When you think of the generic concept of “rock star,” what comes to mind? It might be confidence, swagger, or sexuality. It could be romantic, someone who creates magic out of chaos. There could be a sense of excess, even self-destruction. A few specific artists might appear—Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie. And one who should definitely come to mind is Prince.
There are a few songs that automatically come up first: There’s “Little Red Corvette” and “1999,” the synth-rock tracks that brought Prince and The Revolution into the mainstream. But the first moment Prince became synonymous with a term like “rock star” has to be Purple Rain. Not just an album, but a movie. Not just a movie, but a world unto itself.
Prince & The Revolution: Live, a newly released version of a 1985 concert in Syracuse, New York, offers a stunning glimpse into an artist coming fully into their powers. The album opens the way all live albums should. “Hello, Syracuse and the world. My name is Prince and I’ve come to play with you.” And then, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” “Let’s Go Crazy” opens the concert, kicking off a raucous party that caps off with an electric guitar solo.
Prince moves through the hits, offering “1999” here and a “Little Red Corvette” there. These are fun and you can dance to them, but things really kick into overdrive when Prince and The Revolution start to cover, of all things, “Yankee Doodle.” As in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Playing over military style marching drums, bizarre electronic beeps create a version of the melody, which is believed to date back to a Dutch harvest song of the 1500s.
Soon, even a hint of the fife and drum standard is washed away with waves of synth. Prince doesn’t sing about sticking a feather in your cap and calling it macaroni. Instead, Prince asks, “Can you see me? Can you hear me? Dig if you will, a picture, of you and I engaged in a kiss.” Prince starts professing his love to the audience, asking to take them to his house, which is of course purple. The whole thing becomes very erotic, which is no surprise, but the fact that it all happens within a cover of “Yankee Doodle” is a surprising delight.
Things move into funk territory with “Irresistible Bitch” and “Possessed,” and then there is a moment to catch your breath with the simple piano and call-and-response of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore.” It starts off flirty and ends up pleading. Prince understood how to make any song feel like a journey.
And that journey ends with seven songs from Purple Rain. With Wendy Melovin channeling Chuck Berry on guitar, these songs take on a massive feeling. Prince was a keen study of the music industry around him, as noted in Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy. Media at the time focused on the battles between Prince and Michael Jackson, but Prince wanted to take on everyone, and looked to artists with radically different audiences, like his fellow Midwesterner Bob Seger, to see what made them so popular.
One night, Prince asked keyboardist Matt Fink about what drove people to listen to Seger. Fink responded it was his power ballads. Building off elements of Seger and Journey’s “Faithfully,” Prince created one of the great American epics. Picking up where Hendrix had created “Purple Haze,” Prince offered the world “Purple Rain.” The version here is long, six seconds short of 19 minutes, and builds into Prince offering everything he has in falsetto.
While this concert was technically first released as part of a larger Purple Rain package in 2017, the original multitrack audio master reels have since been discovered in Paisley Park and are remixed and remastered by Prince’s recording engineer, Chris James. The effect is something brand new. Take it from somebody lucky enough to see Prince play when he was alive: This recording is a gift to American rock music. At a moment when rock music is exploding again after years of dormancy, it’s also worth reconnecting with the classics.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.