Dig if you will a picture in time — long before he made us wait at the after show party ‘til dawn with only Doug E. Fresh and apple juice to pass the hours — when Prince was reliably dropping works of genius just about every year. Book-ended by masterworks like Dirty Mind, 1999, Parade and Sign ‘O’ the Times was the ultimate centerpiece in the soundtrack for Purple Rain, which turns 30 years old today.
Introducing backing band the Revolution and featuring hits like “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die for You,” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” Purple Rain quickly became the ultimate and most identifiable album in the Minnesota native’s catalog. It single-handedly ended the seemingly indomitable reign of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which even though it had come out some 19 months earlier, had a vise grip on the top spot on the Billboard 200 week after week, in spite of valiant yet temporary footholds gained by the Flashdance soundtrack, Synchronicity by the Police, and Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down.
The companion film of the same name propelled Purple Rain to greater heights, enhancing its staying power. The movie where he convinces to Apollonia purify herself in Lake Minnetonka by jumping in naked, before revealing that the body of water isn’t even said lake, hasn’t had near the resilience of the soundtrack, stuck in a mid-’80s time-capsule with bad outfits, laughable dialogue, and questionable acting. No, it’s the music of Purple Rain that kept it a number one for 24 consecutive weeks and has it still a pop culture touchstone.
Now, three decades later, let’s see how it looks as we rank the songs from best to worst in our ongoing series, New Ordered…
1. “Purple Rain”
A verse was dropped to keep this epic ballad under 10 minutes, but it could’ve been three times as long and it still wouldn’t be overkill. The opening notes and echo-drenched first verse are full of messianic pleading, but it’s the solo that is the true gut punch. MJ needed Vincent Price and a bunch of Hollywood special effects to make his protracted title track composition memorable, but all Prince needed was an unforgettable melody and six-stringed dexterity that profoundly plumbed the depths of soul like nothing else at the time — and maybe since.
2. “Let’s Go Crazy”
Until 1984, there was either religion or rock and roll, and the segregation ran deep. Elvis Presley could get the censors “All Shook Up” and a few years later would release His Hand in Mine, the first of three gospel albums. Johnny Cash would juxtapose the same, singing about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die and still managing to come up with enough religious music to make up half a dozen LPs. There was rarely any overlap on a record, and certainly not within the same song.
“Let’s Go Crazy” changed all that. The organ at the beginning and the “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” spoken word certainly belied the song title, but 30 seconds in, shit not only got crazy, it got nuts. By the time that blistering guitar coda showed listeners the door, a full on conversion had taken place, connecting two subjects that previously would never have experienced cohabitation. Less blatant yet still obvious imitations came from both U2 and George Michael in 1987, but it was never starker than the first time.
3. “When Doves Cry”
One of the only tracks on Purple Rain to be written specifically for scenes in the film, as the notoriously prolific Prince had provided director Albert Magnoli with more than 100 songs to choose from, “When Doves Cry” quickly became the most recognizable hit from the album. Whether the success is based on it being funky despite absolutely zero bass, the imagery of the nude singer emerging from a steamy bath in the endlessly played MTV video, or the lyrics of relationship conflict based on emotional and ingrained parental influence where almost everybody could find a common ground, the song resonated thoroughly within the public consciousness.
4. “The Beautiful Ones”
The sleeper of the bunch, “The Beautiful Ones” starts off as a leisurely paced query where Prince asks in his signature falsetto, “Baby, baby, baby/What’s it gonna be?/Baby, baby, baby/Is it him or is it me?” But around the 3:20 mark, drama gets wicked serious. Invoking yelps of a Polydor-era James Brown, Prince suddenly needs to know what’s up. He’s demanding an answer, even while, “begging down on my knees.” At the end of the song you’re just hoping he’s gotten an answer one way or the other.
5. “I Would Die For You”
It wasn’t all heavy emotional tension on Purple Rain, as this jam fits perfectly alongside previous club tracks that Prince could always be depended upon. “When You Were Mine,” “Delirious” prior to “I Would I Die for You” and later dance floor staples “Raspberry Beret” and “Kiss” were all cut from the same sonic cloth. Sure, there is an undeniable pledge of devotion, but the beat comes first — and it’s a magnificent one.
6. “Take Me with You”
It’s the bouncy and carefree respite that was needed after “Let’s Go Crazy,” and made the feel of Purple Rain much more cinematic with moods changing with each scene as opposed to one cohesive studio piece.
7. “Darling Nikki”
Beyond shock value in the lyrics about a masturbating sex-fiend that in part led Tipper Gore to launch the censorship happy Parents Music Resource Center which put Parental Advisory stickers on every album a teenager would want to own, there’s still a nice musical, er, “grind” here. It really doesn’t go much further than squealing, uninhibited carnality, and maybe it wasn’t supposed to.
8. “Baby I’m a Star”
The textbook example of the ’80s “look at me” ethos. Sure, the narrator doesn’t have much money, but he’s going to be a star; in fact, “We’re all a star!” The excess pushes this one to the brink.
9. “Computer Blue”
Even the sexual innuendo hinted at by the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman at the outset can’t salvage this from feeling like more than a four-minute synth interlude punctuated by Prince’s screams and a somewhat interesting swirling guitar piece in the middle. It worked much better as a basketball play.