Purple Rain’s Bunneh-eth Anniversary
(originally published on LORTnation.com and edited and expanded upon)
Culturally speaking, whenever I look back at the 80’s it seems deliciously odd. So many memories of how dynamic and surprisingly addictive music by countless artists back then regularly run through my mind. For those that remember the time, this period in life was highlighted by the golden beginnings of hip hop, the rise of MTV and music videos, the new wave sound, as well as many other priceless musical moments. Awards shows were unforgettable showcases of legendary artists and radio debuts of singles were powerful enough to silence a nation for a few minutes. It was during that time that my creative space was dominated, much like the rest of the world, by a genius named Prince. Prince is undoubtedly the pinnacle of my love for music possibly for all time… and Purple Rain was the catalyst.
July 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of one of the best mediocre movies of all time. Just as Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy described beautifully, Purple Rain was the perfect storm that took a mysterious musician from just another talented musician to a world wide phenom. The fictional and yet near autobiographical movie managed to capture the imaginations of music lovers of all colors all over the world. A perfect storm of a hit phenomenon, Prince managed to do something few other artists can. In one fell swoop, he won an Oscar and Grammy amongst other awards. The book is a revealing look at Prince and his band members’ thoughts on how the making of that movie was as well as the impact it had on the country and the world.
As I read through this music journalist’s engaging collections of revelations, interviews, and thoughts on the making of Prince’s epic, I came to realize how important the influence this movie had back then and still has today on myself as well as the music world in general. This album was the beginning of my love for rock music and the sound of the electric guitar. I would lip sync in my room with my starter electric guitar and dance around like The Revolution did in the various MTV videos that ran ad nauseam during that time. Flicking my eventually rusted guitar strings to the song, I was hypnotized by the unique cries of Prince’s electric cloud guitar. That uncomfortable barrier between Prince’s style (which in the past had been sexual and funk laden to a point) and my musical tastes quickly faded upon hearing “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m A Star” which are always two of my fav songs of all time by Purple Yoda.
For many music fans across the world, this movie and soundtrack marked the validation of Prince’s apparent genius and the moment when that Minneapolis Purple Haze took over the hearts and minds of millions. To this day this timeless album continues to convert fans of all ages, creeds, and colors to have Love4OneAnother and join the New Power Generation.
For myself, I was much too young to watch this ‘racy’ film as a child but the music did manage to weasel its way into my room…as long as I didn’t play “Darling Nikki”. Like the rest of the universe in the mid 80’s, the airwaves and imagination of my bedroom were filled with endless repeats of “Baby I’m A Star” where I told the world how great I am and that they’d notice me before my light goes out. The crisp sounds of my vinyl copy of Purple Rain, complete with that iconic cover featuring The Purple One coolly perched on his purple motorcycle with a border of multicolored flowers, managed to survive the 8 year old abuse that I put it through from start to finish, side A to side B.
The back cover had a small area at the top showing the playlist with each song featuring its own custom font. Then, there was a poem that filled the rest of the space (which I don’t remember reading or at least couldn’t make sense of ). It was a religious themed statement that managed to use each of the song’s themes or titles within. It was the personification of the mysticism that was Prince back then… and I loved it.
“When Doves Cry” was the first single I remember hearing and seeing videos for. Honestly, who would start a song that way. It was off balance, random…and oddly addictive. Filled with a minimalistic percussion and keys, the seductive undertones of the lyricism screamed. As you could imagine, this song’s appeal amplified as puberty dominated my mind later on. As the harmonies accompanied a wicked guitar solo, as only Prince would do, “When Doves Cry” basically became the formula for other Prince hits with that minimalist feel like “Sign O’ The Times” and “Kiss”. As I grew older, I would come to fall deeper in love with this song due to the full bodied live version that Prince and The Revolution would perform. With Brownmark whipping away at his bass with an undeniably funky riff, the live version of the song was easily my fav.
Still, that song would kick off side B of an album whose strength was consistent from start to finish. In a time when listening to an album from start to finish was more common that it is now, the ‘program’ and the order in which the songs were listened to was crucial. Purple Rain (the movie) began just as the album did:
As if you were about to attend a wedding between your heart and Prince and the Revolution’s music, “Let’s Go Crazy” managed to do what few other artists of that time could do… make me appreciate and fall in love with rock music. Until then, I was decidedly stereotypical of most black people by listening to the status quo formula of Earth, Wind, and Fire, DeBarge, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, George Benson, and Michael Jackson. But once this album got going, its wildly unique sound and energy stole my attention and my heart forever more.
When it comes to the movie itself, I’ll have to admit, it doesn’t really hold up very well outside of the performances themselves. Prince pulls off his fictionalized version of himself (The Kid) and it was interesting to hear that all of the tension between bandmates and between Prince and The Time were actually real to some degree. Much like many others who watch the movie, Morris Day and Jerome Benton basically save the appeal of the off stage moments of the movie. Appolonia has a kind of sickening sweetness to her execution and her singing basically just loses the sweetness and leaves the rest when it comes to Appolonia 6’s songs. Almost as if the movie is a long form music video, the performances and the story link together perfectly. Alan Light’s book spoke of how director Albert Magnoli listened to 100 Prince songs before selecting the playlist we all know and love. Once compiled, this playlist would stand the test of time against albums like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”, and managed to spend a ridiculous 24 weeks at the top of the sales charts between ’84 and ’85.
For an artist that avoided the media like the plague, the movie managed to pull the curtain back on an enigma that was one of the most sexually ambiguous and free celebrities of the time. People liked the music but wanted to know more in a day that had no Youtube and no internet. Radio and magazines were the source of all rumor and info on the celebrities we loved back then and award shows were viewed with an epic sense of anticipation. We ‘eighties children’ remember MJ’s epic Motown 25th Anniversary Performance of that time frame which also paved the way for radio and MTV to change the way the nation promoted and listened to music which was still racially divided during that time. “Purple Rain” and “Thriller” managed to tear down walls pushed the masses to accept black music of the day much more. Purple Rain continued that trend and was a rare feat for a black actor or artist considering Prince was the headliner.
While I wasn’t able to experience the movie or the tour at that time, the affect the tour had on Prince’s growing legend was something I had always heard of. I didn’t manage to catch him live until his Musicology tour in 2004. Thankfully, he graced his dedicated following in that tour with renditions of Purple Rain which he typically shies away from. So when it came to the original Purple Rain tour, I coveted a recorded and released version of the tour (mostly from Syracuse). Watching the VHS version of the Purple Rain tour live, over and over again would become a kind of personal ritual that I’d repeat in my post college days as I began searching for my own muse to write poetry to. Watching the movie, for some reason, seems to have a similar effect. While the movie peer into Prince’s relationship with his father and his bandmates, the ‘story’ or progression of the tour managed to highlight Prince’s relationship with God. Very spiritual, Prince would weave in and out of prayers and battle musically between his sexual aura and his reverence for the grace of God and his love. Alan Light speaks about the how band members and others recognized his struggle with his seemingly opposing sexual nature and his reverence as it was acted out on the tour. These religious themes were present even in his earlier work as well, but Purple Rain’s content seems to highlight this more. From his talk of the devil (the de-elevator on “Let’s Go Crazy”) to the backwards interlude after Darling Nikki, the performance on the Purple Rain tour really brought this part of him to the forefront.
For many fans, this album/movie was the beginning of our love of his guitar solos as well. Over and over again I would air guitar my way through “Purple Rain”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, and “When Doves Cry”. Considering that he is a multi-instrumentalist, it is always interesting to hear fans clamour over the moments when Prince either picks up the axe or says that he is ‘getting back to playing the guitar’ in that he is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time. Spin Magazine considers him 6th on their list. The Rolling Stone has him listed at 33rd behind greats like Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Hendrix who is #1. Interestingly enough, Prince kind of is in a league of his own as an entertainer who does virtually everything. Prince would dance, gyrate, play multiple instruments, sing, and all out put on a show anytime he was onstage. His TV performances were typically legendary for both his choice in music as well as his wardrobe (who could forget his cheek-less pants performance during the 1991 MTV VMAs). Much like MJ and Madonna, Prince was always considered to be a fantastic perfomer.
To this day, I regret asking my mother for an electric guitar back in my middle school days. My fear of performing and impatience for reaching a modest skill level with the axe prevented me from spending the needed time to learn the instrument and the music. Still, my admiration for multi-instrumentalists and song writers such as Prince remain. Maybe one day my futile attempts at using Rocksmith 2014 will lead to a dedication to learn. Until then, I’ll continue to carry the Purple banner.
Purple Rain is a timeless classic and my household will forever resonate with the echoes of its energy. Alan Light’s book Let’s Go Crazy is a perfect companion to the movie and walks you through the seeds of the movie in Prince’s mind (through interviews with him and The Revolution band members) from conception all the way through the days of the tour and the Purple aftershock. Mr. Light’s easy to follow journey reveals tidbits that casual fans probably don’t know about the time period or the actually making. My wife and I as big fans of Prince spent a lot of time reading the book to each other and marveling at the unlikely process Prince and his musical community went through to get this movie made. It had a profound affect on the music landscape that year and surely will for Prince’s ever growing fanbase. Mr. Light’s book is highly recommended as a companion… unlike Purple Rain’s sequel Graffiti Bridge which is highly forgettable.
For more on my affinity for Purple Music, check out a few reviews and lists written on my music blog!