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Anil Dash @anildash
, 18 tweets, 5 min read Read on Twitter
In the fall of 1981, Prince was respected (his recent Dirty Mind album had been a critical smash, but had slightly dimmed his rep as an R&B artist, and he’d only had one real pop hit) but wasn’t yet a star. Pretty much everybody agreed he was about to be the Next Big Thing, tho…
So, just before the release of his Controversy album, Prince got the gig of a lifetime: He was invited to open for the Rolling Stones. At LA Memorial Coliseum. Damn near 100,000 people, in a slot almost no young black artist had ever been offered. This could change everything.
Prince got the band into shape (they weren’t yet called The Revolution, but they were getting close.) Prince’s bassist & childhood friend Andre Cymone had just departed, so @BrownmarkNation was drafted as the new bass player. These shows would be his debut, befitting a new album.
At that moment, Prince was the wildest, most shocking thing going on in pop culture. Musically brilliant, lyrically terrifying (songs about incest and oral sex!), racially ambiguous & unabashedly androgynous. And he looked like this.
The band charged the stage early in the day, bottom billed in a lineup that also included J. Geils and George Thorogood. Prince was definitely taking notes on the biggest rock bands of the day, watching and learning to see what sounds he could incorporate.…
The band was well-rehearsed — they’d been honing the songs over the course of the Dirty Mind tour and knew them front and back. Their club shows during the prior year had been more than strong enough to carry a stadium.
But by two or three songs in, the crowd had turned. Despite the strength of the material, and the band putting on its best Rock God stance, the racism & homophobia of the Stones crowd reared its head. Jeers and boos grew and crescendoed into people actually throwing food & trash.
By the start of the fourth song, at less than 20 minutes in, the environment was aggressively hostile. For the first time in his career, on the biggest stage he’d ever commanded, the 23-year-old Prince stopped the show. The pelting picked up, and the band stormed from the stage.
Prince was crushed. It was as chagrined as any of his team could ever remember seeing him. And as big a humiliation as one could imagine. He swore he wouldn’t return for the 2nd show of the series, two days later. Several members of his entourage recall pleading w/ him to return.
Whether it was effective persuasion, sheer stubbornness, or the challenge of trying to win over the toughest crowd he’d ever faced, Prince did come back, two days later. October 11, 1981, as part of the same lineup, Prince and his band took the stage again.
This time, they had slightly changed the arrangements, sharpened them up. The guitars were a little more distorted. Prince sang “When You Were Mine”, the Dirty Mind album cut that was perhaps his best-ever pop-rock song, in his lower register instead of the usual falsetto.
The cutting-edge synth breaks in the songs were overlaid with scorching guitar solos. Even Prince’s lyrical phrasing dropped his usual rhythmic exploration in favor of straight-ahead rock growling. For the 1st time ever, Prince compromised his unique sound to appease an audience.
Now, plenty of times before & since, Prince made smart tactical moves to win over a crowd or grow his fan base. He was, after all, a pop artist. But when he made those moves, it was always grounded in his world, in *his* sound. Not this time. Recordings of the show are striking.
And then? It didn’t work.

The crowd came back, even more aggressive than two days prior. The band did a full song with Prince offstage, and in the next song, things got so bad he called the show off again. It was the last time Prince ever cut a show short due to crowd response.
The incident clearly stayed with Prince; it was the first serious setback in a career that had been praised almost from the start. But it clearly taught him a lesson — he never again changed his msusic to win over a crowd. Instead, he pushed harder and harder into his own sound.
A few days later, Prince’s “Controversy” album came out. It was the record that cemented the Minneapolis sound into the public consciousness. He toured relentlessly, growing to huge arena-sized crowds while starting to cross over with open minded white pop & rock audiences, too.
By five years later, Prince was one of the biggest stars in the world. After a blistering stand of shows at Wembley Arena, he graciously welcomed Ron Woods onstage during an after show to tear through the Stones’ “Miss You” together.
Prince played every kind of song & style over the following years, during literally thousands of concerts. But from that point forward, his response to skeptical crowds was always to *challenge* them, to push them. And every time he did, he won them over.
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