Inside Prince’s Revolution

It seems that we have all been misinformed about the Revolution.

During their creative and commercial peak in 1984/5, there was no band alive that was bigger — or better — than Prince’s touring ensemble, known simply as “the Revolution”. Though the group had been around for awhile — they served as the backing band during Prince’s 1999 tour — it wasn’t until Purple Rain that they began contributing to Prince’s songwriting and recording endeavors. A good deal of songs from Purple Rain, in fact, were recorded live and in one-take, the band so in sync with each other that you wouldn’t even be able to tell that they were live recordings (with a few studio overdubs) unless you listened very, very closely. There was bassist Mark Brown, longtime Prince drummer Bobby Z., keyboard maestro “Dr.” Matt Fink, and the immortal guitar/keys duo known as Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman, and together, they played on (and sometimes even co-wrote) some of the biggest songs of the ’80s, tracks that still hold up remarkably well to this very day.

Yet the more that you read about the Revolution, the harder it is to determine fact from fiction, as so much of the Revolution’s dynamic has been hyperbolized and dramatized to the point of caricature. Many people cite that band’s role in the Purple Rain movie was somewhat indicative of what was really going on behind the scenes: each member wanted to make their own songwriting contributions, but Prince wouldn’t have any of it, leading to in-fighting and even an unnecessary (though interesting) rivalry between the Revolution and Prince’s other band, Morris Day & the Time. Yet is any of this true? According to the people who were there: not really.

Over the course of three albums (Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade), the Revolution wound up expanding Prince’s creative reach by introducing him to new bands and styles, providing ample room for jam-based improvisation and more, all leading His Royal Badness to some of the greatest pop singles ever made (“Kiss”, “Raspberry Beret”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, etc.) Following the dissolution of the band after Parade, Prince would eventually try and recapture that same energy by forming the New Power Generation, who — despite playing on one of Prince’s most commercially successful ’90s albums (Diamonds & Pearls) — simply didn’t have the same creative dynamic that the Revolution had, the NPG ultimately becoming more of a glorified backing outfit than a cohesive group of musicians.

So it’s no wonder we’re still fascinated with the Revolution over decades later: their myth and their music still live on, so many critics often holding up Prince’s latest work to his time with the Revolution for comparison, as, truly, his time with the band was a time when he was truly untouchable. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Purple Rain, PopMatters got a chance to talk with two of the most instrumental figures to the Revolution’s success: longtime keyboardist and “Computer Blue” co-writer Matt Fink and Prince’s manager of 20 years Alan Leeds. Together, they share their stories, insights, and personal experiences as to what made the Revolution as groundbreaking as it was, and why — 25 years later — we still adore them as much as we do.

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First off: wow, it’s been 25 years since Purple Rain first came out. What are your initial reactions to this? Are you surprised the film’s legacy has lasted as long as it has?

FINK: Am I surprised by that? Yes and no. I mean, I think it’s a wonderful thing that people are still remembering it and [are] still influenced by it and still watching it. It’s still being played regularly on stations like VH1 and other cable [channels] on a fairly regular basis; ‘cos no matter what, every year it’s played several times. So it’s a wonderful thing: it’s become a classic from that period of time, much like other movies of the day — like The Wizard of Oz, they air that every year, no matter what … Casablanca — ya know: classic movies. So yes, in that respect, I’m not surprised. I’m grateful that it was so successful and still is in people’s minds.

LEEDS: Initial reaction is purely personal: time flies! I suppose the film’s legacy standing is a bit unexpected given the normally brief shelf life of pop art. But the long term impact of Purple Rain may be abetted some by the fact that youngsters playing “real” music on traditional instruments is so less common than it was twenty five years ago. In my lifetime, the idea of a bunch of young hopeful musicians getting together and starting a band was almost cliché-ish. Today, it’s almost unheard of. Youngsters with musical ambitions today concentrate on computer skills and the entire process of writing and recording music has become completely masturbatory. I suppose, in the sense that he played all the parts on many of his recordings, Prince was a precursor to that which makes the impact of Purple Rain all the more ironic.

[To Leeds:] In the chronology of things, you were brought in at a very interesting time in Prince’s life: right at the tail-end of the 1999 tour when relations between the touring band (and the Time and Vanity 6) weren’t exactly ideal. What events transpired that lead this spat of internally bickering musicians to become one of the most powerful, cohesive bands of the ’80s?

LEEDS: I don’t think the so-called rivalries between Prince’s groups had any meaningful bearing on the Revolution’s accomplishments. The Revolution and the original Time were both outstanding bands comprised of unusually talented individuals. Prince, of course, egged on the rivalry. He sensed, correctly, that fostering a competitive environment would motivate both bands when on tour together and, at times, keep things interesting for himself as well. What’s important to remember is that The Time was, if anything, Prince’s own alter-ego, notwithstanding the talents within that group. The Time’s concept, songs, style and records were all Prince.

Any real bickering was more about the members of The Time wanting to stretch the boundaries and assume more creative control over their careers – something that was greatly exacerbated when Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis famously missed a gig, stranded in an airport after spending an off-day working on an outside project.

What were the early days like? How would you compare those experiences to your times “officially” with the Revolution?

FINK: It was a very creative time. I mean, there was a lot of influence and input from band members towards what he was doing. Even thought he was doing most of the recording and writing on the first two albums, there was still influence there and still a lot of ideas being thrown around that he could draw from. He was always open to anybody trying to contribute creatively to the process of writing. It wasn’t really until Dirty Mind that he brought in myself to perform on that record. I’m trying to remember: I think the first two albums he really did all himself; I don’t believe he had any other people involved from the band at that point. Then going forward from there, he kept bringing in group members, to do some session work or have some co-writes here and there.

What were your first impressions of him? Did you think he was an avant-garde genius or a pompous asshole or something inbetween?

FINK: [Laughs.] I thought he was an extremely gifted and talented hardworking artist. I think, of course, he had the abilities there to develop his talent, which he obviously did — like all of us. Some of us are born with that innate ability, so obviously he had that and was in a musical family, growing up with a musician father. I’ve always found that people born into musical families tended to grow faster and are able to tap into their talent in a better way because they’re exposed to it so early and groomed for it so early on the way Prince was. In my case, I came from more of a musical theatre and theatrical background with my family ‘cos my parents were both actors. They studied acting in college and performed in the theatre once they graduated from college and even though my father had a separate business that he ran to make a living at here locally in the Twin Cities, he was very active in community theatre and was doing professional voiceover work as well as my mother, and my mom even had her own consortium of actors that she booked for talent work here on the local scene — so there was a lot of that going on in my family. I participated in theatre growing up as well and did musical theatre and learned a great deal from that and then also started playing in bands by the time I was about 12, 11 — somewhere in there. So they had me studying piano around the age of 7 or so and then also bringing me in for theatrical work at the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis and doing some educational recording work — it was sort of a combination of the two.

I feel like if you got the innate talent, you’re born with it, and then you have someone there to nurture it, it can really bring that out like [with] someone like Prince, who obviously has oodles of the talent and then started early with it. So as far as [him] being a genius? Yeah, you could say that. He also worked very hard — just like all of us — to achieve what he needed to achieve. It takes dedication and work and discipline to get to where he is, and learn all the instruments and be self-taught, primarily. I know he had some other people around him growing up that his father knew that helped him to learn some of the instruments, and I’m sure his father was an integral part of that, as far as teaching him piano and things like that.

When the whole “Revolution era” started up, it opened up a lot of possibilities for Prince’s sound. How did the writing process work with him? For example, how did you got about writing a song like “Computer Blue”?

FINK: Well “Computer Blue” really grew from a seed, so to speak, that took place during a jam session. We’d always warm up before rehearsals doing free-form improv rock/jazz music jams, and someone would start a chord progression (or Prince would or one of us would) or in this case on that day, I started playing that main bass groove which was the main bass part for “Computer Blue” which was later brought into that. So the band started grooving on it, next thing you know we’re all sort of joining in, doing some jam on that. Prince started coming up with some stuff [and] we recorded a rough version of it and he took it into the studio and just incorporated it all and made it fly that way. Lisa & Wendy came in and they did some of the stuff on it. Prince borrowed the bridge/portal section from his own father who had given him some music over the years to play around with. So that particular song was a real mixture of different people and influences. So that’s how that one came about. So I kind of germinated the beginning of it — the bassline, the main groove, Bobby Z. was there to play the drums, of course — and that’s how it evolved. Prince, ya know, he really was the main lyricist and melody maker for the songs and I’m pretty sure very rarely took or did not take any lyrical content from people. He was really the main guy on that.

I find that interesting ‘cos in the books upon books I have about Prince’s life, a lot of times he comes off as standoff-ish and introverted — but in talking to you, it sounds like he was much more open than a lot of people gave him credit for.

FINK: Yeah, he was more open than people gave him credit for. He’s also not as introverted as people claim either, ‘cos when you get to know him and get to be friends with him, he opens up quite a bit. You’re able to speak with him on a regular basis and he also had a very gregarious nature to him and a great sense of humor. Very funny guy. I mean, he could really put you on the floor with his humor sometimes.

How collaborative was Prince during this time?

How about you, Alan? How collaborative was Prince during this time? Who did he play best off of in the ever-changing Revolution lineup?

LEEDS: Wendy and Lisa particularly brought Prince a musical camaraderie he was unaccustomed to. During the course of the Purple Rain Tour, his posse of musicians swelled to include Sheila E. and horn players Eric Leeds and (Atlanta) Matt Blistan. Prince spent scores of hours jamming and recording with various combinations of these musicians — sometimes also including Levi Seacer and Matt Fink. While much of this activity was just jamming for fun, Prince was unusually open to learn from those around him. Lisa, a wonderfully talented keyboardist, brought a sophisticated arsenal of chordal ideas. Wendy brought a Joni Mitchell-inspired melodic sense. Sheila brought her rich variety of rhythms and Eric brought his background in jazz and arranging. Their frequent jams casually brought these things out. It’s also been well documented that Wendy, Lisa, and Eric were exposing Prince to musics he was unfamiliar with by regularly turning him onto albums by a wide variety of artists including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. In short, it was probably Prince’s most curious phase of his evolution as a musician and thus he was the most open to “outside” influences. On the other hand, most of the wealth of material recorded during this phase remains officially unissued. So the songs that Prince did choose to include on his albums were more often those he had written himself.

After the film and soundtrack went on to garner huge profits and incredible acclaim, all reports that I’ve read indicated that Prince became more introverted and secluded during this time, almost as if he was deliberately shying away from the spotlight even after he designed Purple Rain to be the very thing to turn him into a superstar. In your view, how did the success of the project alter Prince’s personality? Additionally, how did it change the fabric of the Revolution?

LEEDS: I don’t think it changed Prince much … maybe just exaggerated who he already was. His increased seclusion was more a result of the degree of his popularity/notoriety than any changes within himself. Thanks to avid fans and media attention, it simply became more complicated for him to appear in public. Trading his “freedom” for the spotlight was a “deal with the devil” that he willingly made way before Purple Rain.

As for his professional “personality”, Purple Rain doubtlessly increased his self-confidence. While he always had decided what was best for his career, NOW he KNEW what was best. All the skeptics who thought a black wanna-be rock star with but a couple mild hit albums under his belt could never succeed in the film world had to eat a lot of crow.

The Purple Rain phenomenon may have ultimately had more of an effect on the five core members of the Revolution than on Prince himself. There were indications that they felt the significance of their unit was more than that of simply Prince’s back-up band. Prince’s post-Purple Rain quest to enlarge his band to include additional musical elements and input put that theory quickly to rest. Without speaking for anyone, I suspect there were some members of the Revolution who would have preferred the band remain the same and intact with a somewhat inflated sense of self-importance.

FINK: It became a little bit more [of a] business-oriented relationship [between band members], but there was still socializing that took place. He wasn’t 100% divorced from playing in the group at all.

During his time with the Revolution, a lot of people argue that this was Prince’s most prolific and creative period. Of course, you were there for those three major Revolution albums (four if you count 1999), so what do you feel the Revolution’s greatest challenges were, and — conversely — what were its greatest successes were as a band?

FINK: Well, obviously the Purple Rain album was the most successful and we got the most creative input on the record as far as some co-writes and playing on the album. Around the World in a Day — I really didn’t really participate in very much. That one was another one of Prince going in and doing what he wanted to do away from the band except for maybe a little bit of input from Wendy & Lisa on that record. After that, same thing. Going forward from there, he really had his own vision. By the time Sign ‘O’ the Times rolled around, I was fortunate to have, again, a co-write on the song “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”, but that was also primarily a Prince-induced song. It was taken from my influence of musical jam much in the way that “Computer Blue” was germinated. Lovesexy: another Prince production all the way through.

So, as a band, you had less input over the years.

FINK: Yeah, but Wendy & Lisa, I’d say from Purple Rain through Parade, were pretty integral to the session work on those records.

How would you describe your own relationship with the Time during that period?

FINK: Oh I was always good friends with those guys.

Jammed with ’em?

FINK: A little bit. Not too much jamming, but just when we were on tour with them, we were all good friends for the most part. Until the big food fight [Laughs.]

The food fight?

FINK: Oh yeah the food fight. The famous food fight at the end of the 1999 tour. We had a two-day food fight with them backstage, off-and-on. A food-fight war, culminating in a full-bore cream pie fight backstage. It was kind of fun.

I can imagine Jerome having one helluva arm for some reason.

FINK: It was pretty fun, actually. It turned into sort of a competition. That’s gonna be coming out in a book someday.

A quick hit: what’s your favorite song from Purple Rain?

LEEDS: Maybe “Father’s Song” which wasn’t on the album. Seriously, probably “Let’s Go Crazy”. Purple Rain was a brilliantly crafted album of pop music but the songs didn’t lend themselves to much flexibility. As a result the shows, except for the extended jams on “Baby I’m A Star”, pretty much all seemed the same and the songs got “old” about half way through the tour. For whatever reasons, songs on other Prince albums seemed to better lend themselves to various interpretations so arrangements could change from year to year and keep the songs fresh. Purple Rain just is what it is — such a perfect album that nothing should change and it’s almost difficult for me to separate the songs. I honestly hear it more as an album, one solid piece of music with nine different parts.

FINK: That’s really a tough one. That’s a tough question, and I’ve been asked that before — I’d have to say I like “The Beautiful Ones”, ‘cos artistically it’s a really beautiful song, followed by “Darling Nikki” maybe. Right in there.

So it’s kind of the sexual/soul duo though. The one that always gets me is “Take Me With U” ‘cos that’s such a pure pop song.

FINK: I almost said that one. That’s what I mean: it’s really difficult for me to pick those, to choose the tracks that are my favorite. Those are my Top Three.

In rewatching Purple Rain, I find it surprising how many real-life details were brought into the script, ranging from Morris Day and the Time promising that they were going “to kill” the Kid performance-wise on stage during a given night right to Wendy & Lisa arguing over the Kid’s refusal to hear any of their songs. For someone as often closed-off as Prince, why was he so ready and open to reveal some of his less-pleasant mannerisms in a format as broad-reaching as a movie?

LEEDS: Perhaps naively, I think Prince felt that by altering some aspects of the “Kid’s” biography from his own, he bought himself a smokescreen for the traits that more accurately reflect the real Prince. His “aversion” to interviews never hid the fact that his meticulously devised media campaigns revealed an artist that very much wanted fans to know and understand certain things about him as long as he could maintain control over the flow of information. One can argue that Prince was remarkably ahead of his time in recognizing the boom in media attention that international cable television and the digital age was going to thrust on the entertainment business. He understood “branding” and what aspects of an image were most likely to retain media’s attention. Along with Michael Jackson and just a bit later Madonna, Prince helped create what has become a template for the marketing and promotion of young celebrities.

What did the Revolution allow Prince to do that he wasn’t able to accomplish on his own before?

The Revolution were around for three of Prince’s most important albums, given full credit on the album covers (and partial-credit on 1999). In your opinion, why was bringing in a full backing band important during this stage in Prince’s artistic development? Or to put it another way: what did the Revolution allow Prince to do that he wasn’t able to accomplish on his own before?

LEEDS: Coming from the world of James Brown where spontaneity in the studio was paramount to his genius accomplishments, I personally prefer music that embraces the rapport between an artist and his or her collaborators and accompanists. Like jazz, most R&B music had traditionally depended on this kind of musical interaction. Stevie Wonder, and then Prince became the notable exceptions. Of course without the advancements in studio technology and the development of synthesized musical instruments, none of this would have been feasible. Like Stevie, Prince uniquely combines the skill sets of writer, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist. Unlike Stevie, Prince is actually more than good at every instrument he plays. So his recording needs simply never depended on other musicians. That he chose to record with various members of his bands said more about the flavors and individual voices that Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Eric Leeds and Sheila E. brought to the table. The caliber of musicianship in his band grew during the Purple Rain period and I think it was simply a case of Prince recognizing the elements that these musicians could contribute to his palette.

Of course the very plot of Purple Rain required Prince to have a band that was heavily involved. I suspect Prince wanted the “spirit” of having certain songs recorded with the band for the film and album. And for authenticity sake, he encouraged the band on tour to carry themselves with the appearance and presence of their roles in the film. The fact is that the band was never as close to a “democratic” unit as the film hints at. Everyone in the Revolution deep down knew they were “hired hands” and, as time has demonstrated, could all be replaced with little hindrance to Prince’s box office appeal.

Looking back at your tenure during the Revolution, were there any moments that stick out to you, especially during the Purple Rain era?

FINK: Well the process for getting ready for the film during the summer of 1983 leading up to actual filming, we were basically in “Boot Camp” — a disciplined regimen of dance class, acting class, and band rehearsing throughout that whole summer for about three months straight leading up to the start of the filming process. Prince had an acting coach brought in, a dance instructor brought in — it was just day after day filled with all those elements taking place six days a week. I think we usually had Sunday off, sometimes Saturday. For the most part it was a standard work week, morning ’til early evening filled with all that stuff.

Exhausting slightly.

FINK: Not too bad. I didn’t find it to be exhausting. Actually, I really thrived on that because it brought back my days of studying with the Children’s Theatre again when I was studying dance and acting, so it was kind of fun to get back into it again, and, also, you know, sharpen up my old skills which had fallen by the wayside.

I was watching the film the other night, and there were the scenes where the band was arguing over their input on the songs. I can only imagine how many portions of that were taken directly from real life experiences …

FINK: None of that was really true to life — and if it was, nobody voiced those sorts of thoughts to Prince [Laughs.] Even if they maybe thought them inside, no one ever in real life would say something like that because the reality is that this was his career, and we were just allowed to fortunately be along for the ride as his sidemen. In 1978 he was signed to Warner Bros. as a solo artist — he had no band, and much like a Madonna or someone doing that sort of thing, they had to hire a backup band. Now with Madonna, her main collaborator was Patrick Leonard in the early days, her keyboardist, and he co-wrote a lot of material but the rest of the band members didn’t — they were just there to play. They were touring musicians in that sense. Fortunately for us, we were at first brought in as strictly sidemen — touring/live players — and then allowed to be brought in on the creative process as well, which was really nice of him to do that. He didn’t have to do that, really. He could’ve had his pick of just about any great sidemen that were around out in L.A. or New York. He could’ve hired people out of town but he choose to go with primarily Minneapolis people to begin with, and then later he brought in Wendy & Lisa who were based out of Los Angeles.

You were also there during the time that he made the transition from the Revolution to right before he formed the New Power Generation.

FINK: Exactly yes. Then he incorporated a lot of Shelia E.’s people into the NPG and the Sign ‘O’ the Times/Lovesexy-era, and then by 1990, he had brought in Michael Bland on drums and Rosie Gaines on keyboards and vocals by then.

Was there a different vibe that you felt with the NPG in contrast to the Revolution?

FINK: Whole different vibe. Completely different.

Good different or bad different?

FINK: All good, for the most part. Some of the newer people that were involved were a little green and were making some demands that maybe weren’t all that realistic. They wanted star treatment when they really hadn’t paid their dues yet. That kind of stuff: there were just some people who hadn’t paid their dues and were asking for certain things and they were coming to me as the “senior member” to go to management to ask for favors or ask for special things to come along their way. I said “You know, that’s really not my place guys: I think you should address that yourselves” — and I’m not naming names! [Laughs.]

Unless it’s Tony M. That’s the only exception.

FINK: [Laughs.]

Alan, how would you equate the Revolution to the New Power Generation later on? Are they even comparable?

LEEDS: For my personal taste, the most exciting Prince bands were the expanded Revolution on the European Parade tour and the band with Sheila E. on drums for the Sign ‘O’ the Times tour. Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland may have, in some ways, been Prince’s best ever rhythm section simply because they play so extremely well together. But I never felt the music recorded during the NPG era was as interesting as the 1980’s albums. Unfortunately, the format of Prince’s heavily produced tours, and even his increasingly predictable after-shows, didn’t consistently afford the band members much opportunity to display all their abilities. It was, after all, Prince’s show. But I never felt he got everything he could have out of players with such diverse vocabularies as Sheila and Eric.

For you, what was the hardest part of managing Prince and co. during the Purple Rain era?

LEEDS: It wasn’t hard. I had youth, compassion and commitment on my side, all of which easily overcame any adversity. In retrospect, the only difficult aspect was finding time to rest.

Finally, taking your whole career into consideration, so far, what has been your biggest regret, and — conversely — what’s been your proudest accomplishment?

FINK: I have a few regrets about leaving Prince after working with him for 12 years. It was a very difficult decision for me at the time.

Do you mind if I ask why did you?

FINK: Well, it’s a bit personal. So I can’t really get into that. I mean, I parted in good company with Prince. Regardless of that, I was looking to get into other things at that time and stay off the road. I was in 12 years of a lot of travel and touring …

It takes its toll.

FINK: Yeah, and I was kind of looking to get married and have kids and all that stuff. I had met somebody: the woman who I’m married to now and have a family with. I really wanted to stay off the road and raise my family and not miss out on being there for my kids — so that was part of the reason. Later on down the road, 10 years after leaving Prince and then reconnecting with him again, expressed my interest in working with him again, but he really did not seem to care about that at that time and did not really want to go there. Other members of the Revolution have also tried to see if he’d be interested in a reunion of sorts — and not necessarily usurp his current band members, but just to do a separate side-project or possible live dates with the Revolution or a side-album as a reunion effort — but so far, with several of those offers being made to him by each band member, he’s those them down, pretty much — or totally — since about 2000 and then [during] other points during this current decade. There’s been overtures made to him. So, that I regret. I have some regrets about that and wish that he would work with us again in some capacity, because the desire is there on the part of the band members. Also there’s a few regrets about leaving maybe too soon, maybe not. I don’t know. Over the years I thought “Oh, maybe I should’ve stayed on longer”, so I don’t know. I’ve had some of those thoughts, but I don’t use sleep over them.

And you, Alan?

LEEDS: Biggest regret is not having followed D’Angelo’s ground breaking 2000 Voodoo tour with a follow-up show. The table was set for what easily could have been for this decade what James Brown was for the 1960s and Prince was for the 1980s. Coitus interuptus is never fun.

Proudest accomplishment is having played however modest a role in spreading these artist’s wonderful music around the globe — from the smiles tour shows put on fans faces to, in more recent years, the CD reissues I have been fortunate enough to be involved in producing.

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As you can see, when it comes to the Revolution, there’s still quite a bit to talk about all these years later.

[Editor’s Note: a very special thank you to Matt Fink and Alan Leeds for their contributions to this project.]

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