NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and this is what it sounds like when doves cry.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
Oh! Let me do a little plug here for a new friend of mine, who when I met him last month, requested that I cover this song. He calls himself Innkeeper Freddie, because he’s got a couple of Bed and Breakfast properties in the Washington DC area. And Freddie does interviews with some of the people who stay at his inns, which you can hear on his show, called Guestbook. I’m still playing catch-up with his show, but I can promise you that he talks with some very interesting people who are just passing through our nation’s capital. You can find his show in your podcatcher software by searching for Guestbook—all one word, and I’ll also post a link to the show in general over at my website. Go check him out!
[O SOLE MIO]
Oh, I’ve got a tricky trivia question for ye this week.
Everybody knows that Elvis Presley’s big hit “It’s Now or Never” was based on the old Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio”, which was composed in 1898 by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi, with lyrics by Giovanni Capurro. Except that’s not quite the case. In fact, Elvis was inspired by a different piece of music. What piece of music was that? In an amazing twist of fate, I’ll have the answer for you near the end of the show.
So per Freddie’s request, we’re talking about the song “Purple Rain” this week, and I took some extra time on this one because, in doing the research, it became one of those situations where, the more you look, the more there is to see. And incidentally, when you’re looking for articles online about Prince, it’s kind of astounding how many of them are titled “Let’s Go Crazy”, followed by a subtitle. But it was also kind of tough to separate the story of the movie, and the soundtrack album, from the song itself. So there’s going to be a little bit of bleed-over here. But to make up for the late episode, I’m going to give you a bonus episode in just a couple of days. So, I hope we can be friends again.
“Purple Rain” the song was one of the last tracks written and recorded for the movie of the same name. Director Albert Magnoli first heard it when Prince and the Revolution performed what they considered to be a rough version of it at the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, he wanted it to be used for a specific point in the movie, because he hadn’t found what he wanted for that scene among the materials that Prince had already sent to him. After the show, Magnoli asked Prince about the song, and Prince told him it wasn’t really done yet. When Magnoli told him why he was interested in the song, Prince then asked him if Purple Rain could also be the title of the movie.
And as it turned out, the performance in that Minneapolis club was being recorded, like many of Prince’s shows. And ultimately that recording, along with “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” both of which also made their public debuts that night, were all used on the final soundtrack of the album. Now, the original recording of “Purple Rain” was over 13 minutes but was edited down to eight for the album, but it didn’t take a lot of other work, unlike the other two, which did need a lot of reworking.
That the movie Purple Rain got made at all was a small miracle, considering that while Prince was pretty well established as an R&B star, he was still mostly a big deal only close to his hometown area. His biggest hit at that point had barely cracked the Top Ten, and he was already living a rather reclusive life after the release of 1999. Magnoli was a first-time director, the entire cast had never acted before, and the budget was minuscule. And, of course, the star at the center of it all didn’t do publicity. But get made, it did, and the album has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest selling albums of any kind, and among the top 10 soundtrack albums.
So according to music critic and journalist Alan Light, in his book titled—go figure—Let’s Go Crazy—Prince was on tour to promote the 1999 album, and as it happened he was coming into the arenas just after Bob Seger had left them, and he wondered about what made Seger such a big star, especially in the Midwest. According to Light, keyboard player Matt Fink said that it was because of the big ballads like “We’ve Got Tonight” and “Turn the Page.” So Prince set out to write an arena-rock level power ballad. And that was the birth of “Purple Rain” the song. So while it was presented in the film as having been written by keyboard player Lisa Coleman and guitarist Wendy Melvoin, it was all pretty much Prince’s baby.
Melvoin says that when Prince first brought the song to the Revolution, he had a melody and the chorus, and some idea of what the verses would be like. Drummer Bobby Z. recalls thinking that it was almost like a country song, with an overall feel that was different from the rest of the album. But when Melvoin came up with the opening chords, the song changed character and everyone started playing their parts. After about six hours, they had it mostly written and arranged.
For his part, Prince was a little bit worried that the song sounded too much like Journey’s song “Faithfully”, even going so far as to call Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and playing “Purple Rain” over the phone to him. Cain was quoted as saying that he told Prince he was just flattered that Prince even called, and that made him a classy guy.
Stevie Nicks has reported a couple of times that Prince asked her to help him with the song. He sent her a demo—which she says she still has—and after she listened to it, she called him back and said it was just too much for her; that she didn’t have any idea of what she could add to it. According to an interview she did with Mojo magazine in 2013, she also kind of suspected that he might have been interested in a little more than her voice, but that part she never knew for sure.
Now, as I mentioned awhile ago, the recording from the First Street Club was the one that made it to the soundtrack album, and it was originally over eleven minutes long. One verse and another iteration of the chorus were cut to bring it down to eight minutes and change. And if you’re curious, the lyrics to the missing verse are:
Honey I don’t want your money, no no.
I don’t even think I want your love.
If I wanted either one I would take your money and,
I want the heavy stuff.
The verse was cut basically because it didn’t fit in with the rest of the song: all the other verses are about the people in the main character’s life.
And, of course, at about 4:05 the guitar solo and piano plus orchestral strings ending gets cut off the end of the record for the radio and single release, with a quick fade:
So what about the phrase “purple rain”? What’s that supposed to be about? Some people think it’s about the end of the world, since that’s something that Prince thought about a lot in the mid-80s. And that’s actually a possible answer. IN 2012, New Music Express noted that Prince once explained the phrase by saying (quote):
“When there’s blood in the sky—red and blue equals purple. Purple Rain pertains to the end of the workd, and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god ‘guide you through the purple rain.’” And given Prince’s depiction of the end of the world in the song “1999,” with the line “the sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere,” that gives a little extra weight to this theory. But just to add to the confusion a little bit, Lisa Coleman says that the song symbolizes “a new beginning. Purple, the sky at dawn; rain, the cleansing factor.”
The single went to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was a Top Five hit in many other nations, though it went to Number 8 in the UK and only made it to Number 41 in Australia. And, of course, after Prince’s death in 2016, the song hit the charts again, making it to Number Four in the US, Number Three in Australia and Number 6 in the UK, In fact, it was in the Top Ten in several European nations and Top 40 in most others. It even charted for the first time in Japan, making it to Number 30.
Most of the covers of the song have been live tributes rather than covers recorded for release. Certainly one of the covers that’s both pretty faithful and at the same time pretty weird is this one, from the band Phish. This recording comes from a show they did in 1995, in Lincoln Nebraska:
In case you can’t tell what he’s doing, he’s playing the solo using a running canister-style vacuum cleaner, placing the nozzle on his face and modulating the sound it makes with his mouth and facial muscles. Weird and also weirdly effective.
“Purple Rain” became pretty much a concert staple for Prince, playing it at almost every show except during that period between 1992 and 1996, when he temporarily changed his name to that unpronounceable symbol in protest of his contract with Warner Brothers. But during that time he didn’t play any of his older material. And, of course, there was that halftime performance at Super Bowl 41 in 2007, which many still say is one of the best halftime performances ever. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was raining in Miami at the time, and that, combined with all the purple lighting…well, you can picture what it looked like, yes? And typically, when Prince played the song at his concerts, he used it as the show closer, which means that when he played “Purple Rain” and the end of his show at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 14, 2016, that was the last song he played for an audience, as he died a week later.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question.
Back on Page Two I asked you what song Elvis Presley’s hit “It’s Now or Never” was based on, despite the fact that it sounds so much like “O Sole Mio.” As it happens, when Elvis was in the Army and stationed in Germany, he heard this song:
[THERE’S NO TOMORROW]
This song is called “There’s No Tomorrow,” and it’s performed by an artist named Tony Martin. It’s from 1949, and this is what Elvis heard when he decided he wanted to do something similar. At some point Freddy Bienstock, his music publisher, came to visit Elvis and heard the idea, so when Bienstock returned to New York, he called on Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold to come up with a new set of lyrics, which the story goes they knocked out in about a half hour.
[IT’S NOW OR NEVER]
Why Schroeder and Gold? Because they were the only ones in the office at the time. The song became a Number One hit for Elvis, spending five weeks in the top slot in the US and eight in the UK in 1960, and another week at Number One over there in 2005, when it was re-issued. In fact, its release was delayed in the UK because of some rights issues, so when it finally came out, it debuted on the UK Singles chart in the Number One position, which at the time was pretty rare.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we visit my second-favorite Christmas song.
Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.