Dig if you will the picture: 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain, and the glorious summer when Prince simultaneously had the Number One single, album and movie in the USA. Alan Light (author of The Holy or the Broken, and a Rolling Stone veteran) celebrated the occasion with the new book Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain. While Let’s Go Crazy won’t fundamentally change how you feel about the Purple Rain album (spoiler alert: it’s a masterpiece), the book is a tasty smorgasbord for Prince fans. Light didn’t just dive into his clip file, he blended a history of his own super-fandom with new interviews with just about everyone who worked on the Purple Rain project (excepting Prince himself), including manager Bob Cavallo and multiple members of the Revolution, especially Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman). Ten slices of the purple banana:
1. Baby I’m a Star
You may have heard that Prince wrote “Purple Rain” because the 1999 tour played many of the same arenas as Bob Seger, and he wanted to write a huge ballad in the mode of “We’ve Got Tonight” or “Turn the Page.” But you might not know that Prince was sufficiently aware of the song’s melodic resemblance to Journey’s “Faithfully” that he played it over the phone for the band’s keyboardist, Jonathan Cain (who wrote the Journey hit), to make sure he wouldn’t object. And after Prince played keyboards on the Stevie Nicks single “Stand Back,” he sent her a cassette of the work-in-progress “Purple Rain” — at a point when it didn’t even have a title — asking her to write some lyrics. She called him up and declined, later explaining, “It was just so overwhelming, that 10-minute track, that I listened to it and I just got scared.”
2. Girls & Boys
The book details all the ways in which Wendy and Lisa (who were a couple in those days) became Prince’s close collaborators and confidantes (they used to refer to the friendly side of his personality as “Steve”). And Lisa explains the origins of Prince’s long-term love affair with Wendy’s twin sister, Susannah Melvoin (reportedly the inspiration for “The Beautiful Ones”): “We were all in love with each other anyway, and then Prince met Wendy and he was like, ‘Well, I can’t have her because you have her, and I can’t compete with that.’ Then Susannah showed up and — twins! He thought, ‘She’s like her, only available.'”
3. Pop Life
On Prince’s turntable in the Purple Rain era: a lot of British new wave and other MTV favorites, including Gary Numan, Roxy Music and Culture Club.
4. Dance On
Albert Magnoli says he got the job directing Purple Rain by pitching Prince the movie’s opening sequence, intercutting him onstage with the Revolution with sequences introducing all the movie’s characters. “I instinctively conceived an opening musical number in which we could introduce other characters and minimize the need for dialogue,” Magnoli says. The inspiration: the brilliant sequence near the end of The Godfather, where the baptism of Michael Corleone’s nephew and godson is intercut with the murders of the rival dons of New York City.
5. It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night
While Prince was working on the script for Purple Rain (and taking acting lessons), he was also leading sessions in the recording studio with acts that included Sheena Easton, Jill Jones and the Time. Susannah Melvoin remembers getting a phone call at 4 a.m. when he woke her up by saying, “I’m cutting hits, what are you doing?” When she replied, “I’m sleeping,” he said “Wrong answer,” and hung up. (She got dressed and went to the studio.)
6. New Position
As the prolific Purple One kept writing songs for the soundtrack, he bumped songs by Apollonia 6, Dez Dickerson, and the Time, all of which had been originally slated for the disc. Also cut along the way: the Jill Jones tracks “Wednesday” and “G-Spot,” the future B-sides “Erotic City” and “She’s Always in My Hair”; and “Electric Intercourse,” a Prince song with just electric piano and drums.
7. Sometimes It Snows in April
The film shoot was hampered by Minneapolis winter weather: at its worst, the temperature hit 29 degrees below zero (with almost two feet of snow on the ground). The scene with Prince and Apollonia on his motorcycle was filmed on the first day of shooting, before the weather turned brutally cold. Wendy Melvoin remembers waking up for 6 a.m. hair-and-makeup calls: “One of us had to go outside with our pj’s on and turn the car on so it could warm up for an hour, because otherwise you couldn’t get the ice off the windshield.”
8. Computer Blue
Studio engineer Susan Rogers on the intimate professional relationship she developed with Prince, which really kicked off with the guitar overdubs on “Let’s Go Crazy”: “I’m running the tape machine and he’s playing the guitar solo; he’s standing right in front of me and playing, and the idea is I’m going to record it and then stop and roll back and we’re done. But he made a mistake, so I rolled back to the top of the solo, and he’s playing along with the solo that he’s just laid down, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘He’s playing and I didn’t hit record. Have I made a mistake? Did I miss a signal?’ So I took my index finger and pressed the record button and he reached out and hit the stop button and said, ‘Who cued you?’ I said, ‘No one.’ He was patient and understanding, and he just said, ‘Roll back, watch me; I’ll cue you where to punch in.’ I said, ‘Got it,’ and I lived to record another day. That started a partnership where I would read his face, and that requires the engineer to literally play the solo along with him, watching for the slightest sign. As soon as his chin would make the barest move, I’d go, ‘OK, here it comes, on the next downbeat,’ and we’d go. I got to where I knew him well enough that I could anticipate — ‘Yeah, that’s the part that he’s going to want to record.’ You get a beautiful, symbiotic relationship between the engineer and the artist when you work that closely together that frequently, just every damn day.”
In attendance at the world premiere of Purple Rain, on July 26th, 1984: Eddie Murphy, John Mellencamp, Kiss, Pee-Wee Herman, Talking Heads, Little Richard, and Lionel Richie. “Weird Al” Yankovic had the best line of the night, at the MTV broadcast of the afterparty: “We all knew Prince was a great actor, but who knew he could sing?”
10. Strange Relationship
Susannah Melvoin on the difference between Prince and his character “The Kid,” and the other ways in which the film diverged from reality, which provided grist for many fan debates: “Ambiguity, mystery, fiction or real, or what, that was exactly what it was, even for those of us on the inside.”