Crammed in along Adam & Eve Court, hundreds of fans awaited the arrival of Madonna: they were the fortunate ones who had queued for hours two days earlier to claim one of the 600 white wristbands securing their place at an intimate gig with the icon.
The announcement of the star's exclusive performance yesterday at the HMV store on Oxford Street in London sparked a mad scramble for free tickets to hear tracks from her latest album, American Life, as well as a few older numbers, including "Like a Prayer", and "Don't Tell Me" from the previous album Music.
After so many years at the top, with young pretenders challenging her for the mantle of Queen of Pop and some poor reviews of the new album, the question remained: what was the true worth of such a prize ticket? The answer: up to £1,500 on eBay.
Those who secured wristbands on Wednesday evening wore them for the next 48 hours. "One guy walked out of the store and someone offered him £800,'' said Chris Golding, 21, an accountant who was waiting behind barriers outside the store before the star arrived yesterday.
A swift straw poll of the queue indicated that many had taken a sneaky look on the Net to find out the value of their wristbands.
Most claimed they were not interested in selling them; those who were only then realised the problem of taking the band off their wrist without cutting it.
Rumours spreading backwards from the front of the queue – where some fans had stayed overnight to ensure their place by the stage – suggested that one person had bought his wristband for a knockdown price of £300.
Madonna turned up at the shop just before 4pm to prepare for the mini-gig and promotion for American Life. She was accompanied by Mirwais, her group's producer. It was her first appearance at a shop in Britain and possibly the only chance fans will have to see her play live in the country this year.
On Wednesday, she performed at an even smaller event in France for an audience of 200 at a Parisian radio station. Two weeks ago she played in another small gig at Tower Records in New York. But a spokeswoman for the singer dismissed suggestions yesterday that the events were publicity stunts to boost sales after some unwelcome reviews. "Completely ridiculous,'' she said. "She's had worse reviews in her career. It's just something different as a thank you to fans.''
The album has been knocked off the top of the album charts, despite a huge marketing campaign, after a brief tenure at No 1 in America and Britain.
On its release, The Independent said: "As far as the instrumentation goes, it makes decent wallpaper, but someone should tell her that she isn't a poet.''
The fans, however, remained loyal. Rob Draper, 28, a recruitment consultant working in London, said: "[The album] is novel and she's always adapted her approach. [The event] is a great way to meet the people and it's like she's going back to her roots.''
HMV secured the musical coup only last week. It shut up shop in the early afternoon as fans ringed the building to try to glimpse Madonna's arrival. The small cheer and the scurrying of hundreds around to the back of the building suggested that most people missed her despite waiting for hours without tickets.