Backstage with Prince

'Prince is a genius... He's not like you and me.' What happened on the tenth night of the legendary singer's 21-day residency at the O2 arena

I’m pressed against a girder in a cavernous, echoing backstage area, trying to keep out of the way of a team of roadies in high-waisted jeans, faded promo T-shirts and dusty work boots, paunches hanging over their utility belts, hairstyles unchanged since Deep Purple’s Stormbringer tour of 1974.

It’s as if a convention of Tommy Saxondale impersonators have stormed the building, with rigging on their minds.


Pity the journalist who trips over a crucial cable, needlessly interrupts a walkie-talkie conversation to ask directions to catering, or gets in the way of a two-man team heaving a box of equipment. I’ve done all three, and the gig hasn’t started yet. My orange access-almost-all-areas sticker, replete with Prince’s trademark Love Symbol logo, has got me this far, but I’m still regarded with suspicion by the crew.

Stony-faced security guards ask me what I’m doing here and look incredulous when I tell them I’m a journalist hoping to interview Prince. Seen-it-all promotion executives in capacious grey suits stare menacingly at their BlackBerrys, seeking confirmation of this strange news. Prince’s PR has to intercede more than once to make sure I’m not thrown out. No one smiles.

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At 8.20pm, the band appears. The New Power Generation are a flamboyant bunch.

The backing singers are a flock of eccentrically plumed birds of paradise. The horn section is made up of zoot-suited jazzers. Then there are the Twinz, two improbably supple Australian sisters whose relationship to their recently divorced boss has been the source of much conjecture.

Psyching themselves up for the show, the musicians whoop and hug and jog on the spot. All of this is part of an elaborate waiting ritual. They’re waiting. The roadies are waiting. The security guys are waiting. The promotions executives are waiting. The PRs are waiting. We’re all waiting. And we’ve been waiting some time.

While we wait, everyone is staring at the same object. Weirdly, it’s a packing crate on wheels, the kind that’s used for transporting heavy equipment. It’s about twice the size of a coffin. There are many of these crates stacked up in our vicinity, but this one is slightly different.

Earlier, temporarily separated from my minders, I had a chance to inspect it.

Word goes round 'Prince is coming'. He appears from a billowing-white-curtained corridor in white coat, white hat and white boots. And he is, of course, tiny

From the outside it looks perfectly normal, black with metal rivets. Inside, however, it’s tricked out from top to bottom in purple velvet lining. And there’s a tiny, bucket-sized cube at the opposite end from the door. That’s also upholstered in purple velvet. It looks a bit like a stool. Wait, it is a stool. There’s a peephole slashed into the door, at precisely the eyeline of where Prince would sit. Curious.

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Then the word goes round: ‘He’s coming.’ And so he is. He appears from a billowing-white-curtained corridor leading Prince knows where. He’s wearing a white frock coat, white hat, white trousers, white boots.

He is, of course, tiny. Even famously small famous people are smaller in real life. At this short distance – ten paces perhaps – one can marvel at the extraordinary fluidity and economy of his movements. He’s here, and then he’s sitting inside the purple-lined packing crate, and then they’re closing the door, and then he’s gone. Then they’re wheeling him outside into the auditorium.

Moments later, as if by magic, invisibly decanted from his crate, Prince appears centre stage and the band launches into the first number, Musicology. Licensed to roam, I take a VIP seat at the very lip of the stage. After ten minutes or so, I’m beckoned forward and inside the stage, where I crouch with the guitar techs.

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As Prince struts and gyrates, tearing through Play That Funky Music and U Got The Look, his dancing boots are only six feet from my head.

I once got this close to a tiger, on a safari in India. The experience is somehow analogous. I felt the supreme, primal presence of a beast that was rare and magnetic, a thing of almost mystical power.

I never got to interview the tiger, either.

Starting on August 1 and continuing until September 21, Prince played 21 completely sold-out nights at London’s O2 Arena. At 24,000 people per night, that’s over half a million funk-seekers entertained, including hordes of London movers and shakers and a cavalcade of international stars, P Diddy, Penélope Cruz, Elton John, Amy Winehouse and Naomi Campbell among them.

The whole carnival was photographed by Randee St Nicholas, who has collaborated with Prince on 21 Nights, a new book from which the images on these pages are taken.

The Stones tour every two years. It's not as hot a ticket. The same with Madonna. Because Prince plays here so rarely, and he's such a legendary character, people had to be there

The man who organised all this was Rob Hallett, a veteran British rock promoter who now glories in the title ‘President, International Touring, AEG Live’.

Hallett has toured with some of the biggest names in pop. In the past 12 months alone he has orchestrated concerts for Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake and Leonard Cohen, but he says he’s never worked with anyone quite like Prince.

‘Prince is a genius,’ he says. ‘He’s not like you and me. He’s very special. He’s not crazy. He’s intelligent, witty, charming. He’s focused, self-motivated. He’s a dude.’

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Prince first suggested the idea of a series of 21 concerts in London over drinks at Boujis, a Sloaney South Kensington nightclub. Hallett says he tried to persuade Prince that expecting to sell out 21 nights was too ambitious, even for him.

‘It was a big gamble,’ Hallett tells me. ‘It’s a multimillion-pound commitment. People thought I was off my rocker.’

But Prince would not be dissuaded. Tickets for the first 15 nights went on sale on May 11, and were gone in under an hour. Two weeks later, when tickets for the remaining six nights went on sale, they also sold out.

The gross receipts were more than £10 million. Subtract VAT and PRS – royalties paid to composers and publishers when music is performed live – and the box office is still what Hallett calls ‘big numbers’.

‘And there’s merchandise on top of that,’ he says.

‘I think it’s the longest (UK) residency ever,’ continues Hallett. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone else who could do it.

'All due respect to the Stones, but they tour every two years, which is fantastic for the fans, but it doesn’t leave that level of demand. It’s not as hot a ticket. Same thing with Madonna. Because Prince plays here so rarely, and he’s such a legendary character, people had to be there.’

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Other factors helped increase the demand. It was announced that Prince was ‘retiring his hits’: he might never play Purple Rain and the rest again.

Fans knew that he would play bonus after-show gigs. It was promised that each night would be different, and therefore unique. (The band rehearsed 130 songs and were only handed set lists shortly before each show. One evening I was there they were frantically working out a horn arrangement for INXS’s 1985 hit What You Need that had been sprung on them at the eleventh hour.)

Tickets were priced at an affordable £31.21 – 3121 being the name of a Prince album from 2006, and the street number of a Los Angeles house where he once lived, and partied; it has come to represent, for him, a mythical space of music and dancing.

‘I wish he’d moved to 9494,’ Hallett laughs. ‘It would have been much more lucrative. Then again, thank God he didn’t live at 1518.’

Another marketing masterstroke was Prince’s decision to give away a CD of his new album, Planet Earth, with each copy of The Mail on Sunday last July, producing a huge spike in circulation, enraging Sony, Prince’s record company, and making headline news all around the world.

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Backstage at the O2 I have nothing to waste but time, so I spend a good deal of it asking members of the New Power Generation what the real Prince is like.

‘He’s like a conductor,’ says Greg Boyer, the NPG trombonist. ‘You keep one eye on him at all times and take your lead from him. You have to keep up.’

Spending time with Prince, according to keyboard player Renato Neto, is ‘as normal as hanging with one of my homeboys.

'He works hard. But he can also be class clown. The perception from the outside and how things really are, it’s like night and day. He has a blue-collar mindset: wake up, put on the hard hat, go to work.’

Only the presence of the Twinz – real names Nandy and Maya McLean – hints at more illicit delights.

Hallett remembers many highlights from the O2 shows, but one in particular stands out: ‘It must have been half past three in the morning in Indigo (the O2’s nightclub), and Amy Winehouse comes on.

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'That was a remarkable moment, seeing this frail, demure little figure singing Love Is A Losing Game, with this wild man spinning around her doing guitar licks from hell.’

I’m sorry to have missed that, but I did gather my own share of memorable moments. Of course, the one I really wanted was a meeting with Prince.

It didn’t happen. In the end the calls stopped coming. Sometimes, I reasoned, perhaps it is better never to meet your heroes, lest they should disappoint.

That’s what I told myself at 4.30 that morning, anyway, as I wandered about the O2 looking for a purple velvet-carpeted packing case in which to nod off.

Alex Bilmes is features director of GQ. ‘21 Nights’ is published by Atria on September 30, priced at £30

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