Over a year after Prince's stunning death, Warner Bros. offers the first ever expanded edition of the classic Purple Rain. How can something be so amazing and so frustrating at the same time?
Dig if you will the picture.
With a wicked snarl of guitar, two garish wooden doors swing open and startled doves flutter in confusion as we enter a long, purple-hued rectangular room. Flowers, mostly purple, are strewn about the floor as we glide closer to an old-school bathtub hazy with steam, the guitar giving way to a sparse electronic rhythm and a simple but hypnotic descending keyboard riff. A slight, striking, well-muscled man with a shock of dark curls calmly raises his head and turns a sensual stare directly toward us as we approach, his large, expressive eyes thick with lust. He languidly emerges from the tub like a God of Sin rising from his pool of desire, never breaking his penetrating stare directly into our souls by so much as a blink. He stands naked, a golden cross necklace gleaming on his chest, steam billowing around his head. Slowly his right arm rises to point directly at us, his hand opening for us to grasp, inviting and enticing us to come into his world.
We do. How can we not? The spell has already been cast. Prince captured millions in that moment, many of whom have never been able to escape his dominion, nor would they care to try.
“When Doves Cry” was the gateway to the Purple Rain universe: an album, a major motion picture, and a tour that dominated the pop culture landscape of 1984. The daring and dramatic single, a slow-building brew of simmering tension and searing cathartic release, debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on 2 June 1984 at #57 and then jolted up the chart like a missile: #36, #17, #8, #3 and then, on 7 July 1984, it became Prince’s first number one hit. It reigned for five weeks at the top during which span its parent album was released to massive acclaim and sales, and the accompanying feature length film, such a risky endeavor for a company to take on an artist yet to consolidate his long-term mainstream appeal, became an instant smash.
Prince had envisioned Purple Rain as the project that would elevate him to the next tier of stardom, and that’s exactly what it did. The album spent an extraordinary 24 weeks at number one and has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. Hailed by critics and fans, who rarely seem to agree on anything, the album is an electrifying rock/fuck hybrid that is passionate, bold, brazenly sexual and adventurous but still brimming with enough pop hooks to ensnare a large mainstream audience. Purple Rain is one of the cornerstone albums not just of the ‘80s, but in all of pop/rock history. Prince is gone now, but his music is forever, and at the core of his legacy Purple Rain will always stand as his signature triumph, a monument to his boundless talent and ambition.
Prince was a compulsive workaholic in the recording studio, often spending day after day with little sleep, writing and recording new music. Some of it he released in his lifetime, some of it he handed off to the numerous side projects he cultivated over the years, and a vast library of his recorded output -- the famous Vault -- remains unreleased. Prince’s catalog of officially released work is massive, but only represents a fraction of his lifetime of work. Fans have been aware of the Vault since the ‘80s, as slowly but surely unreleased studio material started to leak and trickle out onto bootlegs, often in poor sound quality. Prince has bragged about the Vault and its contents, and associates and collaborators with whom he worked over the years have confirmed that a massive hoard of songs on which they contributed remains unreleased.
Over the decades, dozens and dozens of songs have emerged to circulate among fans in varying degrees of quality (both in terms of sound and content), while others have remained sealed up and unheard by most. Fans have been pining for the floodgates to open and for Prince to unleash the Vault material in a series of box sets or multi-disc expanded reissues of his studio albums for many years, but with a few exceptions Prince was not interested in satisfying those cravings. He always looked forward, focused on whatever his project of the moment might be.
Complicating matters has been his distrust of record labels and the music industry mechanics in general, which rendered it extremely difficult for his back catalog to be properly upgraded as technology has changed over time. Prince’s relationship with Warner Bros. Records, the label on which he released most of his classic albums, turned bitterly contentious in the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s and remained frosty to the very end.
Fans have long been resigned to the realization that the visions of expanded reissues teeming with gems from the Vault in pristine sound quality that have been swimming around their heads like sugar plums were mere daydreams unlikely to ever come to fruition. Most major artists with a long history of landmark albums have by now been subject to lavish reissues, often including treasures of previously unheard material. Carefully curated archival projects and reissue series have been released for artists like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, the Beatles and many others. Even artists with far lesser pedigrees than Prince (and, let’s face it, that includes most everybody) have mined their catalog for often beautifully produced reissues. That has not been the case for Prince, much to his fans’ eternal frustration. His catalog has for years been the most neglected of any major artist in pop/rock history.
As the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain rapidly approached, speculation (and more than a little wishful thinking) intensified that perhaps there was a chance that Prince would relent and work with Warner Bros. to celebrate his beloved masterpiece. Finally, in April 2014, Warner Bros. announced the news that Prince fans had been anticipating for many years: a deluxe reissue of Purple Rain would be released that summer in conjunction with its 30th anniversary, followed by a new studio album by Prince that the company would distribute and promote. Details were sparse, but Warner Bros. promised “long-awaited, previously unheard studio material” as part of the reissue and that future projects would follow. In return, Prince would retain the rights to his master recordings, a goal he had been working toward for many years in his often bitterly antagonistic feud with the media giant.
Prince fans, though, have learned through experience not to allow their excitement to fully blossom until the product is actually in their hands, and for good reason. A long trail of promised projects that have never seen the light of day extends far back throughout Prince’s career. As the 30th anniversary came and went with no announcement of a reissue, it seemed obvious that things had gone awry once again. Warner Bros. followed through with their promise to release and distribute new Prince music -- two new albums in fact, both released on 24 September 2014: Art Official Age, an excellent collection of slick electronic funk/pop and one of Prince’s finest albums of the latter stages of his career, and the less impressive PlecetrumElectrum, an edgier rock-oriented collaboration with his backing band 3RDEYEGIRL. Both albums reached the Top 10 as die-hard fans eagerly snatched them up, but with haphazard promotion and no support from mainstream radio, they shared the fate of other recent Prince albums and faded quickly into obscurity.
The promised Purple Rain reissue, however, never materialized, and fans were left once again to wait and wonder. Prince at one point tweeted cryptically that the reissue had been turned into Warner Bros. and that the ball was in their court. That turned out to be true, but not the whole story. Prince finally delivered the remaster, but only of the main album. He refused Warner Bros. the top-tier Vault material they requested, and the company balked at releasing a single-CD reissue with none of the unreleased tracks they had promised in their press release.
Then two years later, in April 2016, the unthinkable happened. Prince’s sudden death from an opioid overdose rocked the music industry and sent millions of fans reeling. After the initial shock subsided, Prince’s heirs and his associated record labels began complex negotiations regarding the disposition of his massive back catalog and priceless Vault of unreleased material. While still mourning his death, fans began to speculate that perhaps now there was a chance that Prince’s full music legacy might finally be revealed.
Six months after his death, in October 2016, Warner Bros. and representatives of Prince’s estate announced that a 2-CD hits collection titled 4Ever would be released in November of that year, and in early 2017 the long-delayed Purple Rain reissue would follow. It seemed with Prince’s death his famous Vault was finally being pried open, yet fans greeted the news with anticipation mixed with trepidation. We’d been down this path before. 4Ever appeared as promised, but as 2017 stretched on with no word about the Purple Rain reissue, fans began to wonder if yet another disappointment loomed. Finally, in late April 2017, their worries were put to rest: the Purple Rain deluxe reissue, with a full disc of unreleased studio material and a remastered version of the original album supervised by Prince before he died, would be released this summer.
The set finally hit retailers on June 23 in multiple formats. The deluxe edition contains three CDs and a DVD -- the original album remastered, a disc of previously unreleased material from the Purple Rain era, a disc containing all of the album’s single edits, B-sides and 12-inch extended remixes, and the first ever DVD release of a performance from 30 March 1985 in Syracuse previously available back in the ‘80s on VHS as Prince And The Revolution: Live. A 2-CD edition with just the remastered original album and unreleased material is also available, along with a newly remastered vinyl edition with a silvery reflective cover.
So of course the big question remains: is it everything fans had hoped? Well… no. Of course, it was never going to be possible to please everybody, but this project has every sign of being a hastily thrown-together stop-gap release. The album itself remains a masterpiece, and while the reissue has some jaw-dropping moments of greatness on the disc of previously unavailable tracks, the package as a whole falls well short of the definitive expanded edition of Purple Rain than an album of it’s indisputably exalted stature deserves. That said, perhaps with detachment we can acknowledge that this may be the best we could have expected under the circumstances, and that perhaps in the future a more satisfying exploration of this incredibly important era of Prince’s music will be unveiled.
As for the current release -- how can something be so amazing and so frustrating at the same time? Prince fans know the feeling well -- it’s the territory they’ve tread for 40 years. The music itself, of course, remains nothing short of staggeringly brilliant, and a full disc of previously unreleased material is a treasure that fans have been lusting after for decades. It seems churlish to object in any way… and yet, the remaster is botched, and the disc of unreleased material is an awkward and haphazard sampler that seems to represent what Warner Bros. had readily available to them than a carefully curated archival of Prince’s Purple Rain-era recordings.
Warner Bros. has hyped this collection as “Prince’s final word on his definitive masterpiece” -- an easy claim to make considering Prince is no longer with us. The new reissue is dubbed the “2015 Paisley Park Remaster supervised by Prince”, which is a sly attempt to imply Prince was manning the controls himself when in reality he simply foisted the project onto Josh Welton, husband of Hannah Welton, drummer of Prince’s backing band at the time, 3RDEYEGIRL. Welton collaborated with Prince on the outstanding Art Official Age, but when handed a more prominent role on 2015’s HITNRUN: Phase One the result was the single worst album of Prince’s career.
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Giving the keys of his ultimate classic to such a studio novice was such a Princely move -- surely a finger in the eye of Warner Bros. and a not-so-subtle shrug that the project meant little to him and was only being done to allow wider distribution of his new music. Perhaps it’s not so surprising given Prince’s apparent indifference to the appalling state of his back catalog, and ultimately it’s his creation and was certainly his decision to make. That said, to those who hold music as personally vital, it’s shocking that Prince chose to entrust a masterpiece so important to so many people, a cultural touchstone of monumental importance, to an amateur rather than allowing a top-tier pro to treat it with the reverence and careful attention it deserves.
Again, though, it’s not surprising -- surrendering control of his work to someone from outside his purple bubble and not firmly flattened under his finely-formed thumb is something that was simply not in Prince’s DNA. Prince was undoubtedly great at many things, but perhaps his greatest flaw in regard to his music is that he did not appreciate his own limitations. The Purple Rain remaster is a shining example of that short-sightedness. Welton no doubt tried his best but the end result is nothing short of unlistenable.
Welton’s remaster is a brickwalled disaster, harsh and brutal on the ears. It is undeniably far louder than the original CD pressing, which may make it seem to pop out with more clarity (especially on subpar audio equipment), but Welton destroyed the music’s dynamic range in the process. It’s a huge wasted opportunity. All one needs to do is compare the sound on Disc One, Welton’s work, with the unreleased material on Disc Two or the single versions on Disc Three -- both remastered by Bernie Grundman, one of the best in the business -- to understand why a true professional was needed for this project. Load Disc One and Disc Three into your CD player, cue up “Let’s Go Crazy” or “Take Me With U” on both, and compare Welton’s travesty with Grundman’s work and the difference is painfully obvious.
The vinyl pressing is marginally better than the CD, but is still lackluster. If you have the 2009 reissue of Purple Rain on vinyl in your collection or, better yet, a clean copy of the original 1984 pressing, there is absolutely zero reason to buy the new vinyl edition unless you’re enamoured by the cool silvery cover. The new remaster doesn’t even register on the scale when compared to some of the highest quality reissues in recent years like the stunning series from Peter Gabriel, for instance, or the phenomenal new pressing of Radiohead’s OK Computer. The lavish attention to detail and lovingly produced reissues in recent years by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and others all blow Purple Rain out of the water, and it’s not even close. It’s an embarrassment.