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Let the Rain Come Down: 25th Anniversary Reflections on Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain

           

Some of you knew this post was coming. Even if you didn’t, various press accounts and blog postsSpin Purple Rain Commemorative Issue Cover over the last few weeks—such as this compendium of articles on the PopMatters site—might have informed you that on this day 25 years ago Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain was released. To celebrate, First Avenue in Minneapolis (where much of the film was shot) is hosting a Prince sing-along and costume contest (though not until tomorrow), and Spin magazine has published a commemorative issue as well as released (online) Purplish Rain, a tribute album commemorating both the album and the film. And, in less resplendent fashion, I’m writing this post.

Before I can discuss what makes the album equally brilliant and disappointing, a bit of backstory is necessary. I’ll try to keep it brief, but I can’t promise anything. There’s some essential biography in here, and if you think this post should be shorter, think about trying to write a concise history of Prince yourself. Wouldn’t you console yourself for every indulgence by asking “Well, isn’t it supposed to take a long time?” (lyrics taken from 1981’s “Do Me, Baby”).

I’ve been a fan of Prince for his entire career, beginning before the point when, as an eight-year-old, I embarrassed my mother inadvertently by singing “Soft and Wet” (from Prince’s 1978 debut For You) at a barbecue hosted by one of her co-workers. Up until 1982, I knew him mostly through his singles and scattered album tracks that DJs would slip into the rotation late at night—e.g., “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”and “I Feel for You” from Prince (1979); “Uptown,” “Head,” and “Dirty Mind” from Dirty Mind (1980); and “Controversy,” “Do Me, Baby,” and “Private Joy” from Controversy (1981).

In 1982, he didn’t release an album, but it was during that year that one of my older cousins started lending me her Prince LPs, and through them I discovered all that I had been missing. I’m talking about deep album cuts: the surreal and tender “For You” (1978); the odd lesbian-conversion fantasy “Bambi” (1979), the straightforward lost-love rocker “When You Were Mine,” the almost punky incest paean “Sister” and the funk jam “Party Up” (all 1980); and the bizarre “Sexuality,” the political rave-up “Ronnie, Talk to Russia,” the disturbingly—but beautifully—odd and paranoid “Annie Christian” and the jerky (sorry!) “Jack U Off” (all 1981).

I don’t have the time to discuss all of the tracks mentioned in that last paragraph or the one preceding it. I will, however, write a bit about one: “Annie Christian” from Controversy. It has a dark, sci-fi feel from the very beginning, with out-of-time, thin and low-pitched synth noises, robotic drum programming, and delay-processed high synth parts. Controversy CD CoverAs might befit a song that could be a sermon as much as it is a story with paranoid moral overtones, Prince’s voice sounds as though he’s singing through an electronic megaphone, preaching to whoever will listen while his voice echoes against hard surfaces (like the buildings surrounding a public square?). Each verse is a commentary on some societal evil, whose perpertrators get the collective label “Annie Christian.” The choruses, in turn, express the narrator’s desire to hide and to be on the move until Annie Christian is dead and her machinations are at an end. Along the way, a percolating bass line (an electric bass doubled by a synth?) gently propels the track. It was one of the first truly mind-blowing things I heard from him.

My expectations were high, then, when 1983’s 1999 was released. I liked the singles enough, but I couldn’t wait to hear the whole album, especially after reading Michael Hill’s Rolling Stone review. As great as the certifiable hits were (the tracks on side 1 of the two-LP release), there were others that were brilliant, inventive, thoughtful and/or just plain naughty. Among my favorites were and are the strange ones, like “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and “All the Critics Love U in New York.” But other tracks —like the unsettling “Lady Cab Driver” and the paradoxically apocalyptic and utopian “Free”—are just as excellent and in often strikingly different ways.1999 CD Cover In the months that followed, it started becoming clear how productive Prince was, since the b-sides for the singles—e.g., “Horny Toad,” “Irresistible Bitch” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”—were in some cases better than some of the album tracks. In any event, 1999 was Prince’s first, but not biggest, commercial breakthrough: it was the album that got him on the pop charts; it contained his first major crossover hits; and it was the album whose singles got him on MTV. In the unofficial competition that pitted him against Rick James and Michael Jackson for freakiness and inventiveness (in the black press, at least), he clearly took the lead. Maybe that “produced, arranged, composed and performed by” credit on every release had something to do with that.

Today, I’m not sure exactly when the news was made public, but in the spring of 1984 (probably in April), I read that Prince not only had a new album coming: he was also going to star in a movie … one that was kinda about him. I loved his music, but I was nonetheless scratching my head, wondering whether he could act and whether he was overextending his reach. Wondering, that is, until I heard the album’s lead single, “When Doves Cry,” after it was released for radio play in April or May. It was a track that, as its promotional materials repeatedly stressed, had no bass line (the same would be true of “Kiss” a couple of years later). As summer approached, I increasingly heard that single blasting (at least in my neighborhood) out of people’s cars and had memorized its weird Linn LM-1 drum parts. Energized by it, as well as its excellent b-side “17 Days,” I was indulged by my ever-patient, supportive mother who took me to the record store three separate times the day the LP was released (the first two times the shipment hadn’t arrived).

When I got home after a finally successful attempt at purchasing, record in hand, I went to the room I shared with my older brother Lawrence and cut open the shrink wrap. It was an odd package—on the front, a photo of Prince seated on a motorcycle with Apollonia Kotero standing in a doorway bordered on either side by images of flowers on a white surface; on the back, the track listing (with each successive cut set in a different typeface). Inside there was a poster, artfully manipulated to make Prince seem larger in stature as well as to advertise, not so subtly, Lisa and Wendy’s romantic relationship (Prince placed the latter’s hand on the former’s waist right before the photo was shot; see page 2 of this feature in Out for the story). Purple Rain PosterAs I started trying to figure out whether to put the poster up or preserve it, I put the LP on the turntable and was immediately enthralled and confused by “Let’s Go Crazy.” A church organ? Prince talking (cómo en “Annie Christian”) with the voice of a minister/salesman/con-man? The humorous keyboard run that followed his first mention of “the afterworld” suggested he was being a bit light-hearted, but when the drum machine entered (0:37) and the guitars followed (around 0:52) it was clear that what he was doing … wasn’t clear. Still, by the time his blistering, Hendrix-like guitar cadenza—complete with blues-bar clichés—was done, I was sold on the music, but not so sure about the lyrics. Even to my then 14-year-old ears “look 4 the purple banana ’til they put us in the truck” sounded, mmm, sophomoric. I remember looking at the lyrics on the inner record sleeve (set in the difficult-to-read typeface Mistral) to confirm what I’d heard. And then I played the track again.

Rather than catalog all that I remember, though, I want to focus more on the fact that, as I suggested previously, Purple Rain is a good, but not great, album. Purple Rain CD CoverSide one alone contains two songs that might have been unwitting signs of the unevenness that continues to plague his work: “Take Me with U” and “Computer Blue” (though the latter’s long middle section—from around 1:40 to 3:29—keeps me from skipping it during playback). And the backwards stuff at the end of “Darling Nikki”? Now, it registers as little more than an attempt to pique parents and legislators concerned about Prince’s being a bad influence. On side two, “Baby, I’m a Star” could also get the boot, but the movie went some way toward redeeming it, since, in the film, the song had a narrative function. As the other b-sides trickled out over the next several months—“Erotic City,” “Another Lonely Christmas” and the chillingly beautiful “God”—I started wondering more intently why Prince and his bandmates had made the choices they had.

Of course, when he and the Revolution were on, there was no stopping them. The title cut, based on a four-chord cycle beginning with a B-flat suspended second sonority, still ranks as one of the group’s most stirring recordings, and the lead single rightfully deserves its iconic status. For my money, though, the best track on the album is one of three credited solely to Prince: “The Beautiful Ones.” As on “Purple Rain,” which started with that chorused sus2 chord, Prince was delving into more adventurous harmonic territory. And it also contains one of his most moving vocal performances. Throughout the album, even on the tracks that I might skip, the behind-the-scenes work of engineers like David Leonard and Susan Rogers makes the work the band did sparkle.

Looking back, it seems only slightly ironic that the album that briefly made Prince a superstar doesn’t stand up so well alongside material that preceded and followed it. To this day, the only album I listen to without skipping a song is 1986’s Parade, about which I wrote in this post. And 1987’s Sign ‘o’ the Times, the first material released after the Revolution disbanded, is close behind as one of Prince’s best efforts. Still, Purple Rain deserves its reputation as a historic album, one that showed that at least one black musician could be taken seriously as a rock performer. (On a sidenote, he was snubbed during the Grammy award show the following year—where, if I recall correctly, the group’s performance of “Purple Rain,” including Prince’s almost petulant kicking down his microphone stand, was one of the broadcast’s highlights.) The album is worth a few commemorative listens and deeper exploration. So pull it out, give it a listen, and if you’re old enough to remember 1984 and 1985, take a trip down memory lane…

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