Music

Inside Prince's Revolution

Evan Sawdey

Speaking exclusively to PopMatters, longtime Prince manager Alan Leeds and Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink speak candidly about their experiences recording, filming, and making Purple Rain, and what it was truly like being inside the 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.

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