It’s almost spring and for some reason the thought of warmer weather makes me think of the evergreen Purple Rain. Maybe its because that magical summer in 1984, just after my high school graduation, the film and it’s soundtrack seemed to dominate 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 Michael Jackson’s Thriller or Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Purple Rain established Prince as one of the anchors of a ’80s pop trinity, one 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 indirectly 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 poured out his heart in a semi autobiographical whirlwind about his rise to fame from the Minneapolis club scene.
I saw Purple Rain just as I was preparing to transition from high school to college life. Before that time only a handful of people in my school (led most notably by my Michael Jackson/El Debarge/Prince impersonator of an older brother) even knew who Prince was. Only a few white people knew, beyond them Prince was just the go to sound for raunchy music in the ghettos of America.
Purple Rain was that secret coming out to the masses. The process of opening the floodgates started with “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. 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 – in effect transitioning just like me . 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, Prince’s life was something of a mystery. For those who appreciated the new wave influences of 1999, the Jimi Hendrix inspired guitar of Purple Rain might not have seemed like a natural progression. Somehow it all worked with elements of ’80s and late ’60s rock held together by funk.
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 imagination along, as Prince had perfected the art of painting naughty pictures in the heads 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”. Other performers featured on the film (but not the album) like Brown Mark and Apollonia 6 would contribute simple songs (more groves actually) featuring the sadistic whip percussion that would be a trademark of the Prince sound. The Time offer a kind of comic relief with upbeat almost whimsical dance songs that countered the heavy sexual tension and spirituality of Prince and the Revolution numbers.
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’s input, 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’s major contribution to the song “Purple Rain”. Great backing band or not the film was all about Prince channeling his inner Jimi 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. Like an Elvis of his time, Prince borrowed shrewdly from rock and new wave to create a new kind of funk. Even today Purple Rain era music influences artists like Justin Timberlake, 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.