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‘Purple Rain’ At 40: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Breakthrough Album
Warner Records
List & Guides

‘Purple Rain’ At 40: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Breakthrough Album

All nine ‘Purple Rain’ songs broke the mould in their different ways. This track-by-track guide to the album reveals exactly why.

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Marking the moment when Prince went from up-and-coming star to global icon, the Purple Rain album was merely one reason for His Royal Badness’ pop-cultural dominance in 1984. With its companion movie taking him from the stage to the silver screen, Prince became the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously hold the No.1 spots on the US albums chart, the singles chart (with When Doves Cry) and at the box office. Immediately recognised as one of the greatest albums of the 80s, Purple Rain has long since moved beyond time and place to stand as an unparalleled artistic statement from a creative genius who himself has come to represent so much more than music alone. As shown by this track-by-track guide to each song on the album, rarely has the envelope been so boldly pushed.

Listen to ‘Purple Rain’ here.

‘Purple Rain’: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Breakthrough Album

Let’s Go Crazy

With churchy organ and Prince’s solemn intonation – “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…” – the first few seconds of Let’s Go Crazy introduce the ambitious scope of the 44 minutes that follow. As Prince and The Revolution kick into an adrenaline rush of distorted power chords and crisp drum-machine, The Purple One lays out his manifesto for reaching a higher spiritual plane.

“As I wrote it, Let’s Go Crazy was about God and the de-elevation of sin. But the problem was that religion as a subject is taboo in pop music,” he told Musician magazine in 1997. As studio engineer Susan Rogers heard it, the song was also evidence of Prince’s superior skills as a bandleader. “He would spend so much time with his band pulling their ideas,” she told this author, for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “He loved that.” Based on a chord progression of Prince’s own devising, Let’s Go Crazy features a shout-out to Revolution keyboardist Matt “Dr” Fink, whose wilfully chaotic piano solo suited the song’s needs. The track was completed “top to bottom”, said Rogers, amid gruelling rehearsals at the former pet-food storage warehouse in St Louis Park, Minnesota, where Prince and The Revolution finessed the Purple Rain material.

Take Me With U

A mark of Purple Rain’s dominance, Take Me With U was issued as the album’s fifth and final single in January 1985, a full seven months on from the release of the soundtrack album itself. And yet, with Prince always looking to the future, its timing may have been more about what lay ahead, as opposed to prolonging the success of the previous year’s mega-hit. With persistent finger cymbals and gently caressing strings, the ballad’s lightly psychedelicised vibe was the clearest indication of what fans could expect from Purple Rain’s follow-up, the Around The World In A Day album, which would be released in April.

Joining Prince on vocals was Patrica Kotero, aka Apollonia, frontwoman of Apollonia 6 and Prince’s female lead in the Purple Rain movie. Initially earmarked for the Apollonia 6 album that Prince had recorded alongside Purple Rain, Take Me With U would be upgraded at the last minute, becoming the first official duet to appear on a Prince album.

The Beautiful Ones

Proof that electronic instruments can breathe, The Beautiful Ones is an otherworldly marriage of layered synthesisers and stately drum machine, over which Prince drapes one of his most exquisite falsetto vocals. What begins as pleading and vulnerable (“You were so hard to find/The beautiful ones, they hurt you every time”) becomes altogether more charged as the mood darkens and Prince delivers an ultimatum: “Do you want him?/Or do you want me?/’Cause I want you.” As a climbing guitar line piles on the intensity, Prince releases all his pent-up emotion in one of the most incredible screams in the history of recorded music.

Computer Blue

Originally clocking in at over 12 minutes, the suite-like Computer Blue is a tour de force even in its final four-minute album edit. Road-tested at the legendary 3 August 1983 concert at First Avenue, Minneapolis, where Prince debuted The Revolution for the first time, the song is a churning funk-rock monster based on a synth bass riff worked up by Dr Fink and extrapolated into a showcase for Prince’s guitar work.

Computer Blue’s full-length incarnation includes dizzying appeals to a higher power; deadpan interjections from newcomer bandmate Wendy Melvoin (“Poor, poor lonely computer/Do you really know what love is?”); and the cryptic “Hallway Speech”, in which Prince narrates a tale of a man who wanders through his home, naming each of its hallways after a different emotion. Edited down to make room on the album for both Take Me With U and When Doves Cry, the song remains an audaciously avant-garde thing to place on what would become one of the biggest-selling records of the year. And with the opening dialogue between keyboardist Lisa Coleman and guitarist Melvoin (“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa?” “Is the water warm enough?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Shall we begin?” Yes, Lisa”), it gifted zealous fans a handy bit of code with which to identify each other.

Darling Nikki

Rising out from the squalls of noise that close Computer Blue, Darling Nikki’s filthy groove and lascivious attitude helps the song feel explicit, even if almost everything is left to the imagination (“I can’t tell you what she did to me/But my body will never be the same,” sings a coy Prince). And yet, courtesy of an opening introduction to the titular Nikki – chanced upon in a hotel lobby, “masturbating with a magazine” – it inspired the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center, a petitioning committee who, led by Tipper Gore, the wife of then US Senator (and future US Vice President) Al Gore, initiated court proceedings against music they deemed to be offensive.

Topping their “Filthy Fifteen” – a list of the worst culprits – was Darling Nikki, with the Prince-penned Sugar Walls, as sung by Sheena Easton, finding a home at No.2 (Madonna’s Dress You Up also made an appearance). The campaign led to the industry-wide use of “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers, placed as warnings on albums that contained lyrics deemed unsuitable for younger ears – although this effectively acted as enticement for inquiring minds. Thirty-three years on from kick-starting the furore, Purple Rain would receive its very own “Parental Advisory” sticker, when it was reissued in a super-deluxe edition. Atoning for his salaciousness, Prince added a backmasked message to the end of the Darling Nikki. Played forwards, it says, “Hello. How are you? I’m fine, ’cause I know that the Lord is coming soon, coming, coming soon.”

When Doves Cry

Baffling everyone who heard it on first listen (“Next time, play something funky for me,” said an incredulous Morris Day, frontman of Prince’s protégé band and onscreen rivals The Time), When Doves Cry set up a worldwide Purple Rain summer when it soared to the top of the US charts following its single release in May 1984. The final song recorded for the project, in response to a request from the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, for something that would fit a montage scene, When Doves Cry perfectly captured the psychodrama between the movie’s protagonists while also providing a sensual centrepiece for the album itself.

Initially creating what studio engineer Peggy McCreary called a “huge, mega thing” full of raging guitars and synths, Prince soon pared When Doves Cry down to its sparse essentials, going so far as to strip out the bassline at the final moment. Speaking to this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, McCreary recalled, “I looked at him and he said, ‘Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this.’” The result was a curiously weightless electro-funk game-changer topped off with an incendiary guitar solo, a deceptively dextrous keyboard part (achieved by running the tape at half speed during recording) and another piercing scream that approximated the sound of minds being blown across the globe.

I Would Die 4 U

Having explored love, loss and lust throughout the first two thirds of Purple Rain, in the album’s final stretch – the basic tracks of which were recorded live during the 3 August 1983 First Avenue show – Prince achieves the transcendence he set his sights on in Let’s Go Crazy. Framed by a juddering drum-machine groove and bright piano stabs, he rejects corporeal limitations (“I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand”), embraces forgiveness and offers himself up as a sacrifice against sin (“No need to worry/No need to cry/I’m your messiah, and you’re the reason why”). Having thrown off the shackles of all that’s been holding him down, he’s finally ready for the ultimate transformation…

Baby I’m A Star

Across the albums Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982), Prince built a steady cult following devoted to spreading the word. Sitting around for almost as long, in solo piano form, was Baby I’m A Star, whose title simply confirmed the inevitable. Segueing from I Would Die 4 U with a keyboard fanfare and a four-to-the-floor beat, it’s perhaps the most light-hearted song on Purple Rain – but don’t mistake that for it being lightweight. Underpinning Prince’s playful self-aggrandisement (“Take a picture, sweetie/I ain’t got time to wait”) is a heavy funk groove that would be turned inside out during the Purple Rain Tour’s encores: putting The Revolution through their paces with a complex mix of vocal cues and hand signals, Prince coronated himself nightly as the heir to James Brown’s throne.

Purple Rain

Undoubtedly Prince’s signature song, Purple Rain is nothing short of a masterpiece. Upon first hearing it, as debuted at the August 1983 First Avenue show, director Albert Magnoli knew immediately that it would be the movie’s title track. In Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled how similar feelings of certainty coursed through the band as they pulled the song from the ether: “It was super intense and dark and sweaty,” she said. “There was something special in the energy.”

Captured in that once-in-a-lifetime performance, Purple Rain would be trimmed in the studio before being sent out into the world. In removing a second guitar solo and a verse about money, and adding a small string part to the final mix, Prince perfected an enigmatic power ballad that channelled all the emotional and spiritual soul-searching of Purple Rain’s previous eight songs into the album closer to end all album closers. Sharing a tone with Let’s Go Crazy’s sermonising into (“If you know what I’m singing about up here/Come, on raise your hand”), and with lyrical imagery hinting at ablution and rebirth, Purple Rain is more than a song: it’s divinity on record.

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