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.
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…”
“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).
Note: This post was written “out of sequence” to commemorate the release of the studio version of “Electric Intercourse” on 2017’s deluxe expanded edition of Purple Rain; it has since been superseded by an “official” blog post written when I reached the song in my chronology. The original post is preserved here for historical interest.
It’s been a long five months since the release of 4Ever, the first posthumous compilation of Prince’s work, and “Moonbeam Levels,” the first “new” track to be officially released since his death last April. Many of us, I think, were expecting Paisley Park’s “Celebration,” a four-day event marking the first anniversary of his passing, to be the end of this drought. With the long-promised Purple Rain reissue looming in the future, the time felt ripe for some concrete information, if not an actual release.
In fact, we did get new music that week–but not from the Prince Estate, nor from the Purple Rain era. Instead, former engineer Ian Boxill surprise-released an EP of six previously unheard 2006 recordings–including the gorgeous, gospel-flavored “Deliverance”–implying that he had the Estate’s blessing to do so. As it turned out, he didn’t: within hours of the announcement, the Estate filed suit, and a United States District Court Judge granted a temporary restraining order to halt the sale of the EP. Meanwhile, the Celebration came and went with no official mention of the Purple Rain set. Even after a fan group leaked what turned out to be an accurate track list, both Warner Bros. and NPG Records remained mum–until the following Friday, that is, when the announcement we’d been expecting finally came through, along with the second “official” posthumous track, “Electric Intercourse.”
I recount all of this, in part, to note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Prince may no longer be with us physically, but his spirit clearly lives on in the capricious, contested, and scattershot handling of his music. In a weird way, this is also the most relevant Prince has been to the contemporary recording industry in decades: a drama-filled album launch, botched in part by the vagaries of online music services, puts him in the rarefied (albeit, in this case, dubious) company of 21st century pop titans like Rihanna and Kanye West.
But all facetiousness aside, I also want to explain why I’m writing about “Electric Intercourse” right now, and not about “Deliverance.” It isn’t necessarily that I disapprove of the EP’s release: I’m glad Boxill leaked it, just as I’m glad that more anonymous sources have leaked the hundreds of other non-sanctioned songs I continue to enjoy. But I broke my chronology with “Moonbeam Levels” last fall because it was an official and easily accessible release; and, while “Deliverance” as of this writing is still available for purchase on the iTunes store, the legal grappling around its parent EP doesn’t give me much confidence for the future. Besides that, I remain skeptical of Boxill’s claims that the majority of the proceeds for the song/EP will go to Prince’s estate: I’m no lawyer, but I can’t think of many cases where an individual successfully paid royalties to a group in the process of pursuing legal action against him. So, basically, I’m treating “Deliverance” like a bootleg: I’ll write about it, of course, but not until I reach the proper point in the chronology–so, at my current pace, our grandchildren should be able to enjoy it, provided we all survive the impending Third World War.