Classic Tracks: Prince and the Revolution's "Purple Rain"

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Dan Daley

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the track that is, perhaps, most emblematic of the entire Minneapolis music scene. “Purple Rain” was destined to be a Number One single and would pull its eponymously named soundtrack LP to the same position on the album charts when it was released on June 25, 1984. The film of the same name still lands in most Top Ten lists of music-themed movies, and it graphically fills in the details of family strife and artistic angst painted by the song's sparse lyrics. But as emotionally wrenching as “Purple Rain” is, in all of its incarnations, the track was the nose cone of a very precisely guided missile assembled by Prince — who had already had chart successes with hit singles like “1999,” “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious.” It was very deliberately intended to take him to true superstardom, and it worked. The combination of a slate of brand-new songs that meshed R&B, soul, pop and hard rock with a reinvigorated band, The Revolution — featuring Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin (who would go on to their own music and scoring successes as Wendy and Lisa, aka Girl Bros. — gave Prince the creative and economic momentum to propel him for the next quarter-century.

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"Purple Rain"

Prince's rocket would be fired from an odd launching pad. The First Avenue club in downtown Minneapolis had been the locus of the city's bubbling music scene, a career crucible for acts including The Replacements, Soul Asylum and Hüsker Deü, as well as Prince, who headlined there, riding on early hits like “Dirty Mind.” (Minneapolis was a fairly progressive place, but most local black artists, including Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, preferred a venue called the Nacirema Club — “American” spelled backward.) Instead of taking the new songs into the studio, Prince instead opted to do them as a live recording. The premise was a benefit for the Minneapolis Dance Company, which assured a relatively weak turnout and a manageably sized audience that would provide the intimacy and immediacy that would electrify the recordings without going over the brink to mark it as a live concert recording. The cheers, clapping and whistles are all present on the extended coda of the album version, which runs close to nine minutes long. Another argument for the live recording is that several of these tracks would be featured as live performances in the film Purple Rain, taking place in the same club.

The performance was captured by David Z, who had pursued a career as a songwriter and recording artist in Los Angeles, but had returned to his native Minneapolis as an engineer and producer. He began working with Prince in the group Grand Central in 1978, and in 1979 the four demo sides he co-produced and engineered garnered Prince a deal with Warner Bros. Records. Z continued working with the artist, engineering on his first and third albums, the former with Los Angeles-based engineer Tommy Vicari, whom Z had met when Vicari engineered his publishing demos at A&M Studios. “Warners wanted an engineer with credits to do the first album,” says Z, who'd have his own hit-record credit a few months later when his production of Lipps Inc.'s “Funkytown” climbed the pop charts.

Z's connection to Prince is deeper than technical and professional — his older brother, Cliff Rifkin, was the regional promotion executive for Warners in Minneapolis and had facilitated Prince's signing to the label, and his younger brother, Bobby Z, had become Prince's drummer in the Revolution. So Z wasn't surprised when he was asked to engineer the tracking of a live recording, set for August 3, 1983, even though he wasn't completely sure what its outcome was supposed to be. “With Prince, you never knew,” he says. “I thought we were recording a concert, but I wasn't sure if it was going to be a record, too. I knew they were working on the movie, as well. You just had to go in prepared to record whatever it was going to be as well as you could.”

Prince's road manager, Alan Leeds, asked for and got what he regarded as the best remote truck available: Record Plant's Black Truck, crewed at the time by Dave Hewitt and Kooster McAllister — teammates who would go on to become leading competitors in the remote recording business. The truck was well-equipped for its time, with a custom 44×24 console recording to a pair of Ampex 1200 2-inch tape decks. The truck's outboard included four UREI 1176 compressor/limiters, two UREI LA-3A compressors and two dbx 160 compressors. Monitoring was by Westlake speakers with Bryston 4B amplifiers. “At the time, you could not do better than that, between that equipment and Kooster and Dave Hewitt working with you,” says Z.

Inside the club, the stage was set as it would be for a live show — vocal microphones were Shure dynamic 57s, which were also used on Prince and Wendy Melvoin's guitar amps. Two pairs of AKG 451 condenser microphones were employed for audience and ambience tracks, one pair taped underneath left and right balconies near the stage and the other pair under a loft in the rear of the room. The drums were similarly miked in a conventional manner, with an AKG D-12 inside the kick drum, 57s on the top and bottom of the snare, Sennheiser 421 dynamic cardioid microphones on the rack toms, a Neumann KM84 condenser on the hi-hat and a pair of 451s as overheads. But there was also a new wrinkle: A pair of LinnDrum LM1 drum machines were part of the percussion package; one would run continuous loops during songs while the other was to be triggered by Bobby Z's snare drum via a small condenser microphone mounted inside the drum.






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