Purple Rain. Prince and The Revolution
1984, Warner Bros. Producer: Prince and The Revolution
Purchased: ca. 1990
IN A NUTSHELL – Classic 80s soundtrack from one of the decade’s biggest stars combines funk, rock, and R&B with some super-catchy melodies. The drums sometimes sound like they’re programmed by Casio, but it’s still an all-time dance party classic album.
A NOTE TO READERS: Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson is quite diligent about removing any versions of his songs from the internet. He’s sued fans for posting videos, his record company sued a mom for posting a short clip of her toddler dancing to his song (the mom countersued and won), and he’s just been generally hostile to the notion of his music (or his versions of others’ music) being played without him being compensated.
Now, as a person who believes art has value and should be valued, I am fully on his side in his wish to get paid. Sure, sure, he’s a kajillionaire and it’s not like he needs more money. But I think anyone who makes art should be compensated. It’s hard to think of any other item besides music that the general public just assumes they should have for nothing.
However, as a person writing a blog about music on a (somewhat) regular basis, the fact that I can’t easily get videos of his songs is super-annoying. So this is my warning to you, dear readers: don’t be surprised if ALL THE LINKS to ALL THE PRINCE VIDEOS in this blog aren’t working when you try to listen.
Cardboard has a very distinctive smell. You wouldn’t necessarily notice it just from having a few boxes around your house from Amazon deliveries, and stores like BJ’s and Costco, where they make you cram your purchases into weirdly shaped, practically useless cardboard containers instead of bags.
But if you’ve ever spent a little time in, for example, a 240,000 square-foot warehouse, stacked 30-feet high with cardboard boxes – a warehouse that includes a sizable section reserved for thousands of flattened, ready-to-build cardboard boxes that – as part of your job – you will fold, origami-by-numbers style, into a wide array of box types to contain a broad range of soon-to-be-expired chocolate products – you’ll know the smell of cardboard. Even today, on the morning after a pizza delivery, the ancient brain part I share with muskrats and weasels will immediately extract that cardboard scent from the surrounding pepperoni and sauce; and as I carry the box to the recycling container the smell carries the summer of ’87 back to me in striking detail.
I turned 20 in the summer of 1987, and it was a year of transition for me. My sophomore year at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science had just ended1, and I had decided that in the fall I wouldn’t return, but would instead matriculate at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
I needed a summer job, and I wanted one that paid the most money. I applied and interviewed at several places, and I took jobs and quit jobs at both Sears and Rent-A-Center before I got the call that changed my life: it was The Hershey Company saying that I was the man for their Chocolate Factory job. At $4.50 an hour (75¢ more than either of the other places) it was a bulging wage, the magnitude of which indicated just how much money the chocolate industry was raking in.
I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had many experiences that, when divulged in conversation, spark the imagination of my interlocutor such that a smile crosses their face and the single word “Really?!?” is spoken, drawn out to a grin, and paired with twinkling eyes, so as to imply the unspoken words “I want to hear more about that!” These experiences include appearing on the game show “Jeopardy!”; being a professional stand-up comic; and playing at CBGB’s with my old band. However, none of these experiences elicits as much excited anticipation from a listener as does the statement, “I used to work at The Hershey Chocolate factory.”
It conjures wonderful imagery in a person’s mind, of drinking from chocolate rivers, eating vibrant flowers and gloriously floating amid bubbles of Fizzy Lifting Drink. I’m surprised I was never asked, “Did you have your own Oompa Loompa?”
Chocolate has a strong effect on the brain, and a residue of that effect is the insistent belief, often spoken directly to me, that working with the stuff eight hours a day is some sort of a dream job. However the truth is that after a few 8 hour overnight shifts in a warehouse folding cardboard boxes and stuffing Hershey Kisses into clear plastic tubes2, even a jolly little Oompa Loompa will find himself searching Trivago for flights back to Loompaland – Snozzwangers and Vermicious Knids be damned!!
To earn those exorbitant wages I worked third shift at a Hershey Chocolate warehouse3, 11 pm to 7 am, from Sunday to Thursday night. At first glance, this schedule sounds terrific! “Why, that’s basically Friday, Saturday and Sunday off!” But in reality, those three days are camouflage for what amounts to, basically, nearly – but not quite – one measly day of rest.
You see, after four days spent sleeping, and five nights spent awake, you’ll arrive home from work at about 8 am on Friday. Your body will want to go to sleep that Friday morning, as usual. No matter what you try to do to try to manage your body’s need for sleep – nap, exercise, coffee, alcohol – you are unlikely to enjoy a “day off” on Friday. Or if you do stay awake to enjoy the day, you won’t be able to enjoy that Friday night, like all of the other college students at home for the summer. You’ll have to sleep at some point, so you’ll have to choose: Friday night or Friday day. On Saturday the effects of your Friday choice will kick in, either by being unable to get out of bed until mid afternoon, or by falling asleep in early evening4, thus wiping out a good deal of that day, too. Then you’ll spend all day Sunday reflexively counting the hours and minutes until it’s time to leave the house at 10:30 pm for your “Monday,” a Sword of Damocles preventing you from experiencing much of anything that could be described as “relaxing.” It all boils down to not quite a full Saturday to relax.
That summer demonstrated that I never wanted another third shift job again. I could tell it was unhealthy and I felt miserable. About the only positive aspect of it was that my dad was also worked 3rd shift that summer5, and so several times during those few months I met him and some of his colleagues after work to play golf. Then again, in retrospect, while it was indeed nice to hang out with dad, I don’t know if the experience really classifies as “positive:” walking 5 miles in the morning heat and humidity, inhaling cigar smoke from dad’s buddies’ cheap-o cigars (smoked to “drive off the bugs,” which therefore chose to swarm around me), frustrating myself by playing a ridiculous game at which I was horrifically bad, all while nursing the compounding effects of irregular sleep patterns. But it was the best thing about the summer of ’87.
The warehouse was uniquely situated with regard to 80s American social groups. It sat in a town, Hershey, with quite a bit of wealth, and it was within a 15-mile radius of both urban Harrisburg and rural Pennsylvania Dutch country. The summertime workforce drew from the populations of all of these areas, so students from Williams and Bryn Mawr anticipating their fall semesters abroad folded boxes alongside Harrisburg Area Community College part-timers and Evangelical pastors-in-training at Lancaster Bible College.
We worked on boring, little assembly lines, emptying large containers of soon-to-expire chocolate products, and placing their contents into smaller containers and specialty displays. For example: if a box of 24 Hershey’s Syrup bottles was due to expire in two months, we’d empty the box and bundle sets of 8 bottles with an ice cream-themed cardboard display box that someone on second shift had origamied. They’d be shipped to stores in the hopes that syrup eaters would find them more enticing if they were presented in a different setting than simply crammed next to jars of Nesquik powder and Fluff on the Giant Foods’ sugary shit shelves.
We Oompa-Loompoid workers were randomly sorted into teams each Sunday night and each team was assigned a “line” (i.e. “Mr. Goodbar,” “Hershey Kisses,” “Kit Kat”) on which it worked for a week at a time. There were only a total of about 30 people on the night shift and we got to know each other in the shallow-yet-sometimes-too-deep way that one gets to know someone when jabbering together as a means to stay awake all night. You’d get to talking with someone, never making eye-contact, just focusing on opening boxes of Mr. Goodbars and sliding the box to the hands next to you, and soon enough the conversation with … Jess? Jen? … you’d never get it straight, but anyway, your tale about a crazy party you attended freshman year might segue into her story revealing she had a bowel resection as a nine year old.
One thing we did share was music, as each line was allowed a boom box. In those (mostly) pre-individualized music days, we shared music as a group might share a large cauldron of soup. In this diverse group, few people enjoyed the same kind of soup, so at the beginning of the week a general soup-cooking order was established – Bill will make Chicken Noodle Tuesday, Jane and Ted will make tomato on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday we’re all gonna have to eat Gladys’s nasty Borscht with Lentils and Okra – (i.e. Contemporary Christian Music or Christian Rock.)
Most folks selecting the music were, sadly, Top 40 aficionados, so WINK 104 was the usual music choice. I can still recall the hit songs from the summer of ’87 without having to double-check my facts on Google. And I still get nauseous from each of them, like someone getting a whiff of tequila the morning after barfing from drinking too much. “Who’s that Girl,” by Madonna. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2. “I Want Your Sex,” by George Michael. “Shakedown“, by Bob Seger. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston. “Mary’s Prayer,” by some guy6. I think those were the only 6 songs played that summer.
Other people brought cassettes to play, or tuned in to classic rock or Christian rock.
Now, by 1987 I was very aware of the musician named Prince. When I was in middle school he had a hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” that my sisters loved, and that I liked, too, in my 12-year-old disco fan way. By the time I got to high school, he was well-known as a freaky-looking, sexually ambiguous R&B singer, whose hits “1999,” and “Little Red Corvette” were in constant rotation on MTV.
By the summer of ’87, he was just some guy making music that I never really cared for much. It’s true, as my friend Josh had pointed out back in high school, after we sat through a slideshow by Josten’s that used a Prince song as background, that he was obviously a phenomenal guitar player7 and I was a fan of guitar. But I still wasn’t interested. Apart from the few songs MTV played, I didn’t listen much to R&B, and Prince’s songs were way too sexual-sounding for me to get into.
But a whiff of cardboard box today can place me back at the exact moment my opinion of Prince was altered. I was on a line at the warehouse, opening and sliding boxes in the middle of the night, when someone (I think the blonde woman with acne scars – that’s all I remember) who had control of the boom box for a night brought along a cassette of Purple Rain to play. I remember that the energy in the line picked up immediately, and most everyone around me sang along to every song, did little dances as they worked, performed the “I Would Die 4 U” hand motions when appropriate, and generally had a blast. It seemed that with every passing song I thought, “hey that one wasn’t too bad …” then girded myself for the follow-up that I assumed I’d hate. But it never really came. I found myself moving from grim acceptance of that evening’s poor soup choice – a soup I’d never really tasted much of at all – to wondering where I could get the recipe. It really just took one listen. Or maybe two, as I recall that the general consensus was that the cassette should be played again immediately.
Purple Rain is the soundtrack to a supposedly very bad movie starring Prince. It appears on every list of best-soundtracks-of-bad-movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen the movie, so I don’t know how bad it is, but I do know that the soundtrack is very, very good.
It’s one of Prince’s most famous songs, still receiving airplay today on Oldies stations that, for the sake of their vain, faint-hearted listening audience (i.e. me) don’t refer to themselves as Oldies stations. The eulogeic introduction, with steady and swooping organ, oddly sets the stage for the song’s theme of celebrating life. A drum beat enters at about 40 seconds, and the spoken words start to swirl and echo, disintegrating around the instrumentation. The beat is simple and driving, and it carries the song throughout. A good dance song9 requires that kind of simplicity, and it meshes well with the simple four note hook that the keyboards play. I’m always a fan of the stuff going on in the background in songs, the things you might not notice on first listen. (This is one of the joys of being a Beatles fan.) And what I like in this song is the distorted guitar answering the keyboard’s hook throughout. It’s a simple riff, but it sounds really cool back there. The entire song is fun and bouncy, and who doesn’t like shouting along to the words “Let’s go crazy!” in any song? Prince also has a knack for knowing where to go – chord-wise – when moving from verse to chorus, as demonstrated at the 1:32 mark. These changes make his songs seem … I don’t know how to explain this well, but almost like they are part of nature, like they existed and he just unearthed them somehow. This is another bit of pop-music genius that he shares with the Beatles10.
As fun and danceable as this song is, it’s very much – to me – a guitar song, as well, due to the crunchy riffing and two strong solos. The first appears at 2:40, with Prince wailing like the hair metal boys who were just starting to pop up around 1984. Then he reenters with a stunning cadenza at 3:54. This is the part of the song I remember impressed Josh back in high school. It also helps to bring the song to a dramatic close, one suitable for a song that began with such an unforgettable opening.
Part of my problem with Prince songs has been – and continues to be – his use of drum machines (or anyway, drums that sound like machines.) Even in a great song like “Let’s Go Crazy,” the drums aren’t much to write about. The second track on Purple Rain, “Take Me With U,” at least begins with some cool drum flourishes:
The bass drum plays a heartbeat, which is particularly noticeable against the opening lyrics, “I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart.” As with “Let’s Go Crazy,” another catchy, simple riff – this time played by synthetic orchestra – carries the song. The cool, hard-to-detect, interesting bit in this one is the very subtle acoustic guitar (0:21, 0:30, etc) that provides an answer to the riff’s melody, an answer that later in the song is played by violins (or, anyway, synthetic violins.) It’s a catchy duet with Kardashianesque11 80s personality Apollonia, and again showcases Prince’s ability to create songs with changes (0:47) that have a truly “natural” feel. A great sing-along song about true love, it always struck me that in the bridge, Apollonia sings “I don’t care if we spend the night in your mansion …” and not, “I don’t care if we spend the night in your apartment you share with 3 other people, in which you have a bedroom off the kitchen in a converted pantry …,” a living arrangement I once had. It suggested a bit of a gold-digger attitude that confirmed Apollonia probably wasn’t the woman for me.12
And maybe the fact that I think of myself as an underdog is why I always liked the next song, and found myself a little surprised that Prince wrote it:
“The Beautiful Ones” is about a situation that I find it hard to believe Prince has ever found himself – falling for someone who’s not interested in him. Musically, it’s the kind of song that made me write off Prince for many years – full of synthesizer blips and noises, sung in an overly emotional, falsetto voice. But I came to enjoy the song over the years, mainly because I connected with the lyrics, having spent many teen/young adult years feeling like I always fell for girls who had no romantic interest in me. I never blamed it on The Beautiful Ones, however; I always just figured I was a loser. So, when Prince goes nuts vocally from 3:20 through the end of the song, I could relate to the emotions expressed – the anger, frustration, sadness.
As much as I liked the songs on Side One, Side Two of Purple Rain was always my favorite side. It’s only four songs, but they are great ones.
My least favorite of the bunch is probably Prince’s biggest hit ever, the number one song of 1984, “When Doves Cry.”
There’s not much to say about it. It’s a decent song, but I’ve heard it too much in my life to leave it on the radio if it comes on. However, I’ll say this: it’s pretty cool that a dance song has NO BASS in it! As a bass player myself, I find that pretty astonishing. If you never noticed, give it another listen! Also – Prince is a kook. Who thinks up a creepy line like “Animals strike curious poses/they feel the heat between me and you”? AND makes it sound so good? The line always reminded me of this classic Jonathan Winters bit.
Up next on side two is “I Would Die 4 U”
Apart from the fact that it particularly annoys me that Prince always uses “U” and “4” and “2” and “B” for the words “You” and “For” and “To/Too” and “Be,” this is a fun song. There’s not much to it in terms of instrumentation, although I do like the tiny bass glissando at the beginning of the song. Prince again writes a catchy melody, and he delivers its desperate lover lyrics perfectly. I particularly like the vocal bridge from 1:24 to 1:40, delivered rapid-style, harkening back13 to some train passengers’ lament about Professor Harold Hill.
The song runs directly into “Baby I’m a Star,” its second half.
Both songs have fake-sounding drums, and limited instrumentation. They have barely a hint of guitar, they’re repetitive and over-produced, with layered synthesizers carrying the bulk of the background. Given my typical taste in music, I should hate these songs. Yet somehow I love them. Both are fun, with a bounce-along beat and shout-it-out lyrics. In both songs, Prince absolutely kills the vocals. In “Baby I’m a Star,” he produces some of his signature squeals and screams (2:30 – 2:38), and what sound like several different voices advise a girl to hop aboard his unstoppable train to stardom early.
The title song closes the album. It was another smash for Prince.
It’s an epic ballad with wailing guitar and lost-love lyrics emotionally delivered. It’s the kind of song that all those bullshit, poufy-haired, over-produced, extra-cheesy, L.A.-hired-gun-songwriter-written, 80s “power ballads” strived to be. But “Purple Rain” is the real deal. Astoundingly, the song was recorded live (with overdubs added later), something I’m sure none of the hair bands who cranked out “power ballads” ever attempted. It’s sometimes mentioned as the best song from the 80s and features more demonstrations of Prince’s guitar prowess, and another shout-along chorus and closing “oh-oh-oh.” I don’t know what purple rain is, but I do know that the early 70s folk band America mentioned it in their big hit “Ventura Highway,” as well. Somehow I doubt Prince lifted it from them.
Before I close this out, it’s worth mentioning the song “Darling Nikki,” a song whose lyrics (well, actually just one word) caused the era’s snooty, Washington, D.C., busybody housewives to insist that records be labeled if “Explicit Content” was found anywhere within – a practice that continues to this day, even online. It caused all kinds of hoopla, with congressional hearings that were carried live on the then-new, and still-boring, cable channel C-Span. (If you have the time, please watch Frank Zappa Dee Snider and John Denver testify before congress. They make the goofballs in congress look incredibly silly.) I always found it odd that this one word in one song raised such a ruckus, while in the same era Cindy Lauper had an entire hit song about the word and Frankie Goes to Hollywood had a huge hit that offered sexual advice seemingly direct from the Playboy Advisor, yet nobody seemed to care. In 1984, Prince definitely had a firm grip on America’s … mind.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the cigar smoke. Maybe it’s just a really great album. Something about the record hooked me that summer. You never know where you’ll find enjoyment. Amid cardboard and chocolate and people whose names I’ll never remember, I discovered a classic, mid-80s funk gem. And I think of it whenever I open an Amazon package or a pizza box.
Let’s Go Crazy
Take Me With U
The Beautiful Ones
When Doves Cry
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m A Star