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?
A Fiery Meteor
Of course, the music itself is timeless and remains as powerful and compelling as when it hit like a fiery meteor 33 years ago. “Let’s Go Crazy” opens the album (and the film) with a dramatic whirl of Matt Fink’s keyboard and Prince intoning his famous opening speech: “Dearly beloved / we are gathered here to get through this thing called life!” It’s a bold and dynamic opener, an electrifying pop/rock/funk hybrid sparking with energy. “Let’s Go Crazy” revisits a theme that Prince would explore over and over again during his career, and in fact one particular line might be the ultimate summation of his music in its entirety: “You better live now before the Grim Reaper come knocking on your door!” Indeed. Of course, “Let’s Go Crazy” is particularly notable for its breathtaking finale, a blistering guitar freakout capped by Prince’s hot-blooded shout of “take me away!” Even all these years later it’s a sonic wallop that’s like a jolt of pure electric adrenaline right into the heart. As the album’s second single, “Let’s Go Crazy” followed “When Doves Cry” straight to number one for two weeks in September 1984, and it remains one of his most widely-loved tracks.
The last song to make the cut on Purple Rain is “Take Me With U”, a sparkling pop confection that Prince recorded in late January 1984 but not included on the album until a few months later. The song was intended for Apollonia 6, the Purple Rain companion album written and performed by Prince with vocals by the all-female trio, including leading lady Apollonia Kotero, featured in the movie. Prince realized that he needed a strong pop tune for Purple Rain, so only a few months prior to the album’s released he cut sections of “Computer Blue” and “Let’s Go Crazy” to make room. The track is ostensibly a duet with Kotero, although her voice is actually a blend with Lisa Coleman, who sang the guide vocal on Prince’s original recording, along with Jill Jones. “Take Me With U” appears in the film during one of its happier sequences, as Prince drives his new lady friend (fresh from her Lake Minnetonka purification) around the Minnesota countryside on his purple motorcycle. Released as the album’s fifth and final single in late January 1985, the track reached #25 in the US.
A complete solo recording, “The Beautiful Ones” is a breathtaking rock ballad with one of Prince’s greatest vocal performances, a delicate falsetto that erupts into wildly impassioned screams during the fiery climax. It’s followed by the much-abbreviated “Computer Blue”, a wicked dose of funk that grew out of a jam session with the Revolution and includes a stunningly beautiful guitar solo based on the recurring “Father’s Song” motif. It blends right into the propulsively sexual “Darling Nikki”, a solo recording by Prince about a one-night tryst that caused a frenzy of pearl-clutching from the likes of Tipper Gore for its supposedly pornogrpahic lyrics (which by today’s standards, or even by the standards of some of Prince’s earlier material, are actually fairly tame).
Prince’s scorchingly bitter masterpiece “When Doves Cry” was the final track recorded for Purple Rain, a wholly solo performance laid down at Sunset Studios on 1 March 1984, only 11 weeks prior to it being released as the project’s first single. “When Doves Cry” is an exercise in minimalism with no bass line at all, and from the 0:36 point to 1:07 -- when a slithery keyboard riff appears -- the only instrument backing Prince’s taut vocal is the Linn drum machine. The tension builds in a slow boil of barely controlled desperation and anguish until finally erupting into a catharsis of blazing guitar and brain-searing screams. Prince twists the atmosphere of sexual tension tighter and tighter as the song grooves towards its sonically innovative finale of slippery keyboards and shimmering vocal harmonies.
“When Doves Cry” is 5:54 of gripping melodrama, a stunning display of emotional and musical dexterity that remains arguably Prince’s crowning artistic achievement. Helped by its visually striking video that introduced the Revolution to a wider audience and acted as an incredibly effective trailer for the upcoming film, it became the biggest hit of Prince’s career, logging five weeks at number one. “When Doves Cry” was the fuel that launched Purple Rain to the meteoric success that forever changed Prince’s life and career, and its impact rippled through the music industry in massive waves still being felt today.
“I Would Die 4 U”, a tightly-wound barrage of synths over a kinetic rhythm, segues right into “Baby I’m a Star on the album as well as in the film. They were also performed back-to-back on the Purple Rain tour, and over time the two songs have become intrinsically linked. They are the two oldest compositions on the album, dating from at least as far back as 1981, and both were recorded live with the Revolution in August 1983 during the same performance at First Avenue in Minneapolis that yielded the album’s title track. Released as the album’s fourth single, “I Would Die 4 U” reached #8 in early February 1985. “Baby I’m a Star” is a hard-charging funk raver, a bold declaration of Prince’s self-confidence that became a showstopper in the film and when performed live. Even when it was written, Prince obviously had no doubt that he would capture the massive success that he sought, and of course he was right.
“Purple Rain” itself is, of course, an epic that demonstrates the true power of rock 'n' roll at its emotional best like few other recordings in history. “Purple Rain” is a magnificent anthem, an electric hymn that remains as wrenching and potent as ever. This is the stuff of rock 'n' roll dreams, with a stunning vocal drenched in genuine longing and spiritual intensity, a chorus that will get an entire arena singing along and waving their arms in endless moments of the kind of unforgettable human connection that only music can provide, and that soaring, ferocious guitar solo that pierces straight to the heart no matter how many times it’s played. “Purple Rain” is Prince defined, an unparallelled talent blazing across the sky in a spectacular flash of purple fire that eventually flickered, burned out and was quenched by the very humanity and vulnerability that made a song like this possible in the first place.
Pure, raw, authentic, unmatched… “Purple Rain” is a song for the ages. In the liner notes, Lisa Coleman says of the recording of “Purple Rain”: “Each person had a specific role in the production of his or her part. It was like dancing together… We were at our best, and like a test of a good dance, we could slow dance really well.” Indeed they could.
While long-time fans know every moment of the Purple Rain album by heart thanks to endless listens over three decades, the big draw of the deluxe reissue for most is the second disc, the collection of previously unreleased studio material drawn from around the same time period as the album itself. Given the excitement generated by the release on last year’s hits compilation 4Ever of “Moonbeam Levels”, a much beloved 1999-era outtake that has been circulating on bootlegs since the ‘80s, it’s hardly a surprise that the anticipation among fans for an entire disc from the Vault has been feverish.
It’s immediately clear upon listening to Disc Two that this is not in any way representative of a careful mining of Prince’s Vault or a comprehensive archival project covering the Purple Rain era with any great substance or depth. That said, anything different would have been shocking. The legal turmoil surrounding the disposition of Prince’s music is still ongoing and it will be years before these complicated contractual issues are completely resolved, and a competent team of experts can be assembled and charged with the vast task of managing Prince’s recorded archives, cataloging, restoring, and compiling them into the type of top-tier release that his music demands and fans should expect.
These songs, while clearly released in collaboration with Prince’s estate since the reissue is labeled NPG Records along with Warner Bros. and the family members are thanked in the credits, do not in any way represent the cream of the Vault. There is little doubt that these are recordings that Warner Bros. had in their possession, for which there could be numerous reasons. It seems highly likely, given the song selection, some of the versions used and some of the key tracks circulating among collectors that were omitted, that the sources for these songs are not original masters.
Despite this, Bernie Grundman has them sounding absolutely fantastic. Prince had nothing to do with their selection or compilation, and it seems highly unlikely that he ever would have approved their release. That said, given its status as the best that could be done under the current set of realities, Warner Bros. and the team behind this set did a superb job presenting a very good single disc of outtakes with what they had to work with. And let’s face it -- the official release of ANY unreleased Prince track from the Vault is cause for celebration. A couple tracks are clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel, although nothing on the disc is without value. It’s an odd assortment of songs, but still deeply fascinating from start to finish, and there are moments of absolute purple ecstasy.
The disc opens with “The Dance Electric”, an 11-plus minute funk workout that Prince eventually donated to his longtime associate André Cymone, who released his version -- essentially Prince’s solo recording with Cymone replacing his vocal -- as the first single from his 1985 album A.C.. It reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart but was ignored by Top 40 radio. Unfortunately the version here is missing the razor-sharp guitar solos slicing through the hot funk and Wendy & Lisa’s backing vocals which are present on the version that has been circulating on bootlegs for years -- presumable because either Warner Bros. didn’t have access to that mix (most likely), or because those parts were added later, which would take it too far out of the Purple Rain time period. The version included here feels naked in comparison, yet it’s still a smokin’ track, a heavily rhythmic showcase for Prince’s enormous gifts working the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.
On 27 February 1984, three days before recording “When Doves Cry”, Prince laid down another solo recording, “Love and Sex”, in a single day. Prince delivers a manic, throat-shredding vocal over hyper-jittery funk layered with synths and multi-tracked vocals. “Love is Sex” is more a groove than a fully-realized song, but is carried by Prince’s irrepressible energy. Unlike most multi-instrumentalists who play most (or all) of their own stuff, Prince manages to inject the excitement and chemistry of a tight-ass band performance into a solo recording.
To make room for a late addition to Purple Rain, “Take Me With U”, Prince took the axe once again to a song that had already been edited multiple times, “Computer Blue”. Perhaps the single most exciting track included on Disc Two, the 12-minute “hallway speech” version of “Computer Blue” is something fans have been yearning to hear in pristine sound quality for many years. They finally can. This full version of the song renders the album version to the equivalent status of a horribly butchered single edit. The official track is a malnourished snippet compared to the full cosmic funk glory exhibited here. As with the full version of “Let’s Go Crazy” on Disc Three, this is the version of “Computer Blue” that should have been on the album (and of course that would have required a 2-LP set).
This is Prince at his electrifying best, with some key assists from Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin. “Computer Blue” rocks and funks and seethes and erupts, all the while containing a stunningly gorgeous middle section based around the guitar solo using the “Father’s Song” melody featured so prominently in the film. Fans who have not heard the bootleg of this mix that has been bouncing around the interwebs for many years are going to be blown away when they hear this. It’s interesting that Warner Bros. used the fan vernacular “hallway speech” label as part of the official title. It’s one of several examples of the keen awareness exhibited by the set’s creative team (led by Michael Howe) of just exactly what tracks have been bootlegged and how fans feel about them and discuss them.
The same awareness is shown with the ballad "Electric Intercourse", on which the producers specify as the “Studio Version”, knowing that a live recording of the song has been bootlegged endlessly for many years. This studio recording, though, is one of the set’s great revelations. It’s a stunning vocal, with Prince ending each ascending falsetto line of verse with a quavering layered effect that’s strange and enchanting. Unlike most of the selections on Disc Two, “Electric Intercourse” was a serious contender for inclusion on Purple Rain, and the basic track was recorded during the same performance on 3 August 1983 at First Avenue in Minneapolis (the famed club depicted in the film) as “I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby I’m a Star” and “Purple Rain”.
The song was ultimately dropped in favor of an even stronger balled, “The Beautiful Ones”. Prince undoubtedly made the right choice as “The Beautiful Ones” is clearly the superior song (and it works better in the film), but “Electric Intercourse” has a unique vibe of surreal sexuality. Had Purple Rain been a double album (not likely given the risk Warner Bros. was already taking with the money poured into the film, and also given the fact that Prince’s last release 1999 was a double album), then there might have been a place for it. As it is, the studio version “Electric Intercourse” has languished, gathering dust, for 33 years until being unearthed for his project. It’s emergence is love overdue.
”Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden” is presented as a two-song suite, although they really don’t fit together particularly well. It seems an odd pairing. “Our Destiny” is a dreamy pop song with vocals by Lisa Coleman (Jill Jones also recorded a gorgeous version). It’s lovely, and yet feels underdeveloped despite a shimmery string arrangement, part of which would later be recycled on the “The Ladder” for Around the World in a Day. Better is part two, “Roadhouse Garden”, a trippy pop song that’s a solo recording by Prince (with some added vocals by Wendy & Lisa). Both tracks were recorded long after Purple Rain was finished, so their inclusion here is somewhat of a mystery as they fit stylistically and chronologically more with Around the World in a Day. Also, the merging of the two songs (already so awkward that it’s hard to imagine Prince would ever have considered them releasing them in such a fashion) is botched -- there is an audible click at the 2:53 point as the tracks transition.