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

4. “Computer Blue”

Poor “Computer Blue”. Imagine growing up in a sonic family that features eight other siblings who are far more famous than you (even the protracted Paris Hilton of the clan, “Darling Nikki”). The Purple Rain fanbase can recite your relatives’ accomplishments verbatim, 25 years of rote repetitiveness on your favorite radio station guaranteeing their place in the public consciousness. But not poor “Computer Blue”. Ask a Rain-head to rehearse or recreate anything else from the album — “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Would Die 4 U”, even “The Beautiful Ones” or “Baby, I’m a Star” — and you’ll have little trouble with the treatment. But this bizarro track, built around a funky little hook, a syncopated drum pattern, and random guitar feedback, sticks out like a surreal sore thumb. As Prince’s echo-heavy voice randomly invokes “Where is my love life?”, the direct disposability of the track hides something far more telling.

Reviewing the writing credits, “Computer Blue” is the only Purple Rain production where Mr. Paisley Park is not 100% in control. The lyrics are credited to him, but the music is made up of random jams between himself, his father, John L. Nelson, the dynamic Revolution duo of Wendy and Lisa, and keyboardist extraordinaire Dr. Fink. In many ways, it represents the exact narrative of the movie, a microcosm of the kind of collaboration it takes a near-tragedy to get The Kid to embark on.

Prince originally recorded the song as an extended 14-minute opus. It contained more electronics, a sing-along chorus, additional lyrics, and even something called “The Hallway Speech.” When the album was being mixed, a nearly eight-minute edit was offered, but that was also trimmed when “Take Me With U” became a last-minute addition. So not only is “Computer Blue” orphaned among what is practically a greatest hits collection on one single album, but it suffered at the hands of its creator before it even hit vinyl.

The history explains the half-realized nature of the track; the lack of all the additional trimmings is tantamount to turning an epic into a clip. If you track down the lyrics for the longer version, the title even makes sense. Throughout, Prince is complaining about his broken down “machine”, unable to find him the love he so desperately needs. Mandating that his emotionless pile of silicon chips receive a new “programming” to learn “women are not butterflies / They’re computers 2 / Just like U Computer Blue”, he hopes for something more pure and spiritual. He rallies against anyone or anything that will “fall in love 2 fast and hate 2 soon / And take 4 granted the feeling’s mutual.”

On Purple Rain, the track feels like a freaky fetish anthem, what with Wendy and Lisa going through the whole “is the water warm enough” spoken-word routine at the beginning. With the excised material reinserted, the song becomes a prophetic, almost painful search by one man for feelings that are meaningful, not mechanical.

It kind of makes you feel bad for this awkward middle child of a song, doesn’t it? Marginalized by its maker, forgotten by many who claim to know the property by heart, this is a clear case of commercial concerns taking the place of artistic needs. Finding a copy of the complete version is next to impossible, though Prince is known to favor live audiences with differing versions of the tune. Still, it doesn’t make life any easier for this misbegotten musical memory from an otherwise earth-shattering sonic statement. Both the album and the film made Prince a superstar on par with Michael Jackson and Madonna, destined partly to redefine the 1980s in his own oddball virtuoso image. Sadly, “Computer Blue” remains the obvious dysfunction in this otherwise solid family unit. – Bill Gibron

5. “Darling Nikki”

That Nikki is one slinky ho. Any hussy bold enough to get her rocks off in a hotel lobby, presumably in full view of any passerby, deserves a wax likeness in the Hooch Hall of Fame. Of course, we’ve no idea whether Miss Thang is holed up at in a Times Square ‘hotsheets’, or the local Ritz-Carlton, but Sweetheart has no shame either way.

Who’s Nikki, you ask? (And no, I don’t have her digits, so stop asking.) She happens to be the titular vamp in Prince’s scandalous 1984 tune, “Darling Nikki”, the most notorious track from his massive Purple Rain album, which followed in Thriller‘s footsteps as the pop crossover smash while demolishing radio-influenced notions of “black” or “white” music, a social construct which sadly continues to flourish.

“Darling Nikki” tells the steamy tale of a “sex fiend” named “Nikki” caught — by His Royal Badness, of course — “masturbating with a magazine”. Our heroine predictably seduces the Purple One in a variety of situations, including an overnight romp at her “castle”, making it clear he should ring her up “anytime U want to grind”. Sonically, the song alternates between stripped-down percussion and swirling melodramatic guitars; Prince, an unquestioned musical prodigy, handled all instrumentation himself. An insinuating keyboard whine — betraying a hint of femme fatale menace — starts us off, and we later hear slapping drum machine beats, possibly hinting at S&M play between Prince and Nikki. A standard-issue heterosexual male fantasy, as it were, not highbrow enough for Hefner but more likely to appear in the pages of Penthouse.

And therein lay the problem. Purple Rain was released during “Morning in America”, Reagan’s mildly jingoistic slogan for reassuring the citizenry that prosperous times were just around the corner, with a caveat. The good times didn’t necessarily include the freewheeling sexual bacchanalia of the 1970s, i.e., wife-swapping, nightclubs catering to group sex, or — for the AIDS-ravaged gay community — no-holds-barred bathhouses. The Gipper favored a more conservative, Rockwellian America but also a wealthier one, apparently oblivious to the contradiction in dictating personal desires in an atmosphere of capitalistic freedom.

To wit, a watchdog group, the Parents Music Resource Center — headed by future Vice-Presidential wife Tipper Gore — formed with the express desire to rate and label music releases, and our little Nikki was definitely on the radar. In fact, after Gore heard “Darling Nikki” blaring from her daughter’s stereo, the song became a keystone exhibit in their crusade, also rousing the ire of hypocritical Jimmy Swaggart and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, veteran purveyors of cheesy Biblical Camp. Eventually, the PMRC was able to coerce the recording industry to adopt “Parental Advisory” stickers for placement on any albums containing sexually suggestive lyrics or profanity.

Although never issued as a single, “Darling Nikki” has firmly established itself in the audiosphere, inspiring numerous covers, including one from the Foo Fighters (!), which Prince ungraciously opposed, even refusing the band’s request to release their version. Shame on you, Prince Rogers Nelson. Are you trying to scare off Miss Nikki’s other admirers? We all heard you screaming in desperation after she left you alone in the sheets, “Come back, Nikki, come back!” Best crawl on back to Paisley Park … Darling Nikki’s grindin’ without U. – Terrence Butcher

6. “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 a 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