A Track-by-Track Rundown of 'Purple Rain'

by PopMatters Staff

31 May 2009


"When Doves Cry"


“When Doves Cry”

On an old cassette tape from my youth, wedged in between “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)”, random interludes of my weird, nine-year-old ramblings, and three different versions of Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love”, is arguably Prince’s greatest song he ever wrote.

“When Doves Cry” was a last-minute addition to his Purple Rain soundtrack album and was single-handedly written and recorded by the Artist Not Yet Formerly Known as Prince. According to Rolling Stone magazine, he supposedly told an engineer at the time, “Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait—they’ll be freaking.” And, of course, everyone did (freak that is). Unfortunately, not everyone did the same when it came to his semi-autobiographical movie.

In the long run, the album proved to be much more successful than the actual film. From July 7th to August 4th 1984, the song reined number one on the American music charts and Billboard named it the number one single of 1984.  Since then, “When Doves Cry” has been hailed as one of the greatest songs of all time by various music magazines, as well as by MTV and VHI.

The iconic intro to the song—a dizzying electric guitar solo followed by a very computer-generated drum machine loop—still makes me want to wear a skin-tight, crushed velvet body suit with a white ruffled silk shirt and play air guitar.  Although musically a bit dated, the lyrics are full of universal truths; of how we are sometimes a reflection of our parents—in our relationships, in our careers—and how we need to break away from them, to become our own person.

How can you just leave me standing
Alone in a world so cold?
Maybe I’m just too demanding
Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold
Maybe you’re just like my mother
She’s never satisfied
Why do we scream at each other?
This is what it sounds like when doves cry

It’s been said through the years that the song and the video evoke the theme of religion—most likely due to the white doves flying around in a church in the video.  A staple on MTV in 1984, the video is difficult to take seriously (like most anything from that era) now.  I wonder if Face-Off director John Woo got his inspiration for his whole dove motif from this video. What, with a naked Prince crawling out of bathtub around on the floor, his renaissance fair-style jumpsuit, and scenes of him driving that huge motorcycle cruiser from the film, it’s better to just listen to the song via MP3. At the time, it was considered controversial among studio execs who thought the video’s sexual nature was too much for television audiences to take. Some 25 years later, it’s nothing compared to what they show now.

Many artists have covered what is now considered to be Prince’s career-defining song, including Canadian folk/country band The Be Good Tanyas, southern rock/jam band Gov’t Mule, R&B singer Ginuwine and Irish troubadour Damien Rice. Other alternative versions have appeared in films such as the 1996 Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes version of Romeo + Juliet and in the 2003 Sofia Cappola comedy/drama Lost in Translation.

Listening to that old blank tape now, I laugh at myself at how bad the sound quality is and the awkwardness of my recording method back then—holding that large box of a tape recorder up to the TV to catch those songs as the videos started—thank goodness for the Internet.  It’s been 25 years, and many of those songs from the 1980s just don’t translate well now.  “When Doves Cry”, however, is an exception. As Milhouse so cleverly put it in the “Lemon of Troy” episode of The Simpsons when he confronts another boy with the exact same name: “I guess this is what it feels like when doves cry.” 

Charlie Moss

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