They stood in line along Camden High Street all day on February 5 2014. The chance to be among just 1,000 people watching Prince in the Electric Ballroom – for 10 pounds! – felt like the bargain of the century. When the lucky ones were finally granted entry for an 8pm show by the Minneapolis superstar and his heavy, new, all-female backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL, the euphoria all around was immense. It was purple bedlam.
The unlucky ones were lucky too that night, when Prince said goodbye to the first crowd and then let in a second batch – surprise! – for an 11pm concert. He seemed unstoppable, untiring, ending up playing in London 14 times on his Hit and Run Tour that year, springing instant, five star entertainment everywhere from the Roundhouse to Ronnie Scott’s.
London had already proved its appetite for strings of Prince shows in 2007, when he landed a stage in the shape of his famous symbol in the middle of the O2 Arena and left it there for 21 nights. Only his great Eighties rival Michael Jackson would have outdone him in that venue, but he died before he could begin his epic This Is It series.
And now Prince has gone too soon as well, sparking another mass outpouring of grief at which we have become all too practised lately. At what turned out to be his final concerts, on April 14 in Atlanta (another two show night), he performed David Bowie’s “Heroes” in recognition of another huge 2016 loss to music. Both men’s partings felt especially shocking – surely you can’t die if you weren’t human in the first place?
For long before Prince Rogers Nelson changed his name to a symbol in 1993, he appeared to have super powers. He was credited with playing every instrument on his 1978 debut album, For You, including bass synth, clavinet and wind chimes. There was a self-titled follow-up, then Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999, all just a year apart between 1979 and 1982. He wrote so many songs that he had to create other artists to perform them, including The Time, Vanity 6 and an endless stream of female protegees. In April 1986 he was number one in the American singles chart with Kiss, while Manic Monday, a song he had given to The Bangles under the pseudonym Christopher, sat at number two.
He looked extraordinary, pouting and tiny in stacked heels, resembling both Little Richard and another Prince, George from Blackadder with his frilly cuffs, while also managing to be the sexiest man alive. He broadcast his prowess in the bedroom loud and clear with a succession of songs that pushed the limits of what was lyrically acceptable in mainstream pop. Darling Nikki, the “sex fiend” from his multi-platinum Purple Rain soundtrack, was partly responsible for the arrival of “Parental Advisory” stickers on explicit albums.
In the Eighties, the drama came from the music, whether it was the dirty lyrics or his decision to withdraw The Black Album from sale a week before its release date in 1987, giving it legendary status among bootleggers. As the Nineties went on, publicity came for other reasons. His commercial fortunes diminished and “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was ridiculed for the name changes and his fraught attempts to escape his recording contract with Warner Brothers. The multi-millionaire appeared at the 1995 Brit Awards with “SLAVE” written on his cheek.
He has continued to be a fierce protector of his intellectual property. There are precious few YouTube clips for grieving fans to share. As it stands, you can only stream his music on Jay-Z’s Tidal service. The only dampener on those extraordinary Hit and Run gigs were the security guards trampling through the audience to nab anyone who held up a phone. In 2014 he began to sue 22 internet users for copyright infringement, but later withdrew the USD22 million lawsuit.
His strained relationship with the internet, which he declared to be “completely over” in 2010, seemed to be thawing again lately. He joined Instagram, or “Princestagram”, last October. On one of his irregular forays onto Twitter, his account shared an interview I had written with his friend Lianne La Havas, which felt about as close as I’ll ever come to being knighted.
He was a lifelong perfectionist. If you were going to hear him, you would hear him his way, whether that was selling albums through his pioneering early 2000s internet subscription service, NPGMusicClub.com, or giving them away in the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mirror at the end of that decade. When I saw him at the Hop Farm music festival in Kent in 2011 (he never played Glastonbury despite repeated rumours, but did deign to attend this lesser event) he followed Tinie Tempah, whose sound had been muddy and lacking impact. Prince apologised, announcing that he was going to take some time to get the sound right, then conducted a “soundcheck” that was really a fast, muscular funk jam, gesticulating quickly at various instruments while he played. A few minutes later the music thundering from the stage was unrecognisably powerful.
He remained an absurdly prolific songwriter, releasing two more albums between September and December last year, but it was as an incendiary live performer that his reputation was gilded in recent years. “I’ve got too many hits, y’all can’t handle it!” he yelled on stage at the O2 in 2007. The Hit and Run shows were raw and spontaneous with no need for a rigid setlist. His latest tour featured him alone at the piano, apparently because another guitar outing was too easy. “I’m doing it to challenge myself, like tying one hand behind my back,” he said.
The Prince, Piano and a Microphone Tour never made it to Europe as planned. Just last month he had announced he was writing a memoir, The Beautiful Ones, for publication in 2017, which has presumably been left incomplete. No doubt the control freak would have wished to have more control over the timing of his departure – like Bowie, perhaps, who managed to release a final album on his birthday and died two days later.
But although an impeccably stage-managed life has ended so abruptly, there are few artists who leave behind such a wealth of creative material. We will never experience the thrill of a sudden gig announcement again, but there could be much more great Prince music to ease the pain of another giant gone.