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Purple Stardust
A Comparison of
Purple Rain & Ziggy Stardust
September 2002
Special Feature

  

October 2002's Special Feature was a look at an article by Christopher Barton that compares Prince's Purple Rain (1984) and David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars (1972).  He discovered many interesting similarities between the two albums - and the two artists.   This article appeared in UPTOWN: The Independent, Unofficial and Uncensored Magazine exploring the musical world of Prince (Spring-Summer 2001 #47: pg. 20-21). In trying to deduce just what Bowie thinks of Prince - there is a line in Bowie's "Zeroes" from the Never Let Me Down (1987) album that may give a clue - "My little red corvette has driven by.." Was this an indication that at that time Bowie was passing the batton onto younger newer artists of the time such as Prince and Madonna - whom he may have felt were amply filling the areas he once covered?

By Christopher Barton <anxietyny@yahoo.com>

Larger than life pop icons Prince and David Bowie are two-highly creative and imaginative artists who share many characteristics, one being that they're spawned legions of fans who have radiated their influence in their own work, from Lenny Kravetz to Nine Inch Nails to D'Angelo to Beck - and the list goes on.

Furthermore the versatility and ongoing change in their careers show considerable parallels.  The two are alike in that they're famous for their long trail of chameleon-like changes in persona and sound throughout the years - Prince has shed his musical skin through such persona's as Camille, The Kid, Jamie Starr, Alexander NeverMind and many others.  Bowie, likewise, has drifted through such alter-egos as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack and the Thin White Duke, among other transitory personas throughout the years.  Both are highly eclectic; Prince has played with psychedelic-flavoured rock, swing-era jazz, and hip-hop; Bowie likewise, has experimented with ambient, synth-based rock, "plastic-soul", drum n bass music and industrial sounds.

While its easy to get lost in a long list of similarities between the two, an easy case study can be considered in comparing the flagship releases of their careers - Bowie's 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars and (Prince's) Purple Rain, released 12 years later.   Both albums were breakthrough conceptual character studies set to music - with Purple Rain, the story of The Kid, and on Ziggy Stardust, the story of the eponymous Ziggy persona.

Whether these similarities are coincidence or something more intentional - the fact remains that Purple Rain and Ziggy Stardust make for fascinating pop bookends, and if nothing else, proves that Bowie and Prince may well be two sides of the same formidable coin.

CAREER SIMILARITIES

Bowie: Ziggy Stardust is considered by many to be Bowie’s breakthrough hit, although he enjoyed a few successes before this album; notably, the 1969 song and album “Space Oddity”, the title tune being about a future gone wrong (the title itself being a take-off on Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Several years after the success of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie would portray a vain gigolo in the film flop tribute to silver age cinema Just a Gigolo.

Prince: Purple Rain is considered by many to be Prince’s breakthrough hit, although he enjoyed a few successes before this album, notably, the 1982 song and album 1999, the title tune being  about a future gone wrong.  Two years after the success of Purple Rain, Prince would portray a vain gigolo in the film flop tribute to the silver age cinema Under The Cherry Moon.

COVER SIMILARITIES

At first sight, the covers of Purple Rain and Ziggy Stardust are nothing alike, Prince’s album is bordered in a design of cut flowers, and Bowie’s album is simply a photograph treated with muted colours.   On closer inspection, however, several parallels creep into view.

Ziggy Stardust: Bowie posing with his guitar in the street, the sidewalk is wet; he’s in front of a door.   It is night, Bowie's wearing a blue coat with matching blue pants.
Purple Rain: Prince poses on his motorcycle in the street, the sidewalk is wet, he’s in front of a door (as Apollonia is in the doorway, looking on).  It is night, Prince is wearing a purple coat with matching purple pants.

CONCEPT SIMILARITIES

Ziggy Stardust: The lyrics say it all and then some “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly (replace with: Lisa and Wendy?); “He made it too far/Became the special man/Then we were Ziggy’s band; Ziggy really sang, screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo / He could lick em by smiling, he could leave em to hang / So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands / The Kids was just crass, he was the nazz with God-given ass/He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar / Making love with his ego, Ziggy sucked up into his mind/Like a leper Messiah/When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”
Purple Rain: The album/film has widely been described as a “semi-autobiographical” portrait of Prince, under the characters name of The Kid.   In the movie, The Kid’s pride overwhelms him and he alienates his band mates, lover and acquaintances with a megalomaniacal attitude.  When his life begins to crash in around him, he makes a messiah plea by performing songs such as “I would Die 4 U” and “Purple Rain,” which win the hearts of his previously alienated loved ones.

While Purple Rain was a concept based on autobiographical events, Ziggy Stardust has been described as a fictional character, which David Bowie began to transform into – the reverse construction of Prince’s character of The Kid.

On an interesting side note, consider the similarities in the names of the project’s backing band, Prince and The Revolution, Bowie’s band -   Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars.

 THE SONGS

"Lets Go Crazy” versus "Five Years"

While the two songs are completely different in style, the subject of both songs are quite similar – the behaviour of the human race in the face of an apocalyptic threat, and the insanity that ensues.   Also, both songs appeal as openers for the respective albums.

On the Apocalypse:

Bowie: "News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in"
Prince: “Were all excited, don’t know why/Maybe its cuz we’ll all gonna to die”

On erratic/erotic behaviour as response to apocalypse:

Bowie: "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and the queer threw up at the sight of that"
Prince: "You see, I called my old lady for a friendly word/She just picked up the phone, dropped it on the floor, sex, sex is all I heard."

On life in the face of death:

Bowie: "Five years is all that we’ve got"
Prince: "You better live now before the grim reaper come knocking on your door"

"Take me with U" versus "Soul Love"

The styles of these songs are actually quite similar – a breezy mellow vibe with devil-may-care lyrics in which both singers take you on a “you and me against the world” attitude.  Also just as “Lets Go Crazy” and "Five Years" are the first songs on each of the two respective albums, these two songs are the second song on each album.

On love at first sight:

Bowie: " New love – a boy and girl are talking/New words – that only they can share in/New Words – a love so strong it tears their hearts/To sleep - through the fleeting hours of morning"
Prince: "I can't disguise the pounding of my heart, it beats so strong/It's in your eyes, what can I say, they turn me on"

On the Spontaneity inspired by love:

Bowie: "Inspirations have I none - just to touch the flaming dove/All I have is my love of love and love is not loving...."
Prince: "I don't care if we spend the night in your mansion, I don't care if we spend the night on the town/All I want is to spend the night together, all I want is to spend the night in your arms"

On the fear of loneliness:

Bowie: "All love - through reaching up my loneliness evolves by the blindness that surrounds him"
Prince: "Drive me crazy, drive me all night, just don't break up the connection"

"Darling Nikki" versus "Lady Stardust"

Again, the styles of both songs are quite different - Prince's version is a leering blues jam dedicated to a wild sexual affair, while Bowie's song is a somewhat reverent ballad created as a tribute to Marc Bolan of T-Rex, a famous friendly rival of Bowie's.  Still, both songs are character studies of a larger-than-life character that the singers become fascinated with and with whom they both have a bittersweet but memorable encounter.

On the song's subject being, Erm, "Flamboyant"?:

Bowie: "People stared at the makeup on his face, laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace"
Prince: "I knew a girl named Nikki, I guess you could say she was a sex fiend"

On the singer's attraction to the song's subject:

Bowie: "Really quite out of sight, really quite paradise"
Prince: "Her lovin will kick your behind"

On the elusiveness of the song's subject:

Bowie: "I smiled sadly for a love I could not obey"
Prince: "I woke up the next morning, Nikki wasn't there"

"I would Die 4 U" versus "Moonage Daydream"

Both of these songs are hymn-like and dreamy, with somewhat surreal lyrics and a religious, reverent feel.  In both songs the singers want to be perceived as something other than human as they plead the subject of their song to follow them faithfully, or perhaps view them as some kind of messiah/martyr figure.

On being non-human:

Bowie: "I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa comin for you"
Prince: "I'm not a woman, I'm not a man/I am something that you'll never understand."

On sacrifice:

Bowie: "Put your ray-gun to my head"
Prince: "I would die for you"

On faith:

Bowie: “Make me baby, make me know you really care, make me jump into the air”
Prince: “All I really need is to know that you believe that I would die for you”

“Baby, I’m A Star” versus “Star”

These songs may be the most obvious parallel in that the titles, of course are the first indication of these songs similarity.  The styles are also quite similar, in that both are up-tempo, rocking party songs with an uplifting message on ambition.

On Impending Fame:

Bowie: “I could make it all worthwhile as a rock n roll star”
Prince: “Might not know it now, baby, But I are, I’m a Star”

On Striking a Pose:

Bowie: “I’d send my photograph to my honey, and I’d come on like a regular superstar”
Prince: “Better look now or it just might be too late/My luck’s gonna change tonight, there’s gotta be a better life/Take a picture sweetie, I ain’t got time to waste”

On False Endings:

Bowie: The end of “Suffragette City”, a song from Ziggy Stardust which is perhaps even more similar to “Baby I’m a Star” than “Star” in terms of melody, includes a point in which the song comes to a complete halt, only to be started up again by Bowie screaming, “Wham Bam, thank you Ma’am”
Prince: The breaks at the end of “Baby I’m A Star” resemble a false ending, but starts the song up again and again with Prince screaming and yelling “doctor!” before each successive restart into the song’s funk.

“Purple Rain” versus “Rock n Roll Suicide”

These songs are incredibly similar, especially in purpose.  On the Ziggy Stardust tours (and indeed in Bowie tours throughout the years), “Rock N Roll Suicide” closed the show as the obligatory stadium anthem, in which Bowie offered himself to the audience as a rock n roll sacrifice.  Similarly, the song “Purple Rain” is a Prince Concert staple, and an opportunity for Prince to reach a state of artistic catharsis, asking the audience to wave their hands (in Bowie’s “Rock N Roll Suicide” he asks the audience “Give me your hands, cuz you’re wonderful”) as Prince plays emotionally charged lead guitar before the song drifts away in a transdescent cloud of strings (“Rock N Roll Suicide” ends in a flourish of strings as well).

On Uncertainty:

Bowie: “You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair”
Prince: “You say you want a leader, but you can’t seem to make up your mind”

On the Pressure to change:

Bowie: “You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it/And the clock waits patiently on your song”
Prince:  "Honey I know the times are changing/It’s time we all reach out for something new”

On leading the faithful:

Bowie: “You’re not alone, just turn on with me”
Prince: ” Let me guide you to the purple rain”

On reconciliation:

Bowie: “Oh no love!  You’re not alone”
Prince: “It’s such a shame our friendship has to end”

Certainly, many of these examples are borne of compete coincidence, and much of what is suggested here can be argued easily.  Nevertheless, the similarities between these two musical icons cannot be denied.  If nothing else, perhaps such comparisons can serve to introduce die-hard fans of one of these men to the parallel universe of the other, perhaps proving that despite the differences between the two, the brilliance of their muse shines with a like-minded radiance.

---This page last modified: 07 Nov 2002---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)