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After Prince released his 1999 album, he toured in many of the same cities Bob Seger did. Prince was amazed how people connected with his songs like "Night Moves" and "Main Street," which were slow songs that told stories people could relate to. Prince decided to write a song in that style, and this was the result.
The album was actually the soundtrack to the first movie Prince made. He went on to make three more, Under The Cherry Moon, Sign O' The Times, and Graffiti Bridge.
Purple Rain won Prince an Oscar for Best Original Song Score (not to be confused with the Best Original Score category, won that year by A Passage to India. The song "Purple Rain" was the centerpiece of the film and a key plot point. In the movie, the female members in Prince's band, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, write a song that Prince ignores, prompting a tirade from Wendy ("Every time we give you a song you say you're going to use it but you never do. You're being paranoid as usual..."). At the end of the film, Prince's crew is in a heated rivalry with another band (The Time), who do a blistering set that Prince must follow. When Prince takes the stage, he introduces that song as being written by Wendy and Lisa, then tears down the house with it.
Wendy and Lisa were real members of Prince's band until 1987 when they left to record as a duo. This song, however, was composed by solely by Prince. It's a love song, with Prince singing about his devotion to a girl, but it also serves as a catharsis, releasing the pent up frustrations that had been building throughout the movie. The "Purple Rain" is a place to be free.
The song was written for the film, but served Prince very well in concert, where it was often his showstopper. He retained many of the visual elements from the movie performance in his shows, which isn't much of a stretch - the concert scenes were filmed at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, where Prince often performed.
This has been victim to being covered by Phish featuring the infamous vacuum solos. Jon Fishman, the drummer, reigns control over the vacuum and also sings the song's vocally demanding lyrics. (thanks, Jeff - Kendall Park, NJ)
Prince played this to open the 2004 Grammy awards. After singing part of the song, Beyoncé came on stage and they performed a medley of their hits.
The album is mentioned in the movie Shaun Of The Dead when Shaun and Ed are thumbing through their record collection and deciding what to throw at 2 zombies in their yard. One of the records that they decide not to chuck is Purple Rain. (thanks, Hermione - Los Angeles, CA)
On the tour to promote the album (conveniently called the "Purple Rain World Tour"), Prince's band, The Revolution, would play the intro to this song for about 8 minutes while Prince underwent a costume change before emerging in fresh duds to complete the performance.