Books and Music at the Heart of Independent Publishing

Matt Thorne on 3RDEYEGIRL

March 5, 2014 | by Faber Social

Tags: matt thorne, prince

Prince isn’t the first musician to turn to hard rock as a form of renewal—Bob Dylan did it when we went on tour with the Heartbreakers, Neil Young when he recorded with Pearl Jam, David Bowie with his poor benighted Tin Machine—but he’s done so with the most style.

Like most of Prince’s transformations, it’s happened gradually. In 2012, Prince asked NPG bassist Ida Nielsen to help put together a new band. She recruited guitarist Donna Grantis—whose tastes align closely with Prince’s current interests, even down to her love of covering the Billy Cobham song ‘Stratus’, a long-term live favourite of Prince’s—and drummer Hannah Ford.

After over two decades of being backed by the New Power Generation—a band whose line-up has changed so frequently Prince says the name now refers to the audience—this was significant news. But if the US side of his operations is any indication, it seems 3rdEyeGirl are an outlet for one side of his music and the NPG are still in existence, ready to be reassembled for stadium shows, maybe even the ones rumoured for England this summer.

The 3rdEyeGirl campaign started with a few new songs and videos—‘Screwdriver’, a reinvention of old hit ‘Bambi’—and was followed by a tour across America and a few European dates. But for over a year there’s been no sign of the long-promised new album Plectrum Electrum, which looks set to finally come out next month. Instead, there’s been a series of rehearsals, breakfast parties and jams on Livestream, including some truly bizarrely-named new songs (‘The Third Heart of the Octopus Menstrual Cycle Originally Dropped from the Moon’, anyone?)

Maybe this is an Anglocentric perspective, but to me it appears that it’s only with this recent UK tour that the campaign has truly caught fire, and a large part of this has been down to the unique way the recent Hit and Run shows have been marketed.

Prince’s manager Kiran Sharma is the latest in a long line of managers who have found new ways of promoting an artist who has never wanted to follow conventional ways of selling out shows or pushing albums. This campaign—praised by old PR wizards like Mark Borkowski—will be analysed for years to come. But as with previous wheezes such as distributing albums with newspapers, it’s hard to know who else could pull it off.

Before coming to England, Prince had just made one of his most widely viewed public appearances in years—performing in character as himself on the hit sitcom New Girl. Many of the old guard have recently turned to TV as a marketing tool—Bruce Springsteen premiered songs from his new album High Hopes on The Good Wife—but Prince went further, reshaping the show so it complemented the sweet and goofy sense of humour only previously on display in his movies.

Then, just a few days later, he went from being in millions of homes across America to acting like he was in a brand new garage band. With its self-referential lyrics about what it’s like being on tour, new song ‘PretzelBodyLogic’ worked as a statement of intent for a new Hit and Run stint in London. Instead of using a press conference to make big announcements, he appeared to a tiny audience in singer Lianne La Havas’s living room, kicking off a game of ‘Where’s Prince’ that drove fans (and journalists) into a frenzy.

Instead of being frustrated by the lack of information, a sizeable portion of Twitter formed themselves into a #Princearmy on permanent alert for secret shows. And they were quickly rewarded, when—after an open soundcheck at the Electric Ballroom—Prince told fans he’d be back there the next day.

Prince always demands something of his audience. This time it was sheer physical stamina. With no tickets available beforehand, fans had no choice but to queue for hours in bad weather. At the first show at the Electric Ballroom, it was immediately apparent that the many hours of rehearsal had paid off—3rdEyeGirl are a much tighter band now than they sounded on the US tour.

Yet during the first set Prince seemed distracted and genuinely perturbed—as well he might be, he’s a decent man—at the people outside waiting in the rain who had yet to see the show. It reminded me of the trust exercises he used to do at One Nite Alone…shows when he would encourage people in the front rows to swap their seats with someone at the back as an act of charity.

The five star reviews the next day were from critics who saw both shows, but the ferocity of response was a little startling—though Simon Price’s piece for the Quietus was very moving—as it seemed clear Prince was just warming up. If reviewers were expending so many superlatives on this performance, what would they say once the band had time to bed in? This question was answered by the man from the Mirror who in his review of the last show at the Manchester Academy claimed that if Prince asked he’d have happily painted his face purple and performed a naked conga through Manchester (I’m not judging).

The length and cost of these Hit and Run shows varied wildly. Some paid a pound a minute to watch Prince; others got two and a half hours for a tenner. London fans queued for up to twelve hours; Manchester fans could buy advance tickets in minutes. Occasionally it seemed as if the audience had gone from being pliant fans to dictating what they wanted from Prince, campaigning to bring the ticket price down from seventy pounds to ten at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, scuppering the announced plans to play two shows in one night at the Manchester Academy, or three at Koko.

Prince’s attempts to play three shows a night are frequently cursed—when he tried to do this in L.A. the venues were beset with sound problems—and it was the same here. The downside was that we didn’t get to see what a 3rdEyeGirl aftershow might be like (although the setlist for the first Ronnie Scott’s show gives an indication) but for me the highlight of the Koko show (and friends who were at the first Manchester show say it was the same there) were the encores; the point at which Prince stopped saving his energy for another performance and decided to leave everything onstage right there and then.

There were more than enough highlights during the brief run to mark this out as a truly significant tour—the 3rdEyeGirl songs he’s released so far sound so much better live (especially ‘Fixurlifeup’) than they did as downloads; as with all his best reinventions there are a few new arrangements that make you wonder how you missed the qualities of a deep cut first time round (‘The Max’) and some songs that seemed to have lost their live spark for a while (‘I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man’, ‘She’s Always In My Hair’) have their magic back. I’ve never been that much of a Clash fan but ‘Train in Vain’ was so much more interesting a choice of cover for him than ‘London’s Calling’—the song most American singers choose when they want to make friends with English audiences—and 3rdEyeGirl finally allows him to do justice to some of his finest hard rock songs and covers (‘Crimson and Clover’, ‘Chaos and Disorder’), a side of his work that seems to grow ever more important.

This run has bonded fans in a way they haven’t been for years, maybe not since the days of the New Power Generation Music Club. It’s also allowed thousands of people to declare their love of Prince via their twitter feeds or to each other in the queue. What will be fascinating is whether this will continue with the release of the new album and beyond: is it just Prince in concert that people love, or is this the beginning of a full-scale critical reappraisal? Either way, this has been the most significant period (on this side of the Atlantic, at least) for Prince fans in years.

Buy Prince by Matt Thorne here.