Screams like teen spirit: girls go wild at a Beatles concert, Christmas 1963. Photo: Sharok Hatami/Rex
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Forty pairs of abandoned knickers: Maureen Lipman on the Fab Four in Hull

In the second half, John Lennon stepped forward to the mike, thighs straining against his shiny and confining suit. He shook his locks, lowered his eyes and let me have it.

Where I came from, you were a Beatles girl or a Rolling Stones girl. Just as, a few years earlier, you were a Connie Francis or a Juliette Gréco girl: white shoes and a beehive hairdo or black roll-neck, kohl and flatties. Mecca Locarno or basement jazz room, Pepsi-Cola or whisky sour: queuing at both. This was Hull, 1963, before it had culture and a marina, when David Whitfield covered “Cara Mia” in a blazer made by my dad and Philip Larkin darkly traversed the university library.

I was 17 years old, working on my English, art and history A-level syllabus and mooning around my bedroom listening to Doris Day and reading The Golden Notebook. I was a good enough actress to do a convincing squirm at Elvis’s gyrations, but frankly I had less idea what “sent” my gang of schoolfriends than I had of the unification of Italy 1871.

Every end of term Paddy, Ann, Marilyn, Janet, Leonie, Kay, Jennifer and me – the arty girls – led the whole school out on to the playing fields and performed an entire Sunday Night at the London Palladium show. Marilyn Atkinson’s “Cliff”, with tight trousers and lacquered quiff, drew more screams than the real thing. Crushes abounded. I had gaggles of fans who waved autograph books at me. We were legends.

One of my “crushees” had a dad who worked at the Regal Cinema and therefore had access to free seats at the forthcoming Beatles concert. A giggling posse of navy blazers asked me if I would like to go along and, out of pity, I agreed – after all, it was only 18 months since I had stalked Pauline Melville after her performance as the maid in Cranford. As far as I was concerned, the Beatles were a nice-sounding group of young men with shiny hair and no lapels. Nothing to sing about.

At the concert, the music was completely drowned out by the screaming. It was tribal, and I viewed my fellow mortals from my balcony seat with the same amusement and disdain I felt when audiences rose and lumbered out before the end credits ran on Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 – which I saw 15 times. So unprofessional!

Then I reached my road to Damascus. In the second half, John Lennon stepped forward to the mike, thighs straining against his shiny and confining suit. He shook his locks, lowered his eyes, put his overbite delicately in place and let me have it:

 

The best things in life

are free

But you can keep it for the

berds [sic] and bees . . .

Someone very close to me screamed the most piercing of screams, a primal mating call. I looked around peripherally without losing sight of the tiny demigod in front of me:

I want mo-o-o-ney.

Thass what I want.

My Cornetto dangled. Sweat ran across my upper lip and down my virgin armpits. The screaming was increasing in volume and intensity. Someone was about to implode. I realised with an electric shock that the screaming someone was me. I continued to scream for the next 40 minutes. The rest of the concert is a blur. As is the smug excitement of my fourth-year fans, and the moment their heroine was dragged away from the stage door by her dad to his Morris Oxford.

“Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three,” Larkin wrote. He wasn’t far wrong. The next day, I had a voice like Eartha Kitt; the manager of the Regal told my dad they’d cleared away 40 pairs of abandoned knickers at the cinema; and life, as I knew it, was never the same again. I still thank John Lennon from the bottom of my heart. From that day on, I understood what Martha Quest in The Golden Notebook was actually doing it all for. 

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES
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Why Prince wanted to make his listeners feel inadequate

Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals.

Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, by Ben Greenman
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £17.99

During his mid-Eighties imperial phase, stretching from the eruption of “When Doves Cry” to the corruption of “Alphabet St”, Prince was a global object of desire: hyper-talented, cool, funny and charming. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have him or be him. Have him or be him, covetousness or envy – those two reactions are more than a little negative. And more than a little negative is how I felt about both Prince and Ben Greenman when I got to the end of Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex and God in the Music of Prince, a book as cumbersome as its title. Published a year after his death, it didn’t make me hate Prince as much as Blake Bailey’s monumental takedown Cheever: a Life made me despise John Cheever, but it came close.

The Prince we meet in anecdotes and legal depositions from both before and after his imperial phase is cranky, petty-minded and grasping. This may be because Greenman, who contributes to the New Yorker and has assisted George Clinton and Brian Wilson with their memoirs, is a much more entertaining writer when ripping Prince to bits than when attempting to build a shrine from his mortal remains. Here Greenman is, in flat-footed praise mode yet inadvertently dissing his subject: “From Stevie Wonder, he took mastery. From David Bowie, he took mystery. All of these influences were ingested and digested until Prince, nourished, went about making something new.” Follow that metaphor through and Prince’s “something new” can only be faecal.

But here is Greenman criticising the fall-from-grace album Graffiti Bridge. “The only thing holding back these epics from unconditional greatness is their poor aerodynamics,” he writes. “They’re like ­giant whiteboards filled with flow charts and equations: diagrams of how to make a Prince song work at top speed without actually working at top speed.” That simile, of subsonic flying whiteboards, is ridiculous but accurate – and captures something of what Prince is like when he is his diagrammatic rather than his funky self.

There are great insights here. Some are offhand, such as, “What is Purple Rain, the movie, but an argument for collaboration?” Others are more laboured but worthwhile as mini-obituaries: “Prince was a flamboyant star with a penchant for intellectual ­exploration, but he was also a sly comedian, a critic of existing soul music stereotypes, and a massive egomaniac.”

Elsewhere, the prose is pretentious, bathetic and nonsensical in equal measure. Of Prince’s alter ego Camille, ­Greenman writes, “This pitch-shifted version of Prince hovered between male and female and, in the process, cracked open previously conventional issues of power, sexuality, ego and
id.” Clearly, Prince/Camille had no issue with the superego – or, at least, didn’t feel the need to hover and in the process crack it.

By the end, I felt that this book was a fitting monument to Prince: glib and unsatisfying. When I listen to his music, I feel that something is being taken from me rather than given. At best, I end a song such as “Kiss” feeling disburdened, floating, freer; at worst, I feel hungry, swizzed, abused. And I think this is deliberate. Prince aimed to make his listeners want to have him or be him. He did not like them to consider themselves his equals. Making them feel inadequate was the whole point.

There is a clip of him performing Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” with three members of the band. Each time the chorus comes up and everyone in the room sings, “I-i am everyday people,” you can see Prince struggling to join in, because he’s thinking, “You may be, but I’m not.”

I don’t doubt that the latter-day Prince could be a magnificent performer. The fewer musicians he had with him, the better he got. Fans left his concerts feeling that they’d been at the greatest gig in their life, but Prince was the inventor of the after-show after-show. For super-fans, there was always another gig at a smaller, more obscure venue, starting at three or five o’clock in the morning. Just when it looked like he could give no more, it turned out – wearyingly – that he was inexhaustible. There was always more of the same. More 15-minute funk jams. More cheeky covers intended to prove that Prince was a more talented musician than the songs’ composers, because he could insert a half-diminished seventh chord where they’d strummed E minor. Worst of all, there were more and more muso excursions into 1970s fusion. It’s a fundamental question: if Prince was such a great musician, why did he play such God-awful jazz?

In the end, as a fan who had adored every­thing he did up to Lovesexy, I became angry with him and stopped listening. So did Greenman: “When I started working on this book, I promised myself that I would listen only to Prince’s music. I had enough to last me months. But about six weeks in, the Prince-only diet started to feel claustrophobic and maybe even a little ghoulish . . .” What Greenman found, I think, is that in Prince’s musical world the space gets perpetually smaller, because ultimately all the singer wants you to concentrate on is his self-aggrandisement. It’s fitting that Prince kept his unreleased recordings in “the vault” – a place for miserly hoarding of surplus value.

The ghoulishness of the Prince diet is that it gives no proper nourishment. It’s there in the lyrics to one of his offhand masterpieces: “Starfish and coffee/Maple syrup and jam/Butterscotch clouds, a tangerine/And a side order of ham”. This isn’t soul food. You’ll be hungry an hour later.

Greenman’s most revealing footnote – about himself and about his subject – concerns another creepy, slave-driving manufacturer of confectionery. “The movie side of Warner Bros had [in the early 1990s] just acquired the rights to remake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . . . Prince, I thought, would be perfect for the part . . . I wrote a long letter to Warner making the case but was too shy to send it.”

In this book, that long letter is finally delivered. Prince was a perfect Wonka. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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