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 also the most popular record? Especially one this anguished, cryptic, 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 1984'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 does that mean?" (Karaoke tip: Never sing "Purple Rain." Almost all versions of it cut off before the falsetto singalong 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 thirty years ago -- 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 job -- 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 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 catalogue has languished, with everything before 1990's Graffiti Bridge suffering from a fatal thinness, especially the earliest, wildest records. The bass on my '70s Waylon Jennings CDs kick harder than anything on '82's 1999, the sprawling, anxious, dance-yrself-horny Prince album that more than any other speaks to our musical moment: Here's seventy minutes of jitter-synth brilliance, all faint and flattened thanks to engineers who hadn't yet mastered the new digital tech.
Word is that 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 Prince's 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. That last one is certainly true, but not like it once was. Despite being something of an early adopter of online freedoms -- ever heard "Emale," where he samples the AOL guy? -- Prince has spent most of the Internet age doing what he always does: pissing off the people he works for. Because he's been independent since '96's Emancipation, the people he works for is us, his audience. He's sued fans for sharing his music online, for even discussing bootlegs of music they would happily buy from him. He's demanded that hapless YouTubers yank down videos of their kids singing his songs. His fight against the theft of his music has become a fight against his music still having a place in this culture.
Search for him on YouTube. You'll get Prince Royce and Prince of Persia, but God help you if you need a clip of the man himself in his assless chaps.
After one PR cock-up, in 2007, he tried to appease his hardest of hardcores by offering up a free song to a fan site. Called "PFUnk," and later "F.U.N.K.," its seven minutes of mad just-what-the-title-promises get-down stands, in my mind, as his best, freakiest recording of the 2000s. Prince being Prince, it's currently unavailable in any format whatsoever. Yes, even the free song he gave away to the Internet has been scraped off the Internet.
So, here we are, at the ass end of the age of CDs (and albums themselves), and the little dude who sang "The Future" and ushered it in feels years behind the curve. Yes, he's promising a couple of new albums, and he's still swanning through lifetime-achievement media appearances. But when the deluxe Purple Rain finally hits, a little too late for its anniversary, will it be the culture-wide event it should be, something like when that last round of Beatles CDs hit a few years back? Or will it only be the old and nostalgic marveling at the way "The Beautiful Ones" bleeds into "Computer Blue," and "Computer Blue" bleeds into "Darling Nikki" -- and the way Dr. Fink's synthesizer flourishes on "Baby I'm a Star" finally don't sound like 8-bit Nintendo?
And, for what it's worth, 1999 > Sign O' the Times > Purple Rain > Dirty Mind > The Gold Experience > Parade > Lovesexy > The symbol album > Controversy > Come > 3121 > Emancipation > The Rainbow Children > Around the World in a Day > Graffiti Bridge > The Truth disc off Crystal Ball > Batman > The Black Album > Lotusflow3r/ MPLSound > Musicology > Diamonds and Pearls > Planet Earth > New Power Soul > Chaos and Disorder > 20Ten > For You