Genius at work

August 12th, 2014

Anil Dash digs deep into the evolution of Purple Rain and It Is Glorious:

While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince's nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.

Exemplifying this ability is the repeated lilting motif that Prince begins playing on his guitar at 4:40 in the song. For all the countless times they'd practiced the song, even earlier on the same day as the First Avenue performance, Prince had never played this riff during Purple Rain before. In the original live show, it's clear that Prince realizes he's found something magical, returning again and again to this brief riff, not just on guitar but even singing it himself during the final fade of the song.

Just as striking is how this little riff shows the care and self-criticism that went into making the song Purple Rain. Like any brilliant 25-year-old guy who's thought of something clever, Prince's tendency when he thought of this little gem was to overdo it. In the unedited version of the song, Prince keeps playing the riff for almost another minute, pacing around the stage trying to will the audience into responding to it.

But during those same sessions where the strings were added to the song, Prince ruthlessly chopped down a riff he clearly loves, keeping just enough to serve as a stirring melodic hook for his guitar solo, and leading the song to its soaring vocal climax.

To this day I still think that When Doves Cry is the best track from Purple Rain, but I've got to bow to the majority view on this one: come the sad day when Prince Rogers Nelson passes on it's the title track that's going to be played to remind us of the talent we'll have lost.

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