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.
When the Warner Bros. logo hits the screen, an unseen voice comes over the speakers: “Ladies and gentleman, the Revolution!” The first image that appears after that logo is Prince, clearly recognizable even though he’s in silhouette. There’s a purple light behind him. There’s steam in the air. We see quick close-ups of people in the audience — all motionless, all futuristic, all impossibly cool. Even the soundman is wearing white lace gloves.
We can’t see Prince’s mouth moving, but he intones some kind of mock-preacher rap about life and the afterworld. Prince barely moves during the intro, but the audience seems to lose it a little more every second. When the song kicks in, Prince and his bandmates are stepping together in time. It’s a beautiful, blood-rushing sight.
This is the first minute of 1984’s Purple Rain — the first minute of Prince’s superstardom. The next 110 minutes will reveal that Purple Rain is a ridiculous movie. It’s obvious and clichéd and silly. None of the actors are professionals. The hero is a complete dick, both to his bandmates and his love interest. The tragic-family-backstory stuff is painful to watch. And yet Purple Rain is also a glorious spectacle, an engine of style and sex and excess. It’s a movie I never get tired of watching, and that first minute has a whole lot to do with its power.
Amazing thing about that first minute: We later come to understand that it’s not supposed to be Prince operating at his peak. When Prince gets done with the night’s performance, the owner of the nightclub, Minneapolis institution First Avenue, seems unimpressed. Morris Day and the Time, Prince’s adversaries, clown him. In the film’s narrative, Prince won’t find true greatness until he learns to embrace his own vulnerability and trust in his bandmates.
But this is all absurd. That first minute is incredible, and anyone who witnessed that in a nightclub would walk away thinking they’d just been staring into the sun. After all, this is Prince we’re talking about, and he’s playing “Let’s Go Crazy.”
“Let’s Go Crazy” is the rare pop song that achieves legendary status before the song itself even starts. The intro is pure nonsensical euphoria, from the intonation of “dearly beloved” on. Prince later said that “Let’s Go Crazy” is really a song about God and the Devil, about resisting the temptations of “de-elevator” and punching a higher floor. Maybe that’s really what he meant at the time. It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to hear religion in “Let’s Go Crazy” to love it. You only have to hear excitement.
With its organ drone and its clomping drum-machine beat, the “Let’s Go Crazy” intro is a great piece of faux-biblical awe, a true buildup of hype and noise and joy. By the time Prince has gotten done riffing about Beverly Hills shrinks and the electric quality of words, the first guitar riff has already kicked in. It’s a big, simple stomp, but then more keeps happening. A guitar and and organ chant back and forth at each other. A glassy synth comes in. Backups singers wail. Everything gets looser and tighter at the same time. Prince pants and whoops and squeaks. The track becomes progressively more unhinged until the end, when Prince is just shredding out guitar solos almost by himself, like Marty McFly in that one Back To The Future scene.
Whatever its intended faith-based implications, “Let’s Go Crazy” is a song about the importance of cutting loose, of partying. Prince imagines misery, and he imagines overcoming that misery by embracing the moment. Prince’s narrator is having a tough time. Only now, writing this, do I understand that Prince calls his old lady to discover that she’s cheating on him. (I always assumed that she just started breathing so heavily because she was so turned on to get a phone call from Prince.) But Prince gets past it by finding joy in his own looming oblivion: “We’re all excited, but we don’t know why/ Maybe it’s ’cause we’re all gonna die!”
On “When Doves Cry,” Prince’s first #1, Prince did everything himself. Prince wrote and produced “When Doves Cry,” and he played every instrument on the song. But “Let’s Go Crazy” is different. It’s a full-band effort from the Revolution, the group that Prince first put together in 1979. Inspired by the composition of Sly & The Family Stone, Prince assembled a band of Black and white musicians, men and women. “Let’s Go Crazy” is the sound of the Revolution at work, carrying out Prince’s vision.
The Revolution wasn’t always a stable unit. Prince is one of pop’s great control-freak auteurs, and people kept leaving the band because Prince wouldn’t allow them the autonomy that they wanted. Original bassist André Cymone — Prince’s oldest friend and first musical collaborator, the man whose family took a teenage Prince in when Prince’s own family life was too chaotic — left the Revolution in 1981. But the members of the Revolution forged identities even with band-member turnover and even with Prince standing in front of them. Some of it was gimmickry, like keyboardist Dr. Fink’s hospital scrubs, but some of it was the fact that this was a great band, playing great songs. In Purple Rain, the members of the Revolution play themselves, and some of them even get their own emotional arcs in there.
I’ve always heard “Let’s Go Crazy” as Prince’s take on a classic rockabilly rave-up — something in the tradition of obvious inspiration Little Richard, one of the guests at the Purple Rain premiere party. But Prince didn’t do throwbacks, so his version of rockabilly has funk and synthpop and gospel baked into it. “Let’s Go Crazy” works as a kind of controlled chaos. We can hear these musicians together, working as a machine. But they’re almost too tight to be a regular band. And little touches — like the pitched-down backing vocals that sometimes come in — are perfectly Prince.
Ultimately, “Let’s Go Crazy” does more than it needs to do. “Let’s Go Crazy” had to work in the context of a movie, to establish this Minneapolis scene as an alternate world where even the background extras are much cooler than anyone you know in real life. That’s a big task, but “Let’s Go Crazy” overachieves. Taken out of the movie’s context, it remains one of the all-time great fire-up songs in pop music history, a five-minute endorphin-release trigger.
“Let’s Go Crazy” was the second single from the Purple Rain soundtrack, and it was the second #1. The album quickly became a bulletproof blockbuster, an even bigger deal than the movie. That album would go on to spin off two more top-10 singles. (“Purple Rain” peaked at #2. It’s a 10. “I Would Die 4 U” peaked at #8. It’s another 10.)
“Darking Nikki” wasn’t a single, but it had its own seismic societal impact. Tipper Gore, wife of a Tennessee senator and future Second Lady of the United States, heard her 11-year-old daughter listening to a song about a girl masturbating with magazines, and she responded by founding the Parents Music Resource Center, the villainous watchdog group that spent years sounding alarms over pop-music horniness.
None of this slowed Prince’s ascent. By the time the Purple Rain finished its album cycle, Prince was a superstar and an Oscar winner. At the 1985 Academy Awards, Prince won Best Original Song Score, one of those weird awards that they don’t give out every year. (Purple Rain defeated The Muppets Take Manhattan and the Kris Kristofferson/Willie Nelson movie Songwriter.) Prince came to the ceremony in a glittery purple robe and accepted the award from Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. The Revolution members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman accompanied him to the stage. When Prince thanked God, he sounded like he was flirting.
That Oscar win was a triumphant moment, but it was only one of many. Prince will appear in this column again. So will the Revolution.
BONUS BEATS: Public Enemy sampled the “Let’s Go Crazy” guitar solo on their 1990 single “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” making it a part of their urgent sonic chaos. Here’s the still-relevant “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” video:
(Public Enemy’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “Give It Up,” which peaked at #33.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s UK rave duo Ragga Twins sampling the “Let’s Go Crazy” intro on their extremely fun 1991 single “Hooligan 69”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: PM Dawn’s Prince Be quoted the “Let’s Go Crazy” intro on the group’s lovely 1995 single “Sometimes I Miss You So Much.” Here’s the song’s video:
(“Sometimes I Miss You So Much” peaked at #95. PM Dawn will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Muppets were evidently not too upset at losing that 1984 Oscar to Prince. Here’s Prince and the Muppets performing “Let’s Go Crazy” together on a 1997 episode of Muppets Tonight:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Let’s Go Crazy” soundtracking an insane action scene in the 2017 movie Kingsman: The Golden Circle:
THE 10S: Bananarama’s incandescent synth-strut “Cruel Summer” peaked at #9 behind “Let’s Go Crazy.” It’s too hot to handle, and it’s a 10.