In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Dig, if you will, a motion picture.
When Prince finally made his long-awaited and inevitable ascent to the top of the charts, our least conventional pop star found the most conventional way to establish himself as a pantheon figure: He became a movie star. From Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” on, the pop hits of the early ’80s often looked longingly to Golden Age Hollywood, to an earlier age’s cosmology of stars. Prince did something different. He simply willed himself into becoming an icon for a whole new Golden Age.
After Michael Jackson, Prince was the second transcendent pop figure to truly understand and embrace the implications of MTV, to use this new advance as a way of projecting a skyscraper-sized persona across the world. Jackson did that by restaging old Hollywood musicals, with himself at the center. As cold and mechanistic as Jackson’s music could be, he always threw himself into ecstatic motion, into spectacle. He invited us in. Prince did the inverse. Prince used MTV to make himself a figure of sex and mystery, a walking question mark who savored his own ability to annihilate mores and binaries.
Prince was using image-manipulation even before MTV; that’s him rocking the trench coat and G-string on the cover of 1980’s Dirty Mind. When MTV was at its peak influence, Prince circumvented it and went beyond. He became the star at the center of Purple Rain, a Warner Bros. film that mythologized Prince’s own story, somehow making him even more strange and intriguing than he’d already been. At the domestic box office alone, Purple Rain earned back its $7 million budget 10 times over. Price’s big-screen debut was the #10 movie at the 1984 box office — coming in just behind Romancing The Stone and outgrossing bigger-budgeted hits like Splash and The Natural and Best Picture winner Amadeus. It’s also a better movie than any of them.
Purple Rain marked Prince’s transition from freaky, fascinating pop-music prospect to natural-born larger-than-life star. The song that took Prince to his apex is one of his best and one of his most iconic. It’s one of those beautiful music-history moments where the public lined up behind the right song, by the right person, at the right time. Stars aligned. Decades later, everyone involved can still feel happy that they were a part of a phenomenon.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis, the son of two musicians. (Prince arrived in the world in June of 1958, just before the advent of the Billboard Hot 100. Michael Jackson, Prince’s closest rival, was born two months later.) Prince’s name, Prince Rogers, was the name his father had once used when leading a jazz trio. Prince started out playing music young, writing his first song at age seven. In high school, Prince was a three-sport athlete and a dance student, but he was always going to become a musician. Prince signed to Warner Bros. at age 19 on the strength of a demo, and the label gave him full creative control and publishing rights. He released For You, his 1978 debut album, a couple of months before he turned 20. On that album, he wrote and produced virtually every song, and he played all the instruments.
Prince’s early records were, broadly speaking, funk. Even then, though, they didn’t fit into any easy label. Like Rick James, an artist who took Prince on tour as an opener, Prince dabbled in rock and new wave and psychedelia, bending all of them to fit his own particular style. As Prince progressed, those influences became more and more pronounced. He also developed a real taste for shock value; “Sister,” from Dirty Mind, is a pure and porny ode to incest. And as a performer, Prince was a truly rare breed of showman, a hedonistic Greek-demigod take on the classic high-stepping James Brown archetype.
It must’ve been clear to anyone paying attention, right from the beginning, that Prince was a force. For the first few years of his career, though, Prince was barely a factor on the pop charts. Critics loved him, and he sold albums, but radio wasn’t biting, at least at first. Maybe they didn’t know what to do with someone who existed at the blurred edge of so many boundaries. Early on, Prince made it up to #11 with “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” a 1979 track that could plausibly be considered disco. As Prince’s music got stranger and harder to categorize, he remained a mainstay on the R&B charts, but he barely even appeared on the Hot 100.
That changed with the release of the blockbuster 1982 double album 1999 — the record that turned Prince, for the first time, into a true pop phenom. The three Prince albums after For You had all gone gold or platinum, but 1999 was a smash. 1999 sold four million copies, and Billboard named it the #5 album of the year. The 1999 title track, Prince’s biggest hit since “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” peaked at #12. Two later singles from 1999 gave Prince his first-even top-10 hits. (“Little Red Corvette” peaked at #6. It’s a 10. “Delirious” peaked at #8. It’s an 8.)
After the success of 1999, Prince demanded that his managers make him a movie deal. Prince wasn’t yet a towering pop figure, but maybe the advent of MTV was enough to convince Warner Bros. to give it a shot. Prince’s managers produced Purple Rain, and the movie worked as a showcase for him and for the people around him, including proteges like the Time (who rule as the villains) and Apollonia 6. The members of the Revolution, Prince’s band, play versions of themselves. All the nightclub scenes take place at the Minneapolis institution First Avenue. Prince plays a character known only as the Kid.
Purple Rain was a big movie, but it was a bigger album. The Purple Rain soundtrack is a missile aimed right at the heart of pop music. It’s all of Prince’s predilections and perversions distilled into nine songs, offered up for mass adulation. Mass adulation is what it got. The Purple Rain soundtrack sold 13 million copies in the US alone. For a little while in the summer of 1984, Prince had the #1 single, album, and film in the United States, all at the same time. Nobody had ever done that before.
The song in question was “When Doves Cry,” which Billboard would later name the #1 single of 1984. It’s the last song that Prince wrote for Purple Rain. First-time director Albert Magnoli wanted something to soundtrack a montage. In the movie, Prince’s character had just lost his girl to Morris Day, so something had to play on the soundtrack while Prince rode around on his motorcycle, looking upset and flashing back on happier times. “When Doves Cry” was that something.
“When Doves Cry” is entirely a Prince creation. After getting his assignment from Magnoli, Prince turned around “When Doves Cry” in two days. (He wrote the song in a night, then spent one day recording and one day doing overdubs.) Prince plays every instrument on the song — the synths, the guitars, the Linn drum machine, all the vocals. He’d originally put a bassline on the song, too, but he took it out. He figured that the empty space on the song, the striking spareness of the finished work, would leave more of an impression than the bassline he’d come up with. He was right.
In some ways, “When Doves Cry” is a straight-up soundtrack work — a summary of the plot and the character’s feelings at the point in the movie where it plays. In other ways, “When Doves Cry” is opaque poetry, a hallucinatory swirl of panting come-ons and animal imagery. That means it’s classic Prince — half functional, half mysterious, able to do its work while still leaving your mind spinning.
Lyrically, “When Doves Cry” is a seduction and a breakup song at the same time. In the opening lines, Prince establishes the sexual chemistry between himself and the song’s target. It’s a force so great that even animals can sense it. But now that bond has been broken, and Prince’s narrator is struggling to understand how that could’ve happened. At first, he sounds accusatory: “How can you just leave me stranded alone in a world that’s so cold?” Then he’s off on some personal internal journey, thinking about the example of his own dysfunctional parents. (Prince is the only person on this planet who could make the phrase “maybe you’re just like my mother” sound sexy.)
“When Doves Cry” has no bridge and no real resolution. Instead, it turns into a wild vamp. Early on, it’s a heavy-breathing groove that belongs to no clear genre. The intro is a Van Halen-style shredding display. The drum machine echoes and booms like Phil Collins, but it’s off-kilter, an irregular heartbeat. Prince’s voice is a discordant drone, and then it’s a heavy purr. As the song progresses, that voice turns into the yearning falsetto coo of a sexually frustrated baby gospel singer. Prince yelps and howls and keens, and then his guitars and keyboards do the same thing. A pyrotechnic guitar-heroics display goes right into a frilly neoclassical keyboard solo. In the album version, this goes on for six minutes. That version is better, but even the shortened single edit gets its point across — especially if you see it with the video.
The video for “When Doves Cry,” which Prince directed himself, is perfect in its overwhelming sense of need. Very few people in history have ever made a camera quite so horny. In the delirious opening shot, that camera glides through wrought-iron doors, over an enormous bathroom door with flowers scattered over it, right up to the steaming bathtub where Prince reclines, all the while ignoring the actual doves that flap through the room. The camera pulls right up to Prince, holding his gaze as he turns and, smoldering, rises up from the tub to dramatically beckon. (You can almost sense the camera willing itself to keep eye contact, resisting the urge to look down.)
Later on, Prince crawls naked across that bathroom floor and then, off camera, gets dressed up in frilly and glittery golden-dandy gear so that he can head to band practice. All the while, we see clips from the movie. Usually, the movie clips in soundtrack tie-in videos are forced and clumsy. But all of Purple Rain looks like a music video, and all of it fits the song.
For most of the pop stars throughout history, a song like “When Doves Cry” — and a video scene as instantly memorable as that opening shot — would run the risk of overshadowing an entire career. For Prince, of course, that did not happen. Prince was only getting started. We will see him in this column many more times.
BONUS BEATS: Prince almost never allowed other artists to sample his songs, but he made an exception for MC Hammer. Hammer rapped over a sample of “When Doves Cry” on his 1990 single “Pray.” Here’s the video:
(“Pray” peaked at #2. It’s MC Hammer’s highest-charting single, and it’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ginuwine’s video for his 1997 Timbaland-produced version of “When Doves Cry”:
(Ginuwine’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “Differences,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7. Timbaland will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Bizzy Bone interpolated “When Doves Cry” on his 1998 solo single “Thugz Cry.” Here’s the video:
And here’s Bizzy’s fellow Bone Thugs-N-Harmony member Krayzie Bone interpolating “When Doves Cry” on his own 2008 solo track “Can’t Get Out The Game”:
(Bone Thugs-N-Harmony will eventually appear in this column, and Krayzie Bone will also appear in the column as a guest on someone else’s song.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “When Doves Cry” cover that Patti Smith released in 2002:
(Patti Smith’s highest-charting single, 1978’s “Because The Night,” peaked at #13.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2018 video where Robyn, starting around the 6:02 mark, covers “When Doves Cry” live in studio: