As part of our newly updated survey of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we’re publishing a series of pieces on the making and impact of key records from the list. Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain came in at number eight. The following piece was originally published in 2016, following Prince’s death.
It didn’t make any sense. He was a young artist with just a couple of pop hits and not much mainstream recognition beyond the kids who watched MTV, which was only two years old. But Prince had plans to star in a movie loosely based on his life — he’d been jotting down ideas for it in a purple notebook while on his tour bus — and he wanted his next album to be the soundtrack.
And one other thing: He had a few songs, some of which had never been performed before, that he wanted to record. Onstage.
Tonight. It was August 3rd, 1983, and Prince and the Revolution were back home in Minneapolis. On his previous tour, to support 1999, he had been crisscrossing the country, performing for bigger and bigger crowds, and his aspirations had multiplied. Now, he was back on familiar turf, playing his first full show at the First Avenue club in more than a year. At the last minute, he decided to call in a mobile recording truck and have his set taped professionally.
“The place was just absolutely packed to the rafters,” recalled Prince tour manager Alan Leeds. “Steve McClellen, who ran First Avenue, was afraid the fire marshals were going to come and close us down.” The concert marked the first appearance of the Revolution’s new guitarist, a teenage Wendy Melvoin. It was also the public debut of the song that would define the next chapter of Prince’s career and, in some ways, the rest of his life.
Unbelievably, the recording of that very first performance of “Purple Rain” (with some edits and a touch of added strings) would be the actual version used on the record and in the movie. Tapes of the First Avenue show also provided the basic tracks for “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” Almost exactly a year later, with the album already a sensation, the movie would premiere, and Prince’s global takeover would be complete.
“Listening to Purple Rain now, it’s kind of like a Beatles album,” says keyboardist Matt Fink. “Every song is just so brilliant in its own way — all so unique and different. Prince’s earlier work led up to that whole style, but it was more technically advanced than where he was before. It reached a new peak.”
For countless listeners, Prince was Purple Rain. The album eventually sold 13 million copies — more than three times the total for 1999, his next-biggest seller. The week that the Purple Rain movie opened, in July 1984, Prince became the first artist to have the Number One album, single, and film in the country simultaneously. This unprecedented triumph was a result of his singular vision, relentless focus and boundless ambition — the culmination of a strategy that even those closest to him couldn’t fully see. “I knew what it was going to be,” Prince said. “Then, it was just like labor, like giving birth — in ’84, it was so much work.”
The success of “Little Red Corvette” the previous year had opened the door for the pop breakthrough Prince had longed for; guitarist Dez Dickerson described the audiences on the 1999 tour as a “tidal wave of white, getting whiter and whiter each night.” Prince began reconfiguring his sound, his style and his band in ways that would connect with the broadest-possible target. He knew that he could extend his reach into the rock & roll world by presenting himself as a badass guitar player fronting a real band, rather than as a loner studio wizard.
Crucially, he also made one key change in the Revolution lineup, replacing Dickerson with Melvoin, a childhood friend of keyboardist Lisa Coleman who had been hanging around the tour and made a few vocal contributions to 1999. A band that had previously had a front line of three black men was now mixed in terms of race and gender. It was a visual manifestation of the sonic goal Prince had presented to his musicians — a cross between Fleetwood Mac and Sly and the Family Stone.
“Maybe because we came together from different corners,” says Coleman, “and were able to share our souls so intensely toward one center, other people felt it.” From the start, the music on Purple Rain had been conceived in parallel with the movie idea. No one around Prince understood his vision, and his managers weren’t sure they could get a film made. Eventually, they found a director (Albert Magnoli, who had never made a feature) and work began. When Prince first met with Magnoli, he presented him with dozens of new songs to consider. As the story came into focus, though, Prince knew that he needed the music to relate directly to the narrative — almost an extra-long-form music video. “It was a work of genius on his part to make all those songs fit into the story,” says Fink.
The inspiration for “Purple Rain” itself was in some ways less biographical than professional. Out on the road, as he scribbled away in his purple notebook, Prince often found himself pulling into the nation’s hockey rinks on the heels of his fellow Midwesterner Bob Seger. Perpetually competitive, he wanted to understand the key to Seger’s appeal; Fink offered that it was the big, lighter-raising power ballads — “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Turn the Page” — that Seger’s fans loved. Prince set himself the goal of writing such an anthem, which he first sketched out to the band in December 1982.
His crossover dreams were so big, in fact, that he initially sent the track to Stevie Nicks — he played keyboards on her hit “Stand Back” — and asked if she would write the song’s lyrics; she replied, “I wish I could, [but] it’s too much for me.” (Later, Prince worried that he’d hit the arena-rock bull’s-eye too closely and that the song sounded similar to Journey’s hit “Faithfully,” so he called keyboardist Jonathan Cain and played the song over the phone to make sure the group wouldn’t challenge his copyright.)
On the heels of the First Avenue show, the first batch of songs he presented to the Revolution were, they felt, too pop, not funky enough — so Prince brought in the raging “Darling Nikki,” with its infamous line about the title character “masturbating with a magazine” that would later set in motion Tipper Gore’s creation of the Parents Music Resource Center.
Songs were added and dropped from the track list — “Wednesday” (with singer Jill Jones) and “Electric Intercourse” both made it, then were cut. The most elaborate composition of the bunch, “Computer Blue,” expanded past 14 minutes, including a spoken-word section vaguely reminiscent of Jim Morrison’s recitation in the Doors’ “The End,” but was subsequently trimmed down. Prince had given the sunny “Take Me With U” to Apollonia 6 (his female trio Vanity 6, which had just been reconfigured around his Purple Rain co-star), but then he grabbed it back to be a duet between him and Apollonia; engineer Susan Rogers recalled the actress warming up her inexperienced voice with “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Though Prince had performed “Let’s Go Crazy” at First Avenue, he re-recorded it with the band live in their rehearsal space, then overdubbed the cataclysmic closing guitar solo.
Filming in Minneapolis concluded in late December 1983, but the music continued developing through the editing phase.
Magnoli told Prince that he wanted to make a montage sequence, intercutting a recap of the different storylines with footage of Prince driving his motorcycle around town. He asked for a song to accompany the scene. The next morning, Prince handed over two new recordings, one of which was “When Doves Cry.” With a grinding guitar line, cryptic yet emotionally charged lyrics and no bass part, it sounded like nothing else. There was something hypnotic and addictive about the song. “The first time I heard it, I knew it was gonna be big, just from the piano hook,” says Leeds. “It wasn’t a typical R&B lyric, but that hook was license to get crazy with everything else.”
The final assembly of the album was simply perfect, with not a second wasted. It displayed all the elements of Prince’s brilliance — pop, funk, rock, dance, sex, humor, spirituality — in flawless balance. Notably, it was also the most collaborative project he would ever release, with the Revolution contributing key parts to many of the album’s tracks.
In May, more than two months after it was recorded, “When Doves Cry” was released as the first single from Purple Rain. By the time it hit Number One, the album was released, and it quickly topped the charts — where it remained for the next six months. Suddenly, the buzz around this movie (for which Prince would not do a single interview or promotional appearance) was at a fever pitch. When Purple Rain hit theaters in July, it earned back its full budget in its opening weekend. The dramatic segments sometimes felt amateurish, and at times misogynist, but there was something emotionally true at the core of the film; though it wasn’t precisely Prince’s own story, it captured some of the conflicts and torment in his life, and gloriously represented the edgy cultural mix of the Minneapolis scene.
The project that seemed like Prince’s pipe dream even won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. And it pulled off something of a miracle — the movie managed to make him the biggest star in the music world, while only increasing the mystery around his personal life. The success of Purple Rain transformed Prince’s career forever; he once described it as “my albatross — it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music.” Another time, he said it was “in some ways more detrimental than good. … It pigeonholed me.” But the songs from this album remained at the center of his repertoire for the rest of his life. It’s only fitting that “Purple Rain” was the last song he ever performed onstage.