.
His fictional girlfriend was Apollonia Kotero, for whose group, Apollonia 6, the real Prince produced an album. His cinematic rival for Apollonia’s affections was Morris Day, leader of the Time, a group that included the soon-to-be-famous producers Jerry Jam and Terry Lewis.
Purple Rain, then, is the story of The Kid, who grew up in a difficult family, who now plays music in a club and strives to be loved by his audience. He struggles with his ambitions, being an introverted and stubborn loner, and with the looming shadow of his tragic, alcoholic father.
Nobody imagined how big the album and film would make Prince, though there were early signs — Lisa Coleman, guitarist for the Revolution, confessed that the songs amazed her when she first heard them. Indeed, Prince scored his first number one with Purple Rain: it sold more than 13 million copies in the US alone, spent 24 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top 200, and won a Grammy. As if that weren’t enough, Rolling Stone charted it at number 100 in the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982) worked to set the standards for Prince music, and not incidentally established a new dress code, sort of Louis XVIII-type costumes passed through a 1980’s filter. 1999’s “Automatic” and “Little Red Corvette” had provided clues as to what he was going to become musically; cashing in on that promise, Purple Rain is a baroque masterpiece from a gifted wizard, but is accessible enough for his audience to feel at one with it.
However, his subsequent albums couldn’t maintain the heights of success attained by this album. Prince valiantly offered albums like Around The World In A Day (1985), Parade (1986), and Sign ’O’ The Times (1987), each of which had their highlights, but flirted with disaster with 1988’s lamentable Lovesexy.
Prince — Purple Rain: Track-by-track review
1. “Let’s Go Crazy”
Lively and infectious, this song was chosen to promote the Purple Rain movie on TV. The previous album, 1999, was about the changing of the millennium and end-of-the-world prophecies, so this song seemed a logical follow-up: if it’s the end of the world, let’s at least have a good time until then. As he sang (and using his famous, unique spelling):
We’re all excited but we don’t know why
Maybe it’s cuz we all gonna die…
U better live now before the grim reaper
Come knocking on your door
Prince sounds like he’s in church, a preacher in his pulpit on a Sunday morning, with keyboards in the background, spitting full fire-and-brimstone rhetoric: “Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life…”
The message is simple: In this life, things are harder than in the afterlife, so we should make the most of our time until we die. “Let’s Go Crazy” is a song in which people are invited to join and sing along frantically, with a crazy chorus that strains to reach a mystical ecstasy. Ecstasy is in fact achieved, musically at least, by the guitar solo that burns intensely as the band ends the song with a classic, exhausted apotheosis.
2. “Take Me With U”
The movie needed a love song, and here it is. In the story, Prince had had his eye on Apollonia, so what better move to finally pick her up than putting her on his bike and riding her to his secret place?
When love is strong, nothing else matters, and if you’re writing a song about it, it has to be a duet. Apollonia’s girl-in-love tone on this track is appealing and believable, and deepens the album by giving it a female point of view.
I don’t care where we go
I don’t care what we do
I don’t care pretty baby
Just take me with u
3. “The Beautiful Ones”
At this point in the movie, a love triangle develops, a struggle between the up-and-coming musician (played by Prince) and the successful one (Morris Day).
At first the girl (Apollonia) is undecided. Having a glass of champagne with Morris, while The Kid is performing, she is spotted by the young musician, who is burnt by jealousy. Impulsively, Prince shows his passion when he starts singing plaintively about a wedding engagement. ‘If we got married, would that be cool?’ But he is impatient — he wants her to make up her mind and relieve him of his confusion. “Don’t make me waste my time, don’t make me lose my mind, baby.”
Apollonia and Morris seem to be getting more intimate, and as Prince watches their every move, he finds he can’t deal with his nerves. The apparently jilted lover finally points at her and, singing feverishly, demands a decision.
What’s it gonna be?
Do you want him?
Or do you want me?
Cuz I want u
Lisa Coleman comments that when he started singing, screaming as he does here, everyone in the Revolution would get frightened by how deeply moving he could be as a vocalist.
4. “Computer Blue”
Here, Prince rescues an old composition by his father, who played in a band, and makes it his own.
In 1983, computers were seen as the future, and, visionary that he is, Prince refers to himself as an unhappy computer that knows neither love nor lust. Cleverly extending the metaphor, he needs a “righteous” programmer to change his luck.
5. “Darling Nikki”
Morris is going to make Apollonia 6 famous, but his plans including keeping The Kid’s girlfriend for himself. Apollonia is full of joy, but can’t see eye-to-eye with Morris on the romantic details; when he suggests it, they have a terrible fight and break up.
But she goes back to the club in the company of Morris. Prince assumes they are lovers, gets mad, and viciously dedicates this song to her — it’s about a sex fiend named Nikki.
The back story: When Apollonia had arrived in the city looking for a job as a singer, she’d left her number on a board downstairs at the club for that purpose. Here, that detail is used in a nasty way. After a night of passion, Nikki wasn’t there in the morning. Prince sings that he “looked all over, all I found was a phone number on the stairs.” In fiction,she said “thank you for the funky time, call me whenever you want grind”.
Stung by this hateful act, Apollonia leaves the club in tears, and the singer leaves in a fury. The manager lectures him; he shouldn’t bring this shit up on stage.
6. “When Doves Cry”
By this time, Prince had lost his girlfriend, his father had tried to commit suicide, he’d been fighting with his band, and he’s almost at the point of losing his job. He’s in a crisis and he needs a break, so he rides his bike to his favourite place and tries to come up with a solution.
Musically, his soul-searching takes the form of “When Doves Cry,” the album’s biggest hit.
How can you leave me standing
Alone in a world that’s so cold?
His parent’s stormy relationship had left a mark on the young musician, who was a very sensitive and shy guy. He didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes in his relationships with girls, but sometimes such things are nearly unavoidable.
This song starts with some guitar that could belong to Eddie Van Halen, but as the song develops, rhythm becomes more important. “When Doves Cry” blends love and religion with that purest symbol, the dove, a metaphor for spirituality and righteousness — a merciful messenger of God.
7. “I Would Die 4 U”
Quite a dense track at only 2:51. Prince, in this song, defines himself largely by the things he isn’t. His character is evolving — as a person, but almost as something more: He’s a spiritual being, without gender.
I’m not a woman
I’m not a man…
I’m not human
I’m a dove
I’m your conscious
I am love
After an argument, his father cries, and tells his mother “I would die for you.” After another row, though, the father is totally torn, and recommends his son never gets married.
“I Would Die 4 U” promises a girl good behavior from the guy, no matter how she behaves. The singer of this song reckons himself equal to that monumental challenge, considering he’s not human; he won’t find it hard to go through such difficulties.
8. “Baby I’m A Star”
“Baby I’m A Star” is the last song in the movie, the one that remarks on his new success. He has finally achieved his goal and moved his audience; it’s a celebration.
You’ll see what I’m all about
If I gotta scream and shout
Baby I’m a star
9. “Purple Rain”
After discovering he has to change his ways, or lose it all, The Kid listens to inspiring tapes made by the girls in his group, Wendy and Lisa. He tries to trust the girl he loves, support his family, and give the audience what they clamor for.
And for the first time, he connects with everyone. Thinking he’s blown his last chance, however, he runs backstage after a show to hide in shame — but, unexpectedly, he hears applause.
As the crowning highlight of the album, “Purple Rain” bares its emotions, and is unique in that the gospel grandeur of the music may actually evoke more sympathy than the touching, devastatingly performed lyrics. The track, like the two that precede it, was recorded live in concert, and reworked later in a studio.
I never meant 2 cause you any sorrow
I never meant 2 cause u any pain…
I only want 2 see u laughing in the purple rain.
Prince’s character asks forgiveness for being stubborn, and shows he’s available for anyone in need. Twenty-three years later, this classic remains deeply moving, due especially to the young superstar’s guitar and voice.
Purple Rain by Prince
“Let’s Go Crazy”
“Take Me With U”
“The Beautiful Ones”
“When Doves Cry”
“I Would Die 4 U”
“Baby I’m A Star”