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Pressed For Space, Prince Takes a Scalpel to the Epic ‘Computer Blue': 365 Prince Songs in a Year

Warner Brothers
Warner Brothers

To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.

A gutsy two-part collaboration, “Computer Blue” shows that Prince – even at the very top of his commercial game – would not be limited to any one style. What did confine him, however, was the length of vinyl albums and cassettes, the music distribution model of the time.

When he decided to add “Take Me With U” to the soundtrack of 1984’s Purple Rain, the fully mastered, nearly eight-minute version of “Computer Blue” had to be edited down so the project could fit. The song, which grew out of a theme written by Prince’s father John L. Nelson and then studio sessions with the Revolution and engineer Susan Rogers, at one point had become a sprawling 14-minute opus.

In that way, “Computer Blue” initially harkened back to the epic recordings of Prince’s most recent album – “Automatic” and “D.M.S.R.” from 1999. (Prince never lost his penchant for these kind of long-form thoughts: “Crystal Ball” would stretch to more than 11 minutes; so did “Come.”) It also made good on the argument for cooperative creative endeavors that works as a secondary storyline in the film. But it didn’t start out that way.

Prince had actually been fiddling with “Computer Blue” since the tour for 1999. He titled an early version of the piece “Father’s Song” and recorded it alone on piano. (Actor Clarence Williams III, portraying Prince’s dad, mimed a bit of this version in the film version of Purple Rain.) This lengthy creative journey continued with August 1983 sessions at the Warehouse in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, nearly two weeks after the Revolution’s debut appearance at the First Avenue club provided three songs for the completed album and film. “Computer Blue” took a dramatic shift there, as they tracked both this song and “Let’s Go Crazy.”

“We were jamming one day, and I’m playing something and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s nice,” keyboardist Matt Fink says in Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of ‘Purple Rain.” “Then that turns into ‘Computer Blue,’ which became a full-blown collaboration between Prince, me, Lisa and Wendy, and Prince’s father, who wrote the main melody in the bridge section of that song.”

But Prince wasn’t done yet. Work continued, in fact, after filming for Purple Rain was over. He wanted something, it’s said, that was more epic. Problem: They’d already filled up all 24 tracks on the tape. “We don’t have room,” engineer Peggy McCreary says in Prince: Inside the Music and the Masks. Prince’s reply: “Make some more room.” McCreary hauled in two more recorders, and they added billowing strings to the song.

He still wasn’t finished tinkering. A lengthy spoken-word section – one where Prince ruminated on life as a house with many labeled doors, including lust, hate, insecurity and fear – was inserted, then taken out. Another section that was left on the cutting room floor actually appears in the film, when Fink, Bobby Z and Mark indulge in a bit of practice-session improvisation while waiting for a late-arriving Prince. A second verse, originally played at First Avenue, had disappeared by the time the album arrived.

“We did the basic track at the Warehouse,” Rogers says in Let’s Go Crazy, “but there was quite a bit of editing with that. We brought it to Sunset Sound [in Los Angeles] and made substantial changes to it. The basic piano part was the same, but a lot of overdubbed parts were different.”

What remains is still a bundle of strangely inviting contradictions, an outburst of creative impulses ranging from mechanical funk to breezy jazz to an eruptive conclusion that recalls the distorted energy of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Its middle section, so open ended and improvisational, rejected every mainstream expectation that seems to imply, however. Meanwhile, the murmured intro from Wendy and Lisa was a wonder of sexualized mystery. Why did the water need to be warm? Just what were they beginning? Wendy reportedly has said she thought it referred to a baptism.

That’s understandable. A true joint effort, “Computer Blue” felt like the beginning of something that would culminate with 1986’s Dream Factory, an album-length collaboration with the Revolution. Lisa, at the time Purple Rain was released, predicted Prince would intersperse close work together like this with more solo-focused albums.

That’s not the way it happened, of course. Dream Factory was pulled, with some of its best songs sprinkled onto other future releases. By 1987, Prince had moved on without the Revolution. “Computer Blue” wasn’t a new beginning, so much as another eye-poppingly inventive but ultimately impermanent moment in time for the always-restive Prince.

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Next: How Prince Redefined Joan Osbourne's 'One of Us'

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