By Geo Ong
Now that Prince is legendary, it’d be interesting to consider a time when he wasn’t. Not many of us were present, of course. We were around, but we didn’t know outright that Prince wasn’t famous because we didn’t know who Prince was and what he was going to become. No one, except perhaps Prince himself, knew that.
Some say that Prince always possessed a sort of prophetic knowledge regarding his own future. We could easily just call that his will to succeed, but during the very first performance of the song ‘Purple Rain’, it for some reason felt much more than just will. Prince seemed to be setting the stage perfectly for his induction into music history.
Now of course I wasn’t there; I wasn’t even born or conceived when it occurred. In 2010, video footage of the 1983 performance was released on the internet, placing both the song and the musician in further pop culture mythology.
At that point in 1983, Prince had released five albums in four years. Aside from the latest album 1999, his early efforts never made tremendous ripples in the mainstream music pool. And even with the popularity of his single ’1999′, Prince still wasn’t a household name. In 1983, whether he knew it or not, Prince stood on one of many future precipices in his career; the subsequent film-and-soundtrack release of Purple Rain in 1984 was his leap to the edge of the next mountain. And everything about this performance suggests to me that Prince had no intention of missing his target and falling into unknown lower depths below.
Throughout his entire career, Prince pulled the strings from the very start. Upon releasing his first album at age nineteen, he’d knock two years off his already young age in an attempt to enhance the ‘prodigy’ angle. His third and fourth albums, Dirty Mind and Controversy, brought on the early rumblings of attention, along with allegations that he was trying to be controversial to sell more records. Later, he said: ‘I wasn’t being deliberately provocative. I was being deliberately me.’
And so, when it came time to perform ‘Purple Rain’ for the very first time, Prince seemed to know exactly how he wanted it to go down. On 3 August 1938 Prince held a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the First Avenue nightclub in his hometown of Minneapolis. Without giving much explanation, Prince instructed a few engineers to record the event. It is unknown whether he instructed someone to film it as well, but luckily for everyone who wasn’t there that night, someone did.
Prince had already been wearing purple before this particular show, but never has the colour been so vital, identifiable, and indicative of Prince’s persona than on that night. He kept his purple jacket on for the entire performance of ‘Purple Rain’, which was the last song he played that night. At a normal Prince concert, the singer would practically be naked by the third or fourth song, but on this night he kept his iconic jacket on, and he was sweating profusely underneath. The purple floodlights that illuminated the stage bathed his skin, and it appeared as though he was actually sweating purple. It seems to me, from scrutinising the video footage, that hadn’t Prince known beforehand how historic and monumental the performance would be, he wouldn’t have had enough energy to play it.
You’d have to wonder what his band, the Revolution, thought about playing the song for the first time. Did they share Prince’s feeling of the song’s importance? Were they told to share his feeling by Prince himself? Or did he keep it to himself?
There’s a hint of uncertainty in Wendy Melvoin’s body language as she starts the song. This could’ve been for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it was her first public performance as the Revolution’s guitarist. She was nineteen.
Despite her age and inexperience, she played a rather unorthodox-sounding riff that no one in the audience had heard before. As she played, she looked around occasionally. Prince had ducked briefly offstage, and it seemed as though Melvoin was wondering when he would return, join in, and begin the song. In the meantime, she kept playing the riff for more than three minutes, which became so hypnotic that it couldn’t have taken too long for the audience to familiarise itself with it.
The video footage captures Prince’s re-entrance onto the stage like it would the sighting of a ghost. The lengthy introduction meant that the camera had nowhere else to look, so it had been fixed on Melvoin for some time. After the initial two-and-a-half minutes, a purple ghost passes behind her, and though nothing of the sort could’ve actually been heard, a collective gasp seemed to have been felt, because Prince’s reappearance had been long-awaited.
As they say, the rest is history. Apart from some minimal overdubs and edits, this recorded version of ‘Purple Rain’ is what appears on both the film and soundtrack that would catapult Prince to musical superstardom. Could he have known? Maybe not entirely, but as a passionate and emotional, sweaty and exhausted Prince performs in this video, you’d think he was playing ‘Purple Rain’ for the last time rather than the first time.
Important note: Due to Prince’s disapproval of the internet (which is a topic I have no interest in discussing in this article), I apologise in advance if the video below has since been taken down. Such a case, however, would just add to the myth of this legendary performance.