TIME OUT (1995)

Time Out - March 15-22, 1995

Slave To The Rhythm
Prince has always been a bit weird, but lately he seems to have lost it completely. He's changed his name to 0{+^, declared war on his record company and scrawled 'SLAVE' on his cheek. Granted a rare royal audience, Peter Paphides asks: what the *@,0{+^! is he playing at?

NO FOOTBALL. There's NO FOOTBALL allowed in here. 'Can we switch it off?' The Wembley catering staff are looking decidedly agitated. It's not clear whether or not the directive concerning the backstage TV has come from higher up, but you can sense the relief when the offending footy fans switch back to Bugs Bunny. Royalty is in the vicinity. Consequently, even though The Artist Formerly Known As Prince/0{+>'s minders are taking it easy over some lunch and a coffee, there's a palpable tension about the place.

Minder One: 'Did you see what she called him?' He's referring to 'Sunday Show', BBC2's new youth magazine show hosted by Donna McPhail and Katie Puckrik. 0{+> performed an as-yet-unreleased song live from Wembley Arena.

Minder Two: 'She didn't call him Prince, did she?'

Minder One: 'She did, you know! She was in the studio and she said, "And now we're going to Wembley for Prince!" She said it!'

Minder Three shakes his head, incredulous. Staring at his pizza for inspiration, he reflects on it for a moment and inhales sharply: 'Heads will roll.' Before anyone has time to work out whether or not he's joking, the door opens. A voluptuous young woman in cycling shorts strolls in. Clearly, this is some kind of sign. Six minders grab their radios and jump to attention just as 0{+> follows behind her, heading for the canteen. However, by the time they've come to their senses, he's gone again, evidently not peckish. Then the summons. 'He's ready,' shouts his publicist, avoiding at all times the dilemma of having to address 0{+> by his new name.

More minders line the walls as I pass through another layer of security blokes, until finally I'm faced with a small subcontinent in trousers. I offer a joke following a somewhat erotic body-search, but it seems this is no time for funnies. The point, of course, isn't that I might be an assassin, more that 0{+> is one of the most famous pop stars in the world. And along with 15 albums, an entire Minneapolis studio complex, several other solo careers launched on the back of his patronage and an untouchable respect within and beyond the music industry such is the paraphernalia of that fame.

As you may have heard, 0{+> wants to wrestle ownership of his songs from Warner Bros Music. At this point I ought to explain that the concept of ownership in music is kind of an odd one. When you sign to a label, you basically sell them your songs. Consequently, any time one of your songs is covered or used by another artist, on film or in an advert, the record company receives a large percentage of the royalties. For example, since Paul McCartney was outbidded by Michael Jackson in the battle to buy The Beatles' songs, even he would need Jacko's permission to sample or use Beatles songs in any unorthodox way.

Warners, then, has responded to 0{+>'s dissent by refusing to release his new album, 'The Gold Experience'. So he's taken to writing 'SLAVE' on his face, changed his name and refrained from performing any 'Prince' songs at his current shows, opting instead for songs from 'The Gold Experience'. As long as Warners owns his songs, it is claimed, you won't get to hear the album on record. Terrible shame, really, as it's his finest album since 1987's 'Sign O' The Times'. If you've seen 0{+>'s first run of Wembley dates, then you will probably know all this. 0{+>'s set comprises almost entirely unreleased material, yet it's only upon going home that you realise he didn't play 'Alphabet Street', 'Gett Off', '1999', 'The Most Beautiful Girl In The World' and 'Kiss'.

The new songs suggest a man in the throes of some kind of creative rebirth: 'Gold', which closes the set in a slo-mo tornado of stardust and iridescence, lies at the core of this rebirth evoking the grandeur of 'Purple Rain' albeit in a more languorous setting, 'Endorphinmachine' is also remarkable, especially the way 0{+> squeals 'Prince is done with!' over all manner of bustling funk syncopations. Mercifully, it's much less clumsy than the eponymous stage set - a big blobby climbing frame representing a colossal hybrid of the male and female genitalia, in fact most of 'The Gold Experience' bulges ripely with a life-affirming spontaneity more common to mid-'80s gems like 'Mountains' and 'If I Was Your Girlfriend', rather than last year's flaccid 'Come' effort.

So: 0{+> wants to talk. About 'The Gold Experience' and about his 'enslavement', and he wants to talk about these things to me. The last time I saw 0{+> speaking was his acceptance speech at last month's Brit Awards. This is what he said: 'Prince? Best? "Gold Experience", better. Get Wild. In concert, perfectly free. On record, slave. Peace.' Can you see why I'm nervous?

'Sorry about the glasses. We were up kind of late last night,' smiles 0{+>, pointing to his Bono-style 'Fly' shades. In terms of fame, he may be even bigger than Minneapolis, but right now he's smaller than my mum. His dressing room is tiny, rendered claustrophobic by the sheer volume of patterned drapes and velour hangings that frame the dim light. Sifting through the awe, I remind myself that I've been summoned here for a reason. 0{+> is using Time Out to tell everyone how oppressive his record company is. When I suggest to 0{+> that he's only decided to talk to the press because he has a vested interest in doing so, he snaps, 'Well, Prince never used to do interviews. You'd have to ask Prince why he never used to do interviews, but you're not talking to Prince now. You're talking to me.'

Okay then. So why are you doing interviews at the moment? 'We have to free the music,' explains the pantalooned sex dwarf opposite me. 'I don't own my music at the moment. That's why I'm in dispute with the record company.'

Apparently, 0{+>'s record company thought he was releasing too much material. This is why it claimed to be putting off the release of 'The Gold Experience'. According to Warners, if it released 0{+>'s albums as often as he wants they'd swamp the market and everyone would lose interest in 0{+>. Aesthetically too, it might make more sense for 0{+>/Prince to release fewer records: many critics have commented that if he was more selective and released fewer albums, they would be stupendous rather than merely very good. 0{+>, unsurprisingly, has little time for either line of thinking.

'There's a lot of things that critics don't understand,' he responds conspiratorially, as if I'm not one of those critics. 'Like the second song in our set is a track called "Jam", and what people don't realise is that in America that's the number one track at house parties. Now, the audience know that, they've respect that! But that's not something that most critics are down with, you know what I'm saying? So when people say I make too many records, I just show them the Aretha Franklin catalogue in the '60s, when she made a new record every four months.'

That's the kind of work ethic you aspire to then, is it?

'That's right. I work hard with the best musicians in the world. We work all day, you know what I'm saying? But those people at the record company who own my music, they go home at 6pm! And they're the people that control my music. Can you see how there's no room for debate between myself and them?' 0{+>'s eyes peer up from beneath the shades as if to punctuate the assertion: 'You know, they still call me Prince!'

Is that so surprising?

'No! That's my point! They have to! It's the name that's written down in the contract. If they acknowledge that I'm not Prince, that 0{+> is different to Prince, then they can't hold me to the conditions of their contract.'

One's initial reaction to 0{+>'s tale of semantic crosswits is to laugh in disbelief, but the point beneath his almost whimsical reasoning is a serious one: 'The concept of ownership of music by record companies is senseless. Like, you know the singer Seal? He's a wonderful talent, but how do I go about telling him and all the other brothers about the battle that we have to fight, when I don't own my music?'

The more you talk to 0{+>, the more you begin to feel that he's been planning this whole stunt for a long time, just waiting to reach a position of sufficient power from which he could pull it off. Look at the sleeve to Prince's 'Purple Rain' album, made 11 years ago. You'll see a primitive version of the 0{+> sign clearly emblazoned on the side. It's been appearing since then with increasing regularity. Presumably, that was the point of the Paisley Park studios and pressing plant, to create the beginnings of a separate infrastructure in the music industry. One that doesn't have to go through the exist in white multinationals, and ultimately exists an alternative to them.

0{+> sits upright in affirmation: 'That's what the live show is about. I've done it! And if you look around at the fans, so many of them are waving signs with the new symbol. It's such beautiful sight.' You can see why Warners is worried. For commitment to the promotion of a separate infrastructure is no longer a distant dream. Far from the patronising jests of certain broad sheet writers who see endless comedy mileage in referring to 0{+> as Squiggle Man, the motivations behind the name change are, to a degree political. Sure, 0{+> doesn't need the extra money, but if he's making you question the ownership of intangibles like music (and the political implications thereof) then 0{+> deserves much respect. The idea of record companies actually owning the songs you write is outrageous. It s like demarcating a piece of the pavement and charging people 'Pavement Tax' to walk on it.

'That's exactly what it is,' smiles 0{+>. 'Do you see how suddenly, writing "SLAVE" on my face suddenly doesn't seem as strange? It's a gesture that communicates my position very well. It's like this is what my record company has reduced Prince to. So now, Prince is dead. They've killed him. 0{+>, on the other hand, is beyond contracts. They can talk about contracts till they drop, but they're Prince's contracts, not mine. The record company can't afford to accept that though.' Now the relish on his face is palpable... 'They're still expecting me to do "Purple Rain", a cabaret set.'

Of course, there are other ways of getting 'The Gold Experience' out. How about the Internet, for instance? 'We're currently looking into that one,' says 0{+>, 'The important thing is that my fans hear this music, whether it be through duplicating cassettes, or if we press up 10,000 CDs after the show and charge $5 each, just to cover costs you know? Even if we do what Pearl Jam do -- just turn up at radio stations and play the people our music. That's what these shows are about, communing with the fans. I go to a club and I see fans dancing to my records. They wave to me, I wave back, and I realise that this is why I make music. Not for record companies.'

0{+> is always quick to mention how his fans 'understand'. While I don't doubt he's genuinely moved by the adulation he receives, it also strikes me as a pretty basic ploy of testing the commitment of the diehards while bringing the waverers closer to you. It's what any cult from Morrissey to Michael Jackson to the Reverend Moon, does in the face of adversity, implicitly calls the love of The Fans into question by appealing to their loyalty. Still, as long as the majority of your fans are prepared to, ahem, die 4 U, there's never too much need to worry about what critics say. So when I start asking 0{+> anything more probing than 'Why are you so wonderful?' he clams up visibly.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Prince's canon will already know the three main themes of his music: shagging, humping and fucking. An elementary knowledge of psychology tells me that anyone so eager to impress on the world his sack prowess ('you jerk your body like a horny pony would' and 'there's a lion in my pocket and baby it's ready to roar' are my personal faves) must be motivated, in part, by a deep- rooted misogyny. It's also worth bearing in mind that early in his childhood the young Prince Rogers Nelson ran away from his mother in order to be with his father, a musician. For the first time in our little meeting, 0{+> stumbles on his words: 'Aah...oh well, that's a whole concept that, aah... you know, I could say something about that, and you could take a line out of context that might change the meaning entirely. It's all in the songs anyway.'

Yes, but you do see, don't you, that the sheer volume of fucking that goes on in your songs, is frankly bizarre. Don't you?

'Um, I believe that sometimes hate can be love and love can be hate.'

'Gett Off' boasts your, sorry, Prince's ability to assume '22 positions in a one-night stand'. Any chance of passing a few tips on to a mere novice like myself?

'Oh... ' 0{+> is now visibly buckling beneath the ignominy of having to entertain a question this moronic. 'That's not what all this is about... That's not something I, aaah...'

All what?

'Aaaah.' Big pause. He looks away. All right then. What about marriage, then? Any plans to singlehandedly put Durex out of business by having lots of little 0{+>s?

'Not really,' smirks the compact sex symbol. 'I decided that things like family don't have a big part to play in my future. I'm dedicated to music, to the point that I see all of life through it.'

What would seem like a flippant, sentimental declaration from any other pop star becomes a fierce declaration of humanism from the mouth of 0{+>. The past two weeks have seen him deliver night after night of rambunctious boilerhouse funk while the psychedelic harems of his mind are recreated on stage around him. 'A couple of years ago perhaps,' he concludes, 'I had a spiritual, uh...rebirth. I was lacking direction for a very long time. But I saw a light which I realised I had to follow. At that point I became...' 0{+> points to a drape bearing his hieroglyphic name...

By the way, how do you pronounce that? 'It isn't pronounced. It just is.'

0{+>, aka The Artist Formerly Known As Prince plays two more dates at Wembley Arena on Tue and Wed.

- Peter Paphides