12:38pm PT by Alex Ritman
The Night Prince Played a Free Secret Gig in London to Just 50 People
As the world puts its Prince Rogers Nelson collections on continuous shuffle, possibly swears at Spotify for not aiding it in this endeavor and maybe even curses itself for missing him that one time he came to town, for a small group of Brits, a dark, rain-soaked night in London just over two years ago stands out as a rather special — and unusually intimate — experience with the Purple One.
At midnight on Feb. 4, 2014, Prince — just weeks before he would fill stadiums across the country — played an impromptu, free and decidedly hush-hush gig in the Electric Ballroom, a dark, dirty and once-dilapidated concert hall in the capital's Camden neighborhood.
While the Ballroom was something of an iconic venue, having played host to The Clash, Paul McCartney and Blur in its more illustrious lifetime, on this particular evening, only those with insider knowledge had any idea of the legend who would be passing through its doors.
"I had heard a rumor that he was on the way to the U.K., but nobody knew when or how or where," recalls Robin Lee, a self-declared Prince fanatic who has been obsessed with the singer since he "grew ears."
Then a message from a friend suggested that the singer would be heading to the venue for a sound check.
"This was about 11 p.m. on a sodden, February night. The weather was disgusting."
Having put his boots on so fast he got "boot burn," Lee "legged it" down to Camden, thankfully just a short bus ride from where he lived (the London Underground was on strike that night).
"I got to the Ballroom, and basically there were about 10 or 15 people waiting outside — nobody really knew what was going on. All Prince's management had done was tweet [U.K. broadcaster] Channel 4, saying they were on their way to do a sound check," he says.
After half an hour of waiting in the rain, Lee was let in, having lied to the bouncer, saying that he was with the TV network.
"I wasn't, but I'd been talking to a girl who was," he laughs.
Inside, he found himself among just 20 or 30 other still-bemused concertgoers ("most not arsed about being there") and wandered away from the main stage and bar while waiting to find out what was happening.
"I could hear a band sound-checking in the other room, so I looked past the rope and could just see Prince — well, half of his silhouette onstage. And I was like ‘f—ing hell, this is actually happening.' "
Lee was the first in, once the rope had been lifted, and immediately ran to the front barrier.
"For about 10 seconds, there was just me, Prince and his band. I was looking at him, and he was looking at me. And I was literally about 5 feet away. I couldn't think of what to say, so I was like, ‘Thanks for coming, Prince,' as if he'd come to a f—ing meeting! And he just kind of nodded."
Prince, in a fur waistcoat and flashy high heels, together with his new all-female three-piece — 3rdeyegirl — ended up performing for about an hour, playing new stuff and reworked material, in front of an initial crowd of just 50 people.
"But by the end, there were about 70," says Lee, adding that most were "cool journalists" not really in the mood for dancing.
"About halfway through, they weren't cool anymore — he'd absolutely won them over. It was a proper gig."
The concert would be the first in a series of about 15 guerilla shows Prince performed at the Electric Ballroom and around London that month. With word out, however, the others would all be full to capacity, with snaking queues outside. And they weren't free either, although few complained about the £10 ($14) ticket price.
Lee would end up going to all but two of them, including two the very next day (the first of which he would run to while wearing painting gear, having helped a friend decorate his flat).
"And the only reason I missed two was because if you were in one gig, you couldn't get a ticket for the next. It was an impossibility."