Electric Word, Life: Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain at 40

The Purple One’s magnum opus began as the soundtrack to his ambitious turn towards cinema, only to immediately become heralded as one of the most beloved music projects of the last 50 years across any and all genres.

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Electric Word, Life: Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain at 40

It had been raining all day leading up to Prince’s 2007 Super Bowl XLI halftime show. It had never rained during a halftime show—not a single time in 40 years. As producer Dan Mischer recalled in his memoir, the first half of the game only saw light misting, but “about 30 seconds before [the halftime show] air[ed], the heavens just opened, and a torrential rainstorm hit.” A million thoughts were running through Mischer’s head. “For one thing, Prince was to play four live electric guitars. Would they short out? Would they stay in tune when sopping wet?” he said. Prince’s dancers, the Twinz, were to wear eight-inch stiletto heels on a “dangerously slippery” stage, and Mischer was fraught with the possibility of rolling one of them out on a stretcher mid-show, in front of millions of onlookers. Feeling like the captain of a doomed ocean liner, Mischer called Prince to let him know it was “really coming down,” and that he’d have to perform in the pouring rain. Just moments before taking the stage, Prince simply replied: “Can you make it rain harder?”

“He clearly saw [it] as a personal challenge,” Mischer said. “It wasn’t going to stop him.” Nothing stopped Prince. No personal tragedy nor professional setback could prevent him from becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time. Prince performed “Purple Rain” in a purple-lit downpour that night, with a crowd of nearly 75,000 singing every word back to him. Miracles like that don’t happen in a vacuum. Born to jazz musicians Mattie Della Shaw and John Lewis Nelson, the Minneapolis-raised musician released his self-titled debut record, For You, at just 19 years old in 1978. Prince played all 27 instruments featured on the Billboard 200-charting album, from electric guitars to clavinet to the Minimoog. His self-titled sophomore effort followed, its singles “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” accelerating his free-spirited, sexually-explicit rise to worldwide notoriety.

After the release of his 5x Platinum fifth studio album, 1999, Prince was hungry for more—not to take more, but to do more. As the “Little Red Corvette” music video was getting regular airplay on MTV, 1999 went on to sell over a million copies more than its predecessor. The world was finally beginning to see the high-octane performer for what he was: a genius. But realizing his vision for his next album, Purple Rain, wasn’t as easy as winning over the general public. His mind was set on starring in a corresponding feature film.

Prince’s manager, Bob Cavallo, began shopping Purple Rain’s script, but interest was minimal, considering Prince’s total lack of acting experience. While William Blinn provided the original script, entitled Dreams, it was Albert Magnoli who would hammer home Purple Rain’s true message byway of his directing and writing. Magnoli met with Prince for the first time in Minneapolis to pitch his idea for the updated script. After explaining his plot, Prince took the pair out for a quiet drive along the farmland outskirts of the city. “Do you know me?’ Prince finally asked from behind the wheel,” Magnoli recalled in an interview with Salon. He said he’d heard of him because of 1999, but nothing more. “Well, how is it, then,” Prince continued, “that you came here and in 10 minutes you told me my life story?”

With that eerie green light, Magnoli moved to Minneapolis in August 1983 to immerse himself in the local music scene, interview Prince and his band, the Revolution, and get to know the characters he was writing so intimately about. “All of a sudden, there were strangers on the bus [during the 1999 tour] getting jokes and learning our personality,” Revolution drummer Bobby Z. told Yahoo News. Major studios clamored over the newly improved script. Warner Bros. ultimately scooped up the film, and provided the team with a $7 million budget.

Filming Purple Rain would come with its own set of challenges: a tight filming schedule, a rivalry between Prince and fellow actor Morris Day, the last-minute addition of Apollonia Kotero to star opposite Prince when his then-girlfriend, Vanity, backed out. Apollonia was dating Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth at the time, but Prince urged her to break up with him to fuel speculation as to whether the onscreen pair’s romance translated offscreen. She agreed, under the condition that he refrained from public romances during the film cycle. None of the Revolution had prior acting or dancing experience, so they attended classes together at the Minnesota Dance Theater in preparation for filming. Together, the band—Prince, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark, Doctor Fink and Bobby Z.—became a tight-knit, musically immaculate group whose live performances of songs managed to exceed the studio versions.

The classes paid off. In fact, Purple Rain was so well-acted and so spiritually convincing that it was largely assumed to be an autobiographical film. The Kid did have an uncannily similar backstory to Prince, but the infighting within the film’s version of the Revolution—particularly Melvoin and Coleman having their musical ideas and opinions discarded—was an embellishment. “[Prince] listened to everything Lisa and I did,” Melvoin would later clarify, recalling the Purple One as having constantly asked “What was that? What are you doing?” in the interest of employing as many of their ideas as possible.

Set aside the film’s inarguable role in pop culture—the album featured some of the best songs ever recorded. “When Doves Cry,” Purple Rain’s lead single, was written and composed by Prince within 24 hours at Magnoli’s request for a song that tied into the film’s themes. It subsequently soundtracked a scene in which The Kid begins to understand how his familial trauma has bled into his love affair with Apollonia. “Don’t make me chase you,” he sang. “Even doves have pride.” The way he delivered that line shattered me—the word “chase” was particularly tortured, stressing his exhaustion at always having to be the one clamoring desperately for her love. “Let’s Go Crazy” opened the album with a call to follow God and reject the devil—to “punch a higher floor” if “de-elevator tries to bring you down.” “De-elevator was Satan,” Prince explained in 1997. “I had to change the words up, because you couldn’t say God on the radio, and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was God to me. Stay happy, stay focused and you can beat the de-elevator.”

Prince was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, but in 2001 he began discussions surrounding the Jehovah’s Witness faith with Larry Graham of Sly & The Family Stone. He was baptized in 2003 and began regular door-to-door ministry as a result. He likened the interactions to that of Morpheus and Neo in The Matrix—less of a conversation and moreso a “realization.” For an artist whose music was described by Billboard as “a celebration of the paganistic pursuit of pleasure,” it stunned certain fans to learn of his proselytizing. “Sometimes people act surprised, but mostly they’re really cool about it,” Prince told The New Yorker. Sex and religion, oil and water, glass houses and stones, and “Gett Off” and “The Cross” are all things that just don’t seem to mix. But to practice selective lyrical hearing would be to dishonor the universality that made Prince so uniquely situated to speak to everyone—the parishioner and the parent, the sex worker and the Sister—in the first place. “Let’s Go Crazy” was both a eulogy and a sweat-drenched dance party.

The album’s fifth single, “Take Me with U,” was originally written as a Vanity track. When her relationship with Prince dissolved, the song (and band) shifted to Apollonia 6 trio (which Prince had created in 1983), but was ultimately chosen for the Revolution and included on the Purple Rain soundtrack. “I don’t care where we go / I don’t care what we do,” Prince shrugged, charming lilt in tow. “I don’t care, pretty baby / Just take me with you.” While some speculated that “The Beautiful Ones” was about Melvoin’s twin sister, Susannah, Prince explained in 2015 that Vanity was the song’s muse. “Do you want him, or do you want me,’ that was written for that scene in Purple Rain specifically, where Morris would be sitting with [Apollonia] and there’d be this back and forth,” he said. “And also, ‘The beautiful ones you always seem to lose,’ Vanity had just quit the movie.” Fresh off of their supposed breakup, Vanity was still very much alive in the album’s most desperate chapter.

In Purple Rain, the song accompanied The Kid as he made a dramatic final plea to Apollonia onstage. I remember watching it unfold for the first time and being dumbstruck—he sang straight to her, and suggested they get married. “Would that be cool?” He asked, as Apollonia and I’s mouths both fell agape. Married? The “sanctified union between two people, assumedly forever” type of married? I nearly fainted at the sheer brashness of his interest. But, as my all-black wardrobe would soon come to reflect, I understood him wanting to be with her—Apollonia’s snap-closure leather jacket and dark eye makeup made me want to be her.

The raunchiness of “Computer Blue” drew confused re-listens, (“Is the water warm enough?”) but Purple Rain’s next track brought about societal change. When Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s then wife, discovered “Darlin’ Nikki” playing from her 11-year-old daughter’s stereo, the song’s sexually explicit lyrical content drove her to found the Parents Music Resource Center. The song was part of the committee’s “Filthy Fifteen” and, following a Senate hearing on the matter, Parental Advisory stickers on CDs and vinyls became a common practice.

“I’m not your lover / I’m not your friend / I am something that you’ll never comprehend,” Prince sang on “I Would Die 4 U,” the kind of song that belongs in a museum. He promised that, if his lover was evil, if they were “just a sinner” as he’s told, he’d forgive them “by and by.” He called himself their “Messiah,” their “conscience,” but certainly “not a human.” The album’s seventh track was prescient, predicting how millions would come to feel about him—I’ve never believed in God, but I’ve always believed in Prince. Frequently played back-to-back with “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m A Star” was a fast-paced, prophetic precursor to the album’s title-track. “You will see my point of view,” Prince assured, “even if I have to scream and shout.” It featured a backwards spoken intro which, when played forwards, read in part: “What the fuck do they know? All their taste is in their mouth / Really, what the fuck do they know?”

The star of the show, “Purple Rain,” was originally written as a 10-minute country collaboration with Stevie Nicks. She declined, on account of being overwhelmed by the task of penning accompanying lyrics. “I’ve still got it, the whole instrumental track and a little bit of Prince singing, ‘can’t get over that feeling’, or something,” she told Mojo. “ I told him, ‘Prince, I’ve listened to this a hundred times, but I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s a movie. It’s epic.’” The two had worked together before—Nicks was inspired to write her 1983 track “Stand Back” after hearing “Little Red Corvette” on the drive to San Ysidro Ranch, the day of her wedding to Kim Anderson. Nicks called Prince to let him know she’d been inspired by the song’s synthesizers, so he visited her studio, “was absolutely brilliant for about 25 minutes, and then left,” as she told Timothy White. He provided her with an uncredited keyboard part, and the song became The Wild Heart’s lead single.

Once Melvoin got wind of the new “mellow” song, she took “Purple Rain” in a new direction by immediately laying down accompanying guitar chords. “He was so excited to hear it voiced differently,” Coleman recalled. “It took it out of that country feeling.” The Revolution worked on the song for six hours that day, and left the studio with it predominantly finished. The term “purple rain” was inspired by a lyric in America’s “Ventura Highway,” and referred to the bleeding of red blood into a blue sky. According to Prince, it “pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” He’d sung of the sky being “all purple” two years prior in “1999,” making “Purple Rain” a sort of follow-up or Armageddon sister song. Prince called Journey’s Jonathan Cain before its release, worried that the track sounded too similar to their recent single, “Faithfully.” Cain assured him otherwise, and “Purple Rain” went on to become Prince’s most recognizable track, along with serving as the coda of his final public performance before his death in April 2016.

I had the opportunity to see Melvoin and Coleman alongside Joni Mitchell, who Prince wrote fan letters for well into his own fame, in Los Angeles late last year. When Brandi Carlile introduced them, I blurted, “Prince’s Wendy & Lisa?” It only took Melvoin saying “good evening” for me to accept that it was. They performed “Mountains” off Parade and accompanied Mitchell for performances of “Shine,” “Ladies of the Canyon,” and “The Circle Game.” I’d have a better recollection if my pale-as-ever face wasn’t swollen with tears the whole evening.

Purple Rain taught me that stars glitter brightest under the darkest of skies. In the moonlit glow of my kitchen, I’ve slow-danced with myself to the Live In Syracuse elongated intro, sobbing as the sounds of thousands vocalizing the “ooh’s” stitched me up from something I thought was unhealable. It has been a gauze, a crutch, an extra limb when my hands couldn’t hold the pain—it has physically picked me up from the ground when rendered otherwise incapable. Mischer may have been talking about his halftime show, but the words epitomized what made Purple Rain—and Prince’s most prolific decade—so unspeakably special: “It was one of those times where things just worked magically,” he said, “and there’s nothing you can do but just say thank you.”

See where Purple Rain ranked in our recent Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Emma Schoors is a music journalist, photographer, and wannabe fifth Bangles member based in Los Angeles, California. Find her on Instagram @eschoors.

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