When Prince Plugged In For ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ Amazing Both Fans and Bandmates
In five years, Prince rose from anonymity to 1982's platinum-selling 1999 with a distinctly synthesized and punk-influenced blend of R&B and funk. But in order to conquer the world like he did with 1984's Purple Rain, Prince needed to unleash another element into the mix: jaw-droppingly great rock guitar.
With notable exceptions such as 1980's "Bambi," Prince's recorded guitar playing had previously focused more on edgy funk rhythms than on bombastic soloing. But as soon as the main distorted riff from "Let's Go Crazy" took over from the song (and album)'s opening testimonial, it was clear something new was in the mix. And by the time the track's screaming, Jimi Hendrix-inspired closing solo concluded, it felt more like a seismic shift.
"Holy shit!,' that was my reaction," Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid tells us. "The first time I heard 'Let's Go Crazy,' it felt revolutionary. Once it's a hit song, once it does that thing, then it enters the lexicon, becomes part of our mental soundtrack. But the first time I heard it? You know, from the introduction, which is this kinda crazy televangelist sorta thing, and then it turns into this rock rave-up, I mean it was all awesome. And that meant, oh you had to go see [the movie] Purple Rain. That was when Prince became a worldwide phenomenon."
In exclusive interviews, three members of Prince's (recently reunited) band the Revolution - keyboardist Matt "Doctor" Fink, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. - shared their memories of the recording of "Let's Go Crazy."
"When he presented that groove to us, it definitely was the start of a change in another direction," recalls Brown Mark. "He brought it to us in rehearsal, while we were getting ready to film Purple Rain," adds Fink. "That was one of the songs he had recorded pretty much on his own, you know, the demo version, but he wanted the band to put their flavor on it, and perform it live to record it."
"He was down on those pedals, he was studying those dials, he knew exactly what he was doing," raves Bobby Z. "When that guitar solo at the end of 'Let's Go Crazy' hit, that could have been the first take. That Vegas ending, and that guitar solo, I can only remember one or two takes. He nailed the guitar solo, and we nailed the ending, and that was done. With Prince, it was just done and you went on to the next thing. He definitely was a guitar student. Purple Rain was his sixth album – people really forget that. He had all that time to master guitar. By the time he got to 'Let's Go Crazy,' you knew he figured it out. The guitar parts were now epic."
"Just the way he played guitar, he made it look so easy," marvels Brown Mark. "He loved the fact that it looked so easy for him; it was a magic trick."
As it turns out, part of the band's improvisation during rehearsals wound up in the movie, albeit in somewhat altered form. "He showed us this longer version he wanted to do [released as the seven-minute long "special dance mix" on the 12" version of the single], remembers Fink. "I ended up doing this wacky, goofy piano thing at one point, and then of course in the movie you see him doing that."
While it could be surmised that adding such a heavy dose of rock guitar to "Let's Go Crazy" and other Purple Rain songs such as "When Doves Cry" and the title track was a calculated commercial move on Prince's part, Fink insists that his former boss's motivations were purely creative: "I'm sure he was trying to take things to the next level for himself, and challenging himself as he always did, and growing as an artist. He was such a creative force and actually dedicated to his craft, such a hard worker, unafraid to do anything, and to go there. His desire and drive were stronger than anybody I ever met, really. I only wish I had even half of that in my life, that kind of inspiration that he had, and to have the discipline to pull it off the way he did."
"Let's Go Crazy" became the second straight No. 1 hit single from Purple Rain, and remained a staple of Prince's live sets for the rest of his career, serving as the opening number for his famed 2007 Super Bowl Halftime Show performance. Public Enemy sampled the track's guitar solo rather awesomely for 1990's "Brother's Gonna Work It Out," one of 20 times the song has reportedly been sampled by hip-hop musicians to date.
In 2013, Prince and his newest group 3rdEyeGirl released a slightly slower, heavily fuzzed-out version of "Let's Go Crazy," and later performed the song on that year's Billboard Music Awards.
Shortly after Prince's death, the Revolution announced they would reunite for three 2016 tribute shows for their fallen leader. As Brown Mark explains, it wasn't hard for them to decide which song would open the shows.
"If you remember, in the song it asks 'Are we going to let the elevator bring us down?' and the ironic thing is that he died in an elevator. So, it was our choice. We needed to come out with 'Let's Go Crazy,' because Prince lived and breathed what he was. This guy was very energetic. He loved life, and he loved music so much. That was his happy song. If you listen to the lyrics, he's talking about the very thing that happened to him, right? 'Nothing's going to bring us down.' But it caught him off guard, and bam, it's over. So, we thought it was a very appropriate song for us to come out with, both because it's sentimental to us and because it represents that energetic side of who he was in that time period."