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When Doves Cry Facts: 10 Things You Need To Know About Prince’s Seminal Pop Masterpiece
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
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When Doves Cry Facts: 10 Things You Need To Know About Prince’s Seminal Pop Masterpiece

Prince’s hit ‘Purple Rain’ song When Doves Cry changed the game in the 80s. These ten facts reveal exactly why that was.

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Released in the US in the spring of 1984, When Doves Cry was a watershed moment in pop music. Baffling all but its creator on first listen, it has gone on to be hailed as not only one of the best Prince songs of all time, but also one of the greatest songs of the 80s. A funky fusion of electro-pop and rock-guitar pyrotechnics, it established Prince as one of the most forward-thinking artists of the decade. These ten facts reveal exactly why When Doves Cry marked the point at which Prince truly soared to greatness.

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When Doves Cry Facts: 10 Things You Need To Know About Prince’s Seminal Pop Masterpiece

1: When Doves Cry was the final song recorded for the ‘Purple Rain’ album

Prince had written much of the Purple Rain album before the summer of 1983, and debuted many of its songs – including Let’s Go Crazy, Computer Blue and Purple Rain itself – at a now-legendary gig held on 3 August 1983 at First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue that would be as much a character in the film as any one person. But while most of the Purple Rain album would be in the can by the end of the year, When Doves Cry was a last-minute addition to the tracklist, written at the request of director Albert Magnoli.

While editing the Purple Rain movie, Magnoli realised he needed a brand-new song to help the film’s narrative, and was soon given a choice between the upbeat-sounding When Doves Cry and the altogether more delicate God, a track that would end up being released as a B-side to Purple Rain. “He never questioned my need, and I never questioned the music that was sent,” Magnoli told Prince archivist Duane Tudahl for the book Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions 1983 And 1984. “And that was just the way we worked because he knew that I was in charge of my division. He was in charge of his.”

2: When Doves Cry has no bassline

According to studio engineer Peggy McCreary, Prince spent an uncharacteristically long time recording When Doves Cry in Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Recorders in early March 1984. Usually finishing entire songs in one sitting, he spent several days labouring over When Doves Cry, building upon an initial Linn-LM1 drum-machine part and turning the song into what McCreary, speaking to this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince called a “huge, mega thing” with layers of synths and guitars. After listening to the results, McCreary said, “he started unproducing it”. Stripping elements out one by one, Prince turned the track into the skeletal pop-funk masterpiece it’s now known as. But one radical decision startled everyone – McCreary included.

“He started taking instruments out, and at the very end he punched the bass out,” she said. “And I looked at him and he said, ‘Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this.’” Explaining why his decision set him apart, Prince told Ebony magazine, “Most Black artists wouldn’t try a groove like that. 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.”

3: Prince’s record label didn’t know what to do with the song

As if to prove Prince’s point, when his record label, Warner Bros, first heard When Doves Cry, they didn’t know what to do with it. Ever since the release of his debut album, For You, Prince had caused headaches at the label, whose pop (for which read: white music) and R&B (Black music) promotional teams were both charged with getting Prince’s records into the hands of radio DJs who weren’t sure if he belonged on their station or not. Straddling both sides of the divide, Prince “didn’t fit within their conception of what R&B music was”, said Marylou Badeaux, Warner Bros’ promoter for Black radio, in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “The sound was very different from what he was coming up with. He was streets into the future.”

One of Prince’s biggest supporters at the label, Badeaux was on hand when the singer delivered When Doves Cry, with the instruction that it be the first single released from Purple Rain. “What the eff do we do with this?” She recalls the Warner execs saying. “Radio will never accept this.”

4: When Doves Cry became Prince’s first No.1 single

Despite Warner’s misgivings, When Doves Cry became Prince’s first No.1 single. Released in the US on 16 May 1984, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 on 7 July and went on to spend five weeks at No.1. The song also topped Billboard’s Hot Black Singles and Hot Dance/Disco Club Play charts, proving that, whatever the concerns of label heads, pluggers and DJs, Prince’s music had officially transcended genre. It was a similar story across the Atlantic: following When Doves Cry’s UK release, on 22 June, the song went to No.4, giving Prince his first Top 5 transatlantic hit.

5: It was also the reason Bruce Springsteen never had a No.1

Even at the height of his Born In The USA fame, Bruce Springsteen couldn’t topple Prince. Sitting at No.1, When Doves Cry kept The Boss’ breakthrough hit, Dancing In The Dark, off the US top spot in the summer of 1984, preventing Springsteen from ever having a No.1 single of his own.

In the days following Prince’s death, Springsteen paid tribute to his former chart rival by performing Purple Rain live at Barclays Center, in Brooklyn, New York City, declaring afterwards, “Prince forever. God rest.” “It was a magical moment in a very dark time,” Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren told Dig!, recalling how he learned to play Prince’s iconic Purple Rain solo especially for the occasion.

6: The When Doves Cry video was Prince’s first concept-driven promo shoot

From his debut single, Soft And Wet, through to the promo videos he recorded for the 1999 album, Prince effectively shot live-in-the-studio performance clips that promoted not only the songs but also himself as a live performer. While many of these – including the videos for the songs 1999 and Little Red Corvette – stand among the best Prince videos of all time, with the When Doves Cry promo, Prince raised the bar.

Shot on the A&M Records soundstage in Los Angeles, the When Doves Cry clip opened with the image of Prince emerging from a steaming bath and crawling across a flower-strewn floor, intercut with footage from the Purple Rain movie. Released in a near-six-minute full-length cut and a shorter single edit, the video framed an overview of the relationship between Prince’s Purple Rain character, The Kid, and his female lead, Apollonia, with stylised performance footage that was conceptually a step beyond any promo video Prince had created to date. The first Prince video to feature his soon-to-be-famous backing band The Revolution, When Doves Cry was effectively directed by Prince himself, despite the presence of Larry Williams, a photographer hired to oversee the shoot. “Before the first shot, Prince said to me, ‘He doesn’t have to be here,’” producer Simon Fields recalled in the book I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution. “So I gave Larry some magazines and he sat outside and did some reading.” Some of Williams’ staged photos from the day were later used in the deluxe-edition reissue of Purple Rain.

7: Playing the song live created problems for Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink

Prince used studio trickery to create his fleet-fingered keyboard solo at the end of When Doves Cry, slowing the tape down and recording the part an octave lower than needed, before playing the tape back at the correct speed and pitch for the final edit. “He played the solo half-time and sped the take back-up, which made the solo much easier to play,” Revolution keyboardist Matt “Dr” Fink told Vibe magazine on the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain’s release. Tasked with recreating the solo on stage during the Purple Rain Tour, Fink had no such luxuries. “Prince always handed the football to me when we did When Doves Cry live,” he laughed. “It was as if he was saying, ‘Here, you play it, dude.’”

8: When Doves Cry was given a haunting gospel arrangement in Baz Lurhmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’

Having already been put to dramatic use in Purple Rain, When Doves Cry made for another standout moment in cinema history when it was given a haunting gospel arrangement in Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo And Juliet. Slowed to a funereal pace, the song was sung by a gospel choir led by 14-year-old Quindon Tarver, whose spine-chilling vocals carried over into what became a mid-90s update on Prince’s sparse electro-pop. Tarver had previously tasted small-screen fame in 1989, when, as a seven-year-old, he appeared as part of the chorus in the controversial video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer single. Tragically, he died at the age of 38, in a car accident in Dallas, Texas.

9: The song inspired an amusing McSweeney’s spoof

In 2008, humour website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency published an amusing spoof of When Doves Cry. Writing as if the song had been presented by Prince as a keynote address to the American Ornithological Society, John Moe, in what was titled A Letter To Prince Regarding The Crying Of Doves And The Fiasco That Resulted From The Presentation Of A Speech On That Topic, recounted being “hypnotized” by the speaker’s “androgynous, highly charged sexuality” during a wayward talk on the sound of crying doves that “was a massive turn-on, but it was not science”. With references to Prince’s academic father, “Tubold”, and a description of a menagerie’s worth of animals struggling to hold yoga poses in the auditorium, the piece was full of in-jokes for Prince fans. “Thank U for the funky time,” Moe concludes, despite the speech’s chaotic climax. “Please let me know if U ever want to grind out some new ideas. About birds. Or whatever.”

10: In honour of When Doves Cry, Prince kept his own pet doves

Visitors to Prince’s Paisley Park complex were always amazed to discover that he kept two pet doves of his own. A male named Majesty and a female named Divinity, they lived in the atrium of Paisley Park ever since Prince bought them in the early 90s. In the video for the song 7, from 1992’s “Love Symbol” album, Majesty receives a kiss on the head from Prince’s first wife, Mayte, while both doves are credited with “ambient singing” on the track Arboretum, a solo piano piece included on Prince’s 2002 album, One Nite Alone….

Following Prince’s death, in 2016, the doves fell quiet in mourning. “After he passed, they weren’t talking, Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, told Vanity Fair. Only after Paisley Park’s staff began playing Prince’s music in the building did the birds start cooing again. Majesty died nine months after Prince, in January 2017; Divinity followed a little over four years later, on 2 February 2021, at the age of 28. “That is just such a huge part of Prince’s life and career that this bird would have witnessed,” Minneapolis music historian Andrea Swensson told local radio station The Current following Divinity’s death. “He often worked alone in that giant building. And it would just be him and the doves.”

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