Prince Feature. Q Magazine 50 Years Of Rock’n’Roll Special 2004

The Man With No Name.

He was a one man musical revolution. Then prince became embroiled in a battle of wills with his record label which left him a squiggle with eyeliner on his cheek.

words: Dan Gennoe

If the line between genius and insanity is a fine one, in 1993 one of the most innovative and exceptional musicians of a generation gave fans, the media and even those who worked for him reason to believe he’d crossed over to the other side. On the occasion of his 35th birthday, June 7 1993, the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson made an announcement that would make Madonna’s Sex Book and Michael Jackson’s attachment to a chimp named Bubbles seem like pop star wackiness for beginners. 

In a one page statement issued from his Minneapolis studio complex, Paisley Park, he informed fans that Prince, the 5’ 2” sex obsessed pop icon behind Purple Rain, Sign Of The Times and Diamonds And Pearls, was dead. No longer would he perform the works of his recently deceased former self and from this day forth he would be known only by an unpronounceable symbol. 

Outlandish behaviour was, of course, nothing new for Prince. As well as his unique and futuristic take on pop, it was his unique and suggestive persona which took him from troubled teen living in a school friend’s waterlogged basement to being one of the biggest selling artists of the ‘80s. The rampant sexuality of his music and sexual ambiguity of his image, made intrigue and controversy his trademark. It was, after all, the allusions to masturbation in Purple Rain’s Darling Nikki which inspired Tipper Gore (wife of former US Vice President Al) to launch the Senate hearings on offensive rock lyrics which would invent the Parental Advisory sticker.

By the time Purple Rain, his sixth album in six years, had racked up 13 million sales and propelled the diminutive singer, his three inch reinforced heels, pencil moustache and frilly blouse from cult oddity to international sensation, he’d masterminded himself into an enigma.

Rumours were rife. He’s gay. He’s straight. He’s bi. He never sleeps. He sleeps three hours a night. He sleeps in the studio in case he’s inspired in a dream. He’s got a vault containing thousands of unreleased tracks…

As the mythology grew, Prince saw little reason to correct or clarify. For the best part of a decade he declined all but a handful of interviews, and in those he was at best cryptic- a policy that would later haunt him.

In the meantime he matched hits with weirdness. He recorded and scrapped an album as helium voiced femme fatale Camille; bunny boiling love song If I Was Your Girlfriend later surfaced on 1987’s Sign ‘O’ The Times. His follow-up, the heavily bootlegged Black Album was similarly junked- this time after 50,000 copies had been pressed- because he’d had a ‘religious vision’; allegedly the result of an experiment with MDMA.

And then there was the money. He spent lavishly on everything from Perspex canes to extravagant, wildly over budget, videos and stage sets. When on tour recording studios were hired just in case he needed one. He rarely did. Yet while apparently unattached to money, when it came to his famous after show parties, where he’d perform into the small hours, he wouldn’t go on stage until he’d received a plastic carrier bag containing $20,000. In cash.

Eccentric though he often was, retiring Prince in favour of a hieroglyph based on the male and female gender signs- a long standing logo perfected for the cover of 1992’s Love Symbol album- seemed a whim too far. 

“He’s finally gone mad,” was the first thought of Chris Poole, then Prince’s European publicist. “When I got the fax I called up Paisley Park to check he wasn’t joking. They said, No. He’s serious. Put it out.” 

Jill Willis, former Executive Vice President of Paisley Park Enterprises was similarly disturbed. “Prince had been talking about it for three or four weeks. I hoped for his sake that he would eventually let it go. Everyone felt concerned for him about the fallout from the public and media.”

Willis was right to be worried. With The Artist, as he was now known to his staff, providing less than helpful explanations- a spirit visited him in a dream and told him to do it – and record sales dwindling, the press on both sides of the Atlantic went into ridicule overdrive. The Artist Formerly Known As Sane and The Artist Formerly Know As Successful were two popular variants.

It wasn’t until he arrived at the 1995 Brit Awards with the word SLAVE neatly eyelinered on his cheek that the truth of his new moniker started to surface. Blur’s Dave Rowntree may have seen the funny side, sitting through the awards with DAVE biroed on his cheek, but Prince was deadly serious. For two years, he’d been locked in a bitter battle with Warner Bros. Now, with stalemate declared, he was claiming he was a slave to his record deal.

Back in 1992 Prince had renegotiated his contract with Warners in a deal estimated to be worth $100 million. A year later the two sides came to blows over his prolific output. Warners wanted to release one album every two years to maximise the return on their investment. Prince wanted to release an album every six months. When he discovered that not only was he beholden to their release schedule, but that he couldn’t take his music elsewhere because Warners owned the master tapes, he wanted out.

“He genuinely thought that by changing his name he could get out of his Warners deal,” confirms Poole. “He said to me, If I’m not Prince anymore, they can’t hold me to my contract. I asked him if he’d talked to his lawyers about it, and he just said, Hah. Lawyers.”

Warners were unmoved. “Whatever name he signed his contract under,” said Warners’ spokesman Bob Merlis at the time, “we feel strongly that the contract is still in effect. You can call yourself what you want to. But it doesn’t make the obligation go away.” Legally Merlis was right. 

With no name and SLAVE on his face the media were having a field day. Meanwhile, the serious issue of the morality of record labels owning artists work in perpetuity was going undiscussed. 

“The Daily Star were calling him bonkers,” recalls Poole. “He was quite upset by that. He asked me, Why are they calling me mad? I said What do you expect? You do these things and don’t explain yourself properly. He then agreed to do interviews, but wouldn’t let journalists record or write anything down. He wanted to have his say about Warners. But if there was no record of the conversations he could always say he was misquoted. Which drove Warners mad. He’s a bit eccentric, but he’s not mad or stupid.”

“I own every song that James Brown made,” Prince argued in one such encounter with Q when presented with Warners’ case that to release at his proposed rate would flood the market. “Every three months when I was a kid he put out a single and then an album and I was waiting for them.” 

For Warners though, it was always as much an issue of quality as quantity. His furious writing wasn’t producing the hits they were looking for. Early on Warners had tried to illustrate their point. In 1994 they agreed to Prince independently releasing a dated pop song that would never go anywhere. The song in question was The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. Prince’s first UK No.1.

“That very much backfired on them,” adds Poole. “It just reinforced his belief that he could do it himself.”

With neither side willing to back down, a deal was finally struck in 1996 to release Prince from his recording contract. Although the terms were never made public, it involved the release of four albums Come, the Black Album, The Gold Experience and Chaos & Disorder, and Warners retaining his back catalogue.

A victory of sorts then for Prince, but with those contract fillers and the subsequent seven albums released on his New Power Generation label failing to live up, either in songs or sales, to his heyday, Warners clearly had a point. “Genius is a grossly over used word,” concludes Poole. “Prince is the closest thing to it. But I don’t think he knew what he had. And I think he lost confidence in his ability to innovate. Although I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with me.”

Either way, Prince appears happy with his new life releasing sprawling funk experiments direct to fans via his website, http://www.npgmusicclub.com. “You can hear the joy and freedom in the music,” he said in 1998, before pointing out that his increased royalties, $7 verses his previous 7 cents per album, more than make up for his truncated sales.

And while the 1999 expiration of his publishing deal with Warner Chappell- “the last contract with my name on it”- didn’t prompt the much hoped for resurrection of Prince the pop star, he did at least reclaimed his name. At a New York press conference in May 2000 he confirmed that he was once again safe to call him Prince, and that he wouldn’t be changing his name again. “I won’t have to because I won’t be under any long-term, restrictive contracts ever again.”

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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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