Thursday, February 28, 1984. The 26th Annual Grammy Awards Show. Prince was nominated for two awards: Best Pop Male Vocal for “1999” and R&B Male Vocal Performance for “International Lover.” He lost both to Michael Jackson. Everyone lost to Michael Jackson that night. He took home eight Grammy Awards. Call it coincidence or competitiveness, but on February 29 Prince started work on “When Doves Cry.”
This is a song that needs no introduction. Maybe the best compliment I can pay “When Doves Cry” is that when the title popped up on the Prince Song Randomizer just now I actually got nervous. I’m practically shaking. This song is bigger, better, and more important than any of us. The opening guitar riff and Linn drum machine beat that follow give me goosebumps.
Still. Every time. 36 years later.
You could argue that “When Doves Cry” is the greatest musician we’ve ever known at his apex. The fact that he’s the greatest we’ve ever known is not arguable. He is. End of argument. Whether or not “When Doves Cry” was the apex is the argument. Here are the facts: “When Doves Cry” was recorded between March 1-5 (mostly March 2), 1984. It was released as a single on May 16 that same year as the lead single from the soundtrack from Prince’s upcoming movie, Purple Rain. It was Prince’s first Billboard Hot 100 #1 single and it stayed there for five weeks. It went triple platinum and ended up being the #1 selling single of 1984. It was ranked #1 on Billboard’s Year-End Hot 100 Singles chart in 1984. It should be mentioned that 1984 was not a down year for music with titans like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna (among others) also charting. “When Doves Cry” vaulted Prince from pop star to icon. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it #52 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All time. When Prince died in 2016 “When Doves Cry” actually made it to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, entering the top ten for the first time since September of 1984.
According the Duane Tudahl’s exhaustive Prince and the Purple Rain Studio Sessions 1983 and 1984 the inspiration for “When Doves Cry” is unclear. Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman said that she and guitarist Wendy Melvoin inspired the song while they were all pushing each other to become better songwriters. Former Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson claimed that Prince heard a song that he wrote and performed and Prince took the beat from that and ran with it. Engineer Susan Rogers says that it was inspired by one of Prince’s many girlfriends – Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6 member Susan Moonsie. The more conventional story is that Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli told Prince he needed a specific kind of song to play during a montage during the movie and Prince delivered. Maybe some part of every one of those stories is true. Maybe none of them are.
Despite Prince and the Revolution being credited on the album, “When Doves Cry” was written and performed by Prince. The night he made the initial recording – March 2 – he was so excited about it he drove to Wendy and Lisa’s at 4:00 AM with a cassette and woke them up to listen to it. The next day he felt like something wasn’t right. According to Jill Jones, who was present in the studio that day, Prince took the bass out of the track and said, “If I could have it my way it would sound like this.” Jones reportedly replied, “Why don’t you have it your way?” Studio engineer Peggy McCreary claims that shortly after he said, “Nobody would have the balls to do this. You just wait, they’ll be freaking.” He was correct, and history was made.
Now that the facts are out of the way, I have two personal observations I’d like to share. The first is about the video. Every Prince video prior to “When Doves Cry” featured Prince and his band on a stage performing the song concert-style. With “When Doves Cry” we finally get to see Prince in a different element. The opening sequence with doors opening to a purple room filled with white doves and flowers, then slowly moving in on Prince in a steaming bathtub. I know it’s not the kind of thing a young kid should care about or even see, but I remember being 8-years-old glued to that video convinced that Prince was the coolest motherfucker who ever lived. I loved Michael Jackson, but even at that age I had a pretty good idea that MJ was a great singer and dancer, but Prince would probably outplay him in a concert, then steal his girl. Then the shots of Prince on his purple motorcycle brooding next to Lake Minnetonka, hooking up with Apollonia in a barn, breaking up fights between his parents. I was just a kid and all I wanted to do was see that movie. It would be years before I finally did. Then later in the video The Revolution appear in a white room with Prince in a shiny gold suit. The band dancing to the music and the weird mirrored screen effect that looks hacky now, but was mind-blowing in 1984. That video took Prince off of the dark soundstages and out of his trenchcoat. It was long overdue.
My second observation is about the movie. There are nine songs on the Purple Rain soundtrack. All of them appear in the movie. Seven of them are performed “live” on the First Avenue stage. “When Doves Cry” is not one of them. “Let’s Go Crazy” opens the movie and sets the stage. “The Beautiful Ones” is Prince throwing down the gauntlet with Morris in their battle for Apollonia. “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” are Prince giving an amazing middle finger to pretty much everyone at First Avenue who pisses him off – Morris, Apollonia, Jerome, Billy, etc. “Purple Rain” is the climax of the movie. “Baby I’m a Star” and “I Would Die 4 U” are the celebration at the end of the movie. Even “Take Me With U” is featured nicely early in the film while Prince is driving with Apollonia through the Minnesota countryside on their way to the epic purification scene. “When Doves Cry” is the forgotten song in the movie. It plays during a 2-1/2 minute montage of Prince driving his motorcycle during a time of introspection. Not exactly a rewatchable scene. I suppose it makes some sense since it was the final song written for the movie. However, it was also the lead single and Prince’s biggest smash hit. I suppose there was no way they could’ve known that by the time the movie was released on July 27, 1984, “When Doves Cry” would be the #1 song in the country. They must’ve had some inkling, though, or they wouldn’t have made it the first single. I guess my point is, I watch the Purple Rain performances frequently and they’re all unforgettable. It’s too bad that “When Doves Cry” isn’t one of them.
There’s so much more to say about “When Doves Cry” but you’ve probably already heard it. “When Doves Cry” is one of the greatest songs ever created. Don’t take it from me. Re-read the facts above. We can argue about where it belongs on the list of Prince’s best songs, but we can all agree that it’s high on that list. If you disagree you’re gonna have to purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.