You know a song is big when it inspires an entire movie.
And that’s just one bit of the story when it comes to the all-time classic “Purple Rain.”
The song, which was written by Prince and his group, the Revolution, is the title track to the 1984 film of the same name. It is the final song on the movie’s soundtrack, culminating in what is, essentially, a greatest hits album for the artist. The power ballad helped cement Prince as the Man in Purple, too. And it combines elements of rock, R&B, and gospel music.
Upon its release, the B-side for the single was the track “God,” which is an overtly religious song from the Jehovah’s Witness. That song recalls the Book of Genesis.
The song is written in the key of Bb major. It opens with an electric guitar, which is quickly bolstered by drums and piano, evoking almost spiritual vibes. Each of the three verses are followed by a chorus and builds, emotionally and emotively.
“Purple Rain” was recorded on August 3, 1983, during a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre at Prince’s home base venue, the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis. That performance was guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s live debut with the Revolution. She was just 19 years old. Said drummer Bobby Z of the experience, “It certainly was one of the best concerts we ever did.”
The concert was recorded by David Rivkin (aka David Z, brother of Bobby). It was done using a mobile recording unit. “With Prince, you never knew. I thought we were recording a concert, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a record, too,“ Aaid David Z. “I knew they were working on the movie as, as well. You just had to go in prepared to record whatever it was going to be as well as you could.”
Other basic tracks done during that time were “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” Prince later performed overdubs while working at Sunset Sound in L.A. from August to September in 1983. A solo and an extra verse were edited out from the recording. The extra verse was allegedly about money, but diluted the emotional content.
According to legend, “Purple Rain” was originally meant to be a country song and collaboration with legendary artist Stevie Nicks. Nicks said she received a 10-minute instrumental version of “Purple Rain” from Prince with a request to pen the lyrics but she felt too overwhelmed to do so. “I listened to it and I just got scared,” explained Nicks. “I called him back and said, ‘I can’t do it. I wish I could. It’s too much for me.'”
Later, at a rehearsal, Prince asked the band to try their hand at the song, saying, “I want to try something before we go home. It’s mellow.” That’s when things changed up. According to his band member Lisa Coleman, Prince found a new direction for the tune after his band member Wendy Melvoin started to play guitar chords to the song.
“He was excited to hear it voiced differently. It took it out of that country feeling,” said Coleman. “Then we all started playing it a bit harder and taking it more seriously. We played it for six hours straight and by the end of that day we had it mostly written and arranged.”
After Prince recorded the song, he called up Jonathan Cain from the band Journey to ask him to listen to the track. According to legend, Prince was worried that the song might sound too close to Journey’s hit, “Faithfully,” which Cain wrote and had recently been on the charts. Cain assured Prince that the two were not close and that they just shared the same chords.
Meaning: Colors, Lyrics
“When there’s blood in the sky… red and blue = purple. Purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/God guide you through the purple rain,” Prince said of the song’s meaning.
To keep up the metaphor, the title track on Prince’s famed album, 1999, also uses the color purple to reference a doomed ending. He sings, …could have sworn it was Judgment Day, the sky was all purple… Purple is also a notable color in religious imagery.
The song’s most notable lyric may be when Prince sings, I only wanted to see you / Laughing in the purple rain before the chorus hits.
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
I only wanted to see you
Bathing in the purple rain
In the context of the film Purple Rain, Prince begins the performance of the song by dedicating it to his late father. Indeed, each of the song’s verses ties into a different strained relationship of Prince’s character and his hope to reconcile.
The film itself, which is an American rock musical drama, was released in 1984 and starred Prince (in his acting debut). The movie, which was directed by Albert Magnoli, who later became Prince’s manager, grossed over $72 million (with a $7.2 million budget). The movie, which was shot in Minneapolis, also starred Morris Day. The producers paid the venue, First Avenue, $100,000 and shut the club down for 25 days.
Purple Rain won the Academy Award for Best Original Score and in 2019 the movie was added by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The movie’s soundtrack is certified 13x Platinum and has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.
After its release, the signature song hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for two weeks (only behind “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham). It did hit No. 1 in the Belgium and the Netherlands. And it’s certified Gold.
It was a staple for the artist’s live performances after its release and he played it on nearly every tour post-1984, except for a stint after his famous name change (to a symbol) when he avoided his past hits for a handful of years.
The song is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. In 2007, Prince performed the song for the Super Bowl XLI halftime show. The track was the final one performed during the set, which is considered one of the best halftime shows to date, and the experience was made even more impactful when actual rain began to fall during the tune, as the stadium was lit up in purple lights.
Prior, Prince performed the song in 2004 at the Grammy Awards with Beyonce.
“Purple Rain” was the final song Prince ever played live during his final concert in Atlanta on April 14, 2016—just a week before he passed away.
After the legendary artist died on April 21, 2016 at 57 years old, his catalog, including”Purple Rain,” enjoyed a resurgence. The track hit No. 1 on the U.S. and U.K. iTunes charts and rose to No. 4 on the Billboard hot 100. It also hit a high mark in France at No. 8.
Long live the Purple Prince.