Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: 30 Years Old Today

Paisley Park/Warner Bros, released 30th March 1987

Album chart position: #6 (US), #4 (UK)

Singles released: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (#3 US, #10 UK)
‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (#67 US, #20 UK)
‘U Got The Look’ (#2 US, #11 UK)
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (#10 US, #29 UK)

At the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release, the general critical consensus seemed to be that it was a great double album but, shorn of a few tracks, would have made a sensational single album. But what the press probably didn’t know was that Prince had actually intended to release a triple album!

He believed the three-record set Crystal Ball would have been be a huge artistic statement after a relatively disappointing 1986, but the idea scared the hell out of Warner Bros and also his manager Bob Cavallo. Prince was reluctantly forced to back down.

The tracks intended for Crystal Ball but later abandoned for Sign O’ The Times were ‘Rebirth Of The Flesh’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’, ‘The Ball’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Shockadelica’, and ‘Good Love’ (all hoovered up from two other aborted album projects, Dream Factory and Camille). But even after Prince removed these, he was still left with a 16-track double album, a brilliant mix of the sacred and profane, and a record which many fans (me included) believe was his finest hour.

I can still remember first hearing the title track. It was recorded on 15th July 1986 in a single ten-hour session at LA’s Sunset Sound. Prince was experimenting with a new piece of kit – the Fairlight sampler/synth – but characteristically made the technology swing in a way that no other artist could. The track also demonstrates his love of space; it’s essentially just a minimalist blues featuring a three-note melody line, some sampled drums/bass and a bit of electric guitar. Listening again on the day after the Westminster terror attack of 23rd March, the song’s lyric also seems as relevant now as it was in 1987:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cos she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June

It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy
Until a man truly dies

‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’ are pure party-time – it’s scarcely believable that Prince alone could generate such a raucous studio atmosphere with only Susannah Melvoin’s backing vocals, a few ‘party’ guests and Eric Leeds’ sax for company. The latter also represents his first recorded attempt at hip-hop (unless you count the brief ‘rap’ in ‘Girls & Boys’), typically supplying something usually missing from the genre: humour.

‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, recorded in Prince’s Minneapolis home studio on 15th March 1986, may be his most psychedelic recording, the soundtrack to a dream with seemingly-spontaneous musical moments that no one else could have created. He demonstrates his mastery with the LM-1 drum machine and, vocally, sets up a novel ‘Greek chorus’ effect.

‘Forever In My Life’ takes a melody line very similar in approach to Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ (and maintains Sly’s key of G) but again demonstrates Prince’s remarkable sense of space and also features another extraordinary backing vocal arrangement. The heartfelt lyric was written when he believed he would settle down with fiancée Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Wendy) – sadly it wasn’t to be.

‘It’, another bold experiment with the Fairlight, returns to the cold, sexualised world of 1999, while ‘Hot Thing’ is its flipside, a funky, James Brown-inspired one-chord romp with some great Leeds tenor sax.

‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (another song about Susannah/Wendy), ‘Strange Relationship’ (another big nod to Sly), ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, ‘Starfish And Coffee’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ are just brilliantly performed, beautifully written pop tunes with dashes of psychedelia and soul.

According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince was very influenced by Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love during the recording of SOTT, the track ‘Cloudbusting’ a particular favourite. Other songs showed contemporary influences too – Quiet Storm classic ‘Adore’ was apparently Prince’s response to the popularity of Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason and Patti Labelle’s The Winner In You (and it also hugely influenced the neo-soul movement, particularly D’Angelo’s ballad style). ‘U Got The Look’ – the last song recorded for Sign O’ The Times on 21st Decemeber 1986 – was apparently inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ single.

Sign O’ The Times sold 1.8 million copies in the US, a very similar number to Parade. Some believed the slightly disappointing sales were due to the choice of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as the second single; it is strange that ‘U Got The Look’ didn’t get the nod. But if Prince’s popularity was levelling out in the States, it was growing across Europe, as we’ll explore soon.

You Terrible Cult: The Enduring Appeal Of ‘Withnail And I’

Which films do you revisit every couple of years? I never tire of ‘Sideways’, ‘Diner’, ‘Duel’, ‘Career Girls’, ‘Tape’, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘The Apartment’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and a few others too.

But ‘Withnail’, released 30 years ago this week, should probably go right at the top of that list. I first saw it around 1988 when my dad rented the video. I think he was a vague acquaintance of the movie’s writer/director Bruce Robinson at the time and had an inkling that it would float my boat.

How right he was. I was immediately smitten, drawn in by the superb swearing, anti-establishment mood, hilariously down-at-heel, self-important protagonists and low-key ending. By the early ’90s, there was an outbreak of Withnails all over Britain – pasty, unshaven, rather insolent youths mooching around in leather overcoats and muttering about ‘wanting the finest wines available to humanity’…

Not a big hit on its original release, ‘Withnail’ has nonetheless become a classic cult movie, inspiring many devotees and even a notorious drinking game. But why has it endured? Here are seven reasons why it doesn’t seem to date as the years go by (swearing and spoiler alerts…).

7. No ‘Crap Bits’

Actor Ralph Brown – who plays Danny the Dealer – analysed ‘Withnail”s appeal thus. Almost every movie has a clunky change of pace/tone or a dodgy character beat – not this one, though Bruce Robinson has pinpointed an uncertain moment in the final reel when Danny embarks on his ‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths‘ speech.

6. Lack Of Plot

Let’s face it, nothing much happens in ‘Withnail’. But that’s one of its great strengths. Two out-of-work actors try to go on holiday, one of their uncles comes to stay, falls in love with and attempts to seduce the other one, then they come home. It’s two fingers up to the screenwriting template taught in most film schools. But, framed another way, it’s actually the classic plot: put your hero(es) up a tree, throw rocks at him and get him down, though poor Withnail seems destined to stay up the tree forever…

5. Endlessly Quotable Dialogue

This is probably the key to the film’s longevity. ‘Fork it!’… ‘Monty, you terrible c**t!’… ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’, ‘I demand to have some booze!’ ‘My thumbs have gone weird…’ etc. But as the years go by, it’s the throwaway lines that now make me chuckle the most: ‘Out-vibe it’, ‘Jesus, you’re covered in sh*t,’ ‘I’ve waited an aeon for assistance’, ‘Drugs banned in sport…’ ‘We’ll be found dead in here next spring…’ etc., etc…

4. Memorable Minor Characters

The film is chock-a-block with them. There’s Ralph Brown’s classic turn, Noel Johnson’s delightfully-plastered pub landlord, Llewellyn Rees’s tea-shop proprietor, Michael Elphick’s psychotic poacher and Anthony Strong’s manic traffic cop. All perform as if their lives depended on it. Late, great casting director Mary Selway must take a lot of credit.

3. Outstanding Lead Performances

Has there ever been a better movie drunk than Richard E Grant? (How about Ray Milland in ‘The Lost Weekend’? Ed.) It’s a superb breakout performance, especially coming from a famous teetotaler. In a far less showy role, Paul McGann does a fine job of tethering the movie (Kenneth Branagh and Michael Maloney were apparently sniffing around his part, so to speak), even if his accent flies around a bit. And of course Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty is a delight.

2. Lack Of A Remake/Sequel

Please, please, please may it stay this way. Hollywood: stay away from ‘Withnail’. For that matter, a request to ‘edgy’ young Brit writer/directors: leave well alone. Let the legend endure.

1. Good Grammar

It’s not called ‘Withnail And Me’… (That’s quite enough reasons… Ed.)

Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age Of Wireless: 35 Years Old Today

EMI Records, originally released 25th March 1982

9/10

London-born Thomas Morgan Robertson had already made a bit of a name for himself as a synth wiz for hire – working with Bruce Woolley/The Camera Club, Joan Armatrading, Thompson Twins, Lene Lovich and Foreigner – before embarking on his debut solo album in late summer 1981. But, as he once said, he knew ‘too many chords’ to get any regular employment in the punk and new-wave bands of the era, so was pretty much forced to go it alone.

The Golden Age Of Wireless was mainly recorded at Tapestry (a subterranean studio built and owned by John Kongos situated at the end of my mum’s road in South-West London), essentially a one-man-band operation with occasional contributions from various muso mates (Daniel Miller, Tim Friese-Greene, Andy Partridge, Simon House, Kevin Armstrong, Mutt Lange).

Lyrically, the album seemed to be a Janus-like vision of England – looking back to its WW2 past and forward to the kinds of urban dystopias explored by novelist JG Ballard. ‘Europa And The Pirate Twins’ emphasises this collision of past and future with Andy Partridge’s blues harmonica and the song’s rockabilly feel rubbing up against a barrage of synths and sequencers. The haunting ‘One Of Our Submarines’ repeats the trick with ‘futuristic’ vocal samples alongside ARP string synths more redolent of the mid 1970s.

The album is also for me inextricably linked to the coastal area of South-East England near the White Cliffs Of Dover where I spent family holidays during my late teens, an area of course also reverberating with military history. I’d comb the beaches and walk the cliffs with Wireless playing loud on my Walkman.

But first to ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. The title is taken from a war-time phrase, an expression of female appreciation, as in: ‘Cor, she fair blinded me with science, guvnor!’ For a ‘novelty’ single, it has aged pretty well, mainly due to the incredible amount of detail placed across the stereo image: TV scientist Magnus Pyke’s still-pretty-funny interjections, Simon House’s beguiling, Middle-Eastern violin licks, Matthew Seligman’s pithy synth bass and Dolby’s intriguing sonic ‘events’. The song was a huge American hit, making #5 in May 1983, but could it have been any more British? Never mind the title – one wonders how many Americans even came close to understanding a lyric such as ‘She blinded me with science and failed me in biology’.

But ‘Blinded’ was somewhat of an anomaly. Much of Wireless is downbeat, enigmatic and haunting. Dolby proves himself a brilliant producer and arranger, a master of painting pictures with sound: the shortwave radio which kicks off ‘Radio Silence’; the shipping forecast closing ‘One Of Our Submarines’, the ‘doom’ vocals which introduce ‘Weightless’ and close ‘Cloudburst At Shingle Street’. He’s also obviously a tremendous keys player, with endless excellent arrangement ideas and even a few chops (you wouldn’t catch anyone from OMD attempting anything like the extended Moog solo in the very Prefab-esque ‘Commercial Breakup’).

In the middle of recording his second album (and second masterpiece) The Flat Earth, ‘Blinded’ took off in the States, becoming a signature tune of the Second British Invasion. Dolby had to drop everything and get over there pronto. Michael Jackson wanted to meet him. But he would never again trouble the singles charts in the States, and the ‘mad scientist’ image would only very occasionally be dusted off from here on in. Not necessarily a bad thing.