40 years of 'Purple Rain', the peak of Prince & the Revolution

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40 years of ‘Purple Rain’, the peak of Prince & the Revolution

By 1984, Prince was already a superstar in the United States. His 1982 album, ‘1999,’ had entered at number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its second single, ‘Little Red Corvette,’ had given him the biggest hit of his career to date. By then, Prince Rogers Nelson had already released five albums. Little by little, Prince had been placing a handful of hit singles on the Billboard charts, while with each new album he had offered a more innovative sound than the last. With ‘1999,’ he made his first big leap to the mainstream and delivered his first major masterpiece, a work that consolidated the Minneapolis synth-funk sound that so permeated ’80s pop. What came next took him to the next level.

Prince had dreamed of starring in a movie. Purple Rain, his sixth album, was written around the project, serving as a soundtrack. Purple Rain, the movie, was created to showcase Prince and his band, The Revolution, who had already played with him on the previous album. In Purple Rain, Prince – making his big-screen debut under the direction of Albert Magnoli and accompanied by a cast of novice actors who don’t act very well – plays The Kid, a boy who dreams of becoming a star while, in his personal life, his father physically and psychologically abuses him and his mother. Every night, Prince performs songs from Purple Rain to the crowd, but the reality of domestic violence awaits him at home.

Purple Rain, the movie, is not the great classic of 1980s cinema that audiences still watch today. It’s not like people have gone crazy remembering its merits on every anniversary. Although the Purple Rain movie was a huge commercial success at the time, grossing $70 million compared to the $7 million it had cost to produce, the film is stuck in its time (its degrading treatment of women is glaring; in one scene, a woman is – literally – thrown into the trash). But Purple Rain is also a complex film, pierced by the knife of generational trauma; populated by characters psychologically wounded by racism (in the case of the father) or homophobia (in the case of The Kid, an openly queer character who exhibits his femininity on stage); offering a portrait of the African-American experience deeper than the outrageous music allows us to see.

Because, at the end of the day, the truly surviving element of Purple Rain – released on June 25, 40 years ago – is the music. It is the most ambitious of Prince’s career to date. It is striking that the original reviews highlight its deliberate blend of genres, exactly the same thing we do today when we find an album innovative. In particular, Rolling Stone highlights its mix of “black and white styles.” On Purple Rain, Prince and the Revolution create an explosive amalgam of sounds, mixing pop, hard rock, gospel, R&B, funk and synthesizers, an amalgam that works mainly because each of the nine songs on the album is perfectly crafted, showcasing different facets of Prince while his virtuosity – and that of his band – remains at the forefront.

This mix of styles is evident in the banger that is ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, the opening track, which begins with a gospel organ chord and transforms into a party of fluorescent keyboards and fast-paced guitar riffs. Then, in just nine tracks, Prince has time to flirt with baroque pop in ‘Take Me with U’, probably the most flirtatious song he has ever written, as it includes acoustic guitars and strings; and he also has time to scream loudly in the torrid ballad ‘The Beautiful Ones’, which ends stunned, like the listener; and to travel to space in the funk odyssey of ‘Computer Blue’, whose original length of 14 minutes Prince is forced to reduce by order of his record company.

There is little left to say about the title ballad. Recorded live, ‘Purple Rain’ is Prince at his best. Mixing rock, gospel and ballad, and letting loose in a spectacular guitar solo, it becomes Prince’s signature song, the one that ends up defining his career and also his image, since from this moment on he will be known by the nickname “purple prince”. The moment in 2007 when Rogers sings it at the Super Bowl and it happens to start raining is historic. By the way, Prince conceives it as a duet with Stevie Nicks, but when she tried to write her part, she ends up declining the proposal because she feels “overwhelmed”. We will never know what the fate of ‘Purple Rain’ would have been if it had been released as a duet: forty years later, in its official form, it still sounds as immense as a cathedral.

In this fusion of genres that includes influences from Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Van Halen and Stevie Wonder, ‘Purple Rain’ manages to touch the cultural fiber of the eighties like few albums of the time. But ‘Purple Rain’ also goes down in history for its provocative component. Sexual lyrics had delighted Prince since the beginning of his career: his first single was called ‘Soft and Wet’. In ‘Purple Rain’ a lesbian relationship is suggested at the beginning of ‘Computer Blue’, where Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, members of The Revolution, and a couple in real life, prepare a hot bath. The hard rock of ‘Darling Nikki’ goes further by introducing into the lyrics the character of a young woman who “masturbates with a magazine”. It is the song responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory label, a hip-hop favorite in future years.

On the opposite side to the fusion of sounds of ‘Purple Rain’, ‘When Doves Cry’ is remembered for its extreme minimalism by dispensing with a bass line, a rather unusual idea for the time. In ‘When Doves Cry’, Prince tries to write a less conventional funk cut and the public eats it up giving Rogers his first number 1 single in the United States (‘Let’s Go Crazy’ will be the second). ‘When Doves Cry’ will be the most successful single of all 1984 in the United States, and its success will reach a worldwide scale also reaching Spain (its peak is a position 34). The exuberance of ‘Purple Rain’ returns in the three final cuts, recorded live. Apart from ‘Purple Rain’, a song, the funk nostalgia of ‘I Would Die 4 U’ is overwhelming. And ‘Baby I’m a Star’ is an adrenaline rush that works especially well in the film. Prince caused a stir at the 1985 Grammys by singing this song and inviting everyone on stage (the Grammy for Album of the Year ultimately went to Lionel Richie).

With ‘Purple Rain’ Prince touched the sky and burned. ‘Purple Rain’ was – and will always be – the biggest turning point in his career, for better and for worse. For better because, with his sixth album, Prince reached the Olympus of pop. ‘Purple Rain’ remained at number 1 in the United States for 24 consecutive weeks, that is, six months; it sold 13 million copies in ten years, and its sales are estimated at around 25 million copies worldwide. The album produced four hugely successful singles, two of them number 1; and won the Oscar for Best Original Score. The film was a box office hit. There was a time when Prince signed the number 1 album in the country, the number 1 single, and the most watched film, all at the same time.

But everything that came after ‘Purple Rain’ can be seen as a continuing attempt by Rogers to escape his success. The ‘Purple Rain’ tour was gruelling and Prince ended it on a bit of a bad note, promising that he wouldn’t be back on stage for a long time (he lied, returning a few months later). Prince got fed up with playing the same songs every night for months without a break. The album he released next, ‘Around the World in a Day’, was capricious and for many incomprehensible after the success of ‘Purple Rain’. Critics and audiences received it lukewarmly.

Prince’s public image in 1985 was also damaged for several reasons. Prince was the only artist who refused to sing on ‘We Are the World’: he preferred to spend the night in a bar. His relationship with the press was complicated. When he decided to give his first interview in six years, in Rolling Stone, he declared that he could take criticism, but not “lies”, and said that he felt lonely, that the success of ‘Purple Rain’ had distanced him from his friends. “I would like my friends to visit me from time to time,” he explained. “Many times they think that I don’t want to be bothered.”

To Prince’s credit, Prince’s friends and musicians have always been an extremely perfectionist and jealous of his art (an aspect of his personality that is also reflected in the film). Ironically, ‘Purple Rain’ is a team effort that is better precisely because it finds Prince sharing his talent with that of others, succumbing to an explosive synergy (in 2017 we had the opportunity to chat with Bobby Z in this interview).

In 1987, Rogers would sign another of his great masterpieces, completely alone, ‘Sign O’ the Times’, considered by many to be his best album. Before and after, his career would alternate between successes (‘Kiss’) and failures (the film ‘Under the Cherry Moon’) and, between name changes, controversies with his record company and releases that would follow one another like churros, his discography would become unmanageable for the casual fan. ‘Purple Rain’ was that brief but intense moment when Prince had the world at his feet. He, riding his famous motorcycle, would later propose to always take the road less traveled.

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Simon Müller

Simon Müller is the driving force behind UMusic, embodying a lifelong passion for all things melodious. Born and raised in New York, his love for music took form at an early age and fueled his journey from an avid music enthusiast to the founder of a leading music-centered website. Simon's diverse musical tastes and intrinsic understanding of acoustic elements offer a unique perspective to the UMusic community. Sporting a dedicated commitment to aural enrichment and hearing health, his vision extends beyond just delivering news - he aspires to create a network of informed, appreciative music lovers. Spend a moment in Mueller's company, and you'd find his passion infectious – music isn’t simply his job, it’s his heartbeat.