Monday, July 13, 2009

Purple Rain--Deconstructed (Happy 25th!)

As I've stated before, Purple Rain isn't my favorite Prince album. In fact, off the top of my head, I think I'd rank it, perhaps, fourth behind 1999, Parade, and Sign o the Times. However, last month, this landmark album turned 25, and I haven't heard that much about it. So, I figured I'd jot down some thoughts about the album that made Prince the legend he is today.

Upon reflection, Purple Rain has got to be one of the weirdest, most idiosyncratic albums to ever reach Billboard's No. 1 slot. The fact that it spent 24 weeks there still baffles me. I realize now that he made some serious concessions to popdome in order to make it so (I'll be getting to that), but it doesn't take away from the weirdness and utter Prince-ness of the album.

Purple Rain was Prince's sixth album (could you imagine today's major labels sticking with an artist for six albums before they become a star?), and I think it signifies the third phase of his early career.

For Prince's first three albums, For You, Prince, and Dirty Mind, he was basically a curious disco act. He scored a minor hit with "Wanna Be Your Lover," but if he would've stayed on the same tract, he probably just would've ended up being a minor, musical footnote or someone hipster DJs would play at the end of their sets. Fortunately, with Dirty Mind he got his first hint of crossover appeal for, basically, being a pervert in high heels and bikini briefs. But enough white folks took notice that, while still relegated to only black radio and getting booed off the stage when he opened for the Stones in LA, his music started branching out.

You can hear the experimentation in Controversy (and remember Dana Plato aerobicizing to the title track on Diff'rent Strokes?). He gets more than a little weird with "Annie Christian" and goes New Wave with "Ronnie Talk to Russia." He gets utterly sick with it with 1999. A rare double album, you can see Prince going in all kinds of different directions, and he was rewarded with a few crossover hits ("DMSR" even appears in Risky Business).

All of this leads to the beginning of his third stage, Grade A Certified Pop Star! and the album and movie, Purple Rain.

Before then, Prince pretty much just funked up the ghetto. Now, he was to rock the world. Aside from the called shot, "Baby I'm a Star," you can tell he produced the album with mega-stardom in mind. First, with black radio, Prince was known to produce some serious funk jams ("Soft and Wet," "Head," "Let's Work," "DMSR"). There are absolutely none on this album. He still gives us the ballad that would have all the black girls crying, "The Beautiful Ones," but no jam. The other thing you'll notice is that Purple Rain is absolutely guitar-laden, which his previous efforts were most definitely not. He wasn't turning his back on his people, but he was definitely trying to appeal to a broader, whiter audience. After all, back in the '80s, if a track didn't have a guitar solo, what did it have? (Oh yeah, a cheesy sax solo--I almost forgot). But hey, I ain't hatin'. This is Prince, after all. I will love him till my last breath.

Let's Go Crazy

From the very beginning, Prince let's you know this is not going to be your average, everyday pop album. Church organ, wedding ceremony. Except we are not wedding each other, we are vowing to join in Prince's peculiar pop madness. I mean, outside of this weird cartoon porn I once saw with Magilla Gorilla and Grape Ape, I've never seen a purple banana. What the hell was that all about?

I actually like the 12-inch, movie version of this song better (oh, remember those Prince 12 inches?) with his insanely banging away at the piano, but it definitely makes you dance and scream, "Oh no! Let's Go!" And the Hendrix-y solo at the end. Who knew Prince could play like that?

"Take Me with You"

Union Paul can tell you the hold Appolonia had on me. The first time he drove me around Minneapolis, any time I'd see a body of water--lake, stream, glass of water--I'd slyly go, "That's not Lake Minnetonka," until he said, "Actually, Bill, that is Lake Minnetonka." "Oh."

Appolonia definitely had a pretty weak voice, and this song was too cheesy for me back in the day. But I'm getting older and I'm weeding myself from listening to rap in Poohbutt's presence (I really don't want her going to day care screaming, "Fuck you, niggaz"); the song's definitely growing on me. Besides, the wife and I need a vacation. I wanna play this song before we embark. Wouldn't that be cute?

"The Beautiful Ones"

Good Memory: One night in college, we of Beta Lambda (the lounge my friends and I used to hang out in) suddenly started singing this song for no apparent reason. I still love those fools!

Anyway, I think that when hip-hop, with its monotonous beat and lack of tempo changes, took over R&B, a lot of "soul" vocalists lost the ability to tell a story through their music. They forgot that the music and the way they sing can tell a story probably even better than the lyrics themselves (just think of the resigned melancholia of Otis Redding's "(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay" and how Michael Bolton utterly fucked! that song up).

"The Beautiful Ones," to me, perfectly embodies the frustration and hurt of unrequited love (something pubescent Bill could totally sympathize with). He starts off with that fragile falsetto--like he's just sort of trying to mention to his woman that it, well, you know, irks him that she's not totally his. She ain't feelin' His Royal Badness. He gets more and more frustrated. He ends up SCREAMING why she should be with him, saying he may be a loser but she can make him a winner, that no one can love her like he could--but somewhere in mid-scream, he realizes that it's utterly useless, and the song just peters out. Now, that's just some good drama right there. You can even see the film credits rolling at the end of the song.

"Computer Blue"

Yes, the androgynous, lesbian sex slave fantasy droned by Wendy (replacing "1999"'s Jill Jones) and Lisa kick the song off. I often prefer to imagine Sheila E. and Vanity singing this part. Other than that, who the hell knows what this song is about. But what a cool jam! Oh yeah, and the guitar playing. Prince proved that he could rock--with just a touch of jazz.

"Darling Nikki"

The song that brought about the end of Western civilization. Yep, Nikki and her magazine-masturbating, stank ass sicced Tipper Gore and her PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) hounds down on the music industry. That gave us that stupid "Parental Advisory" sticker and freed up artists to now curse to high heaven and be as nasty as they wanted to be on their albums. Ironic, ain't it?

Of course, at 14, I loved this song because it was sooooo nasty. Now, I love it because it's such a great jam. I mean, you don't get to hear musicians cut loose on an album that often anymore. And here, they just ... went ... off!

It also reminds me of that horrible menace that was going to turn all us kids into Satan-worshiping mass murderers ... backward masking!

Run for the hills, people!

Side Two
Yes, Albums Used to Have Sides

"When Doves Cry"

Yes, Modik, this is still my favorite Prince song. I still remember where I was when I first heard this song. I was taking a shower getting ready for my high school picnic at the local amusement park, Kennywood. I used to bring my (nowhere near a) boom box into the bathroom with me and listen to the radio. I was washing my hair when "Doves" came on, and I screamed, "Oh my God! That's Prince!" so loud and in such a high pitch, my shower's sliding glass doors cracked.

Now, when I say Purple Rain has got to be the weirdest pop album ever, this is by far the weirdest No. 1 song ever. I mean, how the hell did this song ever chart?

OK, you're immediately drawn in my the opening guitar lick. There's probably not a person under 35 who doesn't recognize it. It's so great, it tempts one to ask, "Eddie Van Wholen?" And then the synth hook latches onto your brain.

But then, it's just bizarre.

First, there's no bass line. That's not so strange today because of hip-hop. But American music was always supposed to have a bass. That must've been a first (I'm sure someone out there will correct me).

For much of the song, all you've got is that drum, with an utterly undanceable 7/4 time signature (had to look that one up) that made it look as though an epileptic epidemic had hit America's dance floors.

The synths are utterly haunting and Prince sounds like an exsanguinating David Bowie through most of the song. And what's with all the Oedipal overtones? Maybe you're just like my mother? "Hey, Art, wasn't this the sick fuck who had that song about screwin' his sister?!"

None of this screams, "Hit song." But what makes the song's popularity utterly mind-boggling is that the last two minutes of this five-minute song are filled with Prince's panting, moaning, and screaming incomprehensibly in his trademark three-part harmony (oh yeah, and another guitar solo). You can just imagine radio programmers holding that little purple 45, going, "What the fuck is this?"

I think all of these reasons are why this is my favorite Prince song. This simply is not a pop song, yet it was his most popular song, which launched his career and the movie into the stratosphere. What are either without this song?

Pure, fucking genius.

"I Would Die 4 U"

I think the movie and that weird hand gesture made this song. It gave us teeny-boppers something to latch onto. And wasn't this the part where he's scuttling across the stage licking and feeling himself up? Always good for a nostalgic chuckle at a party.

"Baby, I'm a Star"

I love this song because of the utter hubris of it. "You might not know it now, but, baby, I'm a star." I wish I had the temerity to declare something like that--and the great fortune to be right! It's also the funkiest cut on the album. And, lo and behold, no guitar solo.

"Purple Rain"

Of course I love the song and the fabulous guitar work. Just, in the context of the movie, what a weird song.

"Yeah, look, Appalonia, sorry I beat the shit out of you. My Dad's a wife beater, and, well, you know ... the apple, the tree, and all that. But, look, 'it's such a shame our friendship had to end. I only wanna see you in the purple rain (no, I have no clue what that is either, but stick with me here).' So, hey, why don't we get back together? Obviously, I got enough talent to get you an album deal, and don't I play like Hendrix?"

But hell, who didn't tear up when he sang this song? Who didn't cheer when the Kid was vindicated? Who didn't say, "Yeah, suck it," when even Morris Day and the Time had to admit that he was superior? And whose heart didn't melt when Appalonia planted a big wet one on our boy?

Two better questions:

Who didn't buy this album?

and ...

Isn't it amazing that it still holds up after all this time?


Double H said...

Bravo! I'm giving you a silent ovation from my cubicle at work. A wonderful reminder of how much Purple Rain meant to all of us--both movie & album. I love your assessment of Prince's calculations in the production of the album and the good old fashioned memories. I've been cataloging one Michael Jackson son a day since the King of Pop passed but I have said now for a while that if we check on the war between them, Prince definitely came out on top.

Andi said...

That brought me way back, this album rocked my world!

Chipper said...

That was cool...Two of my top 10 Prince cuts comes from it...but not my #1 said...

Hi there!

I looooove Prince... he is fierce...

There is a video of him at a James Brown concert and he was on stage and so was Michael Jackson...

Purple Rain is still one of my favorite CDs!! But that album came out when I was really really young...

Jeff said...

Best blog I've read in recent memory said...

Terrific insight in this post. It's always good to see Prince fam. Drop by my Purple spot if you get a chance:

Peace and Love,