An oral history of Prince’s Purple Rain

Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to talk about this thing called Purple Rain that came out 30 years ago – and that’s a mighty long time. Keyboardist Dr Fink was a member of Prince’s band The Revolution during his incredible purple patch between 1978 until 1991. He speaks to TOM MANN about working with Prince, the years before he became a superstar and how the album changed everything.

Prince doesn’t do many interviews and when he does he refuses to indulge in nostalgia. Even the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain passed by with little fanfare. No tour setlist featuring the album played the album in full. No reunion of The Revolution. Not even a remastered reissue. “I don’t need to look back. I know what happened,” he recently told Mojo.

So why does everyone want to talk about a record that came out 30 years ago? Prince had hits before Purple Rain but never a #1. With Purple Rain he had two – ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ – although the title track stalled at #2, denying him the trifecta. Purple Rain was also Prince’s first #1 album knocking Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. from the top of the charts and holding firm for 24 consecutive weeks from August 1984 until January when Springsteen regained the top position. Although Prince (and Springsteen) were both beaten to the Grammy for Best Album by Lionel Richie, Purple Rain won the Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album. At one point in 1984 Prince simultaneously had the number one album, single, and film in America. It sold over 20 million copies. It was kinda a big deal.

While Purple Rain was the first Prince album recorded with and officially credited to his backing group The Revolution, Matt “Doctor” Fink had played with Prince since 1978. He remained a member of Prince’s band for 13 years playing on a run of classic albums that also includes Dirty Mind, Controversy, 1999, and Sign “O” the Times. He even has writing credits on a few tracks, most notably ‘Dirty Mind’ and two songs from the Purple Rain era: ‘Computer Blue’ and ‘17 Days’, the b-side to ‘When Doves Cry’.

Prince refuses to look back, but his old keyboard player has no issues with celebrating the days back when Prince was on Apollonia. “I’m not afraid to do that,” he explains.” It doesn’t bother me to go and do anniversary shows; I like commemorating anniversaries.”

When FL catches the good doctor at home he’s in the midst of a day’s worth of interviews. “I’ve got so many interviews this week. I had the BBC here this morning doing a documentary as well. I’ve got a lot going on today, I’ll just put it that way,” he laughs. Everyone wants to talk about the Purple Rain anniversary and Prince isn’t exactly available so someone has to pick up the slack.

“Prince wanted all inclusive, universal appeal”

A few years before Purple Rain, there was a famous run of shows where The Revolution opened for The Rolling Stones and were forced off stage.

We were a bit surprised at the hostile reaction; I was at least, I did not expect that. I’d never encountered that yet. The band had been together for about three years, and we’d never encountered hostility at that point, like people throwing stuff at us on stage. So, yeah, it was a shocker for everyone including Prince. We had no idea a bunch of people were gonna do that. Now there were people in the audience who enjoyed the band, people who were neutral and then there were a certain amount of people up front whom for some reason felt the need to be mean to us. They didn’t understand what we were about obviously, which is surprising because The Rolling Stones were from the era of peace, love, harmony, and hippie attitude. But they also must’ve drawn a negative group of people and they had the Hells Angels around them, that biker group, which could be negative. So I guess it wasn’t all people with healthy attitudes towards including everybody or being able to understand what we were about.

It was a shocker but I don’t know how much it impacted the group as far as pulling together, since we were already pretty tight knit but Mark Brown – our bass player – had just joined the group and Andre [Cymone] had left and he was a brand new player. That was his very first show that he ever did with us in front of 90,000 people at the LA Coliseum and then have people throw food at you and glass bottles – you name it, it was thrown at us. It was actually very dangerous. So it pulled us together and made us want to succeed even more and get back to our own fan base, which appreciated what we were doing at that time. We didn’t have a huge fan base at that time, but we were ready to develop more of a fan base and I’m sure it made Prince more determined to be more successful.

Just three years later, Prince was a huge star. Was there a conscious effort from Prince and the band to win over the mainstream audience?

I think leading up to Purple Rain he was motivated to appeal to a wider audience and to include everybody he wanted all inclusive, universal appeal so when you do a song like ‘Purple Rain’, it’s a ballad, it’s very emotional. It gets people in their heartstrings and it was mainstream American music; it was rock music, it was pop music, there was no funk in that one. So it appealed to everybody, it was a rock ballad; almost had country flavourings to it. It really can take on several different treatments and can feel like a rock ballad one minute, and a blues-rock/country-rock ballad and can appeal to a lot of people.

Was the change in sound something that Prince had gravitated towards or was that an influence of another member?

We were on tour with the 1999 album and Bob Seger was playing on one of our nights off in an arena we’d just played the night before. We had the day off and I wanted to go see Bob Seger and Prince went with me and we saw Bob Seger. He asked me about Bob Seger’s music: “What was his appeal?” [Seger was] singing to a very mainstream white audience who probably didn’t have a clue who Prince is at that time. They’re listening to John Cougar, they’re listening to Bruce Springsteen, they’re listening to Bob Seger, they’re listening to Bryan Adams and those kind of rock artists/pop rock. I said “If you write some material like that on the next project, you’re gonna crossover big”, and he took my advice.

I think he made a conscious decision to write songs like ‘Purple Rain’, maybe because I mentioned that, maybe his intention all along was to do it anyway and I just vocalised what he was thinking anyway at the time. Like “How can we increase our fanbase? I want to do a movie, the movie’s gonna have just a huge fusion of material from funk and rock, and pop songs like ‘Baby I’m a Star’ that’s got classical music, but ‘When Doves Cry’ that keyboard solo is totally classic all the way.” So influences came from every direction of music, it was inclusive to all people.

“You couldn’t get radio play as a black artist on mainstream rock radio in America”

And Michael Jackson? He’d crossed over with Thriller and become more than a mega-star. Was that something like an “Oh, we can push it to that point?”

Absolutely. That was discussed, we were also all striving to cross over like Michael did because black artists were being held back and in America there was still a lot of segregation going on in radio play. You couldn’t get radio play as a black artist on mainstream rock radio in America. You had to be heard on what would have been considered R&B, pop or black radio stations throughout the country. TV was segregated at the time – they weren’t showing any black artists or funk artists – and Michael changed that first. He was the one that crossed over first and then Prince was next after that the following year. But Michael laid the groundwork for that.

Is there a defining moment for you in the Purple Rain era that for really crystallised the idea that Prince was now at mega-star level?

Yeah, sure. Once the movie premiered and we saw the reaction of the audience to the film, you know; when you’re sitting in there among all the people watching it, then we knew that it was gonna be a success.

So even before the box-office started coming in, just that opening night, just the vibe?

Yeah, you knew it was gonna be successful. I was entertained, the audience were entertained and they loved it. So, I knew right then “Oh well okay, this is gonna be huge.” Let’s go!

Thanks to Prince’s YouTube decree it’s difficult to find clips from the film – although there is an incredible clip from the premiere featuring members of Devo, David Byrne, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Pee Wee Herman, Christopher Reeve, and Eddie Murphy.

The Purple Rain record had its anniversary a little earlier in the year but the film’s anniversary was late last month. How realistic is the depiction of The Revolution in that movie?

Well you certainly have the kind of angst that was displayed in the film and in Prince ignoring the band, ignoring Wendy and Lisa wanting to present a song which was ‘Purple Rain’. That kind of stuff wasn’t like that where he refused to listen to ideas. If we came together with a musical idea, he was open to listening to it. Although after listening to it, then he would reject it if he didn’t want to do anything with it which was more often than not [laughs]. He had his own vision for his own part of what he wanted to do musically but he was always open to other people’s ideas, I’ll put it that way. So it wasn’t an accurate depiction of how he really behaved though.

“Prince was always open to other people’s ideas”

Purple Rain was the first album where the band was integral to the sound. When did The Revolution start to feel like a band rather than just “Prince’s hired backing guys”?

I would say all versions of the band gelled really well from the beginning. It’s just that there were a few personnel changes along the way. But it was always a tight knit group.

But was there a certain point when it changed from “We’re the guys that play with Prince” to “We’re Prince’s band”; a moment where the dynamic changed?

It only changed when he allowed it to change. The band was always ready and willing to write with him and contribute to that side of things, so when the Purple Rain soundtrack was brought into play that’s when he personally decided to tap more into what the band could present at that point.

Have you re-watched the movie recently. How do you feel about your acting chops?

I thought I did a great job. First of all, I was the most experienced actor in the band, nobody had had really much acting experience. Me, I grew up doing plays as a kid. A lot of acting growing up. I came from a theatrical family, both my parents have graduated from the university of Minnesota with theatrical degrees, my father was the head of more than one play company in the twin cities here and wrote plays. He won awards for writing plays.

There was always a theatrical element to the band.

Well, there are some artists who believe in a defined image and then there are some bands that don’t give a shit. [Laughs] I find that the bands who try to define with an artistic flair for the image were the most successful I felt, like fashion was important and the band’s that did that usually did better than others. Of course you had the grunge movement, those bands out of Seattle who did well financially and people didn’t care they were wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans. But still, show business is show business and I figure if you’re gonna put on a great show, costume is important and image is important. At least, that’s my belief system anyway.

As someone who has probably one of the longest tenures as a member of Prince’s band – and during his peak years – what would you say is the greatest misconception that the public has about Prince?

Probably that he’s shy or quiet, because he didn’t do a lot of interviews, like hardly any, and he always had a persona of being shy but the reality is he’s not shy. Not at all.

Why did he shy away from interviews?

He wanted to keep his whole mystique going. There were times when he just wanted to keep his mystique alive and not talk. He just didn’t want to be talking to anybody. That way, it also saves you from over-exposure when you’re not talking all the time.

Prince had star persona from that very first record, but the success of Purple Rain must have changed him. How did your friendship change once he elevated to that mega-star level?

Things got a little more separate. We became more of an employee relationship to the boss. The friendship that we had maybe earlier on in the band sort of changed a bit, yeah.

“You never know what Prince is going to do”

I guess a reunion from The Revolution seems unlikely, but anything could happen with Prince. Have you spoken to him on the anniversary, are you in touch?

Not at the moment, no. He seems to be very busy and he’s not easy to a get a hold of. But I talked to him last year a little bit. Other people in the band have been in touch as well but he has no desire to reunite right now with anybody. He doesn’t like to go backwards for some reason, so I’m not going to question it you know. It’s his prerogative so I have to respect whatever his wishes are, and like you said, you never know what he’s going to do. He’s unpredictable, and one minute he’ll say that he doesn’t understand why people wanna go back and celebrate anniversaries like that, he doesn’t understand that those comments to the media. Either he’s serious or he’s saying that to throw people off in order to create a surprise moment sometime in the Fall.

Prince recently having re-signed to Warner, he’s got access to that old material again. Is there anything in the vault you hope sees the light of day as a result of that?

There was an album that he was working on with The Revolution, before he disbanded the group and there’s some material there that probably could come out.

Were you disappointed that you’ve worked hard on that stuff and it just disappears into that mythical vault?

No, because I really wasn’t utilised a whole lot on that material. I play a little bit on it but the band – I think Lisa and Wendy [Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman] were more involved at that time on that project. There’s all kinds of stuff in The Vault that I don’t even remember [laughs]. I’m not even aware of half the stuff that’s in the vault, or even most of it. Then there’s probably stuff I played on that I don’t even remember, I completely forgot about [laughs].

It’d be interesting to see if he puts some of it out, but I don’t know, I don’t know what he’s going to do. There’s the re-release of Purple Rain, the 30th anniversary edition redo with possible unreleased tracks, we’ll just have to wait and see what he comes up with. I don’t have a clue what he’s going to grab onto. I know that he wrote a lot of songs for the movie soundtrack – of course they only picked eight out of probably, I don’t know, 40? There’s a lot of material they went through to pick out those best songs, and he was still writing stuff for the movies as he went along. When ‘When Doves Cry’ was written, it was just as they were about to write scenes for the movie in Los Angeles, some of the stuff they did out there. So he was writing up until the last minute and adding stuff to the songs, so even they listened to those other songs, they must not have been appropriate for him or the director. Like I said, he came up with a few things even as we were filming.

What’s your proudest achievement of your years with Prince?

Well, I guess being with him for 12 years. That was a nice run with him. I probably could have stayed longer but there were extenuating circumstances why I left the group and I’ve always wanted to reunite with him but he just hasn’t been willing to.

Do you regret leaving?

Yeah sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I have regrets about it, sure.

You felt like it was the right thing to do at the time though?

I wasn’t really out with Prince at that time there was something where he approached me for a project on very short notice, a show somewhere and I couldn’t make it. I’d committed to another project and he wanted me to drop everything and just do it, and it’s not an easy thing unless you’re willing to walk away and break the contract with somebody else at the time. I wasn’t under contract with him anymore at that time. We’d finished a tour, he usually had us under contracts and on retainer but at that time he’d stopped doing that so I was working on production for other clients and the money was good … I would’ve lost a bunch of money if I’d walked away.