Backspin: The Revolution on Why Working With Prince Was ‘Like Going to the Moon’

Lyndsey Parker

“It was very difficult for us to climb up those stairs, I’ve got to tell you,” says Bobby Z., drummer for the late Prince’s most iconic band, the Revolution. He’s referring to that intensely emotional evening on Sept. 1 last year, when the Revolution reunited onstage at First Avenue — the Minneapolis club where Purple Rain’s concert scenes were filmed — and celebrated the life and legacy of their former boss.

“To walk on that stage and play those songs, knowing that he’s not there,” guitarist Wendy Melvoin says contemplatively, her voice trailing off. On that night, Melvoin — who handled most of the lead vocals in Prince’s tragic absence — appeared the most emotional onstage, sometimes struggling to make it through songs like “Sometimes It Snows in April.” But she says that by the third and final show of the band’s First Avenue residency, “the five of us felt a lift. There were more smiles onstage for us. There was more playfulness, and you could feel — dare I say without sounding too New-Agey? I am not really into this or anything — but you could actually sense that he looked at us and went, ‘It’s OK.’”

“Like kind of a séance,” Bobby adds.

Melvoin nods. “It was weird. And we walked offstage and cried.”

Now, more than six months after that historic evening — and as the announcement arrives that on June 23, Prince & The Revolution’s landmark Purple Rain soundtrack will get a deluxe, triple-disc reissue treatment, featuring rarities, B-sides, and the previously unreleased track “Electric Intercourse” — Melvoin, Bobby, bassist Brownmark, and keyboardists Doctor Fink and Lisa Coleman are sitting with Yahoo Music at the L.A. rehearsal space where they’re prepping for a nationwide reunion tour. And they’re in good spirits, eager to share their memories of Prince.

“He was as you could’ve possibly imagined greatness to be,” says Melvoin, who joined the Revolution in 1983 when she was just 19 years old. (Melvoin’s very first public gig with the band took place at First Avenue, and incredibly, three of the recorded performances from that night made it onto the Purple Rain album. “He was frantically telling us we’re making history: ‘We’re making history tonight, this is history tonight,’” recalls Bobby.) “When you were in a room with him, he was it. He was ephemeral. He was otherworldly. And he was as talented, or more talented, than what you’d expect. It was jaw-dropping to be around it.”

“He was the ‘funky Yoda’ to me,” says Brownmark. “My first encounter with him was at his house; Bobby took me out there. To me, the doors were 20 feet high … because I was scared to death. He opened the door, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God. This dude is a rock star!’ — because I never been that close to a real, hardcore rock star. I was blown away. From that moment, my life changed. My whole thought process of what stardom was — it changed at that point. I really started to get the difference between who I was and who this guy was.”

Bobby, who joined Prince’s musical entourage earlier, in 1979, remembers that even before Prince was an actual rock star, he was a rock star. “For me, when it started, Prince was very unfamous. We were very unfamous together,” he chuckles. “But he still had all these magical qualities. He used to practice being a rock star — like, he couldn’t go into restaurants, or he couldn’t go into a gas station, because he was going to be a rock star and he was going to be famous. He was always projecting himself to be this persona. … It’s just mind-boggling to think that he conjured up all this confidence and skill. We were all mere mortals. I knew that in the first look of the guy, you could tell he wasn’t a human. He was more of a reptile, or something different in his DNA.”

“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize about him is he lived and breathed what he did,” says Brownmark, who joined the band in 1982. “My first assignment, before I even picked up a guitar, was in Prince’s living room: Look at myself in the mirror eight hours a day. He would tell me how to stand. He said, ‘No, pivot your foot that way. OK, now turn your cheek to do this. Get your shoulder up. Bend your shoulder back.’ That’s how he trained me. Then it got to a point where I would be out at a club somewhere and I’d be standing, I’d have this pose, and people would come up to me and say, ‘Mark, what’s wrong with you? Why are you standing like that?’ I didn’t even know I was doing it.

“He would condition you like that,” continues Brownmark, revealing that the band members even took ballet lessons with Prince, at his insistence, to hone their stage skills for the Purple Rain film. “The more you rehearse, the more you don’t think about it, the less you think about it. Then the more fun you have, and that was the key to the Revolution. We didn’t think about it. He would throw up these cues, and we knew every marker, we knew every cue, and we would hit it — just BAM, BAM! We knew right where to hit.”

Melvoin elaborates on Prince’s vision when it came to assembling the Revolution: “He hired these individuals; we came to the picture with singular personalities and self-possessed in our own lives. That translated to each one of our personalities with an instrument. Bobby was always the gentleman and put-together, and that reflected in his absolute pocket, meat-and-potatoes, four-on-the-floor drumming, sturdy. Lisa, the ethereal person who walks on air, whispers when she talks — her music sounds that way. Matt [Fink], he is like a doctor; he can play his keyboard and get from the left side of the 88 keys all the way to the right side faster than any human being. And [Brownmark] is the sexy, gorgeous, all-encompassing, curious flirt, and that’s how his bass sounds.”

Bobby adds that Prince had a “grand vision” for the aptly named Revolution inspired by coed bands like Fleetwood Mac, racially mixed acts like Sly & the Family Stone, and the ethnic diversity of Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood. “White, black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’,” he quips, quoting a line from Prince’s Dirty Mind track “Uptown.”

Melvoin and Coleman especially appreciated the band’s sense of inclusivity. “I was very aware that [Prince] loved female musicians,” Melvoin says. “My being a woman onstage gave him license to be just even that much more androgynous and be more in touch with his own female energy, and I got the permission to be in touch with more of my male energy… I wanted to be more of a counterpart to him, and he wanted me to be more of a counterpart, so we both got what we wanted out of it.”

Still, Melvoin and Coleman can’t help but roll their eyes when asked about the famous “Is the water warm enough?” intro from the provocative Purple Rain track “Computer Blue.” What did that mean, exactly?

“’Are you gay?’ That’s what it meant,” groans Melvoin, who was actually in a serious romantic relationship with Coleman for 20 years. “Do you want to get in the bathtub with me, Lisa? Are we lovers? ‘Are they gay? Are they not?’ He was working that angle.”

“That was another fantasy episode going on in his brain that he got the public sucked into. Sexually suggestive lyrics were part of his early core to the end,” Bobby chuckles.

“You have to have a certain amount of f***ability, being a woman first and not a musician,” Melvoin continues, discussing the objectification most women face in the music industry, “and I didn’t have access to that part of myself — and didn’t want to have access to that part. But I was OK with the way Prince saw [female musicianship]. I didn’t have much of a relationship to what it really meant in the big picture, to him and his world, but I was honored to be in this band. For me, it was more like: ‘Oh, my God, I’m part of the Revolution!’ Sure, we’re the chicks in the band, but he’s a Jew, he’s a Jew, and that’s a black guy!”

For a while, the multicultural Revolution played in harmony, hitting their commercial and critical peak with 1984’s landmark Purple Rain film and soundtrack. But Prince was already moving on to his next projects, 1985’s more psychedelic (and less successful) Around the World in a Day, and the Under the Cherry Moon movie and its accompanying soundtrack, titled Parade, in 1986.

“You know, before we even hit the first show of the Purple Rain tour, he was already bored with Purple Rain,” laughs Bobby. “He really thought that people would be done with Purple Rain — but as we know now, they’re not done with Purple Rain. He was just moving so fast. It was like next, next, next. But Purple Rain is something that people want to examine for centuries now. I look back at everything, but he didn’t — he wasn’t very good at looking back.

“The thing about Prince is the hairstyle would change the whole thing,” Bobby adds with a laugh, “and he was already moving into the hairstyle for ‘Raspberry Beret.’”

“He hated his hair on Around the World in a Day!” says Melvoin. “He said to me at the video [for ‘Raspberry Beret’], ‘I hate my hair; I look like Lou Ferrigno.’ I was like, ‘The Hulk? He said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got the Hulk’s hair.’”

More seriously, Melvoin says, “Obviously, Purple Rain was the pinnacle of his, like, ‘I’m a pop star and these are masterpiece pop songs.’ Afterward, the roots [no pun intended] started going in all these different areas, and he was trying to cherry-pick all these different elements of himself to explore.”

And that was the beginning of the end for the Revolution. As the band worked on the double album Sign ‘O’ the Times, which was eventually credited as a solo Prince album when it came out in 1987, Bobby recalls that Prince “was starting to become, finally, after being a superstar all those years, kind of like, ‘You know, I kind of want to do this myself again.’ I was kind of getting the sense that we had become such a huge part of his everyday life that he may have … well, we don’t know that he was growing a little tired of it, but we’re a handful. I mean, we weren’t just sidemen. We were the Revolution, and we opened our mouths often.”

“I knew something shifted our last night at [Japan’s] Yokohama Stadium,” says Melvoin, referring to the Revolution’s final concert on Sept. 9, 1986. “We were onstage, and he started calling a whole bunch of different people onstage with us while we were playing — and he hadn’t done that before. And we knew him, and I knew him so well. He wasn’t looking at us. I could feel it. And then we played ‘Purple Rain,’ and he destroyed the guitar. He destroyed it. And I looked at Bobby, and I went, ‘It’s over.’ I looked at Lisa. ‘It’s over!’ And it was over.”

Later, back in the States, Prince invited Melvoin and Coleman over to his L.A. rental house for dinner — what Coleman jokingly calls a meal of “paper-wrapped chicken,” because the women received their pink slips. “I knew it was coming; I just knew it. I was bereft,” says Melvoin. “I was like, ‘What? Now? Why?’ But you know, you can’t swim upstream when someone’s done. When someone’s done, they’re done. And you just have to go, ‘OK.’”

“He just had a vision of a different group in his head,” Bobby shrugs.

The full, classic Revolution lineup never ended up playing with Prince again, but Melvoin says that after their breakup, there were “years of [Prince] sending smoke signals for us to get back there.” (Fink continued to work with Prince through 1990’s Graffiti Bridge; Brownmark says he was invited to join Prince’s post-Revolution band, the New Power Generation, but declined; and Melvoin and  Coleman did perform with Prince at the Brit Awards in 2006.) A proper Revolution reunion will obviously never happen now, but as the surviving members prepare to hit the road, they believe Prince would approve.

“He wants us to play,” Brownmark insists. “He liked to party, loved to enjoy his music with people. That’s what he wants us to do. Just because he’s gone, he doesn’t want us to go ‘boo-hoo’ and then go away. He wants us to share while we’re here and enjoy what was.”

“You’re going to feel a loss. You will feel a loss,” Melvoin says of what to expect from this year’s Revolution reunion tour. “We feel it. But we’re being respectful about how we’re doing this, in a way that none of us are [trying to be Prince] at all.”

Still, even without their leader, the Revolution members are aware that the chemistry and history they share is special. “[Prince] called us Mount Rushmore,” says Bobby. “He knew that this was something unique. And when you go through this together, the movie, the tours…”

“It’s like we’re astronauts. We, like, went to the moon,” Melvoin interjects.

“Yeah, we did,” says Bobby. “We left our footprints on the moon.”

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