'He was mesmerising': Barney Hoskyns on Prince, five years on

Music journalist Barney Hoskyns and Prince

Music journalist Barney Hoskyns and Prince - Credit: Barney Hoskyns/PA

"At the end of the day when people say 'what was so great about Prince?', all the other stuff is neither here nor there. The reason that we love Prince is because he moved us." 

April 21 marks five years since the death of Prince, one of pop's greatest performers, songwriters and musicians.

He died of an overdose of painkillers at his Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis. Although that city was very much part of Prince’s identity, he had an affection for London, visiting often to play shows in both arenas and small clubs. In 1994 he opened his Sign o’ the Times shop in Camden

Our guest on the Ham&High Podcast this week is Barney Hoskyns, editorial director of Rock's Backpages.

Prince first entered Barney's record collection with the funk single I Wanna Be Your Lover, but it was seeing him live that really suggested something special was going on.

"The real kind of sort of road to Damascus moment was me happening to be in New York in very early 1981, and going to see him at the Ritz Theatre," he said. "And that was just absolutely such a jaw-dropping experience."

Although he found some elements of the show "a bit ridiculous", he said Prince was "just so riveting as a performer". 

"He was just in total command, both in terms of the kind of funk grooves that the group was playing, and also just in terms of his ability to tear off a really bitchin' guitar solo. I mean it was like: 'This kid can really play guitar as well.' 

"And he was just mesmerising."

Prince on stage at Wembley Arena in 1995

Prince on stage at Wembley Arena in 1995 - Credit: PA/Sean Dempsey

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By the time Prince was breaking through to the mainstream, helped by exposure on MTV, Barney was based in Los Angeles and got the call to cover the 1999 tour for the NME.

"It was phenomenal seeing him... maybe two years on from the Ritz gig and then a year on from the Lyceum (in London) - seeing how far he had come and what a big thing this was," he said. 

"I mean, Little Red Corvette essentially had made him a pop superstar. He was a star now. He wasn't playing the Ritz anymore - these were big arenas."

He said there was a brief handshake with Prince himself during the tour, but no warmth.

"He looked very suspicious and unsettled by the fact that there was a journalist there at all," he said. "I assume he was aware that the NME had sent someone to go on tour - he must have approved that - but he kind of looked like a rabbit in the headlights."

Many years later, Barney would get the chance to interview the singer. By then Prince was a practising Jehovah's Witness and had some questions to ask about Barney's book about his career, Imp of the Perverse.

"That title did not endear me to him. He asked me to explain it and I wriggled and writhed and contorted myself, trying to make it sound okay, and obviously citing Edgar Allan Poe, whose short story it was named after," he said.

"In a way, what I would say is he was playfully quite sadistic with me. He was like a cat toying with a mouse. He was having enormous fun at my expense, making me squirm."

In 2007 Prince announced he would be playing 21 dates O2 arena

In 2007 Prince announced he would be playing 21 dates O2 arena - Credit: PA

Imp of the Perverse was released in 1988, at the height of Prince's powers. Purple Rain had made him a star, and he had just released Sign o' the Times. 

Although his records would not reach those critical heights again, Prince's reputation as a live performer grew and grew.

From the arena extravaganzas of the 1980s and 1990s, to appearances at Montreux Jazz Festival, to rock sets with 3rdeyegirl, Prince's gigs were musical events.

Scene-stealing shows during the Super Bowl and at his and George Harrison's induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame are captured for posterity on film.

For Barney, though, the greatest Prince is Prince at a piano. Throughout his career he performed solo ballads, whether it be How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore or the versions of 17 Days and Mary Don't You Weep which appeared on the posthumously released Piano & Microphone 1983.

Letting the soul and gospel influences shine through, Prince was taking entirely solo shows on tour when he died

"It's as good as Aretha Franklin - when you when you listen to Aretha alone at the piano doing gospel," said Barney. "It's on that level of natural talent and just this channel of extraordinary emotion - somebody just so deeply saturated by gospel, tradition and soul music."

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Prince, on stage at Wembley Arena.

Prince, on stage at Wembley Arena. - Credit: PA