With the ability to combine multiple genres during one mind-bending song, only the experimental brain of Prince could conjure up a piece of material as powerful as ‘Purple Rain’.
There are few artists as fluid, as multi-talented, as flamboyant and as wholeheartedly singular to their vision than Prince Rogers Nelson. The late singer not only captivated the music world by traversing multiples genres, but he did it by blurring the lines of gender too. Prince had the ability to write incredible songs but also played his part in changing popular culture as we know it today. Most notably, of course, was the hit album, track and the accompanying feature film Purple Rain.
Forged in the depths of Prince’s brain as he considered the work of Fleetwood Mac lead singer Stevie Nicks, ‘Purple Rain’ would go on to be a defining moment in a career like no other. Detailing the song’s construction, Prince once commented: “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.”
While many hit songs have somewhat simple origins, Prince did his best to keep ‘Purple Rain’ under wraps for a prolonged period, often even attempting to give the track away. Left with the material that had yet to be given a home, Prince didn’t even opt to head into the studio to lay it down. Instead, he turned up to a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis and nonchalantly recorded it live with his band The Revolution.
The footage of that incredible night with Prince is either a triumphant win or a big fat L, depending on which side of the fight you’re on. Either way, it remains to be fantastic viewing. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who was 19 on that evening and making her live debut with the Revolution, described the performance as Prince’s “sweatiest and most soulful hometown concert yet”. Adding to that sentiment, drummer Bobby Z stated, “It certainly was one of the best concerts we ever did” in a show that has bounced around folklore for decades.
What makes the myth surrounding this show more mystifying is the constant battle for ownership of the bootleg tapes. Footage sporadically appears and vanishes again overnight in what is presumed to be a tiresome contest over copyright. The clip in question has gained credence over the years because, as stated, it is propped up by the vision of Prince running through his first-ever performance of his now-famous and simply iconic song ‘Purple Rain’. The video was shot in 1983 in a music venue that a spot Prince frequented on many occasions, and the rendition remains a shining piece of the Purple One’s illustrious history.
Looking back, it is clear that the gig was a turning point for Prince because, in reality, it was the moment he became more than just a pop star. Yet, at the time, reviewers from the Star-Tribune noted that fans in attendance were becoming more and more “disinterested” as the song went on. It may well be expected considering that Prince was performing a concept album without much context. However, it’s clear that during this period, Prince was a fledgeling icon.
Having just seen his album 1999 make a dent in the charts, Prince was ready to turn it up a notch—and he had some big plans. So, while performing for Minnesota’s Dance Theatre charity show, the artist decided that this night would be the night to debut what was destined to become his most iconic material.
Prince provided fans with future muso-collateral by performing some of the jewels in his musical crown for the first time. It meant that songs such as ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘I Would Die 4 U’, ‘Baby, I’m A Star’ and of course, ‘Purple Rain’. The track would go on to immortalise his wonderful career and cement his name as ‘The Purple One’.
The footage captured from the aforementioned evening is not likely to hang around for too long as it holds itself as yet another battlefield for the streaming guerilla war. So, while it is here, we suggest you enjoy all 13 minutes of it while you get the chance. It’s a meaty version of the track, but its weight is warranted. The performance feels even more impressive knowing that Prince performed it with the crowd not knowing a single lick. Looking back, they can all count themselves lucky they were in attendance when prince debuted ‘Purple Rain’ for the first time.
Watch Prince’s first-ever performance of his iconic track ‘Purple Rain’, below.
As we touched on earlier in this article, ‘Purple Rain’ is song is a special track for many of the aforementioned reasons. It will linger long in the pantheon of music, but there is a niggling notion that it could, under very different circumstances, have taken a significant turn if Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks had a little more bravery.
Nicks, who was in contact with The Purple One at the height of his fame, once revealed in an interview that she was “too scared” to even approach the song and, despite her collaborative moments with Prince, it remained a true realisation that Nicks couldn’t bring herself to jump on the track and make it her own.
The duo became close friends and collaborators in the early eighties, a time in 1983 when Nicks was inspired by Prince song ‘Little Red Corvette’ to pen her own track ‘Stand Back’. Nicks recalled that while she was driving home with her new-husband Kim Anderson, upon hearing the Prince number, inspiration struck her down: “All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I’m singing along, going, ‘Stand back’,” she recalled. “I’m like,’ Kim, pull over! We need to buy a tape recorder because I need to record this.’ And so we do—we careen off the freeway to find a radio, record shop or something, and we go in and we buy a little tape recorder.”
It was Nicks and Anderson’s wedding night but, instead of celebrating their nuptials, the two stayed up all night and perfected the track. Nicks, with excitement running through her music, called Prince almost immediately to speak with him about the material: “I know that 50 per cent of it is yours—and, what are you doing later? Because we’re here at Sunset Sound,” she said. “Do you have any interest in coming down and hearing it?” she added, later revealing that “never in a million years thinking that he would say ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be right down,’ and he came down.”
What happened next was that Prince moved over to the keyboard and began to lay new licks on the song, giving it a brand new vibe and contributing to one of Nicks’ stand out tracks of her career. Astonished by the situation, Nicks later said the whole ordeal: “Takes him an hour; he gives me a little ‘I don’t really know you’ hug, and, uh, he’s gone. Like a little spirit.” Given the speed in which the two creative forces collided, Prince had also found inspiration from the situation and later called Nicks in a bid to continue their budding creative relationship – one which many would have expected Stevie to jump at the chance – but that is not how it played out.
“It was so overwhelming,” she later recalled after Prince suggested that the pair work in his song ‘Purple Rain. “I listened to it and I just got scared. I called him back and said, ‘I can’t do it. I wish I could. It’s too much for me.’ I’m so glad that I didn’t, because he wrote it, and it became ‘Purple Rain.'”
She told Mojo: “I’ve still got it, the whole instrumental track and a little bit of Prince singing, ‘can’t get over that feeling’, or something. I told him, ‘Prince, I’ve listened to this a hundred times but I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s a movie, it’s epic.”
All in all, it was probably the right decision for both Nicks and Prince. However, that won’t stop us from dreaming about what could’ve been. The merging minds of the smooth Prince and the soulful Stevie could’ve been a match made in heaven—but perhaps the original isn’t too bad either.