Counterbalance No. 50: Prince’s 'Purple Rain'
“Wendy?” “Yes, Lisa.” “Are you ready to listen to Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn talk about Prince's Purple Rain?” “Yes, Lisa, it’s the 50th most acclaimed album of all time.” “Shall we begin?” “Yes, Lisa.” Ow!
Mendelsohn: The Purple One is back, Klinger. But this time it's with a much shorter, much more succinct blast of '80s pop/rock goodness. And I've got to tell you, I had much more fun with this record. Plus, as "research", I watched the movie Purple Rain in an effort to help me further unravel the tangled enigma that is Prince. And by doing so, I learned three things: 1. I still don't understand Minnesota's favorite son; 2. Purple Rain could have used a little work in the plot department; 3. Apollonia is nice to look at, especially when she isn't wearing a shirt.
Klinger: I haven't seen the film in at least 25 years, so I'm going to have to take your word for Points 2 and 3 (Minnesota's favorite son remains Walter Mondale.) But you are exactly right that a more succinct Prince is a lot more fun. I understand why Sign o' the Times, Prince's double-LP Major Statement, has captured the hearts and minds of critics and placed higher on the Great List. Critics eat that stuff up. But even as we were discussing that album, I kept coming back to the idea that Purple Rain really is a more consistent listening experience.
As I'm thinking about it, I'd say you did the right thing by watching the movie in preparation for this Counterbalance; as I recall, the movie went a long way toward explaining Prince. From the time that he first burst on the national scene, Prince seemed to be something of an enigma. Most people only really knew him from his videos, which were of the standard performance variety, and as such they were left to guess about this curious little fellow in the sparkly purple trenchcoat and ladies' boots. Was he black or white, was he straight or gay? It was quite the controversy.
Because the movie gave the appearance of being autobiographical, it helped fill in the blanks in his myth. And by establishing the Revolution as an actual band, he created a sense that he was more than just a weirdo wunderkind whipping up the magic in his Paisley Park lab. Prince even established guitarist Wendy Melvoin as something of a musical foil. On top of all that, for this album he made some of the most accessible music of his career. Underneath the funk there was just enough pop confectionry for the Top 40 market and a healthy dose of guitar heaviosity to stifle the rockists.
Mendelsohn: No one under 35 years of age knows who Walter Mondale is. And if I had to wager a guess, I'd say that most people are much more familiar with Purple Rain then they are with Sign o' the Times. I think if you like Sign o' the Times more than you like Purple Rain you are either one of two people. You are either a critic and Sign o' the Times is a giant dog bowl from which you may lap. Or you are a true Prince fan who sees Sign o' the Times as the pinnacle of Prince's artistic achievement, and you are annoyed by the fact that every other Joe Schmo loves Purple Rain but has probably never bothered to listen to Sign o' the Times. Those are the people who show up at the concert, stand right behind you, and keep asking when His Purpleness is going to play "Darling Nikki".
But can you blame Joe Schmo? Purple Rain is nearly a perfect album. The only problem I have with it is that after each listening I have to take a shower to wash off all the 1980s pixie dust and scrub the smell of fog machine smoke out of my hair. But that’s merely a symptom of the time in which the album was made and has little bearing on my esteem for these nine tracks.
Klinger: No doubt that people are more familiar with Purple Rain. If I'm remembering the second half of 1984 correctly (and like many boys turning 16, my perceptions may have been clouded by hormones), this album was absolutely ubiquitous. You couldn't turn on MTV that summer without seeing the video for "When Doves Cry". Crazy as it may seem now in this age where the idea of the single is kind of nebulous, five of the nine songs here were hits, a percentage that puts it up there with the other 1984 blockbusters: Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Madonna's Like a Virgin, and, uh, Huey Lewis and the News' Sports.
I think it's just that level of saturation that--coupled with the fact that hearing these songs automatically transports me back to my awkward teenage years -- keeps me from making Purple Rain my go-to Prince album. I'm more apt to go for the more stripped-down Dirty Mind or Controversy than I am for the lusher sounds found here. When we started this edition of Counterbalance, I couldn't remember the last time I had actually listened to this disc. I'm not 100% sure I'll be returning to it all that much once we're done here. It's all just a little too familiar.
Of course, as well as I remember the songs from Purple Rain, I was a little surprised by just how odd the album's textures are in places. "When Doves Cry" may have been playing on a loop in 1984, but it might also have been the most sonically daring number one hit since "Good Vibrations". That crazy baroque keyboard bit at the end sealed the deal there. And after seven minutes of establishing itself as a soul-fueled hybrid of Hendrix and "Hey Jude", the title track goes into some decidedly uncharted territory before it finally drifts off in a post-coital haze.
Mendelsohn: I'm not weighed down by nostalgia on this one, so if I had to pick a go-to Prince album, this would be the one, but you are very right about the high level of sonic daring found throughout. Embedded in most of these songs are some pretty avant garde stuff that might not necessarily need to be included, but I think helps take the album to a whole different level. The outro to "Purple Rain" seems mundane next to the outro to "Darling Nikki". Personally, I like the album intro, "Let's Go Crazy", which simultaneously sets the tone while keeping the listener just off balance enough.
I think the reason it works so well is Prince's ability to combine the ordinary with the extraordinary. Yeah, he can write a pretty good pop tune, but when he tosses in the shredded guitar riffs, the electronic effects, and unbeatable showmanship he seems to be on a level no one else can touch. With him at the helm, it's a wonder the 1980s didn't last a little bit longer than they did.
Klinger: Ah, but at this point, Prince became a phenomenon. And being a phenomenon is inherently unsustainable, so it's not surprising that he groped around (pun pretty much intended) a bit for what to do next. He rush released Around the World in a Day and then doubled down on the "half-assing-my-way-through-a-movie" motif with that Under the Cherry Moon. That's why Sign o' the Times seemed like such a comeback to the critics -- a scant three years after Purple Rain.
Of course, the end of "Darling Nikki" is even more baffling when you actually play it backwards, which of course some friends of mine and I did back in the olden days. Perhaps if Tipper Gore had been more susceptible to backwards masking, we could have avoided all of that PMRC nonsense.
But "Darling Nikki" and its backward doppelganger aside, this certainly feels like one artist's bid for mainstream success. Purple Rain scales back a lot of the sexy fun time talk (or at least codes it really well), and Prince also manages to avoid too many overt political references. (Of course, "1999" proved that he had learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, so "Let's Go Crazy" seems like a logical extension.) After all, 1984 was morning in America, and it sounds like Prince knew that he'd be better off sticking to party jams. It helps that party jams like "Baby I'm a Star" and "I Would Die 4 U" were about as good as the '80s got.
Mendelsohn: I don't think anyone could make a plausible argument about Prince not trying to score big with Purple Rain. You don't write a suite of songs like this with at least some expectation of massive airplay. It's funny, though, listening to Purple Rain now and thinking about the firestorm it set off in the United States Congress. Although, if Tipper had been upset about Santa Claus, she probably could have wasted the nation's governing body's time with that as well. I suppose it helps when you are sleeping with a senator. Well, whatever. Prince was just trying to liberate our body and minds one party jam at a time. If anything, Congress should have given him a medal.
Klinger: The Congressional Medal of Freakiness? Count me in.