Q MAGAZINE (1995)
Q - MAY 1995
By David Cavanagh
It was Monday, February 20. He got up from his table when Chris Evans announced his name – or, at least, the name he had formerly been known as - and made his way to the Alexandra Palace stage to collect his Brit Award. Once there, he stood a good three feet back from the microphone. The word “slave” was written in ornate-ish scroll on his right cheek.
“Prince?” he said quietly, a little incredulously. “Best?” He paused and people strained to hear him. “The Gold Experience. Better.” Now people were laughing. “In concert, perfectly free. On record: slave. Peace. Thank you.”
With superstar midget finesse, he then left the building. If Michael Jackson had been there, he would have thought: By Christ, that bloke’s a bit peculiar.
Purely from a musical standpoint, there was no need for to be at Ally Pally at all. A regular award-winner, he graces very few ceremonies with his presence. But he has, for some months, been embroiled in a public dispute with his record company, Warner Brothers, over what is lazily termed “ownership” of his music. He has announced that he will stay on the road with the New Power Generation until this dispute is resolved. And he is now, some say, prepared to seize public occasions like the Brits to make statements - however exotic and catalectic - in preparation for a full-out PR war.
The 20 days that followed the Brits brought with them a deluge of think-pieces and radio talking about the little man’s questionable case against the huge record company.There were also reviews of his Wembley Arena shows, and inevitable puns on his unwieldy soubriquet. The Artist Formerly Known As Sane, they giggled. The Artist Formerly Known As Talented. The journalists formerly proud to be Prince fans were journalists formerly proud to be Prince fans were almost unanimous: the Wembley gigs had been rotten. And why? Because in a performance lasting more than two hours, had played only two recognisable hits, offering instead a massive selection of new,hard-funk songs from his latest, unreleased - possibly unreleasable - album, The Gold Experience. “In concert, free?” the reviewers asked sceptically, “Don’t you mean: in concert, £27.50?”
On two of those days – February 28 and March 1 - received a total of nine journalists in his dressing room backstage at Wembley Arena (where he and the New Power Generation were rehearsing daily). Each publication was granted an interview lasting 20 minutes. had asked his British press officer for a list of magazines that might be sympathetic to his cause - and also, interestingly, a recent outline of their circulation figures. Q, to whom he had given – in May 1994 his first magazine interview in many years, was included.
Before we meet him, let’s get to the core of his case against Warners. Most people believe it’s this: has become too prolific for Warners to keep up with, and they are refusing to release his albums. That has become the folklore, defined in the Sunday Times (June 5,1994) as “the age-old conflict between creativity and commerce”.
“Virtually anybody’s artist contract calls for specific intervals between delivery of masters and releases thereof,” Q was told by Bob Merlis, spokesman for Warner Brothers Records, at the company’s HQ in Burbank, Los Angeles. “Whatever he agreed to is what we would like to go forward with.”
For sure, the work-rate is phenomenal. He has stockpiled an absolute feast of future material in a short space of time, in much the same way as Miles Davis recorded 17 album sides’ worth of music for Columbia between August 1969 and August 1970. But that’s not the central issue. What really wants, above all, is to own the master tapes of his records. This goes completely against the terms of his contract. Under those terms, Warners own the master tapes of his music. They keep them on software in their head office in Burbank. ( owns the copyright to his publishing, which is administrated by Warner Chappell Music.)
Prince signed his first contract with Warners in 1977, at the age of 18. In retrospect, he admits he was naive at that age. The contract was, by all accounts, not a fabulous one. However, it is unlikely he was so naive when he re-negotiated that same contract in 1992, at the age of 34, which earned him - at a conservative estimate - tens of millions of dollars. (One source has quoted $60m to $100m.)
"The 1992 deal was loudly trumpeted – by his people – as being one of the most lucrative deals in the history of the recording business," says Merlis.
Nobody is too sure of the exact terms, but it’s reckoned that he owes Warners another four albums under the terms of that 1992 contract.The Black Album, made in 1988 but released recently, counts as one. The Gold Experience is a potential second. He claims to have made a further six.
To complicate the issue, Mo Ostin, the Chairman of Warners - whom liked – is not there any more. He left the company on December 31,1994. (The new Chairman is Danny Goldberg.) Ostin and got on very well; Ostin allowed to release The Most Beautiful Girl In The World on his independent label NPG (the successor to Paisley Park) in 1994. Now that Ostin has gone, is telling journalists that the entire regime at Warners is unfamiliar and unsympathetic; weighted against him; ignorant of his music.
"As far as his relationship with Mo Ostin is concerned.” says Merlis, “he signed his contract with Warner Brothers Records, not with Mo Ostin.Were that the case, then any artist on the label would be able to leave when management changed. His obligation to us by contract is not contingent on Mo Ostin, or any other person.”
This dispute really blew up when, last summer, George Michael – for whom has a great respect – took Sony Music to court in an effort to overturn his contract. It was during this court case, you’ll remember, that George Michael used the word “slave” in the artistic context. He lost his case, and was roundly ridiculed for thinking of himself as a slave. It now emerges that had advised Michael, in a telephone conversation, to not even go to court. Clearly, he was planning something big himself.
Unbelievably, is now claiming that he is not under contract to Warners at all. He admits that Prince was under contract to Warners - but as he points out. Prince died in 1993. Look at the dates on the front cover of the Come album: “Prince 1958-93”. is no longer Prince. He is . The contract, he therefore reasons, is worthless.
“I don’t know of any previous examples of that loophole,” laughs a London-based music lawyer contacted by Q. “The ’new regime’ point has been claimed on occasions before, and one would have a bit more sympathy for that argument. But in a commercial world, I’m afraid that’s tough. At 34, when he re-negotiated his contract, he was a big boy.”
“Whatever name he signed his contract under,” says Bob Merlis at Warners, “we feel quite strongly that the contract is still in effect. You can call yourself what you want to. It’s his right to do that. But it doesn’t make the obligation go away.”
When pop artists (eg The Stone Roses, Holly Johnson) manage to free themselves, in a court of law, from their contract, it is usually because that contract has been proved onerous and unfair. Under English law, in particular, if a contract is unreasonable – in restraint of trade, say – the court will sometimes be sympathetic to the artist. The reasons the court were not sympathetic to George Michael were because, a) they believed he knew what he was doing when he signed the contract, and b) the contract in question had made Michael a multi-millionaire.
Legally, cannot claim that Warners are in restraint of trade by not releasing The Gold Experience, since they are perfectly willing to release it under the terms of the 1992 contract – ie including the surrendering of the master tapes.
But realistically this is not a legal matter. This is a spiritual cleft-stick meeting a Mexican standoff, while a cosmic stalemate stands guard. For example, has indicated a desire to release The Gold Experience on NPG Records, as he did with The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. Warners have pointed out that they allowed him to release that single on NPG as a courtesy gesture, and that he is under contract to deliver his albums to them. says: “No. Prince was under contract. I am not Prince.” Cosmic stalemate.
To conclude his case, offers a truly nebulous twist. Music is a spiritual energy, he believes. It is not a property. It is not Warner Brothers to buy and sell. He who creates music, owns it.As he says every night, during a new song called Pussy Control: “I used to have control. Over my music. Then I signed to a record company.”
“It’s the George Michael argument all over again” says Q’s music lawyer. “It’s a bit difficult to be a slave at $10 million dollars a throw. It sounds like it’s a contract which he signed in full knowledge and, with retrospect, doesn’t like. Unfortunately , that happens to everybody every day of the week.”
Or to put int in another way, we are all slaves.
Backstage at the venue formerly known as The Empire Pool, Wembley, you can smell the incense as soon as you walk in the door.A pleasant, odorous trail leads to a small man in a brown velvet coat with “slave” written on his right cheek. He is standing by the side of the stage, wearing shades. It’s so dark you can barely see where you’re going. He skips nonchalantly over a few cables, back to his dressing room.
is allowing no tape recorders in his presence. To ensure that you are not furtively wired for sound, you are frisked by a bodyguard before entering.
“Hi,” says Q.
“Hi,” says .
His skinny body is clad in gossamer blue lace, open at the chest to flaunt liberally squiggly hair, with lots of gold hanging from his neck. In his very small dressing room there are two settees - one covered red, one purple - and a turquoise coffee table, along with a coffee machine, four coffee cups and some coffee. You will not however, be taking refreshments with today. Nor will you be watching his large TV.
His eyes unreadable behind lethal shades, he speaks for 20 minutes – mostly in anti-Warners monologues, occasionally in cryptic, more Prince-like phrases. When he impersonates a Warners employee, he uses a goofy, unhip voice, like Richard Pryor taking the piss out of white people in his live videos. When it’s him talking, he goes for a streetwise motherfucker of a voice. As a plea for special artistic treatment, his rap is undeniably persuasive. Partly, this is due to his witty rhetoric – he is a funny man – and partly it’s because he seems so clued-in, so right-on. Generous, philanthropic (at one point he appears to be offering to buy me a house), he is the archetypal millionaire pauper. Listen, he’d love to help you. It’s just a question of cash-flow. . .
Cool air wafts from an overhead fan as we begin, displacing the smell of his incense. His pad resembles a fantastic bedsit. On the turquoise table rests a bootleg CD of The Gold Experience. You take the purple couch. It goes nicely with your T-shirt.
I enjoyed your speech at the Brits.
“Did you? (Laughs) One of the few people who did. (Pause) Do you think people understood?’
They understood that there’s some sort of a dispute.
“There is a dispute.”
What’s it about?
“(Pause) You see, a while ago I told Warners I wanted to own my music. That’s what this is all about. I don’t own the masters of any of my records. Can you believe that? Warners keep them in their vaults, on software, you know?”
It’s just a thought, but have you thought of inserting a computer virus into the software before you hand it over to Warners?
(Thinks for a while) “Whoah, man, that’s a whole novel you got there. That’s funky.”
Is there a personal problem between you and the new Chairman at Warners?
“What’s happened is that the people who signed me, and the people I had a relationship with there, have moved on and been replaced by people I don’t know. And I can’t do business with those people.”
That happens a lot.
“Yeah, well. So Mo Ostin isn’t there any more. Guys like Mo Ostin.who built the industry with people like Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy - they’re moving out and there are guys coming in who don’t understand me, they don t understand music. All they know is marketing. I mean, I haven’t met some of them. These are guys you never see photos of. The kids don’t know what they look like. (Laughs) Probably for a good reason.”
He is talking very, very quickly. He shoots some names of people at Warners, cracks jokes about them – and laughs, falling sideways on his settee, just like Des O’Connor.
“You know what one of them actually said to me? (In a stupid voice) So,uh, do you think this hip hop thing is gonna last? Hah! (Looking at imaginary watch, hails taxi) Listen, I gotta go. (Laughs) I’m really late here, man. I mean, I can’t deal with that. And these are the people trying to mess with my music.”
How are they trying to mess with his music? Roughly as follows. Aside from the bit about him being too prolific, Warners took a pass on an album called Exodus, credited to the New Power Generation, which gave them last year. It was a humiliating experience, given that Paisley Park - a Prince A&R label, marketed by Warners – had been wound down in late 1993, after albums by Mavis Staples, Tevin Campbell and George Clinton failed to sell. argues that they were not adequately promoted. (Along with the dissolution of Paisley Park, also lost his place on the board at Warners.)
“Mavis Staples is a brilliant, brilliant artist” he says heatedly, “but I don’t think anyone at Warners knows what to do with her. Sometimes, I think all a company does is sign people, and then gets those People to sign other people. All these people getting signed, and that’s the last you hear of them. I don’t think they even know who they got on their label.”
He also claims Warners wouldn’t let him donate a song to an American guitar magazine.
“I have a song called Undertaker, which I wanted to give to Guitar Player, so they could give it away free with their magazine - to remind people that, hey, I’m actually a guitar player, too. (Laughs) That’s what it is: really long guitar solos. But Warners wouldn’t let me.”
Another thing he wanted to do was record a song with Nona Gaye, daughter of Marvin, as an anti-firearms benefit single. “I said (to Warners), OK, listen, there are people shooting and killing each other in the ’hood, and I think I can do something about it, and put some money in, and (ironically) maybe that would be more important than what’s in your Billboard chart this week. They said no. (Shakes his head) They can’t look beyond what’s in Billboard.”
Do Warners have your home phone number?
It’s not that kind of relationship?
“Well I don’t talk on the phone. I don’t have to.”
So these new people at Warners have basically inherited you from the old regime?
“Ha! No. They inherited Prince. They own him. All that stuff that Prince did is theirs. But Prince is dead. They don’t own me.”
Is that why you killed him?
"No, no. See, that was way before all this happened. Prince had to die because my life was going through changes I was going through a very spiritual part of my life, and I was no longer Prince. That was my way of dealing with it. It was a great spiritual revelation, and the last time it happened was on Lovesexy and the time before that was Purple Rain. It is not the first time it’s happened.”
Does that spiritual change manifest itself to outsiders?
(Warily) “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really ask myself questions about it. I’ve teamed not to question it.“
All the while he keeps looking at the CD of The Gold Experience on the turquoise table. It’s contagious. Soon you start to look at it too.
“I would love to give you this,” he says. “I know you want to help me. That’s why you’re here. I could give you this and you could give me something, an example of your work. But if I give you this, I’m breaking the law, because it’s not mine to give. That’s how ridiculous all this is.”
But surely you don’t deny that you signed a contract?
(Sarcastically) “Yeah,right. Do artists know about contracts when they’re 18,19?”
But you weren’t 19 when you renegotiated it.
“Same thing, though. See, when an artist starts out in the music business he needs two things: a manager and a lawyer. If you want to get into the music business, that’s what you need: a manager and a lawyer. You can’t do it without them. And I know that if I say anything about my ex-managers and lawyers, I would get letters from them saying they’re going to sue me. So (laughing) that’s all I can really say.”
Meanwhile you have, what, four albums left on your contract?
“Well, we’ll have to see “
You know this case won’t stand up in court?
“It isn’t a case. It’s not going to go to court. You see, George Michael... (pauses, sighs, gathers himself) Even mentioning his name makes me angry. One of the most brilliant songwriters, and look what they did to him. Now he can’t make music. But he went a different route to me. I told him, You don’t have to go to court, but he did, because he thought he could win.”
Court cases drag on, and meantime you can’t release anything – it happened to Bruce Springsteen in the ’70s.
“Yeah, and look how many years he lost.”
Do you get the feeling Warners think you’re out to lunch?
“Yes, I think they do. When I changed my name, a lot of people thought I was insane – oh, oh, he’s killed Prince. Now, there was a point where I was very ill and afraid for my sanity, but that was way before I changed my name, before this spiritual period of my life when I knew Prince was dead – I was sane when I did that. Everyone thinks that was when I was crazy.”
Hang on- You feared for your sanity?
(Beatifically) “Yes. Then I learned not to have fear.”
Once again, he picks up the CD of The Gold Experience. “Do you think your magazine could help me sell some copies of this?”
(Delighted) “You see? And then everyone would be happy. Tommy (Barbarella, keyboardist in NPG) gets a cheque, Sonny (bass) gets a cheque, Mr Hayes (organ) gets a cheque, Michael B (drums) gets a cheque, Mayte (dancer) gets a cheque, I get a cheque. Maybe I could use some of that money to set you up running your own magazine. I could do that. Or you could have a new house. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I’ve got my own magazine now, of course. That’s nice. So i don’t have to talk to Rolling Stone. I had a fight with one guy, once, and they’ve never had a good word to say about me since.” (Laughs)
“Because you’ve helped me, and I can help you.”
Are you, as you’ve indicated, going to stay on tour until this dispute is resolved?
“Yeah. The guys (i.e. the band) are right behind me. (Laughs) You know, sometimes I think, hey, there’s five of us, let’s bum rush the Warner building. Now some brothers I know, who shall remain nameless, that’s the way they do it. Haven’t seen a cheque lately? They go in and destroy the office. (Panicky white employee) ’OK, OK, I’ll pay you your money. Just don’t break things’.”
What’s the worst that can happen, then? That you stay on the road forever?
“No, that’s the best thing that can happen. Of course. Get to play music every night and live in this nice house . . . (Gestures at walls of dressing room) This is my house, by the way, and I like my house. I can sit here in my house, and you can come and visit me in it. And I like being in England. People here, I think, understand more where I’m coming from. In the same way that black people in America understand where I’m coming from.”
Do these interviews mean that you’re becoming more accessible now?
“I don’t call this being accessible. I call this just a conversation I’m having with you. I can see you want to help. It just makes me wish I could give you something back.”
Interview ends; next journalist ushered in.
is being very coy here. As he well knows, we journalists had to sign contracts before we were allowed to meet him; contracts that signed away our syndication rights. To lay something like that one us, and then to solicit our sympathy regarding his own contract . . . well, it shows some front.To be realistic and blunt, is using the media as a mere conduit – nothing more – to ensure that his public support comes out higher than that of the widely-detested George Michael. By the way, how’s your Spanish?
“Prince esta muerto. Prince esta muerto.”
The thumping Endorphinmachine kicks open The Gold Experience, and delivers an unmistakable message to Spanish speakers everywhere. Prince esta muerto.We’re back in the dressing room – it’s a little over an hour later – and is nowhere to be seen. A security guard sits watching us all, to check that we’re not taping the album.
The Gold Experience, on first acquaintance, is a terrific piece of work. Intriguingly, given that Prince is no longer alive, it’s a versatile amalgam of all that deceased genius’s many styles - pop, funk, rap, ballads, sex, mysticism - all of it punctuated by a female voice occasionally popping up to announce: “Welcome 2 the dawn.” If you want rock, look no further than Endorphinmachine. If you love his guitar playing, Shy will amaze with its delicate, wristy charm. If you badly need funk, Days Of Wild is monstrous.
"We’re very enthusiastic about The Gold Experience,” says Bob Merlis, our man in Burbank. “We would like to put it out, and give it a very serious marketing campaign.”
The Big Concert
In the meantime, if you want to hear The Gold Experience, you have to see the live show. This colourful funk extravaganza - rubbished by the press - began at Wembley in the first week of March. It was a marvellous show, provided you didn’t turn up to hear the hits. He only played two: 7 and The Most Beautiful Girl In The World. But then the New Power Generation are a happening, world-class funk outfit.Why zap back in time to When Doves Cry and Purple Rain? Anyway, as the introductory video made plain: “Prince is dead. Long live the New Power Generation.” (Slam. Gold curtains swish back. Enter in pink, from bowels of weird-looking castle, on a slowly-moving conveyor belt.)
Left-handed bassist Sonny Thompson is seated on the castle’s ramparts. Beneath him, Morris Hayes, sporting a preposterous, fluffy white fright-wig, plays a see-through organ. Across the stage, Tommy Barbarella, the NPG’s only white member, stands behind a bank of keyboards draped in an American flag. Mayte, the itchy soft-porn dancer, has practically an entire stage to gyrate upon. And on guitar, occasional bass and vocals, the boy himself skips from one side to another, face-popping, grimacing, pretend-weeping and grinning. He may not have the athleticism of 1987, but he isn’t exactly doing the standing still.
The songs are mostly wonderful. Days Of Wild has yelling ”Hold on to your wigs”, as the band whack out a bombastic rap terror attack.The funky Get Wild, comes from Exodus, the unreleased NPG LP. But it’s not all nasty backbeats ( fans, unlike most British audiences, can clap on the offbeat.) Dolphin, from The Gold Experience, is his poppiest song since Raspberry Beret, with a maddeningly catchy chorus. Only an unconvincing version of Proud Mary spoils the flow.
What it really is, is a huge tease. When requests Mayte (who errs on the side of gorgeous) to come to the lip of the stage, bend over, grip her heels and, in his words, “shake your moneymaker for the interest of the audience,not only does she do it, but she smiles while she’s doing it. “It’s terrible,” says one industry insider the following day. “You leave with an erection.”
Rumour has it this show has to sell out every night if is serious about keeping it on the road. The odd empty seat aside, it looks pretty full.
The Secret Gig
“Enjoy the Prince,” exhorts the inebriated Big Issue seller to the 1am queuers outside the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road. “He’s garbage, but anyway, Take me ho-o-ome . . .”
For four successive nights, has booked the Astoria for his post-gig club, Glam Slam. He came here to see the nude lesbian outfit Fem 2 Fem the previous week, and liked not only the nude lesbians but also this oft-slagged venue. Now, of course, the talk upstairs in the Keith Moon Bar is: Is he going to play?
He keeps you guessing. At 3am he still hasn’t gone on - the DJ is spinning well-known, not at all obscure tunes by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Prince - and many of the partyers are giving up the vigil and going home. Around about then^some equipment begins to appear on stage, closely followed by a definite maybe from a bouncer with a walkie-talkie.
To a half-full house, ambles on stage at 3.30am, in scintillating black polo neck and black jeans (still with -slave” written on the old Cruiser’s Creek), and says: “Ladies and gentle men, it is a great honour to introduce one of my childhood heroes – George Benson” Oh, Christ.
Benson is indeed present on stage, as are the New Power Generation, and Chaka Khan makes a vocal appearance halfway through. A long blues jam in 6/8 pits Benson against in a duel of the grimacing solos, a battle the big man contrives good-naturedly to flunk. If the assembled were hoping that this secret gig might be the occasion for “the hits”, it’s soon apparent that it is not. Almost no recognisable songs are played - he does Get Wild, though, and once again, Mayte is invited to shake her moneymaker, which she takes to mean leaping, four times, into the sweaty crowd. Each tune, she has to be dragged out by three security men.”Boo,” cry the audience, “Give her back “
For the punters, it’s an enjoyable wind-down, a bluesy, funky soiree, an opportunity to see him up close and a chance to speculate on just how much sleep he gets.As people all over the world rapid-eye, becomes more and more fidgety, restless, eager to play just one more damn song. He finally leaves the stage at a quarter to five.
That night at the Astoria is when his argument is at its most convincing. Yes, you think. Why the hell cannot this genius do whatever he likes? There shouldn’t be any rules for someone like this. He’s a once-in-a-generation wild card, a man no peers, a legend bravely attempting to control both the funk and the • purse-strings, and that’s too IS much of a load for one little guy. Give him what he asks for. (Of course, you’re pretty drunk by this stage.)
But over in Burbank they are very sober. According to Merlis, Warners have not been remotely embarrassed by ’s graffiti-cheeked PR campaign against them.
“We’re being characterised as very insensitive,” Merlis says patiently. “Our constraint to him – if there is any – is just to ask him to deliver his master tapes, as called for by the contract. We don’t have much say in any other aspect of his life, nor do we seek it. I notice that (he’s saying)/Now I can perform whatever songs I want to’ (ie on stage). But we don’t control, or seek control of, his concert repertoire. That’s his business.”
Merlis believes this story will run its course. A “new” single, Purple Medley, has entered the UK charts – it is a Prince re-mix CD released by Warners, with ’s full approval. has also sanctioned the Warners release of two videos, The Sacrifice Of Victor and The Undertaker. “There are negotiations going on right now,” Merlis says,” to facilitate the release off The Gold Experience. Our expectation is to continue with him – under whatever moniker he chooses.”
And could his contract be re-negotiated once more?
“Everything is possible.” says Merlis.