"Prince knew this was going to be it," says Susan Rogers, who engineered the 14 million seller Purple Rain. "He was ecstatic when he finished it."
Over five years later, the influence of Prince and Purple Rain is incontestable. He is one of just two artists (along with Bruce Springsteen) to have four albums among Rolling Stone's 100 Best Albums of the Eighties. And perhaps more than any other artist, Prince called the tune for pop music in the Eighties, imprinting his Minneapolis sound on an entire generation of musicians, both black and white.
Released in tandem with the film of the same name, Purple Rain was more than simply a soundtrack, and it stands as Prince's most cohesive and accessible album. "He envisioned the film as he made the album," says Alan Leeds, vice-president of Paisley Park Records, Prince's label. "He had a vision in his mind of the film a year before he got in front of the cameras, and he wrote the music to that vision."
Purple Rain contained five hit singles, including his first singles to reach Number One, "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy," as well as "Purple Rain," which reached Number Two.
It was also the first Prince album to prominently feature his band the Revolution. "The band gelled when [guitarist] Wendy Melvoin joined," says drummer Bobby Z. "We were recording and writing and doing it. We all worked hard and did this music together."
Some of the album's success — and certainly its reception by radio — was possible because Prince downplayed the overt sexuality of previous records. There was only one controversial lyric on the album, the much quoted line "I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine" — which appears in "Darling Nikki." The song caught the ear of Tipper Gore, the wife of Senator Albert Gore, who cited it when she formed the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group that lobbied to have warning labels placed on album covers.
The album's quirky first single, "When Doves Cry," originally had a more conventional sound. But Prince stripped the song down to its current form, completely removing the bass part. Despite initial qualms among some of the people at Warner Bros, about the unusual instrumentation, the record was released and quickly reached Number One on the pop charts.
According to Rogers, "The Beautiful Ones" was Prince's favorite. "That song meant a lot to him," she says. "It was written for Susannah Melvoin [Wendy's sister and, at the time, Prince's girlfriend]. A lot of songs were written about her, but that was the first one."
Prince debuted many of Purple Rain's songs during a performance in August 1983 at 1st Avenue, the Minneapolis club featured in the film. Although the show was recorded, Prince didn't intend to use the live performances on his album — a decision that he reversed when he heard the tapes. Ironically, Prince and the Revolution lip-synced their parts for the film's live-performance sequences.
When Prince first played a version of "Purple Rain" for some of his staff, it caused quite a commotion. "Big Chick [Prince's bodyguard at the time] came into the office raving," says Leeds. "He said, 'Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It's gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.'"
For Prince, the international success of Purple Rain was simply the culmination of many years of hard work, coupled with a strong sense of self-confidence. In 1985 he told Rolling Stone, "I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad."