“Purple Rain” - Prince
Album: Purple Rain
After Prince released his 1999 album in 1982, he toured in many of the same cities Bob Seger did. Prince was amazed at how crowds connected with Seger's songs like “Night Moves” and “Mainstreet”, which were slow songs that told stories to which people could relate. Prince decided to write a song in that style, and “Purple Rain” was the result.
The album was actually the soundtrack to the first movie Prince made. He went on to make three more: Under The Cherry Moon, Sign O' The Times, and Graffiti Bridge. Purple Rain won Prince an Oscar for Best Original Song Score (not to be confused with the Best Original Score category, won that year by A Passage to India).
The song “Purple Rain” was the centerpiece of the film and a key plot point. In the movie, the female members in Prince's band, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, write a song that Prince ignores, prompting a tirade from Wendy (“Every time we give you a song you say you're going to use it but you never do. You're being paranoid as usual...”). At the end of the film, Prince's crew is in a heated rivalry with another band (The Time), who do a blistering set that Prince must follow. When Prince takes the stage, he introduces “Purple Rain” as being written by Wendy and Lisa, then tears down the house with it.
Wendy and Lisa were real members of Prince's band until 1987 when they left to record as a duo. This song, however, was composed solely by Prince. It's a love song, with Prince singing about his devotion to a girl, but it also serves as a catharsis, releasing the pent-up frustrations that had been building throughout the movie. The “Purple Rain” is a place to be free.
The song was written for the Purple Rain film, but it served Prince very well in concert, where it was often his showstopper. He retained many of the visual elements from the movie performance in his shows, which isn't much of a stretch - the concert scenes were filmed at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, where Prince often performed.
Prince admitted the success of the film and its music was overwhelming. “In some ways Purple Rain scared me”, he noted in The Observer. “It's my albatross and it'll be hanging around my neck as long as I'm making music.”
The first use of the phrase “purple rain” in a popular song came in the 1972 America hit “Ventura Highway”, where they sing:
Wishin' on a falling star
Waitin' for the early train
Sorry boy, but I've been hit by purple rain
Prince played this to open the 2004 Grammy Awards. After singing part of the song, Beyoncé came on stage, and they performed a medley of their hits.
Many viewers were offended by the movie Purple Rain because of its apparent sexism. Prince defended the film, and himself, to MTV in 1985: “I didn't write Purple Rain. Someone else did. And it was a story, a fictional story, and should be perceived that way. Violence is something that happens in everyday life, and we were only telling a story. I wish it was looked at that way, because I don't think anything we did was unnecessary. Sometimes, for the sake of humor, we may've gone overboard. And if that was the case, then I'm sorry, but it was not the intention.”
The film was written by the screenwriter William Blinn and its director Albert Magnoli, but Prince did inspire the script. He told Larry King: “I really wanted to chronicle the life I was living at the time, which was in a area that had a lot of great talent and a lot of rivalries. So I wanted to chronicle that vibe of my life.”
According to Blinn, the story came about when Prince told him stories about his father, a musician who never quite made it and sometimes blamed his family for his failures. To Blinn, it sounded like a kind of therapy. “It was as if he were sorting out his own mystery”, he said.
On the tour to promote the album (conveniently called the “Purple Rain World Tour”), Prince's band, The Revolution, would play the intro to this song for about eight minutes while Prince underwent a costume change before emerging in fresh duds to complete the performance.
Stevie Nicks told Mojo magazine in December 2013 that she was asked by Prince to help work on this song. However, she suspects that the Purple maestro wanted more than just her voice. “I've still got it [the demo cassette] - with the whole instrumental track and a little bit of Prince singing, 'Can't get over that feeling', or something”, the Fleetwood Mac singer recalled. “I told him, 'Prince, I've listened to this a hundred times but I wouldn't know where to start. It's a movie, it's epic.”
She added: “The olive branch of him giving me that cassette was huge, but I think he would have liked a romance with me, too.”
Prince provided one of the most memorable Super Bowl halftime moments when he performed this song in the rain at the 2007 game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears. After blasting through bits of several songs, he slowed things down for a sensuous rendition of “Purple Rain”. The stadium turned dark, and purple lights glistened through raindrops as Prince enraptured the crowd with a silhouetted guitar solo that produced a stunning visual. Colts fans will remember the game, but for the rest of us, Prince's performance on the field was the highlight.
Apparently Prince had concerns that “Purple Rain” might be too similar to Journey's hit ballad “Faithfully” . The song's composer, Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain, recalled to Billboard magazine that the Purple Legend rang him up at Columbia Records' office in Los Angeles. “I want to play something for you, and I want you to check it out”, Prince told him. “The chord changes are close to 'Faithfully', and I don't want you to sue me.”
Cain had no problem with the song he heard. “I thought it was an amazing tune”, the Journey musician said, “and I told him, 'Man, I'm just super-flattered that you even called. It shows you're that classy of a guy. Good luck with the song. I know it's gonna be a hit”,
Among the many artists paying tribute to Prince in the wake of his death was Bruce Springsteen, who opened his concert in Brooklyn on April 23, 2016 with a performance of this song. He dedicated the show to Prince, saying, “There's never been anyone better: bandleader, showman, arranger”.
Springsteen and Prince had similar career trajectories, rising to fame in the '70s and dominating the musical landscape in the '80s.
Following Prince's death, the song re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 rising to #4. It also re-entered the UK Singles Chart at #6, two places higher than its original peak of #8.
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Image: “Purple Rain (album)” by Prince