Purple Rain – Prince and the Revolution (1984)

Purple Rain album cover
Purple Rain album cover

It’s almost spring and for some reason the thought of warmer weather makes me think of Purple Rain. Maybe its because that magical summer in 1984, after my high school graduation, the film and it’s soundtrack dominated everything. That’s how it seemed at least. There’s not a lot that can be said about Purple Rain that has not already been obsessed over. Like Micheal Jackson’s Thriller or Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Purple Rain established Prince as one of the anchors of ’80s pop – part of a holy trinity that influenced generations of artist who came afterwards.

Of the three, Purple Rain might have had the largest influence on R&B (arguably). Prince certainly was not shy about discovering and discarding talent as he saw fit, often seeing something in an artist that would allow him to express one of his many musical alter egos. After working with Prince, his former collaborators would go off in different directions, spreading the Minneapolis gospel according to Prince – well into the present day. This process started well before Purple rain, but by the time of its release the process was in full steam. With Purple Rain, Prince pours out his heart in a semi auto biographic whirlwind about his rise to fame from the Minneapolis club scene.

I saw Purple Rain just after my graduation from high school. Before that time only a handful of people in my school (led most notably by my Micheal Jackson/El Debarge/Prince clone of an older brother) even knew who Prince was. Only a few white people knew, beyond them Prince was just another one of those brown community secretes. A secrete that could no longer be contained once the flood gates of “1999” and “Little red Corvette” had opened. First with appearances on MTV with 1999 and then straight to the top of the R&B /pop charts, Prince had become a household name in America as well as in Europe . I was so taken after seeing the film that I went to the mall to buy the LP. A year later I would put down my $20 for what then was my first new CD.

For most of the general public who were just discovering The Purple One (and his many of his fans), Prince’s life was something of a mystery, so the line between fact and fiction in the film was appropriately blurred. It became clear what parts were real as soon as he took up his guitar and sang steamy numbers like “Darlin Nikki” and “Computer Blue”.  The explicit lyrics didn’t need a film to carry the mind along, as Prince had perfected the art of painting naughty pictures in the minds of listeners.

With Purple Rain these pictures were projected to new heights in 70mm Dolby Stereo. I remember the effect of seeing the film in theaters – it was like going to a concert with powerful performances with the dynamic range of a real concert. Part of the fun of that ride was the ups and downs Prince took the audience with songs that ranged from the tear-jerker title track to the exuberant “Baby I’m a Star”.

Of course new wave element were always a big part of the Minneapolis scene and Prince includes bits of what could be Devo in the rigid funk of “Computer Blue”. It would not be Prince if all of that funk, be it new wave or an old school romp was not laced with conflicts between sex and spirituality.

The tension resulted in some of the period’s most innovative pop songs. “When Doves Cry” the biggest of 5 singles managed to be funky without a bass line, the only such song in recent memory of its kind. This was also a period when B sides were as interesting as the singles themselves. The guitar funk of “17 Days” on the flip side would quickly become one of my favorite Prince songs overshadowing the actual single itself (for me).

Although Prince played many of the instruments as usual, this kind of innovation and depth could not have come without the Revolution, still my favorite of all of Prince’s backing bands.
The Revolution had been around since 1999, un-credited as a band, but there nevertheless.

With Purple Rain Prince’s backing band gets full credit, with the film suggesting Wendy and Lisa major contribution to the song “Purple Rain”. Great backing band or not The film was all about Prince and his new-found kinship to the ghost of Jimmy Hendrix.

His powerful performances in the concert sequences made the film worthwhile, even though it ranked as one of the best “bad films” ever. There was no doubt that the soundtrack was one of the ’80s best albums as it won all sorts of awards and top sales charts for months.

For many Purple Rain was Prince at his artistic and commercial best. In an unusual alignment of showmanship, energy and sexy swagger, Prince forged the model for countless imitators. Even today Purple Rain era music influences artists like Bial and D’Angelo.

Prince never reached the commercial pinnical of Purple Rain again (but came close with Sign O the Times a few years later). As fresh sound today as it was 30 years ago, Purple Rain remains one of Prince’s best albums and for most people the album he will be known for most.

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