Anniversary Album: 40 Years of ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince

For all he did during his magnificent career, much of Prince’s legend comes courtesy of Purple Rain, the album he and the Revolution released 40 years ago this month, and the movie of the same name that followed it. When you attempt something like that on such a grand scale, and pull it off so marvelously, of course it’s going to make a gigantic impact.

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Purple Rain now seems inevitable because we’ve lived with those songs for so long. But it took Prince’s unwavering confidence in himself, as his well as his newfound beliefs in the musicians surrounding him, to make this masterpiece happen.

An Album and a Movie … or Nothing at All

Prince’s star was certainly on the rise heading into 1984. His ridiculous musical talent, which included a mastery of seemingly all instruments, a knack for unique production touches, songwriting that was invigorating and idiosyncratic, and vocals that oozed sexuality and vulnerability both at once, were on display for the first five albums of his career. The last of that group, 1999, broke him wide to pop audiences in 1982 with the title track and “Little Red Corvette” as big hits.

But the aura of mystery surrounding him was undeniable, which is why his next demand of his record label (Warner Bros.) was more than a little bold. His next album would be the soundtrack for a feature film. And this wouldn’t be a concert movie, but rather a scripted, quasi-autobiographical tale of his life and career, with Prince in the starring role. Give credit to the higher-ups for greenlighting this project that, in lesser hands, could have been a boondoggle.

Thus became a painstaking process whereby Prince was overseeing the making of a movie and an album all at once. That put added pressure on his relatively new backing band, The Revolution, who had started to coalesce on 1999 but were used much more extensively on Purple Rain. Keep in mind this was a leap of faith for Prince, someone who had recorded the majority of his first several albums all by himself.

“Rain” Forecast

With the exception of “Computer Blue,” a track built up from a jam session that was credited to everyone in the Revolution, Prince still wrote all the words and music for the songs on Purple Rain. But ideas from others, particularly Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, impacted the material. The women had experience with using strings, which influenced songs like “Take Me with U.” And the title track was a much different creature until their suggestions helped transform it during a marathon session into the anthem it became.

In fact, the tightness of the Revolution hit such a high level that Prince confidently used three of the band’s live performances (with slight overdubbing) as actual tracks on Purple Rain. He also recorded a few songs, most notably the showstopping ballad “The Beautiful Ones,” a tortured missive to Melvoin’s twin sister Susannah, whom Prince had dated.

The Purple Rain album was almost done when Prince had an idea for a song that would help tie up the themes in the movie script. “When Doves Cry” was striking enough as it was, but it took on an even more dramatic edge when Prince removed his bass guitar from the track. The song became the massive hit that would introduce the world to this all-encompassing project.

The Legacy of Purple Rain

On top of everything else he did right, Prince had the foresight to deliver the Purple Rain album more than a month before the movie. By the time the film premiered, the audience was already hooked on the music, and the movie became a must-see. As he had always envisioned when he came up with all this, Prince became a film star on top of a pop idol.

Is Purple Rain Prince’s finest album? We’d say it falls just shy of his 1987 double-album Sign o’ the Times in that department. Everything on Purple Rain is sort of pitched to the rafters, while Sign o’ the Times yields a wider variety of styles and moods, every one of which Prince slays.

But Purple Rain is undoubtedly Prince’s most important album, one that ensured he would be experienced by the widest possible audience. And that’s the way it should be for someone with ability and magnetism so rare.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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