It really exists.
That may be the most astounding thing about the deluxe expanded edition of Prince’s masterpiece Purple Rain (Warner Bros./NPG Records 547374-2). And believe me, there’s a lot to be astounded by. This set features the first remaster of any Prince album in the compact disc era, a fully-stocked disc of officially unreleased tracks from the vault, a complete offering of sides (edits, remixes and B-sides) from all five singles released from the album, a vintage live concert making its debut in the digital age, and a 34-page booklet with two sets of liner notes, lyrics, unseen photos and in-depth recording and discographical information.
All of this is par for the course with most catalogue titles. But a Prince album has never been assembled this way. Not The Hits/The B-Sides. Not Crystal Ball. Not Ultimate Prince. Not 4Ever. This set marks a culmination of wishing, hoping and demanding that began in 2014 with the announcement of a catalogue deal and crescendoed multiple times in the year since his passing in 2016.
The road ahead is paved with uncertainty for Prince fans. A planned $30 million back catalogue deal between his estate and Universal Music Group is collapsing, and outside creative control was until recently something of a dead heat between squabbling parties. But right now, there is Purple Rain–and there is glimpse of what was, is and could be among the handling of the life-changing music of Prince Rogers Nelson.
I Can’t Disguise The Pounding of My Heart
Purple Rain has been a part of the pop music firmament for 33 years this month, and assessing its significance and quality has been done to death in that time. And yet.
The existence of Purple Rain in Prince’s official canon is something akin to a cosmic event, like a comet or planetary alignment that occurs only once in a lifetime. Before it came five albums of increasingly widening, expanding funk, soul and pop. With 1982’s 1999, Purple Rain‘s direct predecessor and Prince’s longest album at the time, things were starting to come into focus. There was the greater suggestion of a band instead of one mad genius playing every instrument. Prince’s production muscles were starting to develop further tone, and mainstream radio was starting to take notice, pushing “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious” into Billboard’s Top 10. His self-styled “world” of R&B was starting to come into sharper focus, too, with his friends and protégées in Vanity 6 and The Time recording sharp albums of his own making that same year. Hollywood started calling, and Prince answered, crafting a story of three Minneapolis bands yearning for superlative status in their burgeoning music scene.
Having proved he could keep up the pace on four sides of vinyl (not only in terms of quantity but quality), it’s not hard to imagine this would have been Prince’s modus operandi so long as the tunes flowed from within (and how they did). But what he did instead for Purple Rain was turn his funky gas-guzzler into a top-line sports car–that is, craft a record build for speed and accessibility without once skimping on quality or sacrificing what made a Prince record a Prince record.
Here, on Purple Rain, one finds some of the most unorthodox features of a record that sold 13 million copies. A lead single with no bass? Check (“When Doves Cry”). A lead track rooted more in old-time rock and roll than anything Prince had released? Check (“Let’s Go Crazy”). Tracks so emotional they coalesce with raw vocal screams? Check (the first-side triple-uppercut of “The Beautiful Ones,” “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki”). Spontaneous live recordings (with minimal studio overdubs and edits) that baffle your ears into questioning how they were made? Check (the second-side TKO of “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star” and the heartbreaking title track, which on repeated listens for review brought this writer to tears multiple times).
Many have doubtlessly scrutinized images of the waveforms of this new master (overseen by Prince at his Paisley Park studio in 2015 with engineer Joshua Welton, who collaborated on several Prince albums at this time as co-producer). But from these ears, it sounded tasteful without being loud, and it wouldn’t be unappreciated if more Prince albums received the same treatment.
Our Passion’s In Bloom
If you’ve been collecting Prince outtakes and bootlegs for awhile, you at the very least are aware of most of the 11 songs on the “From The Vault” disc, and have perhaps heard them. Three of them (coincidentally, all the tracks over 10 minutes long) exist in released forms: “Computer Blue” was of course edited for Purple Rain, “The Dance Electric” was given to Prince’s old bandmate André Cymone in 1985 and Prince reworked “We Can Fuck” with George Clinton for 1990’s Graffiti Bridge (where it was retitled “We Can Funk”).
At first blush, what sticks out the most about these tracks is, of course, their quality: the tape hiss, lack of stereo separation and dropouts of old bootlegs are gone. (Thanks are in order to Bernie Grundman, who mastered both bonus discs.) But while the jump in quality was enough to elevate a slighter track like “Moonbeam Levels,” as heard on last year’s 4Ever compilation, the state of these songs and their context in the Purple Rain narrative are worth attention.
These outtakes chiefly prove two things: that Prince command of musical language was nearly mind-boggling, and that for Purple Rain, his precision and control were perhaps never better. The epic “Computer Blue,” with an extra verse and extended breakdowns including that famed “hallway speech,” is a must-hear as an underliner of Prince’s creative process in 1983-1984–but the edit is what works for the album. Likewise, a song like the delicate “Electric Intercourse” conveys a very specific feeling of sacred and profane that the most classic Prince ballads often evoke–but it’s clear that another, similar song Prince wrote for that same purpose (“The Beautiful Ones”) is correct for ending up on the finished album.
Elsewhere on the bonus disc, we hear Prince planning for both the present and the future. Tracks like “Love and Sex,” “Possessed” and “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” explore, in various means, Prince’s sonic expansion from 1999 to Purple Rain, while some anticipate his next moves: “Our Destiny/Roadhouse Garden” wouldn’t have been out of place with the lyrical, more straightforward rock of 1985’s Around the World in a Day, while the off-kilter “Wonderful Ass” sounds like an older cousin of “Strange Relationship” off Sign “O” The Times (1987).
And more than anything else, the bonus disc shows in places just how far advanced of even his own career he was. “We Can Fuck” was drastically reworked as a gutbucket funk jam during the sessions for the aborted triple album Crystal Ball in 1986 (later edited and issued as Sign “O” The Times)–but when it came time to dust it off for Graffiti Bridge, Prince opted to overdub the version heard here. And knowing what was added, musically (namely grinding synth-bass and a horn line, along with some different lyrics), it’s even more impressive that “We Can Funk” fits so well into Graffiti Bridge, an album of outtakes recorded mostly in the late ’80s. A similar realization occurs on Prince’s version of “The Dance Electric”–though the revelation is actually more what André Cymone added to the released version instead of just aping Prince’s guide vocal and keeping all his instruments (a whirring guitar figure toward the end of Cymone’s album version is entirely missing from Prince’s take, and even the “full” instrumental included on Funky Town Grooves’ expansion of A.C. doesn’t possess the exact same structure). Things like this make Prince’s vast genius that much more appreciable.
Hardcore collectors may find the set’s third disc of B-sides, mixes and edits more of a historical context item than anything else–outside of edits of “Purple Rain” and “Baby I’m a Star” and the extended versions of B-sides “God” and “Another Lonely Christmas,” everything from this disc has readily appeared on CD, with most of it featuring on the triple-disc The Hits/The B-Sides or 4Ever. But it’s well worth another listen, to once again marvel at his expanding musical palate (“Erotic City” is at this point well-known, but “17 Days” and the heartrending “Another Lonely Christmas” remain diamonds in the rough) and his incredible focus as a pop musician (the longer “Let’s Go Crazy” that opens the Purple Rain film would have been a hell of an opening album track, but wouldn’t have carried the same lean, mean weight that the album version did).
Dig If U Will The Picture
The funny thing about the Purple Rain reissue is how much of an afterthought the film itself is in the context of the package. It’s one of the only things close to a failing in the package–after all, how many other pop stars topped the American box-office report, the Billboard 200 album chart and the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart simultaneously? And yet, there is scarcely any mention of it, nor The Time, nor Apollonia 6. Instead, everything is built around this magical album, including the notes (a moving essay from longtime engineer Susan Rogers and track-by-track input on the album’s nine tracks from the members of The Revolution: guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, bassist Mark Brown and drummer Bobby Z) and the bonus material.
And not to be overlooked in that bonus material is Prince and The Revolution: Live, a DVD of the group’s March 30, 1985 appearance at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY–the fifth-to-last night of the Purple Rain tour, only 23 days before the surprise appearance of Around the World in a Day in stores. This performance, previously released on VHS and laserdisc and remastered by Grundman, Craig Anderson and David Dieckmann for this release, marks the digital premiere of a Prince and The Revolution show, and it’s a must-see. Drawing the set list almost entirely from 1999 and Purple Rain, Prince shines as a bandleader with boundless energy, sliding across the stage, engaging in guitar heroics, leading the band through unusual jams, interludes and fun choreography, and proving himself something of a James Brown for the 1980s.
The camera work is unspectacular, and the videotape-level quality can only be improved so much in the high-definition era. But there’s a lot to like about its inclusion (down to a fan-friendly touch of using the original tape box’s image of The Revolution on the DVD menu)–and it certainly makes one hope for more vintage live Prince in the near future.
No Need 2 Worry, No Need 2 Cry
Perhaps the bitterest truth of the Purple Rain reissue is that Prince could have–should have–lived to see a package this good in honor of his incredible work. It’s not the train wreck one could easily imagine, either of Prince’s own doing (with unnecessary tinkering and bowdlerized lyrics) or of an outside hand’s (tracks in improper context, missing released material, shoddy craftsmanship). One can quibble with what is or isn’t there; indeed, that famous First Avenue benefit show from 1983, where the Revolution lineup was not only crystallized but recorded the basic foundation of “Purple Rain” that the world recognizes, would have been a spectacular add to the package.
But know this: however long it takes for the honorific machine to churn into action and keep both Prince’s heirs and his fans happy with quality archival product, the first step on that journey is as strong, as it absolutely needed to be. Fans from far and wide have a new reason to laugh, cry, dance and sing in the Purple Rain. May this be the first sliver of light in the coming of The Dawn.
The reissue of Purple Rain is available everywhere now, in the following formats: