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A LOOK BACK AT PRINCE’S PURPLE RAIN

Thirty years ago last week, an album came out that changed the lives of many, released on June 25th, 1984, Purple Rain by Prince and the Revolution was a huge success due largely to  radio airplay of songs such as ”1999″. At the time, most listened to Top 40 radio, but some ventured into Punk and New Wave. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was liked almost instantly by everyone on earth.Duran Duran albums and Cyndi Lauper’s She’ So Unusual also received large radio rotation and airplay. ( Music's Madonna obsession wouldn’t start until later that year) but most knew they needed to have Purple Rain as soon as it came out

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 lame 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 that 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 Raindoes. 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 theawesome 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' 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 did not make him 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, Etc. If you can cross demographics of age, race and gender like Prince did with Purple Rain, your success can only be tripled.

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.

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