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Music

The two wildly different songwriters who inspired Prince to write ‘Purple Rain’

@TomTaylorFO

When Far Out recently sat down with Dougie Payne of the band Travis, he regaled a familiar tale to many of a certain Prince spawned generation. The story he tells is one of first sitting down in front of a tiny TV and the brash presence of a Purple-clad Prince just about thrusting his little arm out of the screen and hauling him into a new bohemian world. 

Payne told us: “I first saw the video for ‘When Doves Cry’ and I fell in love. I was about 12 when it came out and I bought the 12″ straight away. That was like striking oil because you had this brilliant back catalogue. From that moment on, I was a pop kid and any pocket money I got; I was straight to the record shop to buy pop music, and this record, in particular, is pure pop perfection. For me, Prince bestrode that decade like a little colossus.”

Alongside ‘When Doves Cry’ was the equally brooding masterpiece ‘Purple Rain’, and together, they would help to produce an album that defined the late guitar god. As Prince himself would later tell The Observer: “In some ways, Purple Rain scares me. It’s my albatross and it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music.” While that apparent albatross ostensibly never hindered Prince’s output, it would prove a masterpiece very hard to beat. 

When it was written, Prince had already achieved stardom, but his celestial rise had somewhat plateaued. His sui generis ways had blown the door off the hinges for a guitar-shredding funk master, but behind it was a niche room with a limited capacity. In order to achieve the mass appeal that fellow individualistic stars like David Bowie had achieved with ‘Let’s Dance’, Prince needed a song that connected. 

Fate would prove an illuminating light for the ‘Purple One’ when it came to knocking his niche through to the next room. As it happens, while touring his 1999 record in 1982, he happened to be following the trail of Bob Seger’s tour. The Horseshoe moustache sporting all-American man of genre-mishmash was less focused on defining musicology and instead just wanted to impart blue-collar tales to his audience. His folk-country-rock-pop soundscape might not have rattled new worlds open, but his words were relatable for an audience merely out to have a great night. 

Prince managed to catch Bob Seger many times that year on their cat and mouse tours across the country, and his Revolution keyboardist, Matt Fink, would explain: “Well, it’s these big ballads that Bob Seger writes. It’s these songs like ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ and ‘Turn The Page.’ And that’s what people love.” Thusly, Fink told Prince: “It’s like country-rock, it’s white music. You should write a ballad like Bob Seger writes and you’ll cross right over.” Prince took a leaf out of this book, and when he entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he acknowledged the inspiration: “Seger had a lot of influence on me at the start of my career; he certainly influenced my writing,” he said.

However, in order to breach the gap between his otherworldly stylings and Seger’s grounded to the point of almost being a subterranean approach, he needed a middle ground. In Prince’s eyes, the songwriter who straddled his visceral end of the bravura-boasting spectrum and the rather more wholesomely relatable side of things was none other than Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks. Thus, Prince being Prince, he wasn’t afraid to just go ahead and reach out, especially when it came to women, as his long-term studio engineer Susan Rogers remarked: “Obviously he was a heterosexual man and enjoyed having beautiful women around,” Rogers says, “But he needed to the alpha male to get done what he needed to get done.”

As Stevie Nicks would later explain to Mojo Magazine: “I’ve still got it [the demo cassette] – with the whole instrumental track and a little bit of Prince singing, ‘Can’t get over that feeling,’ or something,” the Fleetwood Mac singer recalled. “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.” As it happens, she also suspected that he was after a bit more than a figurative songwriting middle ground between himself and Seger. Very much adhering to the Rogers school of thought she also added about her late friend Prince, “The olive branch of him giving me that cassette was huge, but I think he would have liked a romance with me, too.”

Thus, with a judicious ‘thanks but no thanks’ from Nicks, Prince was left having to try and emulate her style and having worked with her in the past, he at least had a leg up in that regard. The result saw Prince enter the realm of relatable ballads, and as Fink suspected, with the transfiguring salvo of his own unassailable mythology, the songs soared and the wall to the mainstream room next door was blown to bits. The rest, as they say, was ancient history.