6. Prince and The Revolution - Let's Go Crazy

Prince was at a crossroads in the middle of 1983.  His previous album, 1999, had become a big hit, becoming his first Top 10 album and spawning three Top 15 hit singles, "1999", "Delirious", and "Little Red Corvette."  1999 was the first album where he used a backup band called The Revolution.  The addition of a band gave 1999 a depth and organic musical complexity that was missing from his earlier works, where it was Prince adding layer upon layer of vocals and instrumentation in the studio virtually all by himself.  So when it came time to record his next album, Prince needed to decide which path he would take, the solo genius at work, or the leader of a collaborative group of musicians - a band, if you will.  It was a novel concept for Prince.

He realized that the opportunity to have others involved in the songwriting and recording process could only make the resulting songs better, so in August of 1983, Prince and The Revolution started work on the Purple Rain album.  The band was involved not just in playing on the record, but also in its writing and production.  Lengthy jam sessions spurred creativity for all, and the resulting songs had a much more cohesive construction.  What started out as a music project morphed into a music and movie project, with the movie Purple Rain released in 1984.  The songs Prince and The Revolution were working on ended up becoming the soundtrack to the film.  And the song that would open both the album and the movie was aptly called "Let's Go Crazy," the sixth best song of my life.

Starting off with a church organ, you're not sure what you've gotten yourself into.  Then Prince starts preaching:

Dearly beloved
We are gathered here today
2 get through this thing called life

Electric word life
It means forever and that's a mighty long time

It's very dramatic opening, so much so that it opens the album as well as the movie, but you start to wonder what this all has to do with an actual, well, song.  But as Prince's preaching reaches the apex, the bass drum beat starts, followed by a cool, echoed quick drum tap.  It's this beat that permeates the whole song, with other elements added, giving the song the complexity that The Revolution helped bring to "Let's Go Crazy." 

First, there's the fuzzed out, almost metal guitar that Prince plays.  Right off the bat, you can see that he's taking his music down another road.  Building on what he'd started on his single "1999," he doesn't completely abandon the funk and soul that was such a huge part of his earlier records.  He builds it on a classic dance song rhythm, but let's be clear, "Let's Go Crazy" is a rock song at its core.

And when you're Prince, the king of soul-funk-dance at the time, writing a rock song can piss a few people off.  What most of us like when we like a certain artist or band is whatever kind of music they were playing at the time we started to like them.  When artists stretch their musical boundaries, their fans revolt.  If they wanted to hear a different kind of music, they'd listen to a different band.  The problem with Prince, though, is that he had no boundaries.  He wrote songs that interested him, and with the influence of The Revolution, he was exposed to musical styles and song structures that he'd never really paid that much attention to.  That resulted in rock elements invading his music for the first time.  In a rare interview* with MTV, Prince was asked about those rock elements:
Some have criticized you for selling out to the white rock audience with Purple Rain, and leaving your black listeners behind. How do you respond to that?

Oh, come on, come on! Okay, let's be frank. Can we be frank? If we can't do nothing else, we might as well be frank. Seriously, I was brought up in a black-and-white world and, yes, black and white, night and day, rich and poor. I listened to all kinds of music when I was young, and when I was younger, I always said that one day I would play all kinds of music and not be judged for the color of my skin but the quality of my work, and hopefully I will continue. There are a lot of people out there that understand this, 'cause they support me and my habits, and I support them and theirs.
 Musically, there's so much more, though, to "Let's Go Crazy."  Sure it's a rock song, but the funk and soul elements of his previous efforts are still there.  It's a buffet of musical styles.  There are the rich vocals that would normally be found in a soul song, with the duo of Wendy & Lisa adding a nice vocal complement to Prince's strong voice.  Dr. Fink plays some standard dance style keyboards, which work especially well with Bobby Z's danceable drum beat.  Brown Mark's bass line, however, is textbook rock, virtually mirroring the guitar line, giving it that extra umph.  It's a bass line that Van Halen's Mark Anthony could've done, and it's in a Prince song of all places. 

Finally, there's Prince and his guitar playing.  When I first heard him shred in this song, my first thought was "This is amazing!  I didn't know he could play like this!"  Then I thought how much we'd all missed if he could've played guitar like this the whole time.  Of course he could, but he hadn't felt the need to until Purple Rain.  But when he decided to show the world what he could do with a guitar, thankfully, he never stopped.  Sure "Let's Go Crazy" is his most prominent guitar work on the record, but there's some great electric stuff in "When Doves Cry," some great acoustic stuff in "Take Me With U," and great all around guitar in "Purple Rain."  He wasn't hiding his "guitar" light under a bushel anymore.

But the music isn't the only area where "Let's Go Crazy" bucked the trend.  Lyrically, it's a song that urges us to put aside the trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle and to "punch a higher floor."  You couldn't get more "un" rock&roll  than these lyrics.  So the church organ at the beginning of the song and his sermon were an appropriate introduction to everything that followed.  Even though the music is rock and roll, the lyrics speak to the "be in the world, not of the world" convention of Christianity.  It's as if he's saying, "I'll rock your pants off, but I'll teach you a valuable life lesson at the same time."  It's a feat that's nigh impossible to pull off, but somehow Prince does it.  Part of the reason it works so well is that he puts it in the language that his generation - our generation - would understand.

Dr. Everything'll be alright
Will make everything go wrong
Pills and thrills and dafodills will kill
Hang tough children

Now I'm not sure about the perils of daffodils, but Prince is urging us to live as pure a life as we can. He acknowledges that although there will be temptations and troubles, the prize at the end, salvation, is worth the struggle in this world.  Later in the MTV interview I quoted above, Prince summed up his belief system.
I believe in God. There is only one God. And I believe in an afterworld. Hopefully we'll all see it. I have been accused of a lot of things contrary to this, and I just want people to know that I'm very sincere in my beliefs. I pray every night, and I don't ask for much. I just say, "Thank you" all the time.
I'd always thought that Prince had a sense of entitlement - that he believed he deserved all of the accolades that were thrown his way by the music media.  He was a genius, sure, but he knew he was a genius and his ego mirrored that.  It's nice to see that there's also a heavy dose of appreciation for the gifts he received.  It wasn't a revolutionary idea to add positive lyrics to a rock and roll foundation, but the way Prince and The Revolution did it brought the idea to a whole new generation.  This wasn't a hippie song that our parents listened to, this was something we loved, from a voice from our generation.

I called Prince the Mozart of our time in my other Prince post, and I stand by that assertion.  Prince brought complex, technically intricate music to the masses.  But it wasn't just complex, it was eminently listenable.  Music fans from all over the spectrum call themselves Prince fans, and even the ones who don't really like his music generally acknowledge his genius.  So sure, he's smart enough to know how talented he is, but at then end of the day, I'm glad he says thank you for it.

* After a few stories that he felt didn't reflect the actual interviews, Prince declined to speak to the media between 1981 and 1985.  He did two major interviews in 1985, one with MTV and the other with Rolling Stone. The quotes in this essay are from the MTV interview, but one quote from the RS one I thought was pretty profound, "I think when one discovers himself, he discovers God. Or maybe it's the other way around. I'm not sure...It's hard to put into words. It's a feeling -- someone knows when they get it. That's all I can really say."

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