At 30, Purple Rain Is Still So Good That "Purple Rain" Isn't Even Its Best Ballad
Your copy of Purple Rain sounds terrible.
Who would he die for? You.
That's no knock against the music, that urgent neon-bug-funk zeitgeist bomb Prince straddled and launched and screamed on as it blew up the world, kind of like what Slim Pickens did to that nuke in Dr. Strangelove but with more cream. That music still stirs and kills and baffles. Purple Rain is so great that "Purple Rain" itself might not even be its best ballad.
It's a touchstone still worth touching, a critical and commercial smash that achieved what Kanye, Stevie, Michael, the Beatles and few others have managed: How often is the best record the most popular record? Especially one this anguished, cryptic and even masturbatory? The key hit married sex talk with the late-night terror that you're turning into your parents. "Baby I'm a Star" is four minutes of '84's best band working its hands in its leader's pants as he tells us what we already know. And the title track, Prince's attempt to write a Bob Seger song, still has literal-minded karaoke folks asking, "What the hell's that mean?"
(Karaoke tip: Never sing "Purple Rain." Almost all versions of it cut off before the falsetto sing-along you've been practicing in your shower.)
But for all that, your CD or MP3 version of Purple Rain -- an album that hit stores exactly 30 years ago yesterday -- is just a tiny, tinny hint of what the man and his Revolution actually unleashed.
You know the story about how Prince cut the bass track off "When Doves Cry," giving that hit, maybe his greatest genius-humps-a-drum-machine solo jobs, its spare, haunted feel? On our iPods and laptops and CD players, "When Doves Cry" hardly stands out; pretty much the whole of the album feels like it's been subjected to the same stripping away.
You can hear only a rumor of whatever Revolution bassman Brown Mark was laying down on "Let's Go Crazy," and there's no way you can feel it. Later, on "The Beautiful Ones," the growls and percolations of the synthesizers feel merely decorative rather than like some amniotic element in which the singer is drowning. Dare to turn "The Beautiful Ones" up loud enough for its waves of sound to wash over you with any power, and Prince's scream-o freakout at the end -- one of the best scream-o freakouts in all of pop -- will be so far in the red that you'll actually see that red: Your eyes will pop and bleed.
Has any album so great ever been allowed to sound so shitty for so long? Seriously, back in the day my dad dubbed the performance numbers from his VHS copy of the Purple Rain movie onto a high-end cassette tape. That tape still sounds better than the CD. Simply put: Non-vinyl versions of the Purple Rain album are like some beer you know will taste great but whose pour is half head.
The problem, of course, is that the CD mix was an afterthought back in 1984, and that relations between Prince and his then-label Warner Brothers have been so bad for so long that both parties have been happy enough doing what is, for the music industry, unthinkable: damming up a revenue stream. Rather than get the remastered deluxe-edition treatment that even goddamn Oasis is enjoying these days, Prince's catalog has languished, with everything before 1990s Graffiti Bridge suffering from a fatal thinness, especially the earliest, wildest records. The bass on my '70s Waylon Jennings CDs kicks harder than anything on '82s 1999, the sprawling, anxious, dance-yrself-horny Prince album that more than any other speaks to our musical moment --here's 70 minutes of jitter-synth brilliance, all faint and flattened thanks to engineers who hadn't yet mastered the new digital tech.
Word is Warner and Prince have made up. That new remastered versions are on the way. That you'll be able to hear what the Revolution is actually doing. That the Vault will be opened and rarities appended onto the re-releases -- the long version of "Computer Blue," maybe? That maybe some of those vinyl-only B-sides and remixes might at last make CD in their full form. ("Erotic City" should never be less than seven minutes long.) That maybe the Time, Sheila E. and the Vanity 6 might get welcome reissues as well. That some of his thousands of archived live shows might at last get legit release. That Prince fans will at last get pleasantly gouged the way Bowie and Costello fans have throughout the CD era. That there's still money waiting to be made on these old records.
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