In 1984, there was only one man in America more popular than Ronald Reagan. His name was Prince, and he was funky.
Had Prince run for president that year, he would have certainly carried his native Minnesota—the only state Ronnie lost—and he probably would’ve cleaned up most other places. The reason: “Purple Rain,” his groundbreaking, genre-blurring, utterly genius sixth album. It was a massive seller wherever there were radios and people with pulses.
When “Purple Rain” arrived 30 years ago on June 25, 1984, a few weeks had passed since Bruce Springsteen dropped “Born In the USA.” Five months later, Madonna would release “Like a Virgin.” Of those three monumental ’84 albums, only “Purple Rain” doesn’t suffer from dated production, and with its mix of sexy dance-pop and rugged all-American rock ‘n’ roll—not to mention funk, soul, psychedelia, and gospel balladry—it embodies a lot of what people loved about the other two.
Of course, “Purple Rain” was more than just an album. It was also the soundtrack for a movie of the same name, which hit theaters a month after the record landed in stores. Loosely based on Prince’s early days on the Minneapolis scene, the film turned this diminutive Midwestern oddball into a pop-culture giant on par with Elvis, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson.
The “Purple Rain” movie debuted at No. 1, and the album spawned five hit singles, two of which—“When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy”—topped the Billboard Hot 100. To date, it’s sold some 20 million copies—a great many of those replacements for all the records, tapes, and CDs literally played to death by hardcore fans.
“Purple Rain” is that rare critical and commercial success that justifies every scrap of hyperbolic praise. Six albums into his career, Prince had found a terrific band in the Revolution and figured out how to sell his freakiness in malls and movie houses across the country. Read on to get our track-by-track take on an album that briefly had pop fans, punks, metal heads, moms, dads, cheerleaders, accountants, and just about everyone else in the world not named Tipper Gore pledging allegiance to the same purple freak flag.
“Let’s Go Crazy”: In arguably the best intro in pop history, Prince spends the first 40 seconds of this smash single playing gospel preacher, telling us to forget about the afterworld and start enjoying this one. As the track unfolds, he seizes the moment as only he can, fitting funky synths over fuzzy hard rock guitars and urging us to “look for the purple banana,” whatever that is. He ends by climbing back into the pulpit and ripping one holy mother of a guitar solo. Amen.
“Take Me With U”: After some frenzied drum rolls and a paranoid keyboard riff, Prince u-turns into a sweet psych-rock duet with Apollonia, his costar in the film. It’s a song about love conquering all, and the frilly orchestral synth sounds add to the neo-‘60s vibe.
“The Beautiful Ones”: Despite those heavy synths and hollow Linn drums—go-to electronic effects on early Prince albums—“The Beautiful Ones” doesn’t play like some bad ‘80s New Wave song. This lush ballad begins with Prince asking, “Is it him, or is it me?” and over the next five minutes, he gives his would-be lover an increasingly intense sales pitch. By the end, he’s down on his knees, shredding that guitar of his. Let’s see the other guy beat that.
“Computer Blue”: This one starts in the tub, where Revolution members (and real-life lovers) Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are prepping for a little kink. When Prince crashes the party, the track morphs into a bizarre synth-funk suite that completely changes shape two minutes in. The title refers to what Prince deems the malfunctioning “machinery” keeping him from true love, and indeed, “Computer Blue” has the wonderfully disjoined feel of an early PC trying to cope with the command “create freaky bathtub sex jam.”
“Darling Nikki”: The only thing rawer than the guitars are the lyrics, all about a porn-loving gal not shy about pleasuring herself in hotel lobbies. Prince finds her doing exactly that, and he winds up back at her castle, where she actually makes him sign a waiver before blowing his mind. The song inspired Tipper Gore to form the Parents Music Resource Center—the group responsible for those warning labels on albums—but salaciousness aside, “Darling Nikki” is a stunning piece of music. Amid all the hot and sweaty synth and guitar grinding, you’re liable to miss, say, the metal-style double kick drums, which come in just before the rain effects and backwards vocals.
“When Doves Cry”: Famously bass-less and funky all the same, “When Doves Cry” sums up the familial angst at the heart of the “Purple Rain” film. The sadness and anxiety in the central synth riff perfectly reflect the lyrics, which center on a young man’s fears he’s becoming like his emotionally unavailable parents. It’s deceptively complex from both a musical and a psychological standpoint, and yet somehow, against all odds—and against Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds”—it became the year’s top-selling single.
“I Would Die 4 U”: Whether this dance floor favorite is about the connection between god and man, as many fans suggest, or simply the spirit of devotion between two lovers, it’s a reassuring disco-funk workout designed to make you feel good. And despite being released as a single, it segues perfectly into the next track.
“Baby, I’m a Star”: As he wrote the “Purple Rain” album, Prince was already thinking about the movie, and he knew damn well he was about to break big. “Baby, I’m a Star” is his early victory lap. Like “I Would Die 4 U” and the subsequent title track, it was partially recorded live in concert at First Avenue, the Minneapolis rock club immortalized in the film. (Overdubs were added later.) “You might not know it now, but I are—I’m a star,” Prince tells a global audience about to be rocked in ways it can’t begin to understand.
“Purple Rain”: Where do you begin with “Purple Rain?” How about those opening chords—performed live at First Avenue by then-19-year-old Wendy Melvoin. It was her debut outing with the Revolution, and it was the first time this epic psych-gospel ballad had been aired live. One of countless songs in Prince’s catalog that works as both a love song and a religious allegory, “Purple Rain” takes us full circle, ending the record in the church from “Let’s Go Crazy.” At this point in the sermon, Prince is more a messiah than he is pastor, and that final plea, “Let me guide you to the purple rain,” was something all Americans could get behind. It beat the hell out of Reagan’s “It’s morning in America.”