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Prince Opening For The Stones
"Rock and Roll California!"
Christopher C. Campbell
Urban legends are popular in this society. Especially in the music world. Once a rumor sticks, it's almost impossible to shake. Case in point on October 9 and October 11 1981, Prince was the opening act for the Rolling Stones at The Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. This event has been documented several times through out the years. And surprisingly, in slightly different variations. Especially pertaining to the first show. Even in biographies about Prince, the account of these events are inconsistent at best. The one main thing that seems to gather unity and harmony in the cosmos regarding the event of these two shows is that Prince and his band got royally booed off stage. That chapter is now etched in Rock and Roll folklore. And it's also a major footnote in Prince's own stardust career. But like most urban legends, it's not all entirely true. For years, regarding this event, music journailsts has consistently printed incomplete information. They can't even agree upon the set list Prince played. On the streets, where urban legends are born, rockers and funksters alike have spoken and pontificated on this event like it was some rite of passage. But one listen to an audio of Prince's entire set from the first show on Oct 9 tells an entirely different tale. One that very clearly displays that Prince and his band was not booed off stage. Like it had always been reported.
Back in 1981, I was an eleven year old kid who was a huge fan of music. I listened to everything. Didn't matter the genre; be it rock, funk, new wave, disco, punk or pop. If it sounded good, I listened to it. My favorites were Hendrix, KISS, Parliament/Funkadelic, David Bowie, The Commodores, Led Zeppelin and Donna Summer. For me though, in 1981, it was all about Rick James and Journey! I dug Prince too. At the time during the Stones shows, Prince had only released three albums with " Dirty Mind " being the latest. It was with this album that gathered attention from the rock critics.The rock glitterati had hailed Prince and his Dirty Mind album as something and someone to definately keep an eye on. The rock critics, much more so than the r&b press, praised Prince for his marriage of musical genres. Fusing funk, rock and new wave all with a "punk" attitude. Even visually, during his live shows from this tour, Prince evoked an array of artists such as Hendrix, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders and Mick Jagger. During this period, Prince was seen in the eyes of the rock press as a vanguard, a maverick. Prince caught Mick Jagger's eye and ears from this album and tour. The first song on side two from the Dirty Mind album "Uptown" alone would have done Mick in. Being that this song is a straight bite of the Stones 1978 hit "Miss You". Prince has said that he had always wished he had written "Miss You". With his song "Uptown", he damn near did. Mick went to see Prince's live show at The Ritz in New York. Impressed with Prince, it was Mick who wanted and got Prince as an opening act for the Stones upcoming tour. Prince was lined up for more than just those two shows in Los Angeles. He was booked to open even more shows for The Stones, including two shows at The Silverdome in Detroit. Giving even more credence as to just how much Mick and the Stones management dug Prince as an artist.
On paper, the idea of having Prince open for The Stones made sense. The Stones have had a history of black artists opening for them. Before Prince, Ike & Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and Billy Preston all opened for The Stones. And Prince, combining funk with rock, much like The Stones themselves had done, seemed hand in glove. Not to mention Prince's sexual androgynous image, which didn't fall too far from the tree of Mick Jagger's own mirror. To Prince, not only was it seen as a great opportunity to reach a larger audience, it was no doubt an honor. The Stones were an influence on Prince and in particular, he had patterned his stage persona to some degree based on Mick. Prince's guitarist at the time, Dez Dickerson, who also admired the Stones, said he too saw the potential in getting the opening slot. Dickerson has said that he and Prince saw themselves as "the black Rolling Stones". But he also has been quoted as to telling Prince prior to The Stones shows that they may experience a reception from the crowd that they simply were not accustomed to. Dez told writer Dave Hill in Hill's book "Prince; A Pop Life" "I had been trying to tell Prince for a few weeks going into this that we may see something from this rock n' roll crowd that we're not used to seeing." Prince's new album "Controversy" was to be released on Oct. 14, just a few days after the Stones shows. I had already been jamming the new 45 single "Controversy" that had come out that September. Living in Southern California, I had known about the upcoming Stones concerts. I too liked The Stones and my girlfriend at that time, her father had a ticket to the first show. Just prior to this, I saw an advertisement of the line up and saw that Prince was on the bill. I flipped out. I thought that was the coolest thing Prince opening for The Stones. I thought it fit. I remember all of a sudden wanting to go. But of course at that stage, the tickets had long since been sold out. So the day before the first show, I was over my girlfriend's house and I was talking to her father about the concert. I mentioned Prince being on the bill. He had never heard of Prince. So I proceeded to tell him about Prince. Her father told me that he'll tell me what he thought of this guy named Prince when I saw him again. The night the first concert ended, I listened to a local rock station here in L.A. where they were talking about the show. The one main thing the disc jockeys were going on about was that Prince got booed. They were making jokes about it. Really yuking it up. I was surprised actually that they went as far as they did with it. The next day, I listened to a local black station. Whenever they played Prince, the dj's there would start talking about it as well. They were more somber in tone and the vibe was more "Well, I told you so!" type of thing. It was slightly depressing. Not so much that Prince got booed (although that was a drag) but the commentary I was hearing on these two radio stations. From the rock stations, I was hearing laughter and jeers. From the black stations, it was a response as to why they thought Prince got the reaction he received from the Stones audience in the first place. Both stations were careful what they said on the air but it was the "in between the lines" dialogue that disturbed me. Both stations were slightly suggesting that Prince's race had played a factor. And both stations were definately on board regarding Prince's image as part of the culprit as well. The black station's dj's basically echoed "Well, what did Prince expect?" Where as the rock stations was more "Who was this guy ? And what in the hell was he wearing?!" It was clear that both stations contributed some of the fans booing to what Prince had on. A black trench coat, a white tuxedo shirt and vest, bikini briefs, black legwarmers and high heel boots....YIKES! Not the most mainstream outfit in any circumstance. In the best of situations, it's STILL bound to raise a few eyebrows playing to your crowd. But playing to 100,000 fans who did not come and pay to see you? And for the most part, had never even heard of you? Not good.
From over the years of reading about this event, writers themeslves have all echoed, in some form or another, that the reason Prince got booed largely had to do with him being black, his image or both. They couldn't write about it without Prince's race being brought up. Which is a dead giveaway they believed it to be an issue. But also, as I mentioned at the top of this story, to my surprise, many writers who had wriiten about this event simply printed misinformation. Let me attempt to set the record straight. Rumor; it has always been reported that on October 9th 1981, Prince and his band got booed off stage. Not true. On the first night, Prince played a 5 song set. After the third song, Prince received boos from the crowd, but he didn't get booed off stage. The crowd stopped booing and Prince and his band proceeded to play another two songs, finishing up their set. Prince took the stage and the first song he and his band played was the song "Bambi" from his second album. Which was an excellent choice. It's a straight out rock number with a heavy nod to Hendrix. Live, it was even heavier. Perfect song to open up with in this setting. Interesting note; on the album version, Prince sung "Bambi" in his falsetto voice. Here at this show, he sung it in his much lower, more natural voice. Prince ended the song with just him on lead guitar, playing a very Hendrix influenced solo. After the first song, you can definately hear some applause. You then hear Prince telling the crowd "Put your hands together...right here. Come on!" You then hear Prince shout "Rock and Roll California!" You then hear Dez telling the audience to "Get ready fot the Stones!" The next song was "When U Were Mine" from Prince's "Dirty Mind" album. Good performance by the band and great vocals by Prince and Dez. Again, Prince sung this live in his natural voice and not in falsetto as he did on the album. You can clearly hear the band was well rehearsed and Prince was very confident sounding. This number really received a good response from the crowd. A very loud ovation actually. Prince and his band, at this stage, really had the crowd's attention. Then the band went into their third song, which was definately responsible for provoking the audience's bad reaction. A song titled "Jack U Off". From Prince's album "Controversy" which was to be released in a week from this show, proved for obvious reasons, to be a poor song choice. The band played the song fine and Prince in no way showed any reservations of singing the lyrics. But when he sung the last line of the song "And as a matter of fact...u can jack me off!" as soon as the band finished the song, roars and roars of boos showered the band. Any folks that Prince had won over from the first two songs were completely thrown out the window. BUT as soon as the boos died down, then the band started up again with their next song, "Uptown" Choosing to perform this song at this outing was a no brainer being that this was the most Stones sounding song Prince had. But for some reason, there is no singing on this song. The band plays but Prince doesn't perform his vocals. Actually for most of the song, you don't even hear Prince playing his guitar. With Prince and Dez both playing guitars in the band, here you only hear Dez. Then only towards the end of the song, you hear Prince blasting in with a guitar solo. From the sound of it, it appeared that Prince walked off the stage for a period, leaving his band to continue to play. Only to later rejoin them at the end of the song. I believe that Prince was so shaken by the reception he received from "Jack U Off", that he chose not to sing during "Uptown".. After the song ended, there was no booing from the crowd. It was like they were waiting to see what Prince was going to do next. The last song in Prince's set was "Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?". Another great choice to perform at this show being that it's a strong uptempo rock number with great guitar playing by Prince. Live, it elevates even more, being that Prince and Dez both play twin lead guitar, harmonizing at the end of the song. Although Prince does sing on this song, you can clearly hear in his voice that his confidence has been drained. There were some scattered appluse and that was that. There was no more booing from the crowd after their third song "Jack U Off"
Obviously the experience shook Prince to the point of him leaving Los Angeles (and his band) and flying back home to Minnesota. His guitarist Dez, the promoter Bill Graham and Mick Jagger had to coax Prince over the telephone to come back to Los Angeles and do the second show. Mick Jagger has said this about what he told Prince; "I talked to Prince on the phone once after he got two cans thrown at him in L.A. He said he didn't want to do any more shows. God, I got thousands of bottles and cans thrown at me. Every kind of debris. I told him, if you get to be a really big headliner, you have to be prepared for people to throw bottles at you in the night. Prepared to die!" Now of course during the next date on Sunday October 11, it was all out war between Prince and several fans. Word obviously had gotten out about Prince from the first show so people came prepared to throw anything they could at Prince. Prince's guitarist Dez Dickerson told writer Dave Hill regarding the second show; "The first thing I saw was a plastic bag full of old grey chicken parts. Someone had taken the time to take the chicken out of the refrigerator on Friday and let it sit out in the sun for two days...it was pretty disgusting." Dickerson has also been quoted as saying this about the first show; "It was Mark Brown's (Prince's bass player) second show with us. Here's this 18 year old who looks like a deer in the headlights, in front of 100,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum....Prince was in his full Dirty Mind regalia with the bikini and the trench coat." Regarding the crowd's reaction after the third song "Jack U Off", Dez Dickerson; "Halfway though the set, those natives got restless. They started taking their Coke cups and throwing them onstage. I look around and Prince is gone." Regarding the second show Dez Dickerson; "That audience brought stuff to throw. Someone threw a fifth of Jack Daniels that barely missed Prince's head during the first measure of the first song. A gallon jug of orange juice exploded on Mark's bass. I'd point at people and smile and wave. When it was all said and done, we got through the set. Going through that added to Prince's bravado." Prince himself spoke on the situation "Don't say that was because of me....that was the audience doing that. I'm sure wearing underwear and a trench coat didn't help matters but if you throw trash at anybody, it's because you weren't trained right at home." Chickens, bottles of Jack Daniels, gallons of orange juice, that's a little bit more than "trash" Wow Mick, those fans weren't messing around. Even during the second show, more than anything, because of all of the debris and "trash" that was being hurled at the band, Prince just walked off stage. This time, the band quickly followed. Prince had this to say about the shows as he told Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times "There was this one dude right in front and you could see the hatred all over his face. The reason I left was because I didn't want to play anymore. I just wanted to fight. I was really angry." Many have speculated since that time that the main reason for Prince receiving the reception that he did was because he was black. For years, I too thought this had a lot to do with it. Not only Prince being black but also the type of artist Prince was. His image, his music, etc. I also thought this because of things I had read all those years in articles and books where the concerts were mentioned. Writers were saying that the mostly white crowd at The Stones shows weren't ready for Prince. Prince's drummer at the time, Bobby Z. told the Minneapolis Star "We were a new experience for that white crazy rock audience. We played great and tight and there were cheers. They were throwing stuff at us but they were throwing stuff all day." Dez Dickerson also told the Minneapolis Star regarding the second show "It seemed like a couple of hundred people tried to run us out of town. Despite the adversity, we stood in an alien situation. We've never found indifference before, let alone hostility." After hearing the audio from the first show brought a whole new perspective to me and showed the glaring oversight that other writers in the past had made. I believe many had written about this without actually hearing anything for themselves. So they came to their own conclusion from things that they were told and along the way, spun a yarn that wasn't exactly that tight on the spool. It is clear as the sun in the sky that, at least during the first show, the only reason Prince received any boos whatsoever was because he played the song "Jack U Off" And even then, he went on to finish his set. Which tells me that the reception that the band received didn't have much to do with race but to do with a song that flared up a strong homophobic reaction from the crowd. Judging from the crowd's initial response to Prince's first two songs "Bambi" and "When U Were Mine", if Prince hadn't performed "Jack U Off" he would have had a very good show. He would have continued to go down well with the crowd and there would have been no spillage over onto the next show. I am in no way condoning the fans reaction to Prince. No artist deserves things being thrown at them. But many times, especially during the 70's and 80's, that was part of the rock and roll concert experience. Dez Dickerson told writer Dan Hill "I had seen many many shows where the headlining act got pelted with things out of admiration. That's rock n' roll. Culturally it's a different thing. Black audiences generally don't throw things unless they don't like what's going on."
"Prince has to find out what it means to be a prince. That's the trouble with conferring a title on yourself before you've proved it. That was his attitude when he opened for us on the tour, and it was insulting to our audience. You don't try to knock off the headliner like that when you're playing to a Stones crowd. You'd be much better off just being yourself and protecting that. He's a prince who thinks he's a king already. Good luck to him." Keith Richards, 1983. I always found this statement from Keith Richards interesting. First, Keith didn't really believe that Prince was Prince's real name. "That's the trouble with conferring a title on yourself before you've proved it." A title? Second, obviously Richards thought Prince and his band somehow was trying to upstage the Stones themselves. "You don't try to knock off the headliner like that when you're playing to a Stones crowd." Knock off the headliner? How and why Keith came to that conclusion is beyond me. Did Keith accuse The J.Geils Band or George Thorogood as trying to knock off the headliner? What was it precisely about Prince that made Richards believe that Prince was actually trying to upstage The Stones? Keith accused Prince of thinking that he was a king already. What did Prince do to make him come across like he was a king? "That was his attitude when he opened for us on the tour, and it was insulting to our audience." Was it? Judging from the first show, the Stones fans were getting into Prince's first couple of songs. And they didn't protest the last two songs either. It was Prince and his band's job, just like it was the J.Geils Band's job to perform to the best of their abilties. They were all playing in front of 100,000 people. That's the last place for any band to not give it their all. Especially in Prince's case with the Stones audience, not being well known. I was never sure where Keith Richards was coming from with that statement.
I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if many who had attended those two concerts in 1981 thought at the time that Prince, at best, would have ended up simply being a flash in the pan. I wonder if any of them thought that Prince, in a year's time, would go on to have a huge crossover rock hit with "Little Red Corvette". And with that same song, have one of the most requested songs on MTV. Which at that time was a channel that primarily played rock artists. I wonder just how many in attendence for those Stones shows were part of the millions who liked and bought the single "When Doves Cry"? A song that would stay at the number one positon for 5 weeks and go on to be voted by Billboard as the number one song of the year. That same year in 1984, Prince would release a rock oriented album and motion picture, Purple Rain. Prince literally dominated radio and MTV. "Let's Go Crazy", another rock song, was also a #1 hit on the charts. At one point during the release of Purple Rain, Prince simultaneously had the #1 film, #1 single AND the #1 album in America. Prince went on to win 3 American Music Awards, 3 Grammy's and an Oscar for Best Music, Original Song Score. Prince's Purple Rain tour was the biggest selling tour of the year with 6 sold out dates in Los Angeles. Ironically, in the same city where he had opened for The Stones just a few years before. I wonder in 1984-85, how many of the Stones fans by then were also Prince fans? Keith Richards quote from 1983 was prophetic and fully realized by 1984; "He's a prince who thinks he's a king already. Good luck to him."