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When Doves Cry: How Prince’s Genius Took Full Flight
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In Depth

When Doves Cry: How Prince’s Genius Took Full Flight

The song that brought Prince to the world’s stage, When Doves Cry marked an epochal moment in pop-culture history.

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Now hailed as not only one of the best Prince songs, but one of the very best songs of the 80s, When Doves Cry was a landmark release in May 1984, and it remains a yardstick by which great music can be judged. Though its influence now pervades pop, R&B, hip-hop and all points in between, When Doves Cry initially landed like something from another planet, its uncategorisable sound almost daring radio DJs to play it, even as it signalled further changes ahead – not just for Prince as an artist, but for pop culture as a whole.

Now a part of the landscape, it seems as though When Doves Cry could never have been any different. However, if it weren’t for a late-in-the-day request from the Purple Rain film director, Albert Magnoli, and a radical last-minute decision from Prince himself, things could have turned out very differently…

Listen to the best of Prince here.

“Nothing mattered more than taking advantage of the state his brain was in”

By the summer of 1984, Prince had taken an unusually long gap between new albums. Having released a record a year since 1978 – beginning with his debut, For You – it had now been over 18 months since the release of his last record, 1999. Yet he’d been working as hard as ever in that time, recording music for its follow-up album, Purple Rain, while starring as the lead character in the film of the same name. Speaking to this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, Susan Rogers, who’d recently joined Prince’s team as a studio engineer, recalled of the time, “He was constantly on output… Nothing mattered more to him than taking advantage of the state his brain was in.”

In the run-up to filming Purple Rain in the winter of 1983, Prince and his band, newly christened The Revolution, had attended an intense series of acting and dance classes, and Prince had also been recording new albums for the other groups in the movie, his rivals The Time, and Apollonia 6, fronted by his character’s love interest, Apollonia. On 3 August 1983, he staged a benefit concert at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club – soon to be known the world over as the epicentre of Prince’s purple kingdom – marking the debut of both new guitarist Wendy Melvoin and much of the material that would make for the Purple Rain album. But while he had the record’s soaring title track, and other key songs such as its anthemic opener, Let’s Go Crazy, and the funk-rock complexities of Computer Blue, he hadn’t yet recorded the song that would make him a household name and send him on his way towards simultaneously dominating the single, album and box-office charts.

“Most Black artists wouldn’t try a groove like that”

The Purple Rain shoot wrapped towards the end of December 1983, but while editing the footage in the early months of the following year, Albert Magnoli realised he needed another song to help push the narrative along. Explaining how he and Prince worked closely together in order to ensure a perfect fit between music and film, the director told Prince archivist Duane Tudahl, in the book Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions 1983 And 1984, “The way we worked is I said, ‘This is what I need,’ and then he supplied the music.”

In response to this latest request, Prince settled into Sunset Sound Recorders, in Los Angeles, in early March, and began working on what would become When Doves Cry. Though he would often write, record and mix entire songs in a single recording session, he took an unusual amount of time over this new track, returning to it on subsequent days, building what Sunset Sound engineer Peggy McCreary, speaking to this author, described as a “huge, mega thing” out of layers of synthesisers and guitar parts.

Virtually unrecognisable from the version that would see release, this early pass at When Doves Cry would be heard only by those in the room with Prince at the time. “Pretty soon he started un-producing it,” McCreary said. “He started taking instruments out.”

“Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this”

What began as a barrage of sounds ended up as a catchy yet unsettlingly sparse song the likes of which had never been heard before. Opening with a guitar flourish that’s part riff, part fanfare, When Doves Cry quickly kicks into a weighty beat – anchored by three layers of kick drum, programmed on the Linn-M1 drum machine Prince had made central to his work – before its iconic synth lines begin bouncing around its gravity-defying centre – an effect created by a radical decision in the final edit.

“I was amazed at how he could manipulate that Linn drum,” McCreary said in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “He programmed that thing better than anybody I’ve ever seen.” Recalling how she watched on as When Doves Cry went through its final edit, she continued, “At the very end he punched the bass out. And I looked at him and he said, ‘Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this.’”

“Most Black artists wouldn’t try a groove like that,” Prince asserted to Ebony magazine, in 1986. By then, countless musicians had tried to emulate Prince’s sound – the “Minneapolis sound” – and even Prince himself had reused the trick on his chart-topping single Kiss. But, coming out of a lineage of soul, funk and R&B music traditionally driven by prominent basslines, When Doves Cry sounded like nothing else on Earth when it was released. Speaking to this writer in 2020, former Warner Bros exec Marylou Badeaux recalled the label’s reaction to the song: “What the eff do we do with this? Radio will never accept this.”

“Next thing I know, it was one of the biggest hits on radio”

Fifteen years on from its release, Prince defended the song against those who felt it lacked an essential ingredient. “When Doves Cry does have bass in it – the bass is in the kick drum,” he told Bass Player magazine. “The bass is in the tone of the reverb on the kick. Bass is a lot more than that instrument over there.”

As well as pulling the actual bassline out, Prince had a few other sonic tricks that kept listeners guessing, such as recording its classical-like synth outro at half speed and an octave lower, ensuring that, when played back at the correct speed, it sounded impossibly fleet-fingered – something his Revolution keyboardist Matt “Dr” Fink would have to figure out how to play in real time. “Prince always handed the football to me when we did When Doves Cry live,” Fink joked with Vibe magazine, in a conversation celebrating Purple Rain’s 30th anniversary. “It was as if he was saying, ‘Here, you play it dude.’”

Prince’s then drummer, Bobby “Z” Rivkin, was also challenged by the song’s intricacies – specifically how to incorporate its drum machine parts with his own live kit-work – while another member of Prince’s entourage was baffled by Prince’s decision to record When Doves Cry at all. Speaking to WUSB FM radio host Tom Needham, for the show The Sounds Of Film, The Time’s frontman, Morris Day, recalled joining Prince for a drive during which Prince played him the song for the first time. “I got out the car and said, ‘Next time, play something funky for me,’ and slammed the door,” Day said. “Next thing I know, it was one of the biggest hits on radio.”

“I’m an alternative. I’m something else”

When Doves Cry was one of two songs Prince presented to Albert Magnoli for help with the Purple Rain edit, along with a more meditative track titled God. The director picked the former. With its sensual description of the breakdown of a relationship, allegedly inspired by Prince’s own faltering romance with longtime girlfriend and Apollonia 6 member Susan Moonsie, and its lyrical allusions to domestic unrest (“Maybe I’m just too demanding/Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold/Maybe you’re just like my mother/She’s never satisfied”), the song perfectly mirrored themes in the film. It also marked a rare instance, along with later songs such as The Sacrifice Of Victor (from 1992’s “Love Symbol” album) and Papa (from 1994’s Come), when Prince sang openly on record about issues that that blighted his own upbringing.

Released on 16 May 1984, with another song of loss, 17 Days, as its B-side, When Doves Cry shrugged off the naysayers and soon made its way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where it established itself as the first of what would become a remarkable run of Prince No.1s. Having helped its creator edge ever closer to pop success with their support of his previous singles 1999 and Little Red Corvette, radio DJs on either side of the Black and white divide flocked to put When Doves Cry on heavy rotation, ushering Prince into the mainstream as they did so. “Suddenly pop radio said, ‘He’s ours,’” Marylou Badeaux noted, in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “And they were a big part of helping how big the movie was.”

When Doves Cry would sit at the top of the Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks during the summer, fighting off a challenge from Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark while also setting Prince up to become the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously hold the No.1 single, album and movie in the US. One of the best Prince videos of all time, the When Doves Cry promo would also earn an MTV Video Award nomination, for Best Choreography. At the end of the year, the song was voted best single by Village Voice, in its Pazz & Jop critics’ poll, and was officially recognised by Billboard as 1984’s top-selling single.

“I think ‘Purple Rain’ is the most avant-garde purple thing I’ve ever done”

At the start of the following decade, Prince adopted pet doves of his own – Majesty and Divinity – who remained at home in Prince’s Paisley Park complex until their deaths, in 2017 and 2021, respectively. After Prince’s own passing, in 2016, they didn’t cry – rather, the doves fell silent, as if in mourning. Prince’s sister Tyka later revealed that they only began to coo again once someone started playing Prince’s music.

Whether mourning his loss or celebrating his art, plenty of people did the same when they heard the news of Prince’s death, and When Doves Cry returned to the Billboard Top 10 in the weeks that followed. It also sits among Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time (at No.37) and in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s list of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll.

Now four decades old, When Doves Cry has defied age as much as it has grown in stature. Though the song challenged all notions of what was acceptable in R&B music at the time, everything from its otherworldly production to its skeletal arrangement can be felt across the whole spectrum of music. Speaking to Ebony magazine, Prince said of When Doves Cry’s parent album, “I think Purple Rain is the most avant-garde purple thing I’ve ever done.” Doubtless with its game-changing single in mind, he added, “I’m not saying that I’m great or anything like that; I’m just saying that I’m an alternative. I’m something else.”

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