I Know Times Are Changing

Unlocking Purple Rain at 30, from Seger to sound trucks to Stevie Nicks.

Anil Dash
Anil Dash
Jun 25, 2014 · 15 min read

0:00 — 0:10

In the summer of 1983, Wendy Melvoin was just 19 years old. She’d flown halfway across the country from Los Angeles for her first professional gig as a guitar player, joining her girlfriend Lisa Coleman in the band where Lisa had been playing keyboards. Almost from the moment she landed, Wendy was thrown into the grueling rehearsals that were taking place in a warehouse in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, right where West Lake Street meets Highway 7.

0:50—1:00

A few weeks later, Wendy and Lisa were back in their home state of California, joining their boss Prince, who was having a very auspicious visit to Los Angeles. On August 20, less than three weeks after the charity gig, Prince had been asked to come onstage at a James Brown concert, at the behest of Michael Jackson, who had been singing with Brown onstage. It was the only time the three men would occupy a stage together, and seemed an almost-explicit anointing of Prince by both the funk legend and the man who was then enjoying the height of Thriller’s success.

1:50—2:00

Though the idea of “blue states” and “red states” wouldn’t catch on for another two decades, it’s an appropriate framework for Purple Rain’s goals; The song was designed as a perfect amalgamation of red and blue tastes. Much has been made of Prince’s pioneering role in bridging white and black music, of bringing together funk and soul audiences with more conventional rock fans. But little has been said about exactly how he achieved this effect.

J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, the title track from their 1981 hit album, and likely in the set of the shows on October 9 and 11, 1981, where they shared the bill with Prince.
The “Special Dance Mix” of Let’s Go Crazy, originally available in 1984 on the 12" release of the single.
Erotic City remained a staple of black radio for years after its 1983 release, despite being a b-side and ambiguously containing the word fuck/funk in its chorus.
Image for post
Image for post
Prince’s original hand-written lyrics for Purple Rain, including the deleted third verse.

2:45—2:55

During the weeks of rehearsal of the Purple Rain material, the band’s sound had been captured almost every day on a simple 24-track recorder that served as the destination for the many cables snaking around the warehouse. The mix for those recordings was managed on a console that was balanced on a few road cases. These machines were usually staffed by David Leonard and David Rivkin. Rivkin was brother to Robert Rivkin, better known as Bobby Z in his role as drummer for the Revolution.

Image for post
Image for post
A Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the same model Prince used in his early 80s work. (Wikipedia)

4:40—4:50

While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince’s nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.

5:15—5:25

At any Prince concert of the last 30 years, the highlight is typically the audience’s singalong to the descending falsetto line that crowns Prince’s guitar solo. But the origins of that signature line are a little more obscure.

Image for post
Image for post
Still from video footage of rehearsals at the St. Louis Park warehouse. Matt Fink is center, rear.

6:40—6:50

Purple Rain is a particularly unusual song for the length of its instrumental coda. Before it fades to a series of striking and unexpected chords performed by the string ensemble, it has one last great hook, a simple piano motif performed by Lisa Coleman.

8:30—8:40

As Purple Rain fades to an end, the last thing we hear is the audience’s applause. While parts of the track had additional applause dubbed in to cover for the original audience’s subdued reaction to the then-new song, it seems clear this final applause is the actual response that Purple Rain inspired at its debut.

Image for post
Image for post

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection.

Thanks to Paul Ford

Anil Dash

Written by

Anil Dash

CEO of @Glitch. Trying to make tech more ethical & humane. (Also an advisor to Medium.) More: http://anildash.com/

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Anil Dash

Written by

Anil Dash

CEO of @Glitch. Trying to make tech more ethical & humane. (Also an advisor to Medium.) More: http://anildash.com/

The Message

A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection. Season 2 stars @anildash @alanalevinson @ftrain @hipstercrite @itsthebrandi @jamielaurenkeiles @vijithassar @yungrama @zeynep. Season 1 available on DVD shortly.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store