A year or so ago, a little while before The Classical was founded, a conversation started when someone wrote on Twitter that he or she always thought of the track sequencing on music albums in terms of baseball batting order. Someone else retweeted it. I had only recently joined Twitter, and so this moment was something of a revelation. Here was one of those experiences that are something of a specialty on Twitter, in which you learn that something you remember thinking about a lot as a kid—something you still think about a lot, actually—but have never talked about with a single person before, was something that other people had thought about a lot and were also still thinking about a lot.
This shouldn’t come as such a surprise, maybe—we’re all less unique, surely, than we think we are—but it always does. It feels as if someone has been spying on your secret thoughts, taking them as their own, but not in an unpleasant way. If anything, it’s warm, reassuring, and nice to know that other people have the same weirdo dorky obsessions running through their brains as you do.
So I responded, pricelessly, with something to the effect of “Wow, me too!” A bunch of us ended up in an email chain about it. How could we turn this shared phenomenon into an article? We batted around (hey!) a bunch of different ideas. Make an all-star music team line-up out of the songs that best represent their place in a track sequence? (“Stairway to Heaven,” for example, is the fourth song, or “clean-up hitter,” on Led Zeppelin IV, as it only could be.) Make such a line-up of songs that we just think best represent the requisite skills for each spot in a batting order? Make a list of albums with track lists that most closely resemble a good batting order? Something clearly needed to be done.
One problem we kept having was that most albums do not have exactly nine songs on them, while all batting orders (even Tony La Russa's) have exactly nine spots. Should we treat songs with track numbers above nine as pinch hitters or late-inning defensive subs?
Then the conversation sort of died out and everybody seemed to forget about it. Except that really, knowing what we know, probably no one forgot about it. Probably, we’ve all be thinking very hard about it since. I have, at least. And recently, and luckily (and importantly!), now that baseball season’s over, and thoughts about baseball lack the daily the purchase they formerly found in the box scores, I was struck by an idea that I liked mostly for its simplicity: Just find classic albums that have nine songs on them and re-sequence the songs as if we were making a batting order.
I’ll start with Prince’s 1984 masterpiece, Purple Rain.
1) “Let’s Go Crazy” Purple Rain happens to start with the perfect leadoff-hitter song. With the lone organ behind its famous spoken-word intro— “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…” Prince introduces his album-as-religious-experience theme, and sets the table for the power waiting on deck. It’s patient, working a full sixty seconds’ count before the full instrumentation kicks in. It's also fast enough, at 197 beats per minute, to stretch a single into a double and steal 50-plus bases a year. Once it got on, and it will get on, it would drive opposing pitchers (sorry) crazy. And then the coda, that searing, Hendrixian guitar pyrotechnic, flashes some deceptive, over-the-wall power of its own. “Let’s Go Crazy” is the Ricky Henderson of rock songs, basically.
2) “I Would Die 4 You” Prince chose a fine song for the second spot on Purple Rain in “Take Me With You.” Solid, steady, good bat control—it’s certainly not going to kill any rallies. But “I Would Die 4 You” is better suited for this role in baseball terms. Let’s say it’s late in the game, the eighth inning of a 1-1 pitcher’s duel, and “Let’s Go Crazy” has just worked a walk. Who do you want coming to the plate in this situation tasked with moving the runner over, or not messing anythign up. Has there ever been a better sacrifice-bunter song in rock music history than “I Would Die 4 You?” Unlikely. It's also got a great eye, as Prince demonstrated in the video by pointing to his own eye every time he sang the “I” part in the chorus. This, and the subsequent mimicry of throat-slicing for “Die,” and holding up four fingers for “4,” also suggests a mastery of the signs that would help in squeeze-play and hit-and-run situations.
3) “The Beautiful Ones” The third spot in a batting order is generally reserved for a team’s best pure hitter. Here, once again, Prince’s sequencing lines up. “The Beautiful Ones” is Purple Rain’s best pure song, as pure an expressions of desire as you’ll find in music anywhere. “Do you want him?” Prince asks, distilling every love triangle ballad ever written down to its essence. “Or do you want me? ’Cause I want you.” Think of the most beautiful swings you’ve ever seen: Ted Williams, George Brett, Will Clark, Manny Ramirez. So graceful, so fluid in their violence, with a sharp crescendo as the bat meets the ball. “The Beautiful Ones,” with its gently swaying, back-and-forth synth line and the album’s most passionate singing, and that frozen-rope of a guitar solo at the end, is one of those ones.
4) “Purple Rain” You need to be as awesome and confident as Prince to put the title track to your masterpiece—a song, an epic, a hymn as monumental as this is—as your album’s last song. You’re trusting the other material enough to know that listeners are going to make it to that kind of capper. (Listening to it as I type, I question my previous assertion that “The Beautiful Ones” is the best pure song on the album. Can it possibly be a better song than “Purple Rain?” Can such a thing even exist? I guess that’s why classic albums are classics.) In a batting line-up, though, there’s no question that “Purple Rain” would bat cleanup. It is, if not the best, certainly the most powerful song on the album. To extend the graceful-swing metaphor from above further, remember Darryl Strawberry in the mid-80’s? His stride toward the ball, his long arms uncoiling the bat, that swooping, looping uppercut that looked so made for strike-outs. But when he got a hold of one, when he connected, Strawberry would swing right through the ball as if it wasn’t even there, and so insure that it would not in fact long be there; and would instead soon be punching a hole in the quilted padding of some sterile dome’s roof, or land 450 feet away after a moon-shot arc off of a scoreboard? This is that. This song is the grand salami.
5) “When Doves Cry” This song is a difficult one to slot into a batting order, mostly because it is such an unorthodox song. Mostly rhythm, with only the tiniest, tinniest keyboard notes making any melody besides Prince’s singing, it’s an obvious influence on future minimalist wonders like the beat the Neptunes created for Clipse’s “Grinding,” and it sounds malicious and tender at the same time. I would imagine “When Doves Cry” as an amazingly slick-fielding second-baseman, but at the same time it would be foolish to bury it low down in the order. It layers its elements—thwomping, echoey drum beats, multiple vocal tracks, grinding guitar—into something huge and catchy enough to be a lead single, and a no. 1 pop hit for five weeks straight. So it could easily bat .330 with 120 RBIs and a 1.000 OPS for you. Where do you bat Robinson Cano? I like him fifth.
6) “Baby I’m A Star” The six-hole is a good place for an aging slugger. This sixth hitter can’t get around on a high fast-ball like he used to be able to, he’s striking out more often, but hang a slider and he’ll park it. He’s still a big, dangerous bat—and in a line-up as stacked as that of Purple Rain, there shouldn’t be bit of shame associated with the spot. That said, I find “Baby I’m A Star” to be one of the hit-or miss songs on the album. Sometimes it sounds as great as anything else you hear; sometimes, the chorus strikes me as a bit flat, compared to its company. (And again, everything is relative. This is a lead single on most any other album. Most musicians would cut off their right arms to write it.) And it's it’s so preening: duh, it’s opening lyrics are “Hey, look me over!” But I always associate it with Prince’s friends and rivals in The Time—Jerome carrying a mirror out on stage for Morris Day to fix his hair. You can just see our aging, still prideful star taking a really slow trot around the bases after going deep, maybe “one-flap down” like Jeff Leonard, and everybody in the stands doing “The Bird.”
7) “Take Me With Me You” Again, there is nothing wrong with this song. Like “Baby I’m A Star,” it would the very best song on most albums made by artists not named Prince. But sounds slightly out of place here. Those chiming acoustic guitars and finger cymbals—is this the only acoustic instrumentation on the entire album? It’s a duet with Appolonia, and almost kind of hippiesh compared to the rest of the album, which is so new-wavy and electro-funk. In this Murderer’s Row of a track listing, it goes 7th.
8) “Computer Blue” I always thought it was funny to have the song about computer sex start off with Lisa asking Wendy if the water was warm enough (for presumably… an enema?) You should definitely not be having water around your computer like that, no matter what temperature it is. You could get electrocuted or break your computer. “Damn!” Prince would say to a chagrinned Wendy and Lisa. “You gotta do your dominatrix water-games rituals right by my computer? You're splashing me!” But of course, “Computer Blue” is pretty great. A well-composed, three-part song suite (it was ten minutes longer before being edited down for the album) full of carefully programmed beats, inticate, virtuoso playing and heady changes. It’s brainiac erotica—and would probably be a catcher. Like Wendy.
9) “Darling Nikki” Still probably most famous for getting Tipper Gore’s knickers in a twist—leading to the formation of the governmental censorship organization the PMRC in 1985—“Darling Nikki” is a fine song, something of a novelty, and I think the least potent offering on the album. A sex song far more explicit than “Computer Blue,” this is every thirteen-year-old’s favorite to be sure. And with its freak-show circus organ wobbling rickety, it titillates just fine. It would hit .230, but leg out infield hits, and steal a base if given the opportunity. Clearly, though “Nikki” earns a roster spot by playing the field; a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, no less. That backward-masking vocalization at the end hinting at the back-flips it might do to start every inning of home games. The Wizard of even breathier ahhhs.