Note:I was just over 1,800 words into the post you’re about to read when I finally admitted defeat; there is, quite simply, no way that I can fit everything I have to say about “Purple Rain” into a single, digestible piece of writing. So, in the grand tradition of my “Controversy” three-parter from 2018, I’m splitting it into chapters. The first, and likely longest, will talk about the song’s composition; the second will go into detail about its debut performance at First Avenue on August 3, 1983; and the third will delve into the final recording that appears on the Purple Rain album and film. There will probably also be a coda of some kind discussing the song’s impressive (and ongoing) afterlife. Basically, just think of July 2021 as my unofficial “Purple Rain” month–and, for the next several weeks, sit back and let me guide u through the purple rain.
It’s a sweltering August night at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Prince and his band have just returned to the stage for the first encore of their benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre: the local dance company and school, located just up the street at 6th and Hennepin, where the musicians have been taking dance and movement classes to prepare for their imminent feature film debut. Moments earlier, MDT founder and artistic director Loyce Houlton thanked Prince with a hug, declaring, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Before that, Prince had run the group through a fierce 10-song set: sprinkling a handful of crowd-pleasers amongst the largely new material, and ending with the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, his Number 6 pop hit “Little Red Corvette.”
No one in the sold-out crowd of around 1,500 recognizes the chords that now ring out from the darkened stage. Even the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, hasn’t heard the song before; it wasn’t among the tapes he’d reviewed to prepare for his draft of the screenplay. But the chords–played by 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in her first public performance with Prince–are immediately attention-grabbing: rich and colorful and uniquely voiced, somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
A spotlight shines on Wendy as she continues to play, her purple Rickenbacker 330 echoed by her partner Lisa Coleman playing the same progression on electric piano. Prince begins to solo around the edges of the progression; he paces the stage, walking out to the edge of the crowd as he plays, then slings his “Madcat” Telecaster around his back and makes his way to the microphone at center stage. He holds the mic for an instant and backs away, as if suddenly overwhelmed. Then, he steps back to the mic and begins to sing: “I never meant 2 cause u any sorrow…”
It feels like forever since the last time I guested on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewind podcast, but I came back this month to talk about “America,” the third and final chapter of Prince’s informal “Cold War Trilogy.” As always, it was a very fun (and long!) conversation; I’m not sure what was going on with my Skype connection that made it sound like I recorded my voice on a wax cylinder, but I hope you enjoy the episode anyway:
For anyone eagerly awaiting the return of my own podcast, I assure you it’s coming! There is still a lot of editing left to do, however, so I would put the current ETA at next week for patrons, the week after for everyone else. Thank you for your patience.
“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).
In case you missed it, yesterday I finally closed the book on the 1999 era for dance / music / sex / romance (well, almost… I still plan to write “bonus tracks” posts on “Vagina,” “Colleen,” “You’re All I Want,” and “Money Don’t Grow on Trees” for Patreon readers in the near future). This was the blog’s biggest undertaking to date: comprising 33 track posts and three albums, and taking almost 16 months from the first post (“International Lover,” way back in November of 2018!) and the last. As you know, I can be pretty tough on myself; but right now, I’m letting myself take some pride in what I’ve accomplished.
1999, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, is one of my favorite Prince albums; on a good day, it may even be number one, and it’s certainly near the top of my favorites by any artist. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim that I’ve done this masterpiece justice with 11 blog posts, but I sure as hell tried my best; so here they are now, in ascending order of my favorite tracks:
11. “Free” No surprises here, I’m guessing; I was pretty rough on “Free” in my original post, and it’s still the song I’m likeliest to skip when I’m listening to 1999 on a skip-friendly format. It ain’t so bad, really–any song as weird as this one is hard for me to outright hate–but it’s the weak point on an otherwise near-perfect album.
10. “International Lover” This ranking I feel a bit guiltier about, because “International Lover” really is a lot of fun: a chance for Prince to be sexy and silly in more or less equal measure, all while showing off his increasingly virtuosic vocals. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the live-in-the-studio first take on 1999 Super Deluxe, complete with barely-suppressed giggles by Prince and little-known session drummer Morris Day.
9. “Lady Cab Driver” This isn’t going to get easier, is it? Before you send me hate mail, know that I adore “Lady Cab Driver”–it’s just the textbook definition of an album track, there to add mood and menace (and, yes, funk) to the back half of 1999. If you’re wondering what I thought about “Rearrange,” one of the highlights of 1999 Super Deluxe, this post answers that question, too.
8.“Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” Another of those moody disc two tracks: indispensable to 1999’s dystopian atmosphere, but not the first thing that comes to mind when I’m looking for a single track to play. I gave this the edge over “Lady Cab Driver” for the new life it took on in concert; see the long list of live reinterpretations at the end of the post.
7. “D.M.S.R.” It should tell you just how high in my esteem 1999 is as an album when the song I named my blog after doesn’t even make the top 50%. A great dance track, and an even better repository of weird little details: from “Jamie Starr’s a thief!” to Lisa’s blood-curdling scream for help.
6. “All the Critics Love U in New York” I know I might get some flack for ranking this above “D.M.S.R.” (and “Something in the Water,” and…), but “All the Critics” needs the boost. It’s an underrated snapshot of Prince at the cutting edge; a pitch-perfect homage to Detroit techno while the genre was still in its infancy.
5.“Delirious” As an avowed fan of Rockabilly Prince, who am I to deny the subgenre’s peak? “Delirious” may be 1999 at its most ’80s-dated, but I defy anyone to listen and not walk away with those damn keyboards stuck in your head.
4. “Automatic” My favorite of 1999’s darker, weirder second half, and maybe even the peak of New Wave Prince (another of my personal favorites, as readers are no doubt aware). If I had to pick a single track to explain why 1999 speaks to me personally–not the best or the most important song, but the one that scratches my own particular, deeply subjective itch–“Automatic” might be it.
3.“Let’s Pretend We’re Married” …Or, it might be this one. “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” is the album’s strongest showing for Dirty Prince, with his late-song monologue containing the most explicit language on the record; but for my money, the dirtiest thing about the track is the chugging, pumping bass-synth line, a retro-futuristic approximation of the world’s creakiest bedsprings.
2. “1999” Honestly, just call it a tie for first place. I’ve already expended a little over 4,700 words on “1999”–my longest single post to date!–so today, I’ll just say that the album version is a totally different beast from the radio edit: freakier, funkier, and still totally vital, even with the year 1999 (never mind the song) over 20 years in the rear-view mirror. Accept no substitutes.
1.“Little Red Corvette” Look, I’ve said before, my tastes as a Prince fan are pretty basic; and why not, since his biggest mainstream hits were as inventive as most artists’ avant-garde? “Little Red Corvette” may be the normie’s choice for best track on 1999, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fucking masterwork: as much a work of literature as it is an exemplar of pop songcraft. To paraphrase my appearance on Jason Breininger’s Press Rewindpodcast, if “Little Red Corvette” doesn’t outlast us all on this planet, then the planet was overrated anyway.
To no one’s surprise, my 1999 posts had the highest average word count of any album to date: 1,964, versus 1,758 forControversy, 1,653 for Dirty Mind, 1,383 for Prince, and 1,379 for For You.
So, what’s next? In terms of the main blog, it’s on to Purple Rain; I’ll be starting that chapter with “Baby I’m a Star.” As noted above, I’m also tying up some loose ends from the 1999 era with Patreon-exclusive posts in the near future; and, speaking of Patreon, it’s past time that I wrote my first patron-requested post: an alternate-timeline scenario requested by Darling Nisi, which will handily help set up the Purple Rain era. Finally, speaking of Nisi, I’ve already recorded a long-belated Dirty Mindpodcast with her and Harold Pride, which I’ll be putting up (first for patrons, and then for everyone) once I’ve finished editing it.
All of which is to say, there’s a lot in the pipeline; I just ask for your continued patience as I work on it. The international COVID-19 pandemic has injected a lot of instability into my day-to-day routine: I didn’t even have the chance to write on the blog that I would be presenting at the DM40GB30 symposium, originally scheduled for next month, before it was postponed until an undetermined later date. And while you might expect a self-imposed quarantine to be a boon for my productivity, the fact that I’ll also be juggling remote work with entertaining and educating a seven-year-old whose school has been shut down means that I’ll probably be spread thinner than usual. These are strange times, and I don’t know what is going to happen next. All I can promise is that I will keep writing, and I hope that you’ll keep reading, too.
In the meantime, here are those growing playlists.
By mid-July of 1982, Prince had completed work on the album that would become 1999, with just one significant exception: “1999,” the song, was nowhere to be seen. When Prince played a rough mix of the album for his manager Bob Cavallo that month, he got a cooler reception than he anticipated.
“‘This is a great album, but we don’t have a first single,’” Cavallo recalled telling Prince. “‘We have singles that’ll be hits, but we don’t have a thematic, important thing that can be embraced by everybody, different countries, et cetera.’” In response, Prince “cursed me, and he went away–but he didn’t force me to put it out. Two weeks later, he came back and he played ‘1999,’ and that became the title of the album” (Light 43).