Wednesday, June 25th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain. In honor of this, Deadshirt presents an entire week of art and essays that explore and celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Dig, if you will.
While it’s easy to say in retrospect that Prince was only just beginning to reach success prior to the release of Purple Rain, I’m sure that Warner record execs were sweating back in 1984 prior to the album and film’s release. Up until then, Prince had shown some flashes of greatness — 1999 had several great singles and cracked the Billboard top 10 — but could he really make a decent album while also devoting time to making a film? We know now the answer to that question is unequivocally “yes”; both Purple Rain the album and the film were successful. The key to that success, the tip of the spear for Purple Rain, was the incredible lead single “When Doves Cry.”
Prince had released 21 different singles prior to “Doves,” none of which had hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. He was showing gradual chart improvement though, his highest points up until them being a #6 and a #8 with 1999 singles “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious,” respectively. The other two singles from that record, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” and “Automatic,” failed to break the top 50; the latter didn’t even chart. Nevertheless, 1999 was a hit record and left people with the impression that Prince wasn’t far from superstardom. That next-level bump wouldn’t elude him for long.
“When Doves Cry” was released on May 16, 1984. The Billboard Hot 100 was determined by sales and radio airplay back then (nowadays online streaming is a big component in the equation as well) so it took a little while for a song to make its way up the charts. On July 7th, after passing previous number ones like Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” “Doves” made it to the top spot. It wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan single that only lasted one or two weeks at the top; it lasted five weeks, which ended up being tied with Van Halen’s “Jump” for the longest time spent at number one in 1984.
People like to listen to things they already know, which is the reason popular music is so formulaic. Artists and songwriters stick to what works. Even an artist as far in left field as Prince will stick to at least some pop sensibilities, while also experimenting where he can. “When Doves Cry” is a perfect example of this and one of the reasons that the song became so popular. The song itself has the conventional verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, song structure that has been used in pop music forever.
The instrumentation is also fairly conventional for music of that era, but with one surprising exception: the song has no bass line. According to Prince himself, after he was finished recording and mixing it, he was torn about the inclusion of the bass part. On one hand, he was very attached to the bass line he’d written and recorded, but on the other hand he knew the song would be a hit without it. He made the right call, axed the bass track, and the version of “When Doves Cry” we know was born.
The lyrics are also a point of intrigue when it comes to the popularity of “When Doves Cry.” Prince is famously guarded with his personal life and history, but “Doves” has references to parental difficulties, which could very well be autobiographical. Audiences always respond well when an artist’s music seems sincere, so if there’s a chance that someone as mysterious as Prince is offering peek into his life, people are going to pay attention. The official story is that “When Doves Cry” was the last song recorded on the album and was actually produced while the movie Purple Rain was being edited; the director needed a montage song that dealt with the parallels between a rocky relationship with a lover and the relationship between the protagonist’s parents. There is no word on how close to life this aspect of the song and plot of the movie actually are, so in some ways Prince is having his cake and eating it too.
All the talk about its music and lyrics just serves to prove that “When Doves Cry” is a damn good song. Its pop appeal and staying power made it the perfect vehicle to lead the Purple Rain campaign. “Doves” spent five weeks atop the Billboard charts, a period of time that spanned a few weeks past the album’s release, so it literally carried the album to success. On a personal note, to me “When Doves Cry” is Prince. It was the first song of his I ever heard, and whenever someone mentions Prince, I hear this song in my head and see the image of the face that adorns the wall in the music video. Of course, outside of “Doves,” Purple Rain is no slouch – every song on the album is incredible, that’s why Deadshirt is paying tribute to the album this whole week – but even with the bevy of hits contained in Purple Rain’s 44 minutes, the album, film, or Prince himself couldn’t have reached the heights they did without “When Doves Cry” as the lead single.
Read more from 30 Purple Years, our tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain!