What is it with old people? On one side of the music machine there’s Elton John saying the internet is to blame for mediocre music – turn the Net off for five years and maybe we’ll hear great music again. On the other side there’s Warner CEO Edgar Bronfman claiming that music is too ubiquitous – strangle the supply and manufacture scarcity; that will solve the value problem. You’d think they can’t keep up with the modern world, looking back at the horizon where the past looks like a pink tinged sunset.
Then there’s Prince, 50 years old and having a grand old time. First he announces a 21-night season at The O2, the new shed created out of the old Millennium Dome. With a different set list each night. With an after-party at the club next door. Then he cuts a deal with the Mail On Sunday newspaper to give away his new album, which nets him a few hundred thousand pounds. Cue screams of outrage from the national music retailers – do they think the Minneapolis munchkin is their friend? That his disdain and scorn for the industry is just aimed at labels? What with all the discounting they do on his old catalogue, just how much in royalties do they think he’s getting? Next thing you know, Sony-BMG has terminated their one-off deal to distribute the album. (How do you spell double-crossed?) Finally, on the fateful Sunday the HMV chain carries copies of the offending newspaper, an event so…something…that the Germans sensibly created a word for it.
It’s Prince night. The stage is in the round, shaped like the squiggle from the days when he called himself TAFKAP. The band…is that Sheila E on drums? And Isaac Hayes on keys? Prince is flanked by identical twin dancers; all three look the same height but Prince is wearing higher stilettos. He’s started some shows with ‘Purple Rain’, a fine act of hubris, though I bet he’s calling it ‘Purple Reign’. But tonight is Friday and he states his intentions immediately.
Let’s not mince words. This show is in my Top Ten. A blazing ‘1999’ drops the gauntlet in a squall of guitar and funkin’ backbeat. He liquidly morphs from one funky hit to another, 30 minutes of excitement backed by Sheila E (?) muscle. Somewhere in there is ‘If Eye Was Ur Girlfriend’, which somehow manages to be both tender and funkified. As the crowd recognise the new hooks coming out of the old ones they roar with approval and start singing the songs with him. We’re here to party, he’s here to party, and pretty soon he’s building a four part vocal call and response with different parts of the audience and whaddya know, London rocks it well.
He pulls a gaggle of girls up on stage to dance, working them, working us, working the band. He’s still sliding between songs in an endless mix of backbeat and crowd-sweat and there are moments when you’ve just about pinned what the song is and damned if he hasn’t moved into something else. But then he starts jamming on a lick that sounds familiar and a tall blonde – one of the audience dancers – moves over to him and talks into his ear. She does it again and he walks off to the other side of the stage while she steps up to the mic and damn if she doesn’t start singing ‘Play That Funky Music White Boy’. It’s a genuine I’m-gonna-be-a-star-moment: out of the audience and grabbing Prince’s spotlight. She’s off tune at one point, comes in four bars early at another, and Prince is way over on the other side of the stage with not a care in the world. She’s good, hits the chorus just right and cheerleads all 16,000 of us into the familiar party chorus. “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Prince declares as she takes a bow.
He teases us. “I’ve got so many hits I don’t know what to play.” Sitting at the piano he taunts us with bits of ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Raspberry Beret’…roars of excitement and singalongs to all of them. “I told you I’ve got more hits than I can remember!” Jammy bugger.
There are wonderful moments of just pure funk playing, Prince egging on Maceo Parker, who’s only too happy to push Prince further. Then a no-warning launch into a Sinead-beautiful ‘Nothing Compares To U’. We all love Prince’s partifying but I’ve always thought his real talent is writing tender love songs; he says the words that women want to hear but men are afraid to say.
A voodoo guitar lick second-lines a swampified rhythm and we all feel mystified. This ain’t a hit. Then he starts singing, “Here come old flat-top” and there’s a roar of surprised pleasure – he’s doing ‘Come Together’! It feels like he’s paying respect to London and what’s ours and we like it. He’s playing slinky, sexy, Beatlesy. He does Joni Mitchell covers better than anybody, now we know he can do Beatles just as well.
Two hours and you just don’t want it to end. “We need some 1980s in here!” he declares and they hit “Controversy”. It’s fabulous. Prince calls Maceo to do it on the one. They’re standing close to each other, trading licks, leaning closer and closer until their heads are almost touching, pushing each other to a still higher plane and when the band slam back in it’s with white-hot intensity. Prince is so excited he launches off down the runway in wild kangaroo leaps, ripping ‘Housequake’ riffs as he bounds. It’s a moment I’m going to treasure for a very long time.
He’s still playing for another couple of weeks. I’ve been debating whether to go again, because what if it’s not as good? Then, this morning I got an email from a friend who went last night. It had one sentence: When you saw him, did he play ‘Honky Tonk Women’? That’s it. I’ve bought my tickets.
© 2007, Jonh Ingham
3121.com has reviews of all the shows.