Note: This is the second of three projected posts on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. You can–and should–read the first part here.
(1) Black Screen
“SOUND under: MUSIC building in INTENSITY as–”
“Dearly belov’edDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing
William Blinn submitted two drafts of Dreams–the working title for Prince’s feature film debut–in May of 1983. There wouldn’t be a third: Blinn’s main gig as Executive Producer of the Fame TV series had been renewed, and he no longer had time to spare. Still, Prince’s management deemed the script good enough to shop: Bob Cavallo recalled thinking, “It’s a little TV, it’s a little square… but it’s a good idea, and I figured the director will rewrite it anyway” (Light 67).
But therein lay the rub: even with a screenplay in hand, Cavallo still couldn’t find a director. After a few dead ends, an industry contact recommended he see an early cut of Reckless: a steamy youth drama by first-time director James Foley about a romance between a motorcycle-riding rebel (Aidan Quinn) and a cheerleader from the other side of the tracks (Daryl Hannah). “I go to screen this movie and I’m the only one in the theater,” Cavallo recalled to journalist Alan Light. “I see it, I walk out, and a young man comes up to me and says, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought it was pretty good, and that’s really all I thought. I thought the editing was good.’ He’s like, ‘Really? Good. I did that’” (Light 67).
“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
Before last year’s Super Deluxe Edition of 1999, “Vagina” was known only by its title and its reputation–both of which were among the most tantalizing, and titillating, of any songs in Prince’s Vault. Few outside of Prince’s inner circle at the time of recording had heard it–and those who had, most notably former engineer David Z, simply described it as “obscene.”
It would have been impossible for any song to live up to such a reputation; “Vagina” certainly doesn’t, though it does stand as one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe’s previously-unreleased Vault tracks. Recorded at his Kiowa Trail home studio in November 1981, the song finds Prince in stripped-down punk-rock mode–just him and his Hohner “Madcat” Telecaster; even the “percussion,” such as it is, is simulated with his mouth. As biographer Alex Hahn observed in a Facebook post soon after the passing of musician Andy Gill, Prince’s guitar work here “very much evokes” Gill’s playing with the English post-punk group Gang of Four–particularly when he “bangs the strings of his guitar in a percussive manner at the very outset of the song.” It’s a strikingly different sound from the rest of the music Prince was making ahead of his fifth album, which even in late 1981 was tending more toward synthesizers and drum machines than guitars–see, for example, the early versions of “Feel U Up” and “Irresistible Bitch” recorded in the same month.
Controversy was released on October 14, 1981, days after Prince’s disastrous experience opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. The album outperformed both the previous year’s Dirty Mind and (narrowly) 1979’s Prince, reaching Number 21 on the Billboard 200 and Number 3 on the Top R&B Albums chart. A little over a month later, on November 20, the Controversy tour launched at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre with opening act the Time.
After this time spent licking his wounds (and, more importantly, rehearsing), Prince returned with his most grandiose show to date. The tour-opener in Pittsburgh kicked off with the brazen call to arms “Sexuality”–complete with a full recital of the “tourists” speech–before hitting the audience with a turbo-charged version of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” “Jack U Off” flourished in front of the sympathetic, largely female crowd, earning squeals rather than jeers; it was followed by the similarly crowd-pleasing “When You Were Mine” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” both with glistening new synthpop arrangements. From there the band launched directly into a surgical rendition of “Head”–by then such a live staple that the audience got to take a solo on the chorus. Shifting gears from that song’s masturbatory climax, a punkish “Annie Christian” followed, enlivened by Dez Dickerson’s guitar solos; then it was back to the crowd-pleasers with “Dirty Mind.” Despite being only five weeks old, “Do Me, Baby” had already earned its place as a concert setpiece–a designation helped, no doubt, by Prince’s onstage striptease. Closing out the setlist proper was a rousing rendition of “Let’s Work,” followed by a hat-trick of encores in “Controversy,” “Uptown,” and “Partyup.”