Let's go crazy: Inside the making of Purple Rain

An exclusive look at Prince's landmark album on its 30th anniversary



Purple Rain turned 30 this year. Both the incredible rock-opera movie and its soundtrack are still every bit as amazing in 2014 as they were when first created in 1984. Today, an entire generation of listeners has a shaky relationship with Prince, because Prince has a shaky relationship with the internet.In an age where fans expect direct relationships with the artists they love, Prince has turned himself into a reclusive legend. But 30 years ago, he was still a young artist on the cusp of releasing his greatest record — and former Vibe and Spin editor-in-chief Alan Light's

Prince Eye Section

The stage is dark. A chord rings out.

It’s an unusual chord — a B flat suspended 2 with a D in the bass. A year from this night, the sound of that chord will be enough to drive audiences into hysteria. But right now, in this club, the crowd of 1,500 or so people listen quietly, because it’s the first time they are hearing the song that the chord introduces.

A spotlight comes up, revealing a young woman playing a purple guitar. She is dressed simply, in a white V-neck tank top, patterned mini-skirt, and white, metal-studded, purple-trimmed high-top sneakers. Her asymmetrical haircut is very much on trend for 1983, the year this show is taking place. Wendy Melvoin, the girl holding the guitar, is just 19 years old, and this is not only the first time she is performing this song in public, it is also her first appearance as the new guitarist in Prince’s band, the Revolution. So far tonight, they have played nine songs; this one is kicking off the encore.

Prince says quietly to the audience, "We love you very, very much"

She plays through a chord progression once, and the rest of the five-piece band falls in behind her. They go through the cycle again, and then again. The fifth time around, you can hear a second guitar coming from somewhere off-stage. On the ninth instrumental go-round, Prince strides out, wrapped tightly in a purple trench coat. He plays a few fills, moves his head to the microphone as if he’s about to start singing, then pulls back again. Finally, three-and-a-half minutes into the song, he begins his vocal, reciting more than singing the first line—"I never meant to cause you any sorrow…" It’s a performance that would soon become his signature recording and one of popular music’s greatest landmarks.

When he reaches the chorus, repeating the phrase "purple rain" six times, the crowd does not sing along. They have no idea how familiar those two words will soon become, and what impact they will turn out to have for the 25-year-old man on stage in front of them. But it’s almost surreal to listen to this performance now, because while this 13-minute version of "Purple Rain" will later be edited, with some subtle overdubs and effects added, this very recording—the maiden voyage of the song—is clearly recognizable as the actual "Purple Rain," in the final form that will be burned into a generation’s brain, from the vocal asides to the blistering, high-speed guitar solo to the final, shimmering piano coda. As the performance winds down, Prince says quietly to the audience, "We love you very, very much."

In the audience, up in the club’s balcony, Albert Magnoli listens to Prince and the Revolution play the song. Magnoli, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, has just arrived in Minneapolis to begin work on Prince’s next project, a feature film based on the musician’s life which will start shooting in a few months. He thinks that this grand, epic ballad might provide the climactic, anthemic moment for the movie, an element which he hadn’t yet found in the batch of new recordings and work tapes Prince had given him. After the set, Magnoli joins the singer backstage and asks about the song.

Prince chapter

"‘You mean ‘Purple Rain?’" Prince says. "It’s really not done yet." Magnoli tells him that he thinks this might be the key song they are missing for the film. Prince, the director recalls, considers that for a minute, and then says, "If that’s the song, can Purple Rain also be the title of the movie?"

This launch and christening of Purple Rain occurred on August 3, 1983, at the First Avenue Club in downtown Minneapolis. The show—with tickets priced at $25—was a benefit for the Minneapolis Dance Theatre, where Prince has already started his band taking lessons in movement and rehearsing in preparation for the film. The sold-out show, which raised $23,000 for the company, was his first appearance in his hometown since his triumphant 1999 tour ended in April, during the course of which he reached the Top Ten on the album and singles charts for the first time, and made the hard-fought leap to becoming an A-List pop star.

The event was significant enough that Rolling Stone covered the show in its "Random Notes" section. Noting that "the mini-skirted Wendy" had replaced guitarist Dez Dickerson, the item said that Prince and the band "swung into a 10-song (actually 11) act, including new tracks entitled ‘Computer Blue,’ ‘Let’s Get Crazy,’ (sic) ‘I Will Die For U,’ (sic) ‘Electric Intercourse,’ and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You.’ Then he encored with an anthemic — and long — new one called ‘Purple Rain.’…Prince looked toned up from workouts with Minneapolis choreographer John Command, who’s plotting the dance numbers for the film Prince has dreamed up. The new songs, which may appear on Prince’s next LP, are to be part of the movie’s soundtrack…filming is slated to start November 1st."

Prince considers that for a minute, and then says, "If that’s the song, can Purple Rain also be the title of the movie?"

For the members of the Revolution, the fact that the show was being recorded wasn’t such a big deal. "I wasn’t really aware that Bobby’s brother had been brought on board to engineer what was coming into the live truck," says keyboard player Matt Fink. "When they told me that, I thought, ‘Oh, he’s recording this for posterity.’ He didn’t say to us, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re trying to capture this for the soundtrack.’"

"We were recording all along, as we always did," says the band’s other keyboard player, Lisa Coleman. "We felt really good about the songs, we really liked the set, and we knew the trucks were there recording, but it was just another show."

But the show was evidently important enough to Prince that Melvoin remembers him talking to the band before the set, to calm their nerves. "When we were getting ready to go onstage, he said, ‘If you feel nervous, slow your body in half. So if you’re playing at 100 bpm, slow your body down to 50 bpm. Cut everything in half while you’re playing. Everything—every move, every thought you make, just cut it in half.’ It was an incredible piece of advice, because you know how long those jams can go, and if you get too excited and someone’s rushing, that’s one of the worst mistakes you can make in his band."

Prince hadn’t necessarily planned on using the First Avenue recordings on the actual album, but when he listened back to the tapes, he found that some of the new songs sounded good, in both performance and audio quality. Incredibly, not only "Purple Rain," but also two other songs that were debuted that night—"I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I’m a Star"—wound up being used on the final Purple Rain soundtrack (though the others were reworked more extensively than the title song was). The show gave a major running head start to a film project that continued to seem like a pipe dream to most of the people involved. To the musicians, it still wasn’t clear where the whole thing was headed.

Almost exactly one year later, on July 28, 1984, Purple Rain opened in 900 theaters across the United States. It made back its cost of $7 million in its first weekend, and went on to clear nearly $70 million at the box office. The soundtrack album has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and spent 24 consecutive weeks at Number One on Billboard’s album chart. It won two Grammys and an Oscar, and included two Number One singles ("When Doves Cry" and "Let’s Go Crazy") and another, the title track, that reached Number Two.

In retrospect, maybe the Purple Rain phenomenon seems inevitable. Prince was the greatest pop genius of his time—on a very short list of music’s most gifted and visionary figures—and it was just a matter of his finding the vehicle that would translate his incomparable abilities to a wide audience. Yet in truth, when you look closer, the fact that the Purple Rain movie got made at all is hard to imagine, difficult to explain, and the result of many extraordinary leaps of faith on the part of virtually everyone involved in the production.

Prior to this release, Prince was nowhere near a household name: While he had established himself in the R&B community, he had just one album that could be considered a mainstream hit, and no singles that had peaked above Number Six on the pop charts. He was also shrouded in mystery, surrounded by rumors about his ethnic background and sexual preference, and had completely stopped talking to the press as of the release of his previous album, 1999.

At a suburban Cincinnati high school, my friends and I were already nothing short of obsessed with Prince, whose music felt like the culmination of all the sounds and styles we loved—dance beats, rock guitars, provocative lyrics, passionate vocals, style, glamor, intrigue. There was an extra locker in our senior class hallway, and we dedicated it to Prince, hanging the poster that came with the Controversy album (Prince in a shower, posed in front of a crucifix wearing nothing but bikini briefs, which I’m sure delighted our teachers and administrators) inside the door. We sent him a letter welcoming him to the Class of 1984, and got back a postcard with the handwritten words "Love God" stamped across his photo.

Prince chapter

Purple Rain was released just a few weeks after our graduation. Earlier that spring, we had all stayed up until midnight, cassette recorders at the ready, for the radio premiere of "When Doves Cry." On this mesmerizing, churning single, and then on eight more album tracks, we heard that he had modified his sound—focused and sharpened it, become a guitar god fronting a true rock & roll band. Oddly, the aura of apocalypse and religious salvation that had already begun to turn up in his work was, if anything, pulled even further forward, yet during the heart of the Reagan era, with the nuclear arms race at the top of everyone’s mind, this didn’t make his lyrics any less accessible for new listeners.

The album seldom left our turntables in the weeks after it came out. We lined up to see the movie on opening weekend in late July. And we saw it over and over again the rest of the summer, mesmerized by the stunning performance sequences, repeating the campy but irresistible dialogue to each other. If any of our other friends weren’t previously on board with our Prince fixation, now the word-of-mouth street team was in full effect, and they simply couldn’t avoid hearing about him everywhere. And once their curiosity got the best of them and they took a chance on the movie, any lingering resistance was futile as soon as an off-screen voice intoned the first words—"Ladies and gentlemen, the Revolution," and a backlit Prince recited the opening words to "Let’s Go Crazy."

When I got to college in the fall, I discovered that many of my new classmates were equally obsessed with Purple Rain — which meant that now we all had to go see it together, repeatedly, as part of the new bonds we were creating. (A few months later, my closest new friend and I took turns sleeping on the sidewalk in the snow to purchase tickets for the nearest stop on the Purple Rain tour.) Perhaps affluent, mostly white and mostly male kids weren’t initially the target audience for a Prince film, but what the world soon realized was that a $7 million investment gets paid back pretty quickly when groups of teenagers go to see a movie six or seven or eight times.

Prince Eye Section

Rocketown is an unassuming, warehouse-size club just a few blocks from the Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville. Geared to Christian teenagers, it’s adjacent to a skate park; there are pool tables upstairs, and the marquee lists a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. It is now May 2004, 20 years after the release of Purple Rain, and Prince has already finished a sold-out performance at the arena (which was still called the Gaylord Center at the time), followed by an additional 90-minute set on Rocketown’s stage, after which he has an almost-three-week break in his touring schedule—"I gotta go home and water the plants," he tells the crowd of 500 or so, with a laugh.

Prince is in the midst of one of his periodic resurgences in popularity, spurred by both music and strategy. After a series of experimental and even surly records, released in the midst of his ongoing battles with the music industry, his new album, Musicology, is accessible and funky; not a breakthrough or a true classic, it’s still a fully realized collection of satisfyingly Prince-style songs. He made some high-profile media appearances (opening the Grammy Awards broadcast performing a medley with Beyonce, singing for Ellen DeGeneres), delivered a knockout mini-set at his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March, and concocted a plan in which everyone who bought a ticket for the tour received a copy of Musicology on their seat—each of which counts toward SoundScan’s best-seller lists. Since the 96-date run would prove to be the top-grossing tour of the year, earning $87.4 million, this meant that the record would go gold and stay in the Top Ten for the whole summer even if not one person bought a copy in stores.

Prince is, as always, shy and quiet, listening more than talking, but he actually seems to be enjoying the chance to mingle

So Prince is happy. He has also recently become a Jehovah’s Witness, and his conversation is now laced with frequent Biblical references and allusions. The after-show performance at Rocketown offers the musical manifestation of this new Prince. Where these intimate, late-night gigs used to be cathartic, virtuoso displays, this time he leads his band through a set of loose funk jams. He bops through the crowd to listen from the soundboard and roams the stage cueing the players through a mash-up of Led Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love" and Santana’s "Soul Sacrifice." There’s no tension, all release.

I’m there to interview him for a cover story for Tracks, a magazine I founded and edited in the early 2000s, and after the show, I observe something even more unlikely: At 2:30AM, Prince can be found standing outside the stage door, hanging with his band members and talking to fans. The 30 or so clustered civilians are breathlessly excited to be in his presence, yet seem understanding when he tells them that he doesn’t believe in signing autographs. He is, as always, shy and quiet, listening more than talking, but he actually seems to be enjoying the chance to mingle.

One young woman tells him that Purple Rain was the first album she bought when she was in the first grade, but that her mother wouldn’t let her see the movie because it was too risqué. "Just think about what ‘too risqué’ means today!" Prince responds.

Material from Purple Rain had provided the focus for the arena concert earlier in the evening. He performed seven of the album’s nine tracks during the 30-song, two-hour greatest hits set, closing with the title song. In the grimy Rocketown dressing room, though, he claims that the 20th anniversary of the project is of little consequence to him.

"I was there," he tells me. "I did it, it was my baby. I knew about it before it happened. I knew what it was going to be. Then it was just like labor, like giving birth — in ‘84, it was so much work."

In fact, he says, just a few nights earlier in Atlanta, the Time—his Minneapolis friends / rivals / contemporaries who played his nemeses in the film, and sometimes in real life—came out and performed during his show. "We never got a chance to do the real Purple Rain tour, because the Time broke up," he says. "But then, there they were, onstage last week, and people started tripping, and I was watching my favorite band. So there’s no anniversary, no dates, we just have to have faith in Jehovah and lay back and ride it." (The fact that Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness may also explain some of his attitude toward the anniversary of the album, since members of the religion do not celebrate birthdays.)

Ten years later, his feelings about such milestones seem even more detached. In February 2014, Prince played a super-intimate performance for 10 people, held in the living room of his friend, singer Lianne La Havas, as part of a press conference to announce a series of upcoming "hit-and-run" UK shows. Matt Everitt of BBC 6 Music News was one of those in attendance, and he noted that Prince seemed surprised when he was asked about Purple Rain’s impending thirtieth anniversary. "I hadn’t even realized," he said. "Everything looks different to me, because I was there. I wrote those songs, I don’t need to know what happened."

A few weeks after that, he appeared as the only guest for an hour of the Arsenio Hall Show — yet another in a series of odd media visits without a tour or new release to support. An audience member asked him when he last saw Purple Rain, and what he thought of it. "I was in the living room three days ago," said Prince, "and it came on television, and I watched ‘Take Me With U.’" He did not address the second part of the question.

Every pop star presumably has some feelings of ambivalence about his or her biggest moment or defining hit. It immediately becomes both an obligation whenever you perform and the marker of a career pinnacle that, by definition, you can never match. Prince had a long run as one of the most successful musicians in the world, and can still sell out an arena pretty much whenever he wants to. He’s had an impressive half-dozen records certified two- to four-times platinum, with 1999 (which predated Purple Rain) highest on that list, but he has never had an album with sales close to Purple Rain’s 13 million in the US. Indeed, he once described Purple Rain as "my albatross—it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music."

Prince Eye Section

Whatever his feelings about the legacy of Purple Rain, though, Prince has always kept its songs front and center in his shows—especially the title song. It has served as the climax of most of his concerts, including his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show in Miami, which was seen by 93 million people in the US alone and is generally considered the gold standard of all performances at sporting events. (Over the years, "Purple Rain" has also been covered by a wide range of artists, from LeAnn Rimes to Foo Fighters, Etta James to Tori Amos, Phish to Elvis Costello, while other songs from the album have been recorded by everyone from Mariah Carey to Patti Smith.)

A December 2013 concert at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena saw Prince at his latter-day loosest; he introduced the night by saying "We’re gonna just jam tonight—it’s just an old-school party," and largely stayed away from the hits, digging deep into his catalog (including a quick run through "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," the two songs by the Time featured in Purple Rain) as he alternated between a 21-piece, horn-heavy funk ensemble and his stripped-down, all-female rock trio, 3rd Eye Girl. Still, the inevitable closer, as a second encore, was a heartfelt rendition of "Purple Rain," with a tender vocal and winding guitar solo that saw him exploring the indelible melody as if it were a brand-new composition.

Like that night at First Avenue 30 years earlier, he stood in the spotlight and an audience stood thrilled and riveted by what they heard—despite, or because of, the fact that this room of middle-aged, mostly white concertgoers was able to sing every note, anticipate every turn of the song, and had been able to do so for the majority of their years on Earth.

Prince Eye Section

From all of Prince’s groundbreaking work, it is Purple Rain that endures first and foremost. It will always be the defining moment of a magnificent, fascinating — if often erratic — career. It carries the weight of history. Its success, on screen and as a recording, was a result of the supreme confidence, laser-focused ambition, and visionary nature of the most gifted artist of his generation.

Dancing on the line between fact and fiction, Prince utilized his mysterious persona to hyper-charge the film’s story with tension and revelation. He let us in — only partway, certainly not enough to rupture his myth, but more than he ever did before or since. Defying all odds, a group of inexperienced filmmakers and actors, working against the clock and against the brutal Minneapolis weather, clicked for just long enough to make a movie that the public was starving for, even if they didn’t quite know it at first.

"We just wanted to do something good and something true," says director Albert Magnoli. "The producer was on the same page, we had an artist who wanted the same things, a group of musicians who felt the same way. It was one of the very few times when everybody actually wanted to make the same movie—which sounds obvious, but is actually very, very rare in the movie business." "I think part of the success of Purple Rain was that [Prince] did open up and examine himself, and that it was real," says Lisa Coleman. "It was an authentic thing, and you could feel it, and there was all this excitement around it. And I don’t think he’s done that ever again."

Purple Rain came along at precisely the right moment — not just for Prince, but for the culture. The summer of 1984 was an unprecedented season, a collision of blockbuster records and the ascension of music video that created perhaps the biggest boom that pop will ever experience. It was also a time of great transformation for black culture, when a series of new stars, new projects, and new styles would forever alter the racial composition of music, movies, and television. While the magnificence of the Purple Rain songs remains clear 30 years later, the album and the film were also perfectly in tune with the time and place in which they were created, and their triumph was partly the result of impeccable timing and circumstances that could never be repeated or replicated.

The first time we heard the songs on the radio, the first time we put on the album, the first time the lights in the movie theater went down, we all did just what the man told us: we went crazy.

Illustrations by Andres Guzman