As Prince tickets went on sale a few weeks ago, sometime between the point when I sat frantically refreshing the booking page on my laptop, tablet and phone simultaneously, and the point at which my bank account became several hundred pounds the lighter for seats way up in the heavens at The Hydro (standing sold-out in a heartbeat), a thought maybe ought to have crossed my mind: are you sure?
It’s been 19 years since the Purple One last played Scotland, and since then, let’s be honest, he hasn’t made one properly good album. Since his infamous early-Nineties bust-up with Warner Bros, when he accused the label of treating him like a “slave”, then spitefully changed his name to an unpronounceable squiggle and started laying deliberately low-grade material on them to hasten the end of a $100 million contract, the Minnesotan celestial funk rock maestro has largely gone independent. Undoubtedly there have been assorted nuggets – Black Sweat, Colonized Mind, Pretzelbodylogic – on the countless albums and standalone singles Prince has put out since via his own label NPG. But even diehard fans would surely admit that much material these last two decades has screamed lack-of-quality-control. (Dismal cover art tends to say it all).
A scan of recent setlists reveals equal amounts random recent stuff, B-sides, covers and true gems from Prince Rogers Nelson’s peerless purple patch from the late Seventies to the late Eighties, when he sat coiffed and immaculate astride a shiny motorbike at the zenith of world pop. For the possibility of hearing Controversy, I Would Die 4 U or 1999 at The Hydro, I accept the certainty of hearing lots of new or obscure songs, knowing all the while that I’m gonna have to party like I’m in row 1999.
So I hit Pay. Purchases of passion as a music fan don’t require rational justification – that’s their beauty. And, well, he’s Prince – one of the most wildy talented multi-instrumentalists, songwriters and showmen ever – a performer who can howl soulfully to the moon while playing a screaming guitar solo, busting outrageous dance moves and rocking an outfit that leaves nothing to the imagination. He’s a veritable ninja of funk. But if a fuller case is needed for seeing this has-been-to-some, at £71.50 to £137.50 a ticket before add-ons, here goes.
For starters, £100 average isn’t a bad investment by current standards for an artist of Prince’s stature – some fans have paid much more to watch Kate Bush at her upcoming first live shows in 35 years in London. During Prince’s spate of guerrilla shows in London this year, some fans were lucky enough to catch him in venues as intimate as the 2,500-capacity KOKO or even 350-capacity Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (his last Glasgow performance in 1995 was a secret show at the Garage on Sauchiehall Street following two nights at the SECC). But the 13,000-capacity Hydro isn’t the most impersonal room in which to watch His Purpleness compared to stadiums and festivals. Prince isn’t a big man even close-up, so the nearer you can get, the better. More romantically, I’d argue Prince’s independent years have strengthened his aura of mystique and spontaneity, and that seeing him live now – a slave only to his muse – is a unique experience.
People baulking at ticket prices may not have been encouraged to take a punt on Prince by his almost wholesale absence from YouTube – for how else do casual gig-goers these days, especially those too young to have seen a veteran artist last time they came to town, tend to educate themselves before deciding whether or not to splash out? Prince, ever-fastidious about controlling his brand, threatened legal action against the video streaming giant in 2007 and forced them to remove thousands of his videos and songs. One Pennsylvanian woman claimed she heard from lawyers just for having Let’s Go Crazy playing on a CD player in the background of a clip of her 18-month-old baby. Perversely, this icon of the MTV age, whose fame peaked when he starred in his own feature film, 1984’s Purple Rain, has become almost video invisible.
As for the odd setlists – truly it’s a damning indictment of our times that an artist should be deemed less appealing for being unpredictable in concert. If ten years of gig reviewing have revealed to me any one increasing trend in large-scale live music, it’s the slow death of surprise, as stage shows grow ever more elaborately synchronised with video footage, lighting displays and dance routines, forcing the same setlist – even the same chat sometimes – to become increasingly necessary night in, night out. Are we really to do down an artist daring enough to whip out almost any song at any time from a crazily prolific 35-year career? I’ll gladly trade the mere shred of a possibility of losing it to the opening bars of When You Were Mine or Lady Cab Driver at some point for being sure he’ll do Raspberry Beret at 9:47pm.
In his present condition, answerable only to his extravagant instinct, Prince is like a rare exotic bird perched atop his own cage. And yet, in another one of those unexpected flights of fancy to which he’s prone, he recently announced that he’s re-signed with Warners – the same record company he accused of reducing him to slavery, signalling his formal re-entry to the heart of a music industry he once derided as “the speculation business”. A 30th anniversary digitally remastered deluxe reissue of Purple Rain is in the works. From there, it’s not impossible to picture him doing one of those plays-classic-album-in-full tours so beloved of modern promoters.
Prince’s wilderness years may be ending. If that means a return of greater quality control – and it’s tantalising to imagine him hooking up with a big-name contemporary producer or artist, a Daft Punk or a Danger Mouse, on his next record – so be it. But if it also means Prince’s wings as as a live entertainer are clipped, I definitely won’t regret shelling out a small-fortune for those tickets, even if I do have to watch this pint-sized purple pop deity from a vantage point up just beneath the rafters. Besides, I’m sure I’ll manage to sneak into standing.
• Prince plays the Hydro, Glasgow, on 22 May