17: Darling Nikki

Purple Rain (1984)
Purple Rain was the first Prince album I bought. Chosen partly because I knew and loved the singles, but the real clincher was seeing the title of track five. I’d recently started dating a girl named Nikki and I naively earmarked this song as mixtape material. Remember mixtapes? Those personally cultivated repositories of subtle messages and meaning. Well, that plan was abandoned two lines in, but it no longer mattered because by that point in the album I had already been converted. My future was purple.

Darling Nikki is a sexual fantasy that goes heavy on the fantasy. Prince has a wild night of passion with a castle-dwelling fiend who extracts his signature in a Faustian pact for his soul then disappears, leaving him forever transformed. It’s the dark heart of the album and his character’s lowest ebb in the film, where his performance appalls all onlookers, including his girlfriend who flees humiliated, and the nightclub owner who tells him “no one digs your music but yourself”. Everyone seems oblivious that they’ve just heard rock’s equivalent of a Caravaggio. 

Prince created this song to inject danger into the Purple Rain album which at that point he felt was veering too mainstream. And the danger goes deeper than the opening lines which torpedoed my mixtape plans and Tipper Gore-ed a moral panic within the pearl-clutching heart of America. The danger is present in every beat, in every scream, in every grind. The melody – a gothic reimagining of Vanity 6’s 3×2=6  – sounds like a tentative descending of a spiral staircase into the dark dungeon depths of Prince’s unbitted lusts. And the final throat-shredding screams of “your dirty little Prince wants to grind, grind, grind…” makes every Heavy Metal frontman that has ever lived sound like a tired toddler in comparison.

Of course, after this swan dive into the profane, Prince felt the need to purify the air with a taste of the divine. I’m reminded of Plato’s allegory of the soul being a chariot powered by two winged horses pulling in opposite directions. After letting his primal horse of base desire plunge towards the earth, the driver had to let the noble horse of spiritual aspiration take over and soar towards the heavens lest they crash. Darling Nikki plunged deep and fast. A Christian message hidden in the purifying sounds of Lake Minnetonka wasn’t enough to right this chariot, not least as the message was placed, in part, as a prank to fool those expecting to uncover evidence of satanic corruption. Another hidden element was needed to restore harmony. On the record’s inner sleeve there are printed lyrics at the end of Darling Nikki, not of the backwards prayer, but of an extra verse that is never sung. This verse contains the key to the entire symbology of the album, born out of a spiritual experience he had prior to its recording, and if you’ve not yet spotted it I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing it here.

Prince wasn’t Darling Nikki’s only victim. With the help of the PRMC labelling her public enemy number one, she reached folklore status and lured generations of curious teens into her castle. She beguiled a multitude of rock bands to cover her and showed Michael Jackson how to grind by inspiring him to write Dirty Diana. As for me, she nudged me down this purple rabbit hole and for that I’m forever grateful. Consider this a note from me saying thank you for a funky time… 

This is no one night stand though. My relationship with the real life Nikki didn’t last the summer. Darling Nikki, however, is for keeps. 

29: Baby I’m a Star

Purple Rain (1984)
In 1981, Fame, sung by Irene Cara, won an Oscar for Best Film Theme Song. Maybe Prince’s eyes were on the same prize, because later that year he took hefty inspiration from its lyrics, particularly its opening lines, to create Baby I’m a Star, and then began to step up his own ambitions to star in and soundtrack a motion picture. He was moderately famous but in the words of his new demo, he didn’t want to stop until he reached the top. This movie, he believed, would be the rocket to take him to that highest strata of stardom.

The following year, after a concert film called The Second Coming was planned, filmed and abandoned, Prince wrote 11 pages of a rough plot outline for a feature film that would eventually – via a relay of two screen writers – become Purple Rain. On the last page he jotted down possible songs for inclusion and topping the list was his Fame-inspired demo. Next on the list was I Would Die 4 U. Every other song from Purple Rain hadn’t yet been written, but here was the film’s party crescendo duo baked in from conception.

In this early synopsis, he details his lead character’s motivation: “Prince wants to make it. Bad. He wants fame and fortune and everything that goes with it”. On Baby I’m a Star his character aims to achieve this by walking the walk. Repeating I Wanna Be Your Lover’s opening line, he tells us he “ain’t got no money” but he self-identifies as a star and acts like the world just hasn’t cottoned on yet. Fake it til you make it.

Prince talks about this power of self-identity in his autobiography. He believed his youthful complexion was because he simply didn’t think himself as wrinkly and he connects this mindset to a technique called visualisation, where you write down what you want to happen in order to make it come true. As a boy, he would write vision lists of all the girls he liked so they would start noticing him. We can only take his word for the success of this approach, but if he wrote Baby I’m a Star to manifest stardom, no one could argue with the results.

In the film, the song arrives as a victory parade. Mission accomplished. Yes, the overdubbed backing vocals channel Sly and the Family Stone and tell us “we are all a star” but that’s just the movie tying up a thematic arc. A bit of housekeeping so we don’t think it’s only the Kid’s boat being lifted on the rising tide. He hasn’t forgot the lesson of collaboration but the main headline is his dream has come true. He is now a star, not just in his head but in the eyes of everyone in the venue, and the wider world will follow after the freeze frame. The Kid, and in the climactic moment his guitar, can’t control their excitement as he struts triumphantly, cavorting under the Broadway lights of newly-won fame. The bookending reversed messages about ignoring criticism (“fuck them! what do they know, all their taste is in their mouth”) now incongruous with this revelling in adoration.

In real life, Baby I’m a Star served the same purpose on the accompanying tour. This is Prince’s moment and he may be basking in it, stretching the track out to ever longer proportions, but he’s giving the crowd everything he’s got in return. Herculean choreography, a well-oiled Revolution put through the wringer, celebrities and entourage joining the jam on stage. He lied about stopping when he reached the top. He doubled down on his craft. By the end of the tour, fame’s hangover will have truly set in but right now, he’s on top of the world and milking every last drop before the party ends.

And Prince did win that Academy award. Purple Rain was voted Best Original Song Score, giving him the only Oscar of his career. In his acceptance speech he said “I could have never imagined this in my wildest dreams.” On the contrary, I believe that after he wrote Baby I’m a Star he imagined that moment every single day until reality caught up with his vision.

33: Purple Rain

Purple Rain (1984)
I needed a run up for this one. A couple of days basking in the various performances: the First Avenue debut; Rave Un2 the Year 2000; the Super Bowl half-time show. The song looms so large over Prince’s legacy that attempting to wrap my head around it is like trying to picture the vastness of space. Human minds aren’t equipped for the task. I’m as overwhelmed as Stevie Nicks when she received the instrumental from Prince to add lyrics. In her words: “I can’t do it… It’s too much for me.” Yet, I’ll try.

It’s strange to think Purple Rain – the Revolution’s signature anthem – could have been a country duet with the singer from Fleetwood Mac. Praise be that its destiny, like in the movie, was to become a band collaboration instead. The writing process didn’t quite go like it did on screen, with Wendy giving Prince a tape titled Slow Groove, but she was instrumental in shaping the sound. Late in rehearsal one night, Prince suggested working on something new. He introduced the band to the basic idea of Purple Rain and, as Fink recalls, told them to “play what you feel”. Wendy, a new addition to the line-up and eager to impress, toyed with Prince’s chord progression and turned it into the anthemic opening section that speaks in goosebumps. The rest of the band also worked their voodoo and later that summer they performed it live for the first time which, with a little trimming and polish, is the recording found on the album. The one the rest of the world hears when they think of Prince. His lighters-in-the-air epitaph.

You can divide Prince’s career into before and after the Purple Rain moment. In the movie, this occurs when he performs the climactic title song. The Prince that coughs nervously before launching into it, is different to the Prince that ends it. Never again will he face a sea of blank-eyed faces. Megastardom has arrived. I believe that’s close to what happened in real life too. Once people heard Purple Rain, either as the album closer or the cinematic denouement, their relationship to Prince changed, which changed him too. Its crescendo, along with the iconic intro to Let’s Go Crazy are the defining moments of both the album and movie. Better songs are found therein but none are as irreplaceable. When Doves Cry was the big lead single, but who’s to say one of the B-sides (17 Days, She’s Always in my Hair, Erotic City) wouldn’t have had the same success. The Beautiful Ones is a personal favourite but if the inferior Electric Intercourse had remained instead, the album would still have hit multi-platinum. Swap one of the other songs for any of the hidden classics from that period – The Glamorous Life, Wonderful Ass, We Can Fuck, G-Spot – and the album would still have catapulted him into the stratosphere. But take away the album’s intro where he describes the afterlife, or the closing crescendo where he guides us there, and it’s no longer Purple Rain. There are spiritual references throughout the album, but those two definitive moments – the spinechilling bookends – wrap it up in an embrace that must come from a profound and deeply personal place. It’s no accident they are the two songs he left blank when writing his own (unpublished) liner notes for the Hits compilation – reducing them to a pithy one liner must have seemed trite. Prince is on record saying he had a spiritual experience during the Purple Rain period. One he hasn’t talked candidly about, but it feels like he’s communicating a revelation to us here. That is the true message of Purple Rain.

Too much has been written about how Prince created it in a bid for maximum crossover success – a Stairway to Heaven for the white rock audience that had started to pay attention after Little Red Corvette. It pays tribute to rock’s power ballads, sure – he was worried it sounded too similar to one of Journey’s hits and sought their approval before release – but focusing on its whiteness is to lose sight of its blackness. Purple Rain is heavily influenced by gospel music. The electric grand piano and wordless hosannas provide the song with a spiritual intensity, drawing from Afro-American gospel roots, like Stairway to Heaven drew from Celtic folk. He’s back at the start of the album but now he’s no longer addressing the congregation. He’s addressing the one he loves. An ex-lover? His father (to whom the song gets dedicated in the film)? Is he even singing as a messiah? The lyrics are open to interpretation but on the record sleeve, an extra printed verse to Darling Nikki casts some light on the title. It reads “Sometimes the world’s a storm. One day soon the storm will pass and all will be bright and peaceful. Fearlessly bathe in the purple rain”. In 1999 he linked a purple sky with Judgement Day. The purple rain is God’s cleansing fire during the apocalypse, before the “bright and peaceful” dawn arrives. Prince opens up the heavens and recreates the moment of ascent for us poor souls trapped in our decaying meat bodies.

It was only fitting that it was the last song he performed live in concert, before ascending himself a week later. The preceding song at that show was his mournful elegy Sometimes it Snows in April. He could have left us in sorrow, but instead chose to leave us laughing in the purple rain.

80: Computer Blue

Purple Rain (1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Purple Rain’s fourth track never registered much on my radar – it was a mere transition from the dizzying heights of The Beautiful Ones into the profane depths of Nikki’s castle. This may be blasphemous considering the sublime guitar solo, but with a confusing title and only one verse and chorus (all the lyrics are in the first 90 seconds) there wasn’t much to form a memory around. Especially as any trains of thought were always derailed by Darling Nikki’s subsequent lobby activities. Later I discovered the album version of Computer Blue was just the beginning and end of a much longer track. A cut n’ shut. A Mad magazine fold-in that in its original state has all kinds of interesting, crazy shenanigans happening in its middle section. An unedited version exists over three times the length and is an Aladdin’s cave of Prince tropes and ideas. Therein we find his first mention of The Dawn (assuming it pre-dates 17 Days’ full-length title). There’s a mini morality play about the difference between love and lust (à la Temptation). The computer metaphor is fleshed out (the meaning I couldn’t glean from the album’s scant lyrics is that human are computers and Prince is sad due to his faulty, chauvinistic programming). There’s the infamous ‘hallway speech’, named as such in early bootlegs and officially canon after Warner Bros reused the title for their 2017 Purple Rain Deluxe release. We also hear a guitar rendition of Father’s Song – the composition the Kid’s dad plays on the piano in Purple Rain and co-credited to Prince’s real-life father. And that’s not to mention the two missing verses which are the least interesting thing about the full-length jam. You can see why they were sacrificed, it’s just a shame some of the various interludes didn’t make the album otherwise my memory would have been a bit more than robot Wendy & Lisa bathe each other… some music happens… then the origin story of parental advisory stickers begins.

96: Take Me With U

Purple Rain (1984)
We finally get to Purple Rain – the only album residing wholly in this list’s top 100. Take Me With U was the album’s final single and the film’s romantic duet between the lead and love interest during the most memorable scene in the film, but its upbringing could have been very different. Initially, it was the opening track on Apollonia 6 before Prince stripped the album of potential hits (Manic Monday and G-Spot were also removed). With unabashed pop swagger and a suggestive wink, it would have fitted in well, easily becoming the stand out track. But who would have heard it? Getting the call up to return us to earth after Let’s Go Crazy’s stratospheric “take me away” scream and to lighten the mood before the ultimatums start in The Beautiful Ones is one hell of a promotion. Luckily Take Me With U has an ace up her sleeve: two drum fills that hit you like the pounding of your heart. These bookend the track, cocooning the soft and fluffy pop in a hard, protective layer that no cynicism can penetrate. We’re safe inside. This is our happy place. And when the concert lights get turned on full beam for this song’s duration we can all gaze into one anothers’ eyes and know that for two minutes and 57 seconds, the world is perfect.

156: The Dance Electric

Unreleased (1984) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
This site is a hodgepodge of critique, history and anecdote. For every entry, I begin by reeling in the song’s fishing line and see which sea creatures get plucked from the depths of memory. Afterwards I’ll research further to plug any holes or corroborate my fickle recollections and then I’ll write a paragraph on whatever I find the more interesting. With The Dance Electric, I’m pulling the line up but all I can think about is the present. I’m currently listening to it on a busy commuter train – one of those without inter-carriage doors – and I stand with one foot in one compartment, and one foot in the other. Both train carriages are jerking me in different directions, trying to knock me off balance. But I retain my core and fill it with this song. I feel I’m dancing the dance electric. Pulled by sporadic forces I have no control over. Vague memories swirl up of a rumour André Cymone has his mom to thank for Prince giving him this song. But I can’t even recall what his version sounds like. Nor the version with Wendy and Lisa on backing vocals. The Prince solo recording, the one released on Purple Rain Deluxe, is all there is in the world right now and I’m living in it like I’m trapped in an 80s Tron computer soundscape.

181: Electric Intercourse

Unreleased (1983) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
In 2017, folk began to reappraise Electric Intercourse’s history after the previously assumed to be non-existent studio version made a surprise appearance. For years a live bootleg had been kicking around and was thought to be the final version intended for the Purple Rain album, taken from the same concert as I Would Die 4 U, Baby I’m A Star and Purple Rain (and like that closing trio overdubbed shortly after). Was the newly-released studio mix recorded before or after that performance? Was it intended as a demo or a replacement? I would have thought it’s an early draft as it’s a nice curio but the live performance is where the spine tingles are. The question is moot anyway. Does it matter which version ultimately got replaced by The Beautiful Ones? The real question is how the hell did Prince write 180 better songs than this?

237: Possessed

Unreleased (1983) / Purple Rain Deluxe (2017)
Prince wrote Possessed after attending a James Brown concert, and later dedicated it to him on 1985’s Prince and the Revolution: Live. On this video, the song wears its influence fully on its sleeve, but the original studio version, recorded two years earlier, took Mr Dynamite to another level – James Brown 2.0: Spooky Electric Boogaloo. On this robo-funk groove, the Oberheim synths shimmer and the empyrean guitar-work is pure fire, but the lyrics go to a darker place as Prince rattles the cage of his inner suppressed demon and stokes his “satanic lust”. It’s the “I want you, I need you, I must have you” brand of pop where the tape is left running and all the worrying implications and subtext leak to the surface. This early incantation may have scared him as it was subsequently buried in a lead box before it broke free to live amongst the shadows of the bootleg world. A new version was recorded the following year and briefly cropped up in the background of a scene in Purple Rain, however it would be 33 years until we got to hear it in full. The lyrics were reworked to be less menacing (apart from a bizarre aside about tearing people into little pieces to sell as a jigsaw puzzle) but conversely, the music is infinitely more unsettling. Bassless and guitarless, the 1984 version flutters and trembles like the palpitations of a diseased mind. It’s a lot more experimental and will likely take up residence in the darkest corners of your dreams but unlike the 1983 original it forgets to inject the funk into its dysfunction.