Prince Purple Rain

Between the Grooves of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’

In 1984, funk rock legend Prince combined music and film into a major extravaganza called Purple Rain, and it went to the top of the charts for 24 weeks in a row.

Purple Rain
Prince and the Revolution
Warner Bros.
25 June 1984

1. “Let’s Go Crazy”

Having encouraged us two years earlier to accept that “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant 2 last,” Prince started 1984 with a more defiantly optimistic sermon, suggesting that in life, “things are much harder than in the afterworld”, and that our reward for enduring our current hardships would be to enter “a world of never-ending happiness.” (Seriously: why were we so surprised when His Royal Badness “became” devout?)

More importantly, “Let’s Go Crazy” — the lead-off track to Purple Rain — suggests that the best way to endure one’s hardships is to rebel against the expectations and norms of our safe, sanitized society; essentially, Prince’s message is the message of all good rock ‘n’ roll, which is … well … “let’s go crazy.” And make no mistake: Purple Rain is rock n’ roll first and foremost; its opening salvo’s guitar solo puts Slayer to shame.

“Let’s Go Crazy” boasts that elusive sense of inevitability and completeness that only the greatest rock songs offer; who but Prince could yield such provocative, anarchic alchemy from so simple and unassuming a guitar riff? And who would dare to suggest that a single second of the song could be changed?

At its best, rock ‘n’ roll serves as a call to arms, even when the revolution in question is nothing more subversive or relevant than a suggestion to party. “Let’s Go Crazy” is not shy about extending an invitation to the audience; its opening monologue, which reads as intimately as a “Dear Constant Reader” introduction from a Stephen King collection, addresses the listener in a warm, direct, and empowering manner that went unmatched until Danzig’s “Godless” in 1993, which itself sounds like something Prince could have written (“I ask all who have gathered here to join me in this feast … may we always be strong in body, spirit, and mind”): “Dearly beloved / We are gathered here today / 2 get through this thing called life / Electric word, life / It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time / But I’m here 2 tell U / There’s something else / The afterworld / A world of never-ending happiness / U can always see the sun, day or night.”

The pop cultural landscape of today is a barren and exhausting place, inordinately enamored with irony. Nonetheless, for all the earnest optimism of its opening sermon, “Let’s Go Crazy” was the freshest, coolest, trendiest sound of 1984, and yet it does not sound dated in 2009.

I knew in 1984 that Prince and his Purple Rain were special. I may have been only seven years old at the time, but I wanted to be Prince; no other performer inspired such adoration. Still, would I have predicted that Prince would boast such staying power and lasting relevance?

No. In an early episode of Family Ties, Mallory asked her mother if she was familiar with Purple Rain‘s opening track (which she mistakenly called “Let’s Get Crazy”), and Elise quipped, “It was our wedding song,” and had you asked me then, I’d have assumed that the canned sitcom laughter would probably be pop culture’s last response to “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Instead, 25 years later, “Let’s Go Crazy” still rocks, and Purple Rain is arguably the album of the 1980s, and I still want to be Prince. – Monte Williams

2. “Take Me With U”

Simply put, “Take Me With U” is arguably Prince’s single greatest pure pop song. Oh sure, he’d later do tracks that were more “mainstream” (see: “Cream”) and showier (the still-fantastic “Raspberry Beret”), but the breezy, breathtakingly romantic “Take Me With U” — with its acoustic hammer-ons and sampled string sections — is the aural equivalent of falling in love for the first time, hopeless devotion mixing with eternal optimism, all making for one utterly irresistible Top 40 cocktail.

The song’s history, however, was less than rosy. First off, the track wasn’t even supposed to be on Purple Rain in the first place. Initially written for Apollonia 6’s debut album, Prince — who knows when to take back a good song he’s written for someone else (sorry there, Mazarati) — decided to use it to soundtrack the scene where Apollonia rides around on the Purple One’s decked-out motorcycle for the first time (prior to “purifying” herself in Lake Minnetonka). If you watch the scene on mute, it feels like watching the most boring stock footage you can imagine, as there are only so many times that you can film passing trees before you begin to wonder what Morris Day is up to. When backed by “Take Me With U”, however, it suddenly feels like all these excessive shots are actually moving the plot forward, the montage showing the doe-eyed Apollonia realizing she might have feelings for The Kid after all …

Released as the fifth and final single from Purple Rain, “Take Me With U” has the sad distinction of being the only single from the album not to become a Top 10 staple (it stalled at #25). It’s a damn shame, too, considering that “Take Me With U” marks the first time that Prince dueted with anyone in any official capacity.

As only the second track on the immaculately sequenced Purple Rain, the addition of Apollonia’s voice not only deepens The Kid’s character arc (he’s sharing the song with her — and he hates sharing songs!) but also sets up the audience for the inevitable falling out between our leads, their naïve love ballad a reminder of better times. Of course, with instrumentation this lush (the opening drum breaks swirling between the left and right channels, the echoed clanging of bells sweetly leading the song during the fadeout, etc.), it’s hard not to fall in love right along with them.

Yet part of the reason that “Take Me With U” works so brilliantly is because of its simplicity. “I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart,” it opens, “It beats so strong / It’s in your eyes, what can I say? / They turn me on”. Given the later lyrical depictions of animals striking curious poses and fetish-obsessed women performing extreme self-gratification acts in hotel lobbies, “Take Me With U’s” simple, unadorned sentiments serve as a breather, an easy emotional entry point for the rest of the album/film.

No matter what we think of Apollonia’s half-reconciliation at the end of the movie (that awkward half-kiss backstage prior to The Kid’s dynamic performance of “I Would Die 4 U”), we will always have “Take Me With U” as a souvenir of what could have been, a soundtrack for young romance the world over that clocks in at less than four minutes; pop doesn’t get more perfect than that. – Evan Sawdey

3. “The Beautiful Ones”

“The Beautiful Ones” is the closest Purple Rain has to a proper love ballad, but there’s little proper about it. It nearly annihilates the conventions of the form. Like the album itself, the song is fraught with romantic desire and anxiety, but it’s the latter that takes control. It’s a love letter in song, but our protagonist clearly has issues.

“The Beautiful Ones” follows the traditional pattern of a man trying to win over a woman by singing directly to her. He’s wooing her, trying to win her away from another man. In the film, it’s Prince wooing Apollonia away from Morris Day. In life, it’s said to have been Prince’s attempt to woo Susannah Melvoin, the sister of his Revolution band member, Wendy Melvoin. In the song, the person of his affectation seems more distant and less specific.

That vagueness only grows as the song progresses because, with each second, his chances seem to be dwindling as his come-on – or, really, an ultimatum – grows more crazed. He begs, pleads, and ultimately freaks out so thoroughly that any impression of his confidence has shattered. In the film, Apollonia is brought to tears of shock but also apparent understanding. In the song, it’s hard to see him as succeeding. This isn’t the man who will sweep you off your feet and fly you to the moon, or even the carefree but lovesick Prince of the previous song, “Take Me With U”. This is the man howling into the wall or crying uncontrollably into his own chest. Earlier, he sweetly begged, “Don’t make me lose my mind,” and now, he has.

I’ve done no scientific study, but it seems that Prince wildly shrieks more often on Purple Rain than any other in his mighty discography. “The Beautiful Ones” wins the award for most convincing and even chilling Prince shrieks. “Shriek” seems the only fitting word for his breakdown at the end of the song. The song starts with him almost asking her politely, albeit with a lot of heaviness in his voice, “Baby baby baby / what’s it gonna be?” Before you know it, he’s proposing marriage to her, almost like he thinks that may be what does the trick: “If we got married / would that be cool?”

By the end of the song, he’s on his knees screaming in pain, calling up devils in his soul to voice the ordeal that love, or desire, is putting him through. He has to know if she wants him, he tells her. All he knows is that he wants her, he proclaims in an ear-piercing shriek, one perched atop a peak built of moody keyboards, wailing guitar, and a drum machine that, after the storm has calmed, sounds a note of life-goes-on.

Concentrate too much on the initial come-on and the nervous breakdown at the end, and you’ll miss another interesting feature: Prince’s psychological diagnosis of why she’s rejecting him. In the middle of a song that otherwise is constructed like a personal screed, a love letter written in tears and pain, there’s the protagonist’s own rationalization that it’s the beautiful ones who are the problem. Of course, he gets more pseudo-poetic than that, whispering, “Paint a perfect picture / bring to live a vision in one’s mind / the beautiful ones always smash the picture / always, every time.”

That moment is why Prince is Prince. He never hesitates to build an epic structure of drama and fantasy around each feeling or action while also making you feel it viscerally. Purple Rain opens with a song where he slips into the tone of a preacher, and he does it again later in the album. That isn’t quite the tone of this commentary section of “The Beautiful Ones”, but it does sound like a mid-emotional rant; he’s giving a lesson.

That he can become Prince the poet/teacher/mystic in the middle of breaking down and crying, screaming, raging his heart out says something about the control Prince exerts throughout Purple Rain, the way he turns the conditions of the heart into fodder for that pulpit of rebellion, the arena stage. – Dave Heaton