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Purple Rain: How Prince Stormed His Way To Superstardom
In Depth

Purple Rain: How Prince Stormed His Way To Superstardom

Creating the zeitgeist, Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ era raised the bars for music, cinema and live performance. No one has come close since.

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When Prince took his 1999 album on the road, he dubbed it the “Triple Threat Tour”. Named in reference to the line-up, which saw Prince side projects Vanity 6 and The Time perform support slots before his own headline appearances, its unofficial title also nodded to the old-Hollywood term for someone who could act, dance and sing – in other words, someone so talented they could do everything. It’s fitting, then, that Prince’s next project, Purple Rain, would find him doing just that as he staked his claim to being the world’s greatest musician on record, on screen and on stage. Not so much capturing the zeitgeist, the Purple Rain album, film and tour invented it and then watched everyone follow as Prince stormed his way to superstardom.

Listen to ‘Purple Rain’ here.

“There was no precedent for this”

Prince’s original idea for the film had been sketched out in an 11-page handwritten treatment titled Dreams, which detailed “the story of the dreams and aspirations of 3 individuals” on the local Minneapolis music scene. In this early draft, the Morris Day-fronted The Time faced off against Prince for local glory, while their frontman also challenged him for the affections of the movie’s leading lady – at that point Vanity 6’s frontwoman, Vanity. However, by the time shooting for the movie began, in November 1983 – in the middle of a typically harsh Minneapolis winter, during which cast members woke up to three inches of ice on their windows – both the cast and Prince’s treatment had been overhauled.

Vanity was out – either of her own accord, or due to the financial demands she’d made during pre-production – to be replaced by Patricia Kotero as Apollonia, in a newly configured Apollonia 6. And while The Time remained, their line-up had undergone a reshuffle following Prince’s firing of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis after the fledging production duo found themselves snowed in in Atlanta, Georgia, while finishing some side work with The SOS Band, causing them to miss a show on the 1999 tour. A disgruntled Day would stick around long enough to complete filming but, after shooting wrapped, he would leave of his own accord.

Meanwhile, Prince’s treatment had been turned into a fully fledged script by rookie director Albert Magnoli, whose pitch not only helped Prince envision a film with more mainstream box-office appeal than the indie-type flick he had once considered making, but also captured the themes that lay at the heart of the semi-autobiographical narrative the rising star wanted to bring to life: “You’ve only known me for ten minutes, yet you tell me basically my story,” Prince told the director. “How is that possible?”

“I’m an alternative. I’m something else”

In the months leading up to the shoot, Prince also worked on three albums’ worth of material – including Apollonia 6’s debut album and the third Time album record, Ice Cream Castle, alongside what would become the Purple Rain album – ran his bands through rehearsals and, along with the rest of the cast, attended dancing and acting classes, honing everyone’s skills while en route to creating the greatest live show on the planet. Setting up a base of operations in a Minneapolis warehouse, Prince worked around the clock, ensuring not only that each band was flawlessly drilled, but that the new songs he was recording would flow with the film’s narrative: the battle-of-the-bands element between Prince and The Time – along with Morris Day’s rivalry for Apollonia – would provide some of the drama and much of the humour, but the emotional heart of the movie followed Prince’s character – The Kid – as he struggled to escape an abusive household and balance his own creative aspirations with the expectations of his band. Peaking – narratively, emotionally and artistically – with the Purple Rain song itself, the finished film ensured Prince would live for all eternity in the rock firmament.

“There was no precedent for this,” Alan Leeds, Prince’s then tour manager, later recalled. “Rock’n’roll stars with a couple of hit albums did not make major movies. Let alone someone from the Black community having the gumption to do it in the mainstream.”

“What the eff do we do with this?”

While still finalising the Purple Rain music in the summer of 1983, Prince staged a benefit concert at First Avenue, the iconic Minneapolis club so central to the movie that it could almost have been a character itself. Raising money for Minneapolis Dance Theater Company, who had provided dance training for the shoot, Prince took the opportunity not only to reveal his new music, but his new band: The Revolution. Marking Wendy Melvoin’s first appearance on stage with Prince, it was not only a trial by fire for the guitarist, but a test of the audience’s reaction to songs such as Let’s Go Crazy, Computer Blue, I Would Die 4 U, Baby I’m A Star and Purple Rain – none of which had been aired before in public, but which, within a year, would be heard blasting from every home stereo, over every club PA and out of every car window in the world.

As iconic in Prince lore as The Beatles at Shea Stadium or David Bowie’s final Ziggy Stardust show, the concert, held on 3 August, confirmed the overwhelming live chemistry of The Revolution: newcomer Melvoin, longstanding bandmates Matt “Dr” Fink and Lisa Coleman on keyboards, Mark Brown (aka BrownMark) on bass and another long-serving band member, Bobby “Z” Rivkin, on drums.

“It was super intense and dark and sweaty,” Coleman told this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “There was something special in the energy.” Prince heard perfection in their performance and used the live recordings of I Would Die 4 U, Baby I’m A Star and Purple Rain as the basis for the versions that would bring the Purple Rain album to a close.

“Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this”

Recorded largely in the warehouse or on visits to Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound studios, other songs, such as Let’s Go Crazy and The Beautiful Ones, found Prince synthesising rock, pop and funk into a unique mix which built on the “Minneapolis sound” he’d perfected with 1999. One of the final songs recorded for the album, however, was so far off the map it initially baffled listeners as much as it amazed them.

As Sunset Sound studio engineer Peggy McCreary told this writer, Prince spent two days recording a “huge, mega thing”, layering synthesisers and guitar lines over When Doves Cry – an unusually long time for an artist who often completed several songs in one session. “And pretty soon he started un-producing it,” McCreary continued. “He started taking instruments out, and at the very end he punched the bass out. And I looked at him and he said, ‘Nobody’s gonna believe I’ve got the nerve to do this.’”

With lyrics that underscored the themes at the heart of the Purple Rain film, When Doves Cry was made even more unforgettable by Prince’s last-minute decision, which made the song sound like nothing else on Earth. Though Warner Bros balked when he delivered it as the album’s first single (former label executive Marylou Badeaux recalled the reaction for Lives Of The Musicians: Prince: “What the eff do we do with this? Radio will never accept this”), the public sent it racing up the charts in the spring of 1984, laying the groundwork for Purple Rain’s swift global dominance.

“The most avant-garde purple thing I’ve ever done”

Released on 25 June 1984 in the US (and following on 13 July in the UK), a full month aheadof the film’s box-office premiere, the Purple Rain album matched When Doves Cry’s chart-topping success, knocking Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA aside in order to sit at No.1 for the next 24 weeks. When the movie followed suit later in the summer, storming the box office to gross $70 million – a cool ten times the cost of making the film – Prince became the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously hold the No.1 single, album and film spots.

Like anyone who heard it, Rolling Stone spotted the album’s crossover appeal. Noting that “Prince seems to have tapped into some extra-terrestrial musical dimension where black and white styles are merely different aspects of the same funky thing”, they also felt “his extremism is endearing in an era of play-it-safe record production and formulaic hit-mongering”. Speaking to Ebony magazine two years later, Prince seemed to agree: “I think Purple Rain is the most avant-garde purple thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m not saying that I’m great or anything like that; I’m just saying that I’m an alternative. I’m something else.”

Never mind that he was great; for some, the extremism was a concern. When she heard her 11-year-old daughter listening to Darling Nikki – with its description of the “sex fiend” titular character “masturbating with a magazine” – the wife of then US senator Al Gore formed a group of similarly outraged mothers under the banner of Parents Music Resource Center. Compiling a list of songs they called the “Filthy Fifteen” (which included Darling Nikki and another Prince-penned song, Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls), they effectively took pop music to court in a campaign that resulted in “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers being placed on album sleeves in order to ward off delicate ears… or attract curious minds.

“A riveting spectacle”

For most audiences, however, thrills – illicit or otherwise – were just what they wanted. Having seen a movie whose performance scenes (“a riveting spectacle” in the New York Times’ view) offered a gateway to what the Prince And The Revolution live experience would offer, fans packed out arena and stadium venues around the US, dressed like gig-goers at First Avenue and ready to witness a live show designed to make them feel like they were in the film. With latest protégé act Sheila E in support, and set designer Roy Bennett creating a whole new level of lighting and stage design for Prince, each one of the Purple Rain tour’s 98 shows were epic extravaganzas in which Prince And The Revolution ran through old hits and new classics, often stretching a cathartic Purple Rain to half an hour, and delivering high-octane jams on Baby I’m A Star as if underscoring that very point.

In the run-up to Purple Rain, Prince had been a Minneapolis boy wonder on the verge of making it big. After Purple Rain, he had no choice but to be a global icon. The album would prove victorious at the American Music Awards (for Favorite Pop/Rock Album and Favorite Soul/R&B Album, plus a Favorite Soul/R&B Single for When Doves Cry), Grammys (Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media) and even Oscars (Best Original Song Score, for Purple Rain itself), while overseas fans waited for Prince to take the Purple Rain tour around the world.

For Prince, however, hitting a creative and commercial peak with Purple Rain wasn’t the end goal – it was a new beginning. He had already moved on, and refused to extend the tour beyond the US (“Holy hell was he ever eager to get off that tour,” Prince’s then studio engineer Susan Rogers told this writer). Purple Rain’s follow-up album, Around The World In A Day, was in the bag, ready to be released just two weeks after the tour’s end. Announcing his retirement from live performance “for an indeterminate number of years”, Prince knew he had more creative highs ahead of him. Recalling a conversation they had together, Prince’s then manager Steve Fargnoli said, “I asked what he planned to do.”

“I’m going to look for the ladder,” Prince replied.

Check out our best Prince songs to see what ‘Purple Rain’ tracks made the cut.

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