Songs of 84: When Doves Cry / Prince

The songs of the year 1984, upon reflection, include some of the strangest ideas and most daring creative choices on vinyl. From the sound of the collected members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood jumping into a swimming pool, to a creepy monologue from horror actor Vincent Price at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, to a kind of jazz nouveau on The Cure’s single “The Lovecats”.

Prince was never averse to a bit of advanced experimentation, and indeed he took many a creative left turn in the 80s. His ideas mapped a path that many others followed afterwards. Fortunately not all who followed in his footsteps made a film as dour as Purple Rain, but then again few, if any, made a record of music as uniformly brilliant as the film’s soundtrack LP either.

The major hit single from the album was a beguiling one.

Firstly it’s billed as “Prince and the Revolution”, despite the fact that no one except the man himself plays any of the instruments on it. Structurally it is an oddity, starting off with a guitar solo and a noise that sounds like Prince trying to vocally recreate the sound of a tattoo gun. Then, for next five and a half minutes, a funky Linn drum machine groove kicks the song along, with the most sparse arrangement of synthesiser parts ever committed to a record, to the point where they’re almost non-existent. There’s no bass – either a synth pad or a guitar – on the record anywhere, and there’s layers of his own vocals to fill in the gaps.

It’s cold, spare and open, like a vacant floor of a warehouse. And it’s brilliant. It sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time, and it still sounds like nothing else on radio, except maybe Prince’s own later singles “Thieves in the Temple” and “Kiss”, both of which have no bass instrument on them either. It was a daring choice to alter the mix to make it sound the way it is, and it remains iconic.

For years I have wondered about that wooden, “knocking” sound that Prince includes in the drum groove on this song. I’ve heard that sound copied many times in other 80s singles by acts like Ready for the World and DeBarge, but what is it? It sounds like banging on a hardwood door. It is in fact the sound of a drumstick on the rim of a snare drum, a technique that drummers call a “cross stick”. Prince recorded that sound into his Linn drum machine, and slowed down the sound to make it sound low and fat.

When Doves Cry was a massive hit, peaking at number 1 on the charts and keeping Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark” from peaking in the top spot. It also topped the singles charts here in Australia too.

I remember being given the Purple Rain album for Christmas in 1984, despite the fact that it had that naughty song “Darling Nikki” on it. The record regularly echoed through our house for years when I was younger, however the song that so offended Tipper Gore never landed me in hot water, because I didn’t like the song at all and, being at the end of side one, I stopped the record before it started and flipped over the record to hear “When Doves Cry”. It would seem as though I dodged a bullet!

That said, I am onto my third copy of the album now as a dodgy “friend” of mine in primary school scratched my copy to the point of being unplayable, so I gave it to a friend in high school to put on her bedroom wall, then I bought the CD again in the 90s, and now i was gifted another vinyl copy from a mate of mine.

What goes around comes around, as they say…

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

Tags: | | | | | | |