With an artist so prolific, so breathtakingly brilliant as Prince, it’s hard to pick one “best song”. But ‘When Doves Cry’ is right up there.
The insistent synth riff, the pure emotion that seeps from every second, and the delivery which is half bruised little boy, half lascivious little horndog, there’s so much to love it’s almost too much to discuss here.
Born out of his unceasing drive to top what had come before and an almost unceasing ability to create, ‘When Doves Cry’ is a standout track – for him, for the 80s and for all time.
The film Purple Rain told the tale of Prince Rogers Nelson’s rags to riches ascent. It was a glossy Hollywood fantasy of course, but the nugget of truth came from the singer’s real life story. And it was his ruptured childhood – his father leaving the family home when he was a youngster- which was key to unlocking the inner character of Prince’s Kid character.
In the film, his relationship with Apollonia lies in contrast to his parents’ combative and destructive one. Here, ‘When Doves Cry’’s lines resonate deeply.
Maybe I’m just too demanding/Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold/
Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied/
When do we scream at each other?/This is what it sounds like when the doves cry
It was the yin to ‘Purple Rain’ (the song’s) yang. Complicatedly passionate and showing the inner workings of Prince’s character in a much more in-depth way than the clunky dialogue ever could.
But the track almost never made the final cut. Both the film and the album were completed, and ‘…Doves’ was a last minute addition.
There were many theories behind what Prince proposed for the album (including a double soundtrack album with songs by The Time, Apollonia 6 and a version that had the tracks ‘Father’s Song’ and ‘Wednesday’ instead of either ‘Take Me With U’ or ‘When Doves Cry’).
But the tracklist kept on changing because Prince was so prolific and kept on writing more and more songs.
In the instance of this track he wasn’t aided by his Revolution bandmates and hit the studio on his own to create a song which, on director’s orders, reflected the scene of parental tumult. Overnight Prince created two songs, one of which was ‘…Doves’.
Opinion is divided over who inspired the track. According to at least one of his biographers it was inspired by his relationship with Vanity 6/Apollonia 6 member Susan Moonsie.
However, the timeline fits better with Vanity, who played a significant role in Prince’s life before leaving his life during the production on the film due to disputes about money.
Aside from the lyrical raw emotion on display, one of the standout features of the song is its lack of bass parts. In an extremely rare interview, Prince told Bass Player magazine:
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When Doves Cry’ is most distinctive because of its lack of a bass line. The song had one but it was pulled at the last minute. They were almost done editing the movie (and) ‘When Doves Cry’ was the last song to be mixed, and it just wasn’t sounding right.
Prince was listening to the mixes of the track when one of his singers, Jill Jones, came in. “It was just sounding too conventional, like every other song with drums and bass and keyboards. So I said, ‘If I could have it my way it would sound like this,’ and I pulled the bass out of the mix. She said, ‘Why don’t you have it your way?'”
“His way” meant bass free, which was an unconventional idea to say the least. But he stuck with his instincts:
Sometimes your brain kind of splits in two. Your ego tells you one thing, and the rest of you says something else. You have to go with what you know is right.
And it was so right. The track hit the top of the US Billboard charts, selling two million and going platinum. In the UK it hit the relatively humble placing of Number 10, but it and the snowball effect of Purple Rain meant that it put him firmly on the international map.
The influence of the song has lived on, long after it left the charts. It has been covered by Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers, Razorlight, Patti Smith and Robyn.
The Swede summed up the song’s enduring influence, when she told Pitchfork: “Prince is king to me. As this half-naked, short black guy who looked like a girl in the 70s and 80s, he was talking about women in a way that was very unusual because he didn’t objectify them. He always puts himself in a vulnerable situation. And the songs have complex views of sexuality and male and female identities, which is very rare.”
Robyn had it right; a dazzling masterstroke from a musical enigma, ‘When Doves Cry’ is a waterfall of pure pop joy.
Did You Know?:
* ‘When Doves Cry’ kept Bruce Springsteen’s classic ‘Dancing In The Dark’ off the top of the Billboard charts.
* A gospel version of the song is featured in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
* It was also sampled in MC Hammer’s not-so-classic ‘Pray’.