The Revolution’s Lisa Coleman – also known as one half of Wendy & Lisa – tells Calum Henderson about getting the band back together and how they feel about the recent Purple Rain reissue.
“It’s so strange,” Lisa Coleman says, thinking back on her time making music with Prince. “We blazed across the face of the earth and did this thing that really connected with people – and then it was over.”
Coleman was 19 when she joined the 21-year-old Prince’s band as a keyboard player for the recording of his Dirty Mind album. A few personnel changes later, the band formally became The Revolution and recorded a run of classic records – 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade – before being abruptly disbanded by Prince in 1986.
With the singular genius of Prince it’s easy to underestimate the individual contributions of Bobby Z, Dr. Fink, Brown Mark, Wendy and Lisa, but these were ‘full band’ albums. It was Coleman, for example, who arranged the strings on ‘Purple Rain’, and her partner Wendy Melvoin, who joined the band just before the recording of the album, added the famous opening guitar chords – recorded during her first ever live performance with the band.
When the news broke of Prince’s death April last year, the first people Coleman called were her old bandmates. “We were all calling each other, texting each other, trying to figure out if it was real,” she remembers. “When it turned out to be true we just had to see each other … and the only way we know how to be together is through music, so we started playing together.”
The Revolution reformed as a way to help process their grief, and their resulting live shows have become a way of helping Prince’s many devout fans through theirs. Their first shows were in September, a sold out three-night stand at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, the same venue where Purple Rain scenes were filmed. The first song the band played on the first night was ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, the opening track from the film and soundtrack, which begins with Prince’s famous sermon: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
In June this year, seemingly out of nowhere, Warner Bros. released a remastered version of Purple Rain, including a disc of previously unreleased tracks from Prince’s much-talked-about, apparently vast ‘vault’ of recordings. Could this be the first step in a full-scale excavation of the Paisley Park archives? And are the band on board with it?
It’s been kind of funny over the last few months with all the Prince records now on Spotify and the clips all over YouTube, and now this Purple Rain reissue with the disc of previously unreleased tracks. On one hand, I’m 80% going ‘yes, I love it, open the vault, I want to hear it all!’ But in the back of my mind there’s part of me that’s a little bit like ‘is this OK? Would Prince be OK with this?’ Do you know what I mean?
I feel exactly the same. I think Warner Bros. made some nice choices as to what to release for bonus tracks from this album, but for anything further, I want to be in on the decision making. We all feel that way as a band, we’re like ‘Wait!’ Because there are certain songs Prince would not want to be released, and others that weren’t exactly finished or they would need to be mixed properly, you know. We feel really precious about that, but it’s really not up to us. We just want to put it out there that we’d be willing to be Prince’s brain for those kinds of decisions.
Who is making the decisions now? The record label?
Yeah, the record label and whoever is the estate now. But yeah, I completely relate to that concern. We even keep that in mind in our gigs, like if one of us starts jamming too much on a song or something it’s like ‘get back in your lane, don’t start soloing all over the place, Prince wouldn’t like that!’
What was it like starting out playing music together again?
It was not easy, believe me. It took us two weeks to even play a couple of songs. We rented out a rehearsal space where we could go and we would start to play but then just stop. If it weren’t for tears it was for stress or confusion… We would end up just talking most of the day. But we felt better when we were together and we feel better when we play.
What were the first songs you played?
At first, it was a lot of older stuff – ‘Do It All Night’, ‘When U Were Mine’, a little bit of ‘Dirty Mind’ or something. Then we started thinking a bit more about what people would want to hear if we played somewhere.
What about deciding who was going to sing?
Well, the crowd sing every word. So we decided that they are the lead singer now, and we’re just their band. If it’s not Prince it has to be everybody. We [the band] sing too of course and other singers come in here and there but mainly it’s about just trying to get through this grieving period together.
You used to describe The Revolution as ‘Prince’s living computer’ when you played live – what’s it like now?
It’s hard to describe really because we were so trained and rehearsed so much we would get in our positions on stage and then our eyes would look for Prince. Because we always looked to him for everything – how long are we going to play this verse, are you going to go right to the chorus or are you going to do a breakdown, you know – because it was different every time. So for a while it was hard to rehearse or even get through a song without trying to look for him. We still kind of are that [living computer], but now we let the audience press the buttons. Or we have a sleep timer. Like ‘OK that one’s gone on too long, sleep timer, turn it off. Next song’.
The audiences do seem to really love having you guys be there for them, as you say, to help with the grieving process.
The response of the crowd has been profound, I mean I can’t even describe what it’s been like, they’re so enthusiastic and supportive and thankful of what we’re doing. It’s been great to play for people and have their responses be so natural. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done in my life.
There’s a whole disc of previously unreleased music on the Purple Rain reissue – what have you most enjoyed hearing again?
Somebody just mentioned recently the track ‘Wonderful Ass’ and I think that is one of my favourites because it captures Prince’s wittiness, and also for the succinct quality of the music. He could write a song in very few strokes, you know, like a Picasso, he’d draw a woman in two lines. [Prince] was like that. His music could be very simple but so powerful and I think [‘Wonderful Ass’] was one of the songs the was like that. Even though it was a kind of lighter subject matter, it’s just such a precious little gem of music.
Do you know who it was written about?
Yes of course, it was written about Wendy and Susannah. They were twins [Susannah was in a relationship with Prince at the time]. It was about Wendy and Susannah’s wonderful ass.
Prince obviously has this huge aura of mystique around him but so many of the stories you guys have been telling over the last year really highlight his sense of humour and how much fun he had with music. Did you have fun making Purple Rain?
Well… [laughs]. Yeah, in between really really long hours of hard work. We worked super hard, but there was always humour that kept us going. I mean, we were taking dance classes to get prepare for shooting the film. We were all taking jazz dance classes and ballet classes, the whole band as well as the guys in The Time, and it was hilarious because they’d have trench coats on and be doing like tour jetes across the floor. That was a film in itself. We were really just silly kids in a rock band taking ballet classes.
I’m going to have to rewatch the movie now. What else should I look out for?
Well, you should look out for how bad the acting is [laughs]. And that you really don’t care, because the songs are so good.
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