Prince, for the Uninitiated, OR 'The Origins of Being an Obsessive Prince-Fan!'
*Note: You don’t need to be a Prince fan to read this (but it helps)
In Art class one morning, one of the cool kids put on a Prince tape, not knowing that this small act would shape my music preferences for life. Art was a double period on a Friday, and it was unlike any of the other classes, for one you could play music, and for two the teachers treated you like equals, they were really cool mannnn. One teacher in particular Alison (you could call them by their first names wow!) I even unintentionally got into some bother, she’d shared with me that one of the other teachers had bought a video recorder and she’d found his lack of know-how in using it particularly humorous. She’d asked us not to mention it to anyone, but of course we teased him on it and he was completely perplexed at how we knew this piece of what he thought was confidential detail. When we relayed to Alison how funny it was that Mr Blake was mystified, she felt guilty and then felt the need to explain to Mr Blake that she’d told us about his video, and then I think she may have regretted trusting her class of 14 year olds after all, but it didn’t seem to change anything in Art… Art remained the home of creativity, where anything went, you could be a human being, you didn’t even have to wear your school tie.
The Prince song that was playing was Do U Lie? Not the most famous of his songs, it’s actually an obscure album track, yet its whimsical nonchalant and tongue-in-cheekiness tones spoke to me. It firmly said ‘this is wayyyyyy better than the 80’s dross you’ve been used to mate.’ As the album Parade progressed, there was the famous Kiss song that had by then been more popularised (in my small universe at the time) by Tom Jones and ‘The Art of Noise’. Jones’s take on the song was also great, Jones had made it his own and I found it particularly comical (although I’m sure it wasn’t the intention) that they’d combined the sexy dance tune with the theme tune to the world-apart very functional TV quiz show the Krypton Factor, thus mashing up two previously unconnected things that I’d loved into one bizarre cocktail (ironically for me this would happen again with even bigger consequences when Prince & Batman joined forces, but that’s coming later on, holy hold your horses reader).
As the album continued there was Girls and Boys, Anotherloveholenyohead, these songs had a connection, they had a sound, a story, a thread, an unfolding rich purple tapestry that was intoxicating, it wasn’t giving a care about convention, I’d known about Prince before but only what everyone else figured – that he was this strange androgynous throwaway pop tunes pop icon, but hearing Parade, this wasn’t throwaway, this wasn’t ‘pop’, this wasn’t just nothing, this was something, something more, something deep, something very special. There was a danger to it, a controversy, this was like entering a secret club, finding Narnia, and here, in Art, I found and ‘got’ Prince… and this was just the dawn, there was so much to come. By the time Sometimes It Snows In April came on I asked cool-kid if I could borrow the tape, he lent it to me and gave me another tape called Dirty Mind, I played them over and over and over and over until I had to return them. Fortunately, by then I knew what I had to do; buy all of Prince’s albums on CD, all ten of them, somehow. Before long my cutesy suburban home was aloud with songs like Jack U Off, Head, Do Me Baby and Private Joy played at maximum volume, and with (almost) maximum innocence.
When it became known that Prince was doing the Batman soundtrack, that was easily the most exciting event imaginable in my little corner of the world. Prince was Batman, and Batman was Prince, the two things in my imagination were indistinguishable, Prince wasn’t just ‘doing the music’ Prince was the actual soundtrack to all of Batman, whenever I read the Batman comics. Prince’s music was the actual audio undercurrent of the narrative, choose any shop in Gotham city, all those radios were blaring out Computer Blue, Joy in Repetition, Annie Christian, and always always always the infamous Black album, welcome to Gotham baby, Batmannn if you’re out there, lemme see you dance, you said you were funky.
I think by the time Batman was out, thanks to the money from my part-time job in a fish n’ chip shop, I had amassed most of the first ten albums on CD. In retrospect there were some strange peculiarities with the CD’s, the 1999 album for example didn’t include the crucial track D.M.S.R, the Lovesexy album was one single track (it wasn’t divided into 9 separate tracks), and nowhere on any CD were b-side essentials such as the unbelievably famous She’s Always In My Hair, or the absolute must-have How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore (going off on a tangent… imagine discovering 17 days, Another Lonely Christmas, Alexa de Paris, for the first time, I mean these songs are as good as or even better than some of the album tracks, hearing these songs for the first time made me as angry about them not being on the albums as I was ecstatic that they were so amazing, previously I imagined that b-sides were just songs that weren’t good enough for the album, but these songs, God!).
Batdance mixes were the first boon of new Prince tunes in 1990, there were many varied mixes Ooh Yeah Ooh Yeah, then Partyman where the array of mixes were maddening, the vinyl picture disc had a different video-mix to the 5” CD one (even though they were both titled the same), the 5” CD had different edits to the 3” CD hexagonal-box release, even the b-side (Feel u up) had different versions. Arms of Orion was the next single and at the time to me extremely baffling was that, guess what? No different mixes at all, but it did come in a fold-out CD case with a purple bat-sticker, which mildly mildly compensated I suppose.
Random side-note story, I waited eagerly for the release of the CD single Arms of Orion, one Saturday the record shop called me (as I’d reserved my copy) and I walked the half-hour to the shop, bought the CD, put it in the carrier bag and walked home, when I got home I’d found the bag empty… there was a hole in it. I walked alllll the way back and bought another copy (but this time held onto it tightly!) with my last few pounds in the world.
Part testament to Prince and part to Batman I’d bought the CD-album in special bat-tin with special inlay and special print on the CD itself, oh the madness, and that’s not the end of it… Just when you thought all the releases were over and there were no more mixes to be had, true to form the purple one releases Scandalous Sex Suite, which included a whole new song Sex and three totally new versions of Scandalous that included Kim Basginer’s various sex noises! And on top of all of that there were remixed versions of the Future & Electric Chair only released in Europe, why? Who cares! Exciting times, this was batmania, and it was also the start of a mutual love-affair of Europe and Prince.
I played the Batman album every day for months, it was out in the UK a long long time before the film, and of course the hype for the film was ev-ery-where I mean, the bat logo was on everything, including me, I think I had by then around 20 different Batman t-shirts, but more importantly, there was the music. Fortunately I’d made a further important discovery that would fill the insatiable need for everything Prince and Batman related… Kensington indoor market. These guys knew their audience; teenagers, goths, outsiders, the underworld, the rebels… ladies and gentlemen, the revolution. Imagine the biggest market-stall arrangement but dimly darkly lit, hidden from the outside, hidden from the squares, from parents, from tourists, it was a secret, not advertised, no Starbucks, no neon, no signs, no formulaic coffee-table bullshit, welcome! When you found this place through word-of-mouth it became your home, we spent all of our Saturdays there, in the hidden cavernous labyrinth that was Kensington indoor market, each week you’d find a different floor, a different new thing that you had to have, and here’s where I’m getting to the purple rub of it… bootlegs, of course bootlegs, where else would you find them but here? (and Camden market too, ok, good for variety, but whereas Camden was mega-cool for clothes, Kensington was the funk-daddy of bootlegs, whole motherfunking shops ONLY selling bootlegs, what? WHAT?! yes, Houston we’ve struck gold). In the Prince section (there was a PRINCE SECTION) there was album (vinyl only in the beginning) upon album of albums I’d never heard of, like maybe over 30 albums, I was wayyyy over my head, I’d just amassed all of his legit albums, and here in front of me was a whole new paisley plethora of purple wonder, and it felt even more dangerous, even more exciting, this was practically an illegal stash, unlicensed albums with rare unreleased tracks, unofficially sold, it felt like you were breaking the law just being in the shop, literally I can remember looking over my shoulder thinking oh man I could be arrested just by being here (these were simpler less enlightened pre-internet times!).
We’d all heard of the (then unreleased) Black album, I think I’d already borrowed it from Cool-kid, so I wanted my first illicit illegal bootleg purchase to be something totally off the scale. I went with an album that the guy in the shop smoking a joint recommended called Chocolate Box, in many ways this album wasn’t just as-good-as any officially released album, it was better. Moviestar, oh my jeeeezzzzzzzz, We Can Funk, how is this not released, how how howwww? But then, hold-up, wait a minute, stop the press, Joy In Repetition (later released of course) blew my mind. Mind blown. I was dizzy, maybe it was the skunk weed aroma that engulfed you in Kensington indoor market (legend was they pumped it into the air conditioning… wait a minute, air con? There?! hahahaa). Once I heard Joy In Repetition it was like discovering Prince all over again, now I had something to impress cool-kid with (I did, he was). Side-note… cool-kid was an artist, for his art-exam he painted a picture of Jesus, but used a photo (in the composition stage) of Prince holding out his mic-stand to the audience of a Sign ‘O’ the Times concert, for reference.
I could list out all the revelations that the prized bootlegs yielded (for instance Crucial being widely considered the essential bootleg, or the various incarnations of Crystal Ball, different and extended versions of known songs like the epic extended Computer Blue), but I’d already found the next layer to Prince, and this layer was the true bounty, the epicentre, the motherlode, the absolute heart of Prince, something that when experienced can never be forgotten, it was the holy grail; Prince wasn’t merely a recording artist, he was a performer, and when you saw him live in concert you were witnessing history, a funky glorious magical soul-shaking world-rocking euphoric eureka-moment of pure pure joy. I saw Prince in concert over 30 times!
My first experience seeing Prince live in concert was by watching the video of the Lovesexy tour, it was 100mph, a juggernaut of excitement, so grand that I was sure I’d never be able to witness anything like it, I felt disappointed, I’d discovered Prince great, but I was 2 years too late, I’d missed the greatest concert ever (and this was before I’d seen him live OR seen any of his other tours), the Lovesexy show was also nothing like the concerts I’d actually gone to see, I mean they were all good, but they were nothing like the depth of excitement and engagement you experienced at something like Loveeeesexyyyyyy (you sing… Lovvvvve sexyyyyy).
June 19th 1990 was the first date of Prince’s ‘nude tour’ in London. My colleague at the fish n’ chip shop also had a thing going where he routinely recruited stewards for sporting and concert events at Wembley, amazing. We arrived early and donned our bright orange steward bibs, there was a briefing, rules like… well, ahem, I can’t actually remember any of the rules, we were fed from the canteen, and then went up the stairs to the arena where we were given our positions and stood in them, somehow or maybe it was because my colleague sorted it for me, our position was at the front, I’m talking right at the front. The. Front. Whilst we stood at the front there was a couple of technicians on stage doing the final parts of a sound-check. As my friend and I faced the empty arena we looked straight at Prince. He was sitting in the fifth row. He had a beard and he was real. I don’t know what was more of a shock, that he was right there, or that he had beard. A big bodyguard came over to my friend and I and asked if we could move back to the centre of the arena as they weren’t ready for stewards yet. We walked past Prince, probably staring right at him. Prince then got up and started walking amongst us stewards. Mind. Blown. Before that moment he wasn’t really real. He was plastic, like Jacko, like George Michael, like Madonna, but now I saw him right next to me, he was real, a real person. Oh man. We could’ve just gone home then and we would’ve been happy but there was still the concert to come! I saw the Nude tour five times, what was instantly obvious was that this was the real Prince, the real deal, he wasn’t like the others who just churned out the songs, he was loving it, he enjoyed it, and he changed it up every night, never the same show twice.
Probably somewhere between the Nude tour of 1990 and the release of 1992’s Diamonds and Pear-elllssssssss I amassed more bootlegs but this time focusing on concerts, for this purple people is where the gold is. Like I said earlier, I thought Lovesexy was the best tour, but that was before I saw the Purple Rain tour video, the Parade tour, or indeed the Sign ‘O’ the Times tours, it’s impossible to choose which is greater, it’s like choosing a favourite child. I had each tour on CD (and probably one of the last vinyl purchases with the Nude tour double album with one record in red vinyl, and the other in white, beauties). The bootlegged offerings by now doubled their pace on CD’s, and seemingly new discs were popping up all the time with different ones wherever you sought them (and also different CDs in different countries), the variety gave you rehearsal concerts, jamming sessions, album variations, demos of potentially soon-to-be-released songs, it was a world of music, a sub-genre all of his own, most importantly to me at the time it gave me access to the infamous ‘second shows of the night’ that I thought were inaccessible to a kid like me.
One of the most famous bootlegged ‘after-show gigs’ was one commonly known as ‘small club’ (played during the 1988 Lovesexy tour) a 2am show, 2-hour gig, in a small club in the Netherlands. Just as slick, exciting as any concert yet wildly different from the normal tour set-lists, these shows typically featured long jams, improvisations, rare tracks, guest inclusions, and stunning cover versions like I’ll Take You There, Just My Imagination, and a lot of James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, plus various other 70’s funky tunes, this was Prince letting loose and enjoying himself.
I was sure I’d never get the chance to see one of these small-venue intimate gigs with his purple badness, but being a superfan (umm obsessive) on the night of September 7th 1993 we saw him play a very special show (which was professionally filmed and released, called the Sacrifice of Victor) in a tiny obscure Kings Cross London club, 3am, just me and maybe 200 people. That night was a special date in Prince folklore, it was the last night of his 1993 Act II tour, at the ‘normal’ Wembley Arena concert we watched a second encore whereby Prince came on singing Sacrifice of Victor. It finished with Prince faux-dying, covered in a sheet being carried off by his band, the message was clear ‘Prince was dead’, it was the last time he would be seen for seven years performing with his moniker Prince, his next public appearances would be as the unpronounceable symbol. The house lights went up and we got into the car and drove across London to Kings Cross, nervous with anticipation of seeing the purple one in the highly coveted holy grail of a small club venue, as there was no guarantee he would actually show. And. We. Saw. Him. Like when I saw him for the first time, he was there, real, in a yellow outfit, it was actually his third show of that day (performing a short afternoon show in addition to the arena concert), we danced jumped sang and screamed solidly, it was magical, and I got a very special souvenir… I am clearly visible in the audience shots of this gig, brilliant!
We drove across the UK to see Prince, I saw him in Paris, we even once drove to Brussels without having any concert tickets and managed to snag decent tickets from the touts. We were lucky, we even followed the fans to the club Prince was supposed to play at that night, and although he didn’t play he did show up and held the mic onstage for the amazed DJ during his set. When the Love Symbol album came out I bunked off college all day just to listen to it over and over, my colleague when we both listened to Come just moments after its release, was amazed that I knew the words already (I’d known various versions of the songs via various concerts and bootlegs that were multiplying around the time of Come & the Gold Experience). When Emancipation arrived I feigned illness on a ship I was working on (after first going ashore to buy it from a random record shop in Cherbourg, France) just to listen to it end to end as soon as I possibly could.
I was at work at a colleague’s desk when I saw the news glaring at us from the BBC news site. I instantly didn’t believe it, not him, not now. Like Elvis though Prince will never die, we have his music, he was so prolific in so many ways that we’re still able to discover new music from him.
An unexpected quirk of his death is the YouTube videos… whilst alive Prince had firm views on ownership and distribution, on YouTube there were minimal Prince videos, you couldn’t just type in a concert, if there was anything there his legal representatives would take it down, even his old videos were out of print to buy, streaming also was limited…. But then, almost overnight after his death, Prince videos began appearing on YouTube, then some more, then some more, and now, wow, we are spoilt for choice. All my old bootlegs, all those concerts, all those unreleased songs, they’re all there, but there’s more… there’s new stuff, stuff I’ve not heard before, mixes, gigs, interviews, oh man oh man, Prince is alive and he’s as vibrant as ever, this is only the beginning, thank you Prince.