The electricity generated at the first retrospective examination of Prince’s life is both erotically charged and dazzlingly inventive. Andy Polaris reviews his possessions very much as signs of his times
This week London celebrated Prince Rogers Nelson’s musical career with the first official exhibition recording his dynamic influence in the worlds of music and pop culture. Overseen by surviving relatives, the curators of My Name Is Prince have amassed a collection of 200 items, from costumes, high-heeled shoes, video footage, guitars, artwork and immaculately hand-written lyrics to personal ephemera spanning his long career.
The first time Prince triggered my radar was a review in the music press of his concert at the Lyceum in London 1981, part of his Dirty Mind tour. He was featured in the accompanying review wearing a trench coat covering a lithe brown body and wearing black briefs and leggings, topped by his mop of black hair and pretty face. I was miffed to have missed his only show but before the internet niche events could slip by easily without social media to flag them up.
It was obvious from the start that this was a black artist who, despite the flamboyance of disco/funk stage-wear and album covers, was taking it a little bit extra with some sexual ambiguity. The lyrics of the funky album track Controversy (a bass-driven early dance-floor favourite) set the tone:
I just can’t believe all the things people say
Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?
The sex and sensuality was a theme in a lot of Prince’s work with titles like Head, Jack You Off, Erotic City, Kiss and Nasty Girl (for Vanity 6). His entourage and band were always showcasing his female musicians, collaborators and dancers from Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to Sheila E, Vanity 6, Cat Glover, Jill Jones and Taja Seville, some of whose own output he wrote and produced at his Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota.
He appeared to embrace all this female energy especially in stage performances and videos from Sheena Easton in You Got The Look and ex-wife Mayte Garcia, one of his former backing dancers, and Sheila E on the Lovesexy tour.
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I was fascinated to see the parade of Prince’s petite outfits complete with matching coloured heeled boots that covered Purple Rain, his purple metallic frock coat through to a crystal encrusted cane and Balmain waistcoat he wore for W magazine. The materials are colourful, sheer and shimmering and in some cases boldly designed. The cutaway ass trousers for You Sexy MF showed he wasn’t interested in the toxic masculinity that permeates so many black artistes, one of the reasons he flew the freak flag for those who were not interested in paying £50 to see artists dressed in denim and T-shirts.
Just as David Bowie had dominated with his ever changing styles in the seventies, Prince dominated the eighties for me personally with a string of ground-breaking albums – 1999 (in 1982), Purple Rain (1984), Parade (1986), while probably his 1987 masterpiece Sign ‘o’ the Times sealed his place as an iconic star. He was at the apex of his career yet there was still more to come.
Walking around the exhibition, even as a fan who is aware of his prolific output – 39 studio albums, four live albums, an Oscar-nominated soundtrack, eight Grammy awards out of numerous other nominations, plus sales of 100 million records during a 40-year career – the list of achievements captured here remains mind-boggling. A multi-instrumentalist who wrote, sang and produced, Prince earned the respect of serious music lovers who had followed musical heroes like Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. Prince’s popularity expanded because his mixture of rock, pop, funk and soul had a crossover edge that rock fans could also admire. A 2004 Hall of Fame induction performance with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Stevie Winwood covering George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps is a landmark that still leaves rock fans in awe. (Catch the video below)
In the exhibition a collection of Prince’s guitars customised with leopard-skin décor, for example, or a space-age design for Tim Burton’s Batman, are displayed along with his more classic Les Paul L65 and a humble $30 Hohner Telecaster from which he extracted Prince magic.
It is the live performances that really transform the Prince experience and I was lucky to have seen him several times on UK visits, starting with the Parade tour and ending with the 3121 dates in the venue alongside this exhibition. His virtuoso guitar playing, his dazzling dance moves and evocative voice propelled his songs into a different almost religious dimension that left the audience wanting more. You were always aware you were witnessing musical genius at work and an artist who really rewarded his fans for their loyalty often by playing long sets and, if you were lucky, again at after-shows where the party would continue.
I was lucky (thanks to Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe) to attend one at the Camden Palace where he handed Mica Paris the microphone for Smokey Robinson’s Just My Imagination in that night’s set. Stepping out of stadiums and into the more intimate settings of a nightclub was something he continued to do up to his recent collaboration with Third Eye that saw him again playing in a small Camden club.
At the O2 exhibition, among banks of video displays showing music videos and film clips, there are striking live performances and the one that choked me up was Prince’s triumphant Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show ten years ago in 2007 (view it below). It reawakened, I think especially in North America, appreciation of the extraordinary stage presence and cultural impact he had created. Playing Purple Rain in the pouring rain with a percussive marching band and the adoration of a crowd was a reminder of that totemic anthem and what he achieved with that autobiographical movie. He is legend and there will never be another like him in my lifetime.
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