My Name Is Prince, by Alex Wellington
Prince’s first date may have gone badly, but London soon welcomed him with open arms in a mutual love affair that would last for 30 years. For his very next appearance in the capital, in 1986, Prince booked the 12,000-capacity Wembley Arena. On the back of his hit albums 1999 and Purple Rain, all three nights sold out.
In 1988, after releasing the astonishing double album Sign O’ The Times and Lovesexy, he upped the ante to seven nights at Wembley Arena, driving a 1967 T-Bird car across the stage and ascending heavenwards on a rising piano stage. His more stripped-back Nude tour in 1990 took over Wembley Arena for 15 nights. In 1994, he even opened his own memorabilia shop in Camden, the NPR (New Power Generation) Store.
But the London dates that broke all records was his residency at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena in 2007. For an unequalled 21 nights, Prince performed an ever-changing setlist of his greatest hits on a gigantic central stage in the shape of the unpronounceable symbol that the artist had once used as his name. The after-show parties were just as legendary.
Pat Kelman, an artist and photographer, remembers: “The last night after-show from his O2 residency is in the top two gigs I've ever seen. Tickets were going on e-Bay for £2,000. The show started after midnight with Prince accompanying Amy Winehouse singing Love is a Losing Game, and went on till after 4am. Considering that this epic set came after a three-hour arena show earlier that evening, it was absolutely extraordinary.”
And now Prince is returning to the scene of his greatest London triumph – in spirit, anyway. My Name Is Prince, the first ever exhibition of the late artist’s clothes, guitars and other artefacts, opens at the O2 in east London on 27 October and will last for 42 days. It was originally going to last 21 days, echoing Prince’s historic 21-night residency, but 21 more were added when the tickets sold out within hours.
“This is the first time we’ve taken any items out of Paisley Park,” says Tyka Nelson, Prince’s younger sister. Prince’s equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Neverland, Paisley Park is a 65,000 sq ft fantasy world-cum-home-cum-workplace where he would record and perform at any time of day or night and kept a permanent staff of ten bespoke tailors. “I’m so excited to be able to meet the fans and share their Prince stories and give them hugs, and have a cry with them if need be.”
Prince was as famous for his outlandish image and love of colourful, often gender-bending clothing as for his extraordinary and prolific musical output. So associated was he with the colour purple (though he also loved orange and gold) that in August the Pantone Colour Institute named a particular shade of purple “Love Symbol #2” in his honour. The O2 exhibition will include many of Prince’s iconic stage costumes: a diamond-studded silver cane embossed with his symbol; a black leather jacket from his Graffiti Bridge film; purple, green and black jackets from his Lovesexy tour; the long, shimmering Purple Rain frock coat; the blue Raspberry Beret cloudsuit which resembles a Magritte painting brought to life (Ceci n’est pas un Prince?).
“I know London was one of his favourites,” says Tyka Nelson. “For him to have a sold-out show for 21 nights there and the record still stands today, I think it’s the perfect place to start the exhibition.”
Why did Prince love London so? There were two sides to the man. One was the sex-obsessed, flamboyant performer who could rock as hard as he funked, sharing a stage with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynne for a George Harrison tribute in 2004 and outshredding them all with arguably the greatest guitar solo ever committed to film. The other was the hard-working, very private individual who rarely gave interviews, followed the Jehovah’s Witness faith, and did not drink alcohol or take recreational drugs.
Strangely enough, it was the second Prince who most loved London. While others are attracted to London’s sexually polymorphous and racially diverse creative melting pot, Prince was impressed by the more traditional British virtues of a stiff upper lip, stiffly tailored jackets and crisply pressed trousers, and the little finger pointing skyward when drinking tea.
Prince loved British tea. When he announced his series of guerrilla London gigs in 2014, he did so in the east London home of British soul singer Lianne La Havas. "He heard my music, somehow,” said La Havas, “and decided he wanted to meet me. So after a show in New York, I went to Paisley Park, Prince's studio outside of Minneapolis. We listened to music and had crudités and tea. He had PG Tips. It was surreal."
At that tiny press conference, in front of La Havas’s open fire, Prince said he was looking forward to playing in London, as well as to buying “some clothes – and some tea!”
And London loved him back. His British fan club was one of his most ardent, but even Londoners who were not die-hard fans were blown away by Prince’s energy, his ability to give his all during a three-hour set and then go on to play till dawn at the afterparty, and his predilection for turning up out of the blue to play unannounced gigs.
Londoner Stuart Green, a journalist and former band manager, recalls how a friend of his got lucky: “As part of his best man duties, he arranged for the stag party to go to a nightclub in Islington after a meal. Lo and behold, Prince turns up and plays an impromptu, post-mega-gig, two-hour set. Naturally, Prince was the groom's favourite artist.”
Prince was a musician so fluid and adept that, on his very first album, released when he was just 20, he played all 27 instruments himself. He released 39 official studio albums, with many more locked in the Paisley Park vaults, and sold 100 million records, winning seven Grammy Awards, seven Brit Awards and an Oscar in the process. But it was as a performer that he will best be remembered.
If you weren’t lucky enough to have seen Prince live, My Name Is Prince is the closest you can now get. And if you were, it will serve as a poignant reminder of what is likely to have been one of the most extraordinary gigs of your life.