Happy 35th Anniversary to Prince’s sixth studio album (and soundtrack to the film) Purple Rain, originally released June 25, 1984.
With these two words, a new era of pop funk was ushered in. Prince might as well be saying, “We are gathered here today to shift the cultural landscape,” for with Purple Rain—the film and its counterpart album—Prince well and truly took the crown of funk royalty.
You’ll read reports and reflections in conjunction with its 35th anniversary that suggest this was the album that launched Prince into the mainstream. But anyone paying attention to the grooves laid out in his earlier albums and more consistently in the two that preceded this (1981’s Controversy and 1982’s 1999), Prince’s ascendancy into the stratosphere seemed pre-destined. We were all too aware of the purple funk bubbling beneath the surface.
For many, the album and movie go hand in hand, a set of audio and visual conjoined twins never to be separated. The music of Purple Rain is paired with the energetic live performance pieces permanently etched into our minds by the film.
But that wasn’t the case for me. As a kid too young to see the movie, I had to rely on my older brother’s enthusiasm for the film and the buzz surrounding it to dig (if you will) a picture.
So for me, Purple Rain existed purely as music first. Sure, the music videos for “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Purple Rain,” and “Take Me With U” offered hints of scenes from the film. But to a kid starved of the fuller narrative, these glimpses reflected the music itself rather than the other way around.
Lead single “When Doves Cry” served somewhat of a bridge between the heavily synthesized melodies and drum pattern led grooves that dominated 1999 and this new venture. But even with its sparse, bass omitted arrangement, the song seems bigger. A true master of the Linn LM-1 Drum Machine, Prince carves out a hypnotic groove consisting of a simple double hit repeating pattern that travels from flanging rim shots to hi-hat to toms. The air this creates allows for his vocals to be front and center, as he seduces you with his lyrics and lets the synth-led melody hook you with ease.
Written after the filming of Purple Rain, it fittingly encapsulates the main theme of the film, setting an intense love affair against the relationship pedigree of one’s parents. The lyrical narrative as summary (albeit with Prince’s own unique flair for lyrics) might be the only conventional element of the song. It might be one of the most eccentric number 1 hits that doesn’t play off a novelty element. And whilst it seems an obvious hit now, it was quite a daring and striking single choice.
By blending elements of what was becoming a signature sound with more rock fused elements—and hey let’s throw in a classical tinged baroque synth solo for good measure too—the stage was set for what was to follow when the album dropped a month later.
Just as he had done with 1999’s album opener, “Let’s Go Crazy” sets the tone for the whole album. The purple preacher intro against gospel inspired organ makes a bold statement from that initial power chord strike. And unlike previous outings that were purely a Prince affair, here for the first time was a fuller band sound with the members of The Revolution given the chance to bring their skills to the table.
With its four-to-the-floor beat and one of the hookiest riffs ever to emerge from a guitar, “Let’s Go Crazy” is pure funk rock energy. Building with every passing bar, the song hits you like a wave of sonic electricity that explodes in that blissful swirling guitar solo. Not given enough credit for his prowess on the guitar, this is undoubtedly one of Prince’s most iconic solos that rivals the rocking, shredding solos of contemporaries like Eddie Van Halen. In this tightly wound 4:39, Prince combines blues, gospel, funk and rock in a seamless aural trip that created a sonic boom across the globe, and gave the album its second number 1 hit.
Cascading drum fills herald the arrival of “Take Me With U,” Prince’s most pure pop orientated track to date. Originally written for his side project Apollonia 6, Prince quickly came to his senses and pulled the song into the lineup. Credited as a duet with Apollonia (“thank you”) that might a very liberal definition of the term. Regardless, “Take Me With U” is a journey of pop perfection, accentuated with a string section (a first for Prince and something he would continue to use with great success for the remainder of his career) and a joyous abandon.
As if contrasting the brightness of “Take Me With U,” “The Beautiful Ones” delves into the darker tones of 1999, but this ballad has a new sense of maturity and realness. A true solo effort, Prince twists and contorts his vocals from a sweet, dreamy falsetto to an anguished, gut-wrenching scream in the climax. It’s sparse, seductive and distraught, and the agony displayed in the final 90 seconds just feels so raw and real you couldn’t help but pay attention.
Originally recorded as a live track, “Computer Blue” was quickly reworked and re-recorded in the studio, moving it away from a full band affair and pushing it further towards a solo effort, save for guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman. With an initial run time of 14 minutes, the song was drastically trimmed for the eventual release after the late inclusion of “Take Me With U.” But this trimming helped to focus “Computer Blue” and help it sustain its energy as swirls of synth beds and rock guitar mesh with a flurry of quirky strings, keys and guitars in the solo breakdown. Unaware of its truncation at the time, “Computer Blue” felt like a mini-opus. It was like being blindfolded and led on a musical journey that lands you right in the lap of “Darling Nikki.”
Definitely not Prince’s most explicit venture on record (previous tracks like “Bambi,” “Sister,” “Head,” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” shifted the needle further in that respect), “Darling Nikki” was his most controversial for its eventual impact. The whole song drips sex, from the obvious one night stand lyrical content, to the way the music slaps and pumps harder with each passing chorus. And again the final minute of the song erupts in a musical climax that is second to none.
And with the words “masturbating with a magazine.” Prince changed the cover art of future album releases forever. You see, with Purple Rain crossing over so massively to the mainstream, Prince’s audience grew to a point where parents were gleefully buying the album for the kids, only to be shocked by this song’s lyrical content. One such mother, Tipper Gore (wife of politician Al Gore) was so outraged, she established the Parents Music Resource Center and advocated for warning labels to be placed on such salacious material. In turn, this led to record labels adopting the Parental Advisory stickers that remain to this day.
The haunting backward masking of the vocals in “Darling Nikki” adds to the allure of the track. It wasn’t until I played it to my brother, who showed me how to play the song backwards, that the secret was revealed. “Hello, how are you? I’m fine, ‘cause I know that the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon.” It sounded even more foreboding played correctly.
With The Revolution behind him, it made sense to capture the energy of their performance with live recordings. So on August 3, 1983 with an electric (and soon to be historic) performance at First Avenue in his hometown of Minneapolis, Prince set about doing just that. From that show (aided by some studio enhancements) the final three songs of Purple Rain were captured for prosperity.
There is frenetic energy underpinning “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star” that would see them as sonic soulmates for many years. As a song in its own right, “I Would Die 4 U” is as funky a tune as you will ever hear. Unfortunately the bass is too low in the mix for my liking, but that aside, there is no faulting this song. Prince’s craft as a songwriter is evident and should by now be undisputed. There is a sense of excitement in these two songs that you can’t resist.
With “Baby I’m A Star” Prince unleashes another funk party jam that struts with a cocksure posture. As if either declaring or demanding his rightful place as a star worth noting, Prince lays it out there in a way that you can’t ignore. “Take a picture sweetie / I ain’t got time to wait.”
Closing out the album with the titular “Purple Rain” was at once the obvious choice and a masterstroke. Movie aside, the song takes you on special, emotional musical journey and leaves you wanting more. So of course you flip the disc and play the whole album again.
It’s hard now to listen to “Purple Rain” without the whole history of the song echoing in your ear, and how it has become Prince’s signature tune. Whether or not he borrowed the phrase from America’s “Ventura Highway” seems irrelevant when Prince takes the phrase and wraps it up in his own persona. A twisted love song about wanting nothing but the best for a loved one, even if that means not being with them, is a theme that Prince would return to time and time again in his later works, but never so perfectly captured as he did here. This mix of regret, solace, and desire meld into one of the most beautifully arranged “love” songs ever written.
It’s easy to see why the song has struck a chord with so many. It’s haunting, it’s raw, it’s alluring. It’s a song about isolation that thousands feel united by. And even hearing it for the very first time way back when, you just knew there was something special about this song that seemed epic and big.
Looking back now, Purple Rain is part inspired genius and part calculated ambition. The songs are perfectly crafted, packed with energy and the signature Prince sound while still venturing into new musical lands. It was as though he knew the time was right to truly step into the spotlight with an album that was a true reflection of his talents, but one also made for the mainstream to handle and lap up.
Its impact was undeniable. Four top ten singles, two number one songs, a number one album, two GRAMMY awards, and millions upon millions of sales. The sound was replicated and hijacked by others trying to capture that Prince magic, but only Prince could truly outdo Prince.
Purple Rain became a defining album for the time. His career would always be defined as pre and post Purple Rain, and it would always be the album by which all other releases would be compared to (rightly or wrongly.) And although his true magnum opus would come three years later with Sign O’ The Times (1987), Prince will always be remembered first and foremost by many for this album. His own wear-out of the album came much sooner than the public’s and by the time he was on tour in support of it, he was already musically onto the next thing, the psychedelic wonder of Around The World In A Day (1985).
35 years later, our appetite for Purple Rain hasn’t waned. It still lights up our souls, clubs, house parties and dancefloors the world over. With it, Prince and The Revolution created an indelible memory of time and place that we could always go back to. And if you haven’t recently, I strongly encourage you to bathe once more in the genius and glory of Purple Rain.