Note:I was just over 1,800 words into the post you’re about to read when I finally admitted defeat; there is, quite simply, no way that I can fit everything I have to say about “Purple Rain” into a single, digestible piece of writing. So, in the grand tradition of my “Controversy” three-parter from 2018, I’m splitting it into chapters. The first, and likely longest, will talk about the song’s composition; the second will go into detail about its debut performance at First Avenue on August 3, 1983; and the third will delve into the final recording that appears on the Purple Rain album and film. There will probably also be a coda of some kind discussing the song’s impressive (and ongoing) afterlife. Basically, just think of July 2021 as my unofficial “Purple Rain” month–and, for the next several weeks, sit back and let me guide u through the purple rain.
It’s a sweltering August night at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Prince and his band have just returned to the stage for the first encore of their benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre: the local dance company and school, located just up the street at 6th and Hennepin, where the musicians have been taking dance and movement classes to prepare for their imminent feature film debut. Moments earlier, MDT founder and artistic director Loyce Houlton thanked Prince with a hug, declaring, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Before that, Prince had run the group through a fierce 10-song set: sprinkling a handful of crowd-pleasers amongst the largely new material, and ending with the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, his Number 6 pop hit “Little Red Corvette.”
No one in the sold-out crowd of around 1,500 recognizes the chords that now ring out from the darkened stage. Even the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, hasn’t heard the song before; it wasn’t among the tapes he’d reviewed to prepare for his draft of the screenplay. But the chords–played by 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in her first public performance with Prince–are immediately attention-grabbing: rich and colorful and uniquely voiced, somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
A spotlight shines on Wendy as she continues to play, her purple Rickenbacker 330 echoed by her partner Lisa Coleman playing the same progression on electric piano. Prince begins to solo around the edges of the progression; he paces the stage, walking out to the edge of the crowd as he plays, then slings his “Madcat” Telecaster around his back and makes his way to the microphone at center stage. He holds the mic for an instant and backs away, as if suddenly overwhelmed. Then, he steps back to the mic and begins to sing: “I never meant 2 cause u any sorrow…”
In case you missed it, yesterday I finally closed the book on the 1999 era for dance / music / sex / romance (well, almost… I still plan to write “bonus tracks” posts on “Vagina,” “Colleen,” “You’re All I Want,” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” for Patreon readers in the near future). This was the blog’s biggest undertaking to date: comprising 33 track posts and three albums, and taking almost 16 months from the first post (“International Lover,” way back in November of 2018!) and the last. As you know, I can be pretty tough on myself; but right now, I’m letting myself take some pride in what I’ve accomplished.
1999, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, is one of my favorite Prince albums; on a good day, it may even be number one, and it’s certainly near the top of my favorites by any artist. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I’ve done this masterpiece justice with 11 blog posts, but I sure as hell tried my best; so here they are now, in ascending order of my favorite tracks:
11. “Free” No surprises here, I’m guessing; I was pretty rough on “Free” in my original post, and it’s still the song I’m likeliest to skip when I’m listening to 1999 on a skip-friendly format. It ain’t so bad, really–any song as weird as this one is hard for me to outright hate–but it’s the weak point on an otherwise near-perfect album.
10. “International Lover” This ranking I feel a bit guiltier about, because “International Lover” really is a lot of fun: a chance for Prince to be sexy and silly in more or less equal measure, all while showing off his increasingly virtuosic vocals. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the live-in-the-studio first take on 1999 Super Deluxe, complete with barely-suppressed giggles by Prince and little-known session drummer Morris Day.
9. “Lady Cab Driver” This isn’t going to get easier, is it? Before you send me hate mail, know that I adore “Lady Cab Driver”–it’s just the textbook definition of an album track, there to add mood and menace (and, yes, funk) to the back half of 1999. If you’re wondering what I thought about “Rearrange,” one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe, this post answers that question, too.
8.“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” Another of those moody disc two tracks: indispensable to 1999’s dystopian atmosphere, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for a single track to play. I gave this the edge over “Lady Cab Driver” for the new life it took on in concert; see the long list of live reinterpretations at the end of the post.
7. “D.M.S.R.” It should tell you just how high in my esteem 1999 is as an album when the song I named my blog after doesn’t even make the top 50%. A great dance track, and an even better repository of weird little details: from “Jamie Starr’s a thief!” to Lisa’s blood-curdling scream for help.
6. “All the Critics Love U in New York” I know I might get some flack for ranking this above “D.M.S.R.” (and “Something in the Water,” and…), but “All the Critics” needs the boost. It’s an underrated snapshot of Prince at the cutting edge; a pitch-perfect homage to Detroit techno while the genre was still in its infancy.
5.“Delirious” As an avowed fan of Rockabilly Prince, who am I to deny the subgenre’s peak? “Delirious” may be 1999 at its most ’80s-dated, but I defy anyone to listen and not walk away with those damn keyboards stuck in your head.
4. “Automatic” My favorite of 1999’s darker, weirder second half, and maybe even the peak of New Wave Prince (another of my personal favorites, as readers are no doubt aware). If I had to pick a single track to explain why 1999 speaks to me personally–not the best or the most important song, but the one that scratches my own particular, deeply subjective itch–“Automatic” might be it.
3.“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” …Or, it might be this one. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is the album’s strongest showing for Dirty Prince, with his late-song monologue containing the most explicit language on the record; but for my money, the dirtiest thing about the track is the chugging, pumping bass-synth line, a retro-futuristic approximation of the world’s creakiest bedsprings.
2. “1999” Honestly, just call it a tie for first place. I’ve already expended a little over 4,700 words on “1999”–my longest single post to date!–so today, I’ll just say that the album version is a totally different beast from the radio edit: freakier, funkier, and still totally vital, even with the year 1999 (never mind the song) over 20 years in the rear-view mirror. Accept no substitutes.
1.“Little Red Corvette” Look, I’ve said before, my tastes as a Prince fan are pretty basic; and why not, since his biggest mainstream hits were as inventive as most artists’ avant-garde? “Little Red Corvette” may be the normie’s choice for best track on 1999, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fucking masterwork: as much a work of literature as it is an exemplar of pop songcraft. To paraphrase my appearance on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewindpodcast, if “Little Red Corvette” doesn’t outlast us all on this planet, then the planet was overrated anyway.
To no one’s surprise, my 1999 posts had the highest average word count of any album to date: 1,964, versus 1,758 forControversy, 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, and 1,379 for For You.
So, what’s next? In terms of the main blog, it’s on to Purple Rain; I’ll be starting that chapter with “Baby I’m a Star.” As noted above, I’m also tying up some loose ends from the 1999 era with Patreon-exclusive posts in the near future; and, speaking of Patreon, it’s past time that I wrote my first patron-requested post: an alternate-timeline scenario requested by Darling Nisi, which will handily help set up the Purple Rain era. Finally, speaking of Nisi, I’ve already recorded a long-belated Dirty Mindpodcast with her and Harold Pride, which I’ll be putting up (first for patrons, and then for everyone) once I’ve finished editing it.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot in the pipeline; I just ask for your continued patience as I work on it. The international COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of instability into my day-to-day routine: I didn’t even have the chance to write on the blog that I would be presenting at the DM40GB30 symposium, originally scheduled for next month, before it was postponed until an undetermined later date. And while you might expect a self-imposed quarantine to be a boon for my productivity, the fact that I’ll also be juggling remote work with entertaining and educating a seven-year-old whose school has been shut down means that I’ll probably be spread thinner than usual. These are strange times, and I don’t know what is going to happen next. All I can promise is that I will keep writing, and I hope that you’ll keep reading, too.
In the meantime, here are those growing playlists.
Note: Incredibly, it’s been just over three years since I first wrote about “Moonbeam Levels” for dance / music / sex / romance. That post focused on the song’s status as the first posthumously-released track from Prince’s Vault, and was colored by the then-recent passings of both Prince and David Bowie, who I still consider to be an unsung source of inspiration for the song. You can still read that version if you want; but here is what I now consider to be the official d / m / s / r take on “Moonbeam Levels.”
In early July 1982, after spending the latter half of the spring back home in Minnesota, Prince returned to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. His goal, almost certainly, was to finish the album that would become 1999. But in typical fashion, he overshot that goal: instead, launching himself into the stratosphere with the fittingly extraterrestrial outtake “Moonbeam Levels.”
In some ways, “Moonbeam Levels” feels very much of a piece with the other songs Prince was recording in mid-1982. Like many of the tracks that would end up on 1999, it opens with a prominent Linn LM-1 beat: in this case, the mechanical pulse of a bass drum, punctuated by a hiss of synthesized exhaust. To this futuristic foundation, Prince adds Blade Runner synth pads and lyrics evoking space travel: his narrator fantasizes about “a nice condo overlookin’ the rings of Saturn” and asks for the titular “moonbeam levels,” a poetic turn of phrase that conjures up images of interplanetary transmissions and cosmic rays. Meanwhile, the ever-present threat of annihilation looms: Prince imagines a never-written novel with the capsule summary, “Boy loses girl in a rainstorm, nuclear World War III,” his pet themes of personal and global apocalypse summed up in a single, devastating line. The whole package feels custom-built for precisely the kind of science-fiction pop-funk epic Prince had spent the past six months assembling piece by piece.
This morning, I plonked down 264 dollars and 98 cents of imaginary money on the upcoming 10-LP + DVD “Super Deluxe” box set version of 1999, which was announced yesterday for release in late November. I don’t know how, exactly, I’m going to pay for it. Maybe it will be my first splurge of a promotion I’m probably due for at my day job in November; maybe I’ll pinch pennies from my regular wages; maybe I’ll sell some old shit; most likely, I’ll just add it to the existing pile of debt that will likely be the only inheritance I leave to my beloved son. The point is–unlike you, dear patrons, who are clearly people of distinction and only spend your money on sensible things–I am bad with money, and I want this thing really bad.
But whatever else there is to say about my financial follies, one thing is for sure: I am going to turn it into content. So, even though all we have at this point is a track list and a few tiny tidbits on the bonus tracks, let’s speculate on the thing that is going to knock a couple points off my credit score come November.
To organize my thoughts a little bit, I’ll run down the announced Super Deluxe set disc by disc. And of course, I’d like to hear what you’re all thinking about it, so let me know in the comments!
After a string of songs exploring, to various degrees, the darker side of his emotional spectrum, Prince capped off his late April and early May 1982 sessions at Sunset Sound with something light and frothy. Sonically, “Delirious” is cut from the same cloth as most of its predecessors on the album that would become 1999: from the driving Linn LM-1 beat to the sparse, but infectious synth line. Yet where songs like “Automatic” and “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” assemble these building blocks into complex, ever-shifting structures, “Delirious” offers more straightforward pleasures: it’s a simple eight-bar blues, as pure and elemental as Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” or Jesse Stone’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”
With its solidly retro foundation, “Delirious” is arguably the pinnacle of Prince’s brief, but intense infatuation with 1950s rock ‘n’ roll: an “obsession,” according to guitarist Dez Dickerson, that began when the band caught a show by rockabilly revivalists the Stray Cats while in London on the Dirty Mind tour. “We were all blown away with them,” Dickerson told Nashville Scene magazine in 2014, “the look, [singer] Brian Setzer’s amazing sound, just the sheer authenticity of it.” The experience inspired a handful of songs–most famously “Jack U Off” from 1981’s Controversy, but also tracks like the unreleased “You’re All I Want.” Perhaps even more notably, according to Dickerson, it also inspired both him and Prince to style their choppy punk hairdos into Little Richard-style pompadours (Shawhan 2014).