Purple Rain – A Book Review?

I have three great loves:  music, books, and the ‘80s.  Every so often, all three of these worlds collide to form a perfect union. This perfect collision has occurred.  Add to this the amazing quality of the featured album, one of my all time favorites, and I have a perfect reason to write another two part entry.  The subject of these two entries is Prince’s musical masterpiece Purple Rain.  This particular entry will be review the book Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain by Alan Light.

Author Alan Light and I have something in common – we both love Purple Rain.   I read a blurb about his book in December of 2014 and knew that I had  get a hold of it.  As we all know, life gets in the way sometimes and it took me a few months to get a hold of and read this book – and it was well worth the wait.  Light’s Let’s Go Crazy:  Prince and the Making of Purple Rain is exactly what it sounds like: an homage to an excellent artist who had the vision to create a phenomena in 1984.  Light’s book is a well researched look at what went into the production of Purple Rain the movie, Purple Rain the album, and Purple Rain the tour. Despite not having Prince’s involvement (no surprise) with this book and being forced to draw from his own previous interviews with the Purple one, Light was able to interview many others involved with the creation of Purple Rain and produce a quality examination of one of the biggest pop culture successes of the 1980s.

It is difficult to know exactly where to start when discussing this book.  My goal is to tell you enough to spark your interest so you go read it without giving away too much and spoiling it. While Light adopts a valid chronological approach in his book, there are four clear concerns or themes of Purple Rain that he examines:  the movie, the music, the tour, and the aftermath.

The Movie:  I loved this movie the first ten times I watched – all because of the excellent musical sequences.  As I aged and worked my way through being an English major in college, my analysis of the film’s quality did not improve my opinion of the movie itself.  Purple Rain the movie it not perfect and has some clear problems and Light acknowledges those issues, but does not let these imperfections sour his view.  Purple Rain was produced for $7 million and raked in $70 million at the box office.  The movie was clearly the brain child of Prince himself and his drive to make this, at times, autobiographical film, is a credit to his genius (I do not care for this word- I feel it is overused- but it is a necessary word when discussing Prince).  While the script and narrative of the film are not perfect, the concert scenes are indescribably legendary and influential.  Light objectively presents the problems in producing the film:  small budget, lack of true studio support, a young director, the Minnesota winter, and the jumpy story line; these  were all legitimate roadblocks that had to be overcome.  But the concert performances, well, they were nothing short of amazing.   These scenes carried the film and became the main reason that audience’s went their own kind of crazy.

The Music:  Here is where Light and I agree the most. The music from Purple Rain still holds up today as some of the most influential songs for the second half of the 20th century.  The soundtrack to Purple Rain deserves it’s own complete entry, so, for the present time I will limit myself to what I learned from Light’s book.  The numbers are there to support the success of this album.  This becomes even more evident when one considers that Purple Rains competition was Thriller, Born in the U.S.A, and Like a Virgin.  Light exposes Prince’s true musical genius and relentless work ethic.  Again, remaining objective, he also discusses the extreme difficulties of working with Prince, who was a poor communicator who had an endless number of ideas and did not always like to collaborate with his band.  Prince’s private, hard to satisfy nature was the genesis of a number of problems.   Changes in the Revolution’s lineup and their influence on the music to the evolution of the tracks that would eventually be included on the album all became major issues in the production of the masterpiece.  Light does an excellent job in keeping track of and including all of Prince’s side projects like The Time and Apollonia 6.  Prince’s musical mind was never at rest; he was constantly writing, recording, and rerecording songs – even after they were “finished“or after a three-hour concert.  The final decisions on which songs would be included on the final album we’re not made until the very last minute.  One late change was to drop all non-Prince tracks from the film’s soundtrack.  By far my favorite parts of the book were the passages about the song Purple Rain.  A description of an early performance of his song opens the book and the evolution of this great song is fascinating.

The Tour:  Some of Prince’s greatest moments came from his performances onstage, so naturally there had to be a Purple Rain tour.  As one would expect, these shows sold out quickly and Prince played to packed concert halls and stadiums every night.  Again, Prince’s temperamental genius was on display.  His devotion to his music and the shows was amazing.  He relentlessly drove himself to be sure that every aspect of the tour was perfect.  If a show did not go as planned, then someone, not Prince, would pay the price.  The tour schedule was intense and the entire band became worn out.  There was a clear desire from the record company to send the tour to Europe, but Prince seemed to tire of the tedium.  During the tour he was already writing and recording songs for his next album Around the World in a Day.  Prince decided not to extend the Purple Rain tour to Europe, instead he continued to work on the next phase of his music. 

The Aftermath:  There is no doubt that Purple Rain was a pop culture phenomena.  The numbers – album sales, box office receipts, and concert tickets sold all tell that story.  But the reach of Purple Rain extends much further.  The best way to summarize Light’s view on the end of Purple Rain– it is what it is.  The pop world and Prince himself moved on.  His next album was a major departure from the rock of Purple Rain.  Prince had many more directions to explore and did not want to recreate Purple Rain.  His collaborators changed along with his musical style.  Purple Rain will never be forgotten, but it cannot, and should not be recreated.

Prince’s Purple Rain (in all if it’s forms) is personally very special to me.  In 1984 I was a sophomore in high school and, like all of us at that age, searching for my way in life.  I was lucky enough to have two of the best friends (LeRoyce and Marvin) ever to help me along- well, actually, we helped each other.  Purple Rain was a vital component of our formative years.  We listened to it endlessly, never becoming bored with any of the songs.  We were enthralled with the guitar solo in Let’s Go Crazy, touched by the raw emotions of Purple Rain and When Doves Cry, and, yes, we also enjoyed the blatantly sexual Darling Nikki.  One on my favorite memories of Purple Rain and LeRoyce and Marvin was the need to be creative with the song When Doves Cry.  Like many teens in 1984, we were very proud of our dual cassette recorder.  We spent one night splicing together Prince’s song with Tarzan sounds.  We copied When Doves Cry until  the lyric, “This is what it sounds like when doves cry.”  We then hit pause, switched tapes and recorded Tarzan’s yell. Yep, it seems dorky now, but we thought it was the coolest thing ever back then.

What this personal story, and Light’s book, show is the power of Prince’s Purple Rain.  The songs had a profound effect on the three of us and millions of American teens in 1984.  Prince was up against Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and Madonna – and we loved them all – but Prince won.  Even today, given the choice of these four mega albums, I will choose Purple Rain.  He captured our imaginations, our hearts, and our burgeoning teenage rebellious natures.  Alan Light captures all of this in his heartfelt, well written examination of everything Purple Rain.  This book is a must read for Prince fans, Purple Rain fans, and those who love the ‘80s.  I thank Mr. Light for this book and want him to know that Purple Rain had a similar effect on many of us, especially me,  in 1984. Purple Rain will forever be in our hearts and minds. Do yourself a favor and find Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy:  Prince and the Making of Purple Rain and enjoy the ride.

It is going to be impossible for me not to write about the music of Purple Rain – there is a great chance that will be coming in a few days.

Subscribe to the Retroist Newsletter

* indicates required