Thirty-one years ago this week, an album came out that changed my life, released on June 25th, 1984, on the day before I turned ten years old. Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution was one of the first albums I knew I needed to have right away, having already become a Prince fan due to radio airplay songs like “1999”. At the time, I listened to Top 40 radio, but at nine years old my priority was more cartoons, comic books, and getting the toy at the bottom of the cereal box. I had Michael Jackson’s Thriller like everyone else on Earth, a few Duran Duran albums and Cyndi Lauper’s She’ So Unusual (my Madonna obsession wouldn’t start in earnest until later that year) but I just knew I needed to have Purple Rain as soon as it came out. I received it as tenth birthday present, and wound up playing that album so much over and over again that the vinyl would scratch beyond repair. I then replaced it with a cassette, ’til that broke too from overplay, before I finally got the CD. I understood the appeal of the infectious pop single already, but it was Purple Rain that taught me the power of the album, and it worked on me on levels I wouldn’t even understand ’til I was much much older. Songs like “The Beautiful Ones” and the title track play one way when you’re a little kid, and a totally different way when you’re an adult. It’s fair to say that Purple Rain is what really turned me into a music fan for real.
Prince was already famous when Purple Rain was released, but that album put him in the company of giants almost instantly. After struggling for several years and getting no traction with mainstream radio (outside of his late-disco era single “I Wanna Be Your Lover“) and even getting booed off the stage when opening for the Rolling Stones in 1981, Prince’s album 1999 finally achieved mainstream success, mostly due to the massive MTV airplay of the title track and “Little Red Corvette”. With that record, Prince finally had the mainstream success he worked so hard for, but for the then-26 year old, it wasn’t enough. While Michael Jackson had capped off the mega-success of Thriller with a ten minute short film for the title track, Prince would make sure his next album would have an accompanying full length feature film. And make no mistake–the movie was the cherry on top of the album, not the other way around–the album’s first single came out nearly three months before the movie did, and the album came out over a month before. It was a genius move-by the time crowds lined up to see the movie, they already knew all the songs. Purple Rain: The Movie was a giant commercial for the more important product-the music.
If you weren’t around back then, it’s hard to convey just what a stranglehold this particular album and Prince himself had on popular culture back in 1984. Four of the album’s nine tracks (“Let’s Go Crazy”, “When Doves Cry”, “I Would Die 4 U” and “Purple Rain”) were top ten hits, and two went to #1. Then of course, there was the movie itself, which was less a compelling narrative and more a chance to just see the album performed on stage in a movie theater. The non-Prince performed songs from the movie like The Time’s “Jungle Love” and “The Bird” were huge radio hits. Even Appollonia’s cheestastic song “Sex Shooter” got radio and MTV airtime (all of these were written and produced by Prince of course.) But maybe the true testament to Purple Rain‘s cultural reach was the radio success of the B-side of Let’s Go Crazy called “Erotic City“, a song that’s not even on the album or in the movie. Radio stations wanted a new Prince single to play so bad they incurred the wrath of the FCC by playing that song, which, despite what the official lyrics might have written down, did not say “we can FUNK until the dawn.” They used the other F word. Older Prince songs covered by other artists, like Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You, Cyndi Lauper’s When You Were Mine were also huge successes. If the year 1984 had a corresponding color, it was purple.
There are those who say that Purple Rain isn’t Prince’s greatest album; the usual recipient of that particular accolade is usually his 1987’s double album Sign O’ the Times. And from an objective point of view, they are probably right-Sign has more variety musically, it’s a little more daring and goes a little deeper than Purple Rain does. But of the sixteen songs on that album…let’s face it, there are one or two that you skip over when you listen to it now. No such deal with Purple Rain; all nine songs are gems, all could have been singles, all are iconic. Track #6, the lascivious “Darling Nikki”, about a girl Prince encounters while masturbating with a magazine in a hotel lobby, so offended Al Gore’s wife Tipper when she heard her young daughters listening to it, that she started the PMRC-Parent’s Music Resource Center, the reason there was all those “explicit content” labels on all the
awesome and nasty controversial CDs you had as a kid. My point being, even songs that weren’t singles reached the ears of angry parents. That was the power of Purple Rain.
Prince, at least back then, understood that Purple Rain was the kind of mega-success that happens only once in the career of any artist. Unlike his chief rival on the pop charts at the time, Michael Jackson, who spent five years trying to craft the next Thriller (Bad is a decent enough album, but it ain’t no Thriller.) Prince just kept releasing new music every year, and didn’t try to top himself, at least commercially. Sure, none of the albums he released over the next decade following Purple Rain sold any where near what that album did (although by today’s standards they would all be considered mega-successes) but almost all had at least one iconic hit single come out of them, “Rasberry Beret”, “Kiss”, “U Got the Look” and “Diamonds and Pearls” just being a few of them.
So what’s the ultimate legacy of Purple Rain, thirty years later? It solidified Prince as a musical genius for starters, and not just a fad artist like so many the MTV era produced. Although mainstream radio stopped playing his new music almost twenty years ago now, he still packs in stadium shows whenever he tours. It showed all top 40 musical acts that the key to massive success is to conquer all forms of popular music- R&B, Rock, Dance, you name it. If you can cross demographics of age, race and gender like Prince did with Purple Rain, your success can only be tripled. Ask Eminem. (In fact, I’m hardly the first person to point out that Eminem’s 8 Mile is a remake of Purple Rain to a large extent.)
Of course, the album’s greatest legacy is its own continued success; Purple Rain is regularly ranked among the greatest albums in popular music history. Time magazine ranked it the 15th greatest album of all time in 1993, and it placed 18th on VH1’s Greatest Rock and Roll Albums of All Time countdown. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the second-best album of the 1980s and 76th on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. To date, it’s sold twenty million copies. I know for me and millions of other Gen-X kids (like actress Maya Rudolph, who’s in the fabulous Prince cover band called Princess) it was the gateway drug to pop music that was a little more off the beaten path, a little bit more sexy and dangerous, and just a little bit weird. For me at least, no matter what new album I fall in love with or obsess about, nothing will ever take the crown away from Purple Rain.